Sermons

Education -- Forming a Generous Construction of the Seen*

When you look in the mirror, do you love, admire and celebrate what you see?

In the name of the living and true God, Who loves us and Who delights in us. Amen.



Washington National Cathedral
Sermon given March 6, 2011

A few years ago, Grace Cathedral, through the brilliance of technology (and, you might think, only in San Francisco) was turned into a rain forest -- not with real rain of course, but with the sounds of the forest. It was part of a celebration of indigenous peoples and of their message and gift to the rest of humanity. During that celebration, Chief Leonard George of the First Nation People of British Columbia, spoke to the gathering about the function of tribal education to which he was so deeply committed. He was speaking, in particular, about the adolescents under his care. His task, as he saw it, was to help them so to appreciate and value themselves, that when they got up in the morning and looked in the mirror, they were able to love, delight in and celebrate what they saw.

As educators, we need to examine what it means to have a generous, open, non-resentful construction of what we see -- the seen. What we see and the way we see it becomes the engine of all our learning and teaching. The first lesson in true education, a lesson that begins with the teacher, comes in the form of this basic question: "When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, do you love, admire, and celebrate what you see?" Education begins here with what we see when we get up in the morning -- with the soul of the teacher -- because we all learn by mimesis -- imitation. Each of us began our learning by mimicking someone. When I think of the way I was brought up in England, I am both grateful and appalled. Many of the English of my youth were insufferable with their bossy interest in other people's affairs, with the way adults like to enlarge themselves by interfering and call it caring. When I think back, many of my teachers plainly did not love, admire and celebrate themselves as human beings and it showed. It rubbed off. I wonder what we have done to our children because of what was done to us. It's amazing that any of us survived childhood.

Mimesis, imitation, points to the structure of our longing, and education must speak to the deepest longing of the human heart. We imitate what we long for. René Girard claims that there is a triangular structure of all longing, of all desire. There is a subject, there is an object, and then there is a model or a mediator between the two. Ultimately, this desire, this longing, is the engine of all social life. Girard claims that no one simply desires an object spontaneously, but first learns the desire from some one else. All children learn how and what to desire from mimicking the desires of others.

I think it was on the New York City Subway some years ago, there was a placard which read, "Help stamp out a family tradition." It was all about child abuse, how it is passed on from one generation to another by mimicry, by mimesis. All children learn, then, how and what to desire from miming the desires of others. The structure of desire is always triangular, always mimetic.

So, we cannot avoid imitation, but we do have the freedom to choose our models, to choose those stories which form the architecture of our thoughts and structure our longings, desires, and our feelings into meaning. That's why our tradition is good at founding schools, because we are very well aware of this mimetic engine which fuels society. The name of the game of life and, therefore, of education is freedom -- freedom to choose and to choose those models which enhance human life. It is an art. And it requires discernment and insight.

I love the story we heard read in the Gospel about the Jesus healing the man born blind (John 9: 1-13 (14-27) 28-38). "Who did this?" is the question -- rather than the exclamation, "How wonderful!" Sometimes we can't discern who is blind and who can see. And then how do we structure what we see?

The poet and writer, Wendell Berry, tells us "form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed." I am so baffled much of the time, that I must have one of the most highly employed minds that I know. The impeded stream is one that sings.

So, first, we have to understand the basic instrument of our teaching is our own fragile selves. You may think you are teaching a subject, and you may well be -- math, science, history. But in the first instance, you are teaching yourself. So, when you look in the mirror in the morning, do you love, admire, and celebrate what you see?

We are in great danger when we aren't in touch with our own vulnerability. It cuts us off from others. This being able to see ourselves and then see the wonder in all the people is part of our teaching practice. If we don't see that, we are cut off from others. "Why are kings without pity?" asked Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Why are kings without pity for their subjects? It's because they count on never being human beings. Why are the rich so harsh to the poor? It is because they do not have fear of becoming poor. Why does a noble have such contempt for a peasant? It is because he never will be a peasant. It is the weakness of the human being that makes it sociable, it is our common sufferings that carry our hearts to humanity; we would owe it nothing if we were not humans. Every attachment is a sign of insufficiency. Thus from our weakness itself, our fragile happiness is born.

I would suggest to you, given our day and age, that good teachers are subversives of the culture on behalf of children. The foundational axiom for us teachers (so that we may see clearly) is our being in touch with this frail instrument of our craft, our humanity. Albert Einstein wrote,

Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know, that we are here for the sake of others, above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by bonds of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellows, both living and dead, how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

What would it be if we had a broader view of education that genuinely recovered that older notion of education as "the formation of character?" Yesterday, I was at the inaugural mass for the new president of the Jesuit University here, the University of San Francisco. The preacher was a Jesuit from at the University of Central America in El Salvador. As part of the mass yesterday, we commemorated the martyrdom, eleven years ago, of the five Jesuits and their two women companions. And the preacher told us, " We do not consider our students educated unless they know how many people go hungry in the world and what can be done about it."

Our educational method needs to recover the heart. We are subversives on behalf of our children of the workings of the heart. We resist our being blinded by the hard-nosed rationalism of the marketplace. I think of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times. Mr. Gradgrind, broken-down and miserably submissive, says, "Bitzer, have you a heart?" The young man replies, "The circulation, sir, couldn't be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey, relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart." "Is it accessible," cried Mr. Gradgrind, "to any compassionate influence?" "It is accessible to reason, sir, and to nothing else."

How do we so nurture the imagination that we create an environment of possibility for ourselves and for our students. How do we "maintain a clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, so that we create an environment around us that is generative of certain kinds of conversations"? How do we "come to trust that these places are dedicated to the notion that no one will be made wrong, people will not be talked about behind their backs, and there will be no division between us and them?" (Ben Zander) These environments, which we find in our best schools, produce astonishing results that can take people into wholly unexpected directions, because the eyes are opened, the gates of the imagination are opened, inviting us to play in a delighting and cooperative universe.

We are called to nourish in ourselves and in our students a generous construction of the seen by opening the eyes of the imagination. Martha Nussbaum writes of the power of nursery rhymes in literature to awaken a generous construction of the seen. She asked her students, "What comes to mind when you hear 'Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are'? What did you think about when you sang it? Do you remember how it made you feel?" She goes on to tell the story of one of her students. When she asked him what came to mind on hearing the nursery rhyme, he replied,

I saw a sky beautifully blazing with stars and bands of bright color. The sight made me look in a new way at my cocker spaniel. I used to look into the dog's eyes and wonder what the dog was really thinking and feeling. Was my dog ever sad? It pleased me to think about my dog and the way he experienced the world. And I looked him in the eyes and knew that he loved me and was capable of feeling pleasure and pain. It then made me think tenderly about my mom and dad and other children I knew.

Martha Nussbaum asks, Why on earth would Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star make someone think that the starry sky was benevolent and not malevolent? Why did this young man think of his dog as loving and good, rather than devilish and cruel? Why bother about the dog's feelings of possible sadness in the first place? Why not take pleasure in an animal's pain? The strange fact is that the nursery rhyme itself, like other rhymes, nourishes a tender humanity within us and stirs up in us the prospect of friendship. It doesn't make us think paranoid thoughts of hateful beings in the sky who are out to get us. It tells the child to think of a star like a diamond, rather than as a missile of destruction, and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. The nursery rhyme nourishes a generous construction of the seen.

The life of the imagination, the deepening and widening view of our world, is part of what our educational enterprise is about. This is why it is so distressing the arts pushed to one side -- particularly in public education. The arts must be central to all education, not an added extra. Fostering creativity is integral to being a human being. Children need -- we all need -- the arts. The arts are important (if you're going to have a generous construction of the seen) because they provide a container, an interpreter of our passions. We need to order our desires and longings. We need ways to negotiate our fears and anxieties, our hopes and passions. We need ways to find new meanings in new situations. Above all (since the name of the game is Freedom), we need an antidote to both violence and authoritarianism. Art is the arena where we may, in relative safety, face our fears, confusions and longings, and see the world generously, if sometimes, threateningly. Art makes us, invites us to see things we hadn't seen, or hadn't been able to see, before.

David Hickey, the critic, rightly asserts that art is "a necessary accouterment of urban life, a democratic social field of sublimated anxiety and a forum of contentious civility." These are two extraordinary phrases: art provides a democratic social field of sublimated anxiety (God knows we're an anxious culture) and a forum for contentious civility.

The arts help us mitigate our narcissism and fuel our imaginative grasp of that which is beyond ourselves, to transform our anxious discomfort at not knowing, into a kind of wild pleasure and joy. Frankly, it sounds like the Eucharist as the Word of God made strange. God seen in bread and wine. When Augustine held up the bread and wine, he said, "Be what you see. Receive who you are." You are God's joy and God's delight.

What about violence? When we try, and fail, to edit out any discomfort and unpleasantness in our lives, we tend to turn on others. We look for someone or something to blame for our distress. Art, particularly the art of seeing, besides giving us pleasure, can also give us the means of not turning our anxieties into violence.

I'm talking about something deeply serious because we see that violence coming up again and again in our children. Many of our children are flat-souled, made vapid by the boredom of a bland life. We witness suburban youth killing each other. There is, as David Hickey points out, no sublimation of anxiety into dance, drama, music, into ecstasy and joy. Children, young people, all of us need ways of negotiating our anxieties and joys. And we live in a society where children sometimes kill each other.

David Hickey writes,

I offer this notion of sublimation of anxiety because what one perceived most profoundly in these killer children from the suburbs is their absolute lack of imagination and affect. They can't imagine obliterating a million hopes, dreams and memories by squeezing a tiny metal trigger; they can't imagine the empty space they are making in succeeding generations; they can't even imagine their own futures. The consequence of their brutal acts -- acts designed to do nothing more than to alleviate anxiety instantaneously, will be more parental control, more professional explication, more elite explanation, and more authoritarian censorship.' Instead of a breath-taking vision of education of the soul, which takes all that into account.

The mystics called life the Schola Dilectionis, the School of Delight, the School of Love. As teachers, we are called to be in touch with our vulnerability, to have a heart, to nurture the imagination, so that we may nourish a generous, open, compassionate and just construction of the seen in our children.

When you get up in the morning and you look in the mirror do you love, admire, and celebrate what you see? If you do, and by God's Grace we all do, even if it's a struggle sometimes, but if you do, your children will imitate you and will already be on the way to being a great teacher.


A sermon delivered at the concluding Eucharist for the NAES, Saturday, November 18, by Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and Honorary Canon of Chartres