Monday, December 9, 2013

Without Classification in the Pigeonhole Age

Ours is the age of the specialist, and long gone is the day of the educated amateur, the person of letters who who could paint, write, and serve in elected office, who could lead in battle and yet publish in science and compose sonnets.  The vapid dating line, "What's your sign?" has given way to the even more insulting, because it is so limiting, "What's your major?"

For this and other reasons, Samuel Rocha's A Primer for Philosophy & Education will be a challenging read in the current age.  It does not fit nicely within the pigeonhole of an accepted educational theory.  It does not even fit in that most elite and revered of pigeonholes, the one that says we should break free from pigeonholes.  Instead, it weaves its way through a variety of thoughts, poetically meditating on a concept so rich and deep that some may mistake it for something trite and commonplace, but more on that in another post.

This comes as no surprise after his acknowledgment in the preface of his debt to William James.  He observes that James "didn't always write to or for an exclusive field of peers, due in large measure to the fact that he never belonged to a single field in the first place -- he began in anatomy and physiology, moved to psychology, and ended in philosophy with major interests in religion and metaphysics.  Perhaps a better way to think about him is this:  James belonged to a field of study coincidentally, classified by whatever he was working on at the moment, but never limited by or to that classification."  (preface, ii)

This is what the world needs and in fact has always needed.  Fortunately, there do seem to be a few in any given age capable of answering this need.  These are the broadly learned, those driven not by the party line, but by insatiable curiosity and interest in the mysteries of creation.  They are the deep readers who will move from Pope's epitaph for Newton to Newton's scientific writings.  They engage meaningfully in casual conversations on everything from politics to art to literature to theology to sports to finances with reference not just to unconsidered opinion, but to carefully processed articles and books.

Such a person is not interested in jargon for an academic elite.  Such a person is interested most in that shared journey of discovery taken with interlocutors, friends, and students.  Rocha notes of James, "James published mostly works of popular philosophy that began as lectures he presented to audiences of all kinds of people.  He also frequently wrote essays, reviews, and letters to periodicals and popular journals....  [H]e had a deep sensitivity to what I call 'pastoral philosophy' -- an ordinary sense of philosophy that is thoroughly and principally educational."  (preface, ii-iii)

St. Augustine wrote some of the greatest works of Christian theology while engaged in the work of a bishop.  Indeed, it was in response to pressing issues of his day that had practical relevance for his flock that he did his thinking and writing.  In his 1984 speech "Advice to Christian Philosophers," which has since become a famous and foundational text, Alvin Plantinga proposed that Christian philosophers need not be bound by the limits of what their non-Christian peers set for philosophical discussion.  Their work, inasmuch as it was conducted in and for the particular community of those confessing Christ, had a duty to respond to the matters most relevant to that community.

Clearly standing in such a tradition, Rocha has written his slender book with a particular audience in mind, his students.  It is first and foremost a love letter, a paternal (yet never paternalistic) love letter from a paidagogos to his pupils.  Because, like James, Rocha will not be limited to a particular classification and because his approach is one of "pastoral philosophy," fully appreciating what he has to say will require the setting aside of often pet classifications.  Having made it through to the end of his book, I can assure you that it will be worth the effort to do so.

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