The Beauty of Vulnerability and the Heart of Classical Education

What is it to be human? And how does our response to this question shed light on how we orient our hearts toward persons with disabilities? These two questions have guided much of my reading and thinking over the past few years as I have designed a course called “Difference and Human Dignity in the Great Tradition” for the Templeton Honors College’s Master of Arts in Classical Teaching program. In sitting with these two questions in light of the project of classical education, I have found that they open out onto two further questions: First, is classical education for everyone? And second, what does the classical education renewal need to learn from persons with special needs?

As you are reading the Simply Classical Journal, you have likely already answered the first of these questions with a resounding “Yes!” The classical Christian tradition is part of our common human inheritance. In the words of our program’s philosophy, true education “frees us to seek the true, do the good, and make the beautiful.” In light of this vision, we must believe that opening the treasures of such an education to all children is a great good. But the second question, I would argue, bears careful consideration. For if we fail to orient our hearts toward students with special needs, we risk presenting all students with a curriculum that offers a misleading understanding of truth, an incomplete narrative of the possibilities of goodness, and a picture of beauty that fails to witness to the ultimate beauty of the cross.

A primary component of seeking truth is seeking the truth about what it is to be human—encompassing both the definition and the purpose of humanity. If Iris Murdoch is right that “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture,” then we must be very careful about what picture of humanity we are using to determine who and what education is for. Even within the classical tradition, we can be seduced into thinking that the telos of human life is self-sufficiency and independence. We can adopt an understanding of humanity that sees the success of education as the development of certain peculiarly human capacities. In such a picture, persons with special needs, and especially those struggling with profound disabilities, are seen as deficient or even as less than fully human. But such a vision, a vision containing, in the words of Timothy Basselin, an insistence that “the fates of [those] who are disabled or diseased are sad comes from prioritizing the extermination of suffering over the appreciation of mystery.” Thomas Reynolds, in his book Vulnerable Communion, is helpful here: When we push away those who do not meet a particular ideal of human functioning,

we shun what is perhaps most human about us—the need to belong and to be recognized as of value. We all at the core are vulnerable and receive our existence from one another…. Learning to embrace ourselves and others as we are, in our specific weaknesses, releases us from narcissistic self-enclosure and empowers us to risk the openness of genuine relationship.

Such genuine relationships are possible not despite vulnerability and disability, but because of them. And thus, persons with special needs have something particular to teach us as we seek the truth about our common humanity. They teach us about our personal and relational nature, and about the preciousness of each particular person.

This personal and relational understanding of the truth of what it is to be human leads us to see the relational nature of goodness as well. Much profound goodness comes from “giving out of weakness in a context of mutual vulnerability,” to quote Dwight Peterson, a professor of mine who, in being confined to a wheelchair and suffering many health struggles throughout his adult life, was well-versed in living gracefully through weakness. Doing the good does not, therefore, always look like giving from a position of strength, but often comes when we accept weakness and both give and receive help gracefully. Being willing to receive help, offering our sufferings and seeking healing from others, creates community.

John Swinton talks about two worlds, “the world of disability, and the world of people who do not consider themselves disabled.” And persons with special needs, who are less able than others to sustain the delusion that we are self-sufficient creatures, can bring these two worlds together. They often bring out our own weaknesses in ways that can make us uncomfortable. But genuine goodness comes when we are willing both to give to such persons and to receive things from them. Genuine good comes when everyone is given the opportunity to give as well as to receive service, to bless others and to be blessed by them.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, persons with special needs have something particular to teach us about beauty. They can teach us about the beauties of difference. I think here of Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ poem “Pied Beauty,” where he celebrates the lovely, fragile, and multiform particulars of this world, which are all creatures of God:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
. . .
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Sometimes students with special needs have these needs because they see the world differently—they have strengths that don’t fit well with what has become the standard pace and progression of how we “do school” in contemporary America. And if we attune ourselves to the beauty of all dappled things—including especially the great dappled variety of human gifts—we will see the beauty of the world and of God more clearly.

But there are struggles that we cannot easily understand through the lens of the beauty of dappled difference. And it is here that we are led toward the more painful beauty of the cross. As St. John Paul II says,

The disabled person, with all the limitations and suffering that scar him or her, forces us to question ourselves, with respect and wisdom, on the mystery of man. In fact, the more we move about in the dark and unknown areas of human reality, the better we understand that it is in the more difficult and disturbing situations that the dignity and grandeur of the human being emerges.

Beauty that tells the truth about a fallen world has to grapple with tragedy—we not only need Handel’s Gloria but Mozart’s Requiem, not only the Venus de Milo but Michelangelo’s Pietà.

I think here of a scene in the documentary Summer in the Forest, which tells the story of L’Arche, an international coalition of communities that provides homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers. In the scene, we see L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier, sitting next to a young man named Sebastian. Sebastian lies in his motorized wheelchair, apparently incapable of speech. Vanier looks at Sebastian with tenderness—though not with pity or condescension. He listens to the sounds Sebastian makes and responds to them. And then, after Sebastian turns his head to meet Vanier’s gaze, Vanier says, in full sincerity, “Dearest Sebastian, you are beautiful. Very, very beautiful.” It is a moment of goodness and transcendent beauty made possible because Vanier is willing to see the truth of common humanity in the eyes of Sebastian and enter into relationship with him. And it is this truth that we need to keep at the heart of classical education. It is a truth that those who manifest difference and struggle with disability share with us in a particularly profound way.

Dr. Amy Gilbert Richards is affiliate professor and chair of philosophy at Eastern University. She also teaches in Eastern’s Templeton Honors College, where she has, over the last two years, helped to develop its new Master of Arts in Classical Teaching. She lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania, with her husband and their three small girls.

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