John Mark Reynolds, 2005.
Part I — Community
If I tell you to be a good student, you think of being alone in a library or sitting in a room chewing on the end of a pencil as you work on a hard problem. There is little doubt that learning anything difficult requires a great deal of work, some of it solitary. However, no one learns alone.
Science advances with community. Though the experiments may be dreamed up in the private, it is the community, through journals and conferences that test ideas. A scientist without the scientific community is as useless as a single button left on a shirt. It might work, but it cannot do its job.
This is even truer in music, theater, and all the arts. The image of the mad artist, the unique genius, sitting in a room producing great things is a myth. Though there have been great artists who worked that way, most great works are the product of a large community working together. No movie is the production of one man. No orchestra can be reduced to one instrumentalist. Even in the case of a solo or a sculpture, the role of the person attending the event or viewing the work of art cannot be forgotten. Traditionally, a work that can only be understood by the so-called artist is no artist at all.
Our culture has cultivated the image of the rebel musician playing alone and composing alone. It is all nonsense. Even as great a composer as Handel had help with his divine oratorio. Perhaps our music has become so ugly, and us with it, because we have locked ourselves into garages instead of finding a community of artists with whom we can collaborate and bring our private visions to sanity.
The rock of the Word of God or of classical civilization prevented even the most isolated artist from working alone. In his mind were the lessons of hundreds of years of culture. Shakespeare. The King James Bible. The Book of Common Prayer. Our generation is cut off from any common heritage or has only the thin shared experience of the Super Bowl or re-runs of television. Irony, which can be shared with only a little effort, rules in this world. It makes fun of has-been artists like William Shatner when tastes change and then takes him seriously all over again when the common folk learn to mock. We pick our culture, ever our religion to our taste. In this way, when we are alone, we are more alone than any person who ever lived.
The most isolated hermit of the Middle Ages standing on a pole was surrounded by a cultural consensus, by saints, and shared values. He was valued by those around him while he was alone and so he was not alone. He was performing a solitary task within a community. Most of us have jobs where we perform busy tasks with empty and lonely souls. School taught us to learn alone, to choose our world view for self. It has robbed us of the value of community in education that was the basis for all Western education for thousands of years. Groups of men gathered and gave four years of their lives in monastic conditions to learn just over one hundred years ago. They forged friendships that would prove stronger than falling Empires or changing fads.
Any good college program will allow for solitude. A good University will cultivate quiet. It will then encourage those quiet souls, full of shared values and texts, to come together and learn.Of course, working together gets a bad reputation in high school. Who can forget the group project where one person did all the work and everyone else floated? Of course, such false communities only point to the need for the real thing. In a real community, the lazy jerk in the back row would (eventually!) be confronted by his peers. The driven student who drives everyone crazy with drive and hustle would be allowed to wind down. When a group of students get together in this way, there is nothing finer in this life.
There are moments of beauty with a good class that cause time to stop. I sit and watch as the bodies lean forward, the room becomes more hushed, every comment takes on weight. In the hands of a masterful guide, like Al Geier of the University of Rochester, the group is led to see vision that they could not see alone. There are moments when the faces of my students shine so brightly it is like looking at a room full of stars pulled down from a summer sky at the sea. At that moment, I can grasp just a little bit of heaven.
It often takes weeks of hard labor together to reach such a point. One gets a very hard text and says nonsense about it at first. The talkative one in the group, how often I have played that role, says his piece and re-says it until he learns to be quiet. The silent student in the corner is at last provoked to say something and we discover that the one who has said nothing has something to say. Both are tempered. The louder one is mellowed to leadership, the silent one grows deeper and wise.
A school that rings bells, that changes groups often, that deals with textbooks instead of real books, and that does not value the soul (but tests and grades) will never know that moment. Once a student has known it, he would not lose it for anything. Learning of a sort can take place alone, but the divine vision for human beings comes only at the shared moment. It is not accident that Lord Christ left a Church, a gathering of people, and told us not to forsake it. It is in that shared experience, in the breaking of Word and Sacrament that all education is prefigured, at once deeply personal and communal. I hear the Divine Words with you and share in grace with you and together we see the face of God. That is the purpose of real education: to see the face of God with your brother and sister.