Intelligent Desire


We are created by what we desire.

Eros as the ancients understood it initiates our every act. Both our heroic sacrifices as well as our selfish degradations are undertaken out of desire, and the wisdom and quality of such responses become the main determinants of both our joy and our misery.

Eros is not a physical object, known with the five senses; it is more like gravity–a presence that can be detected by the effects it causes. We can detect it in our consciousness as a movement in the soul, some attraction in the mortal to something beyond. Though Socrates’ teaching dealt mainly with reason, at key moments he augmented reason with consultations with his daimon–his channel of communication with the divine.

To take sensory impressions as the most important news about reality is like being trapped in a cave. Aristotle called the faculty we use to detect such invisible realities as gravity or eros the “intellect.” It was the intellect that, Socrates taught, the philosopher must cultivate to escape the cave of sensory impressions, where people relied on shadows to orient themselves not to reality but to their perception of objects. Beyond the cave we can learn to perceive with the intellect the invisible world. It is comprised of increasingly large and important ideas. Socrates told Glaucon, his young follower, that “the idea of the good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.”

Odysseus may linger in his own cave, but he does not forget transcendent reality. He remembers from his youth the vision that stirs his eros. Neither the spiritual wasteland nor the natural wilderness is his true home. He was made for a place where the promise of his youth might be commpleted, where he might live in marriage to his beloved, enjoying good food and drink amid friends and kin, and where none could make him afraid. It was the vision of his youth that evoked his soul’s full assent, and now, lost and far from home, his spiritual longing will not be satisfied with lesser things. Near the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato quotes Homer on the ignoble life of those who live amid a false reality: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner.” His desire defines him.

It impels him toward action. He’s eager at every moment to back it up with effort and courage, and it moves the cosmos, eliciting support from the slow and mysterious workings of justice. Odysseus chose the hero’s way, drawn forward by inextinguishable desire for home. He was, as Robert Frost put it, undergoing a “trial by existence.”

Frost held on to something vital in the intellectual heritage of the New England Puritans. For them, making sense of daily life was inseparable from regular reflection on the stories in the Old Testament. They saw the Bible as not merely or even mainly a collection of rules. Rather, it was a web of stories which reveals the transcendent patterns through which we can know things as they really are.

When Frost held that “a poem is metaphor or it is nothing,” he put understanding metaphor at the heart of literature. He also put literature at the heart of education. We could not understand what thinking was, he asserted, without understanding metaphor–all the ways we see one thing in terms of another. Such thinking was fundamental to the Puritans. They read the Bible typologically, seeing in the Old Testament a collection of types, or patterns, that prefigured the New Testament. Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage, through the Red Sea, and toward the Promised Land, which was a type for Christ leading sinners out of the bondage of sin, through the waters of baptism, toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This typological mode of thought was extended so that Christians could read all the Biblical stories as types for understanding their own lives and what was expected of them. The Puritans understood their own experience by finding in it a familiar pattern: they understood themselves as being led out of slavery in England, on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wilderness, on their way to a Promised Land. Mary Rowlandson found the meaning of her afflictions with the Wampanoags in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and in the Psalms of the Babylonian Captivity. They recognized the divine order amid the multiplicity of variations they experienced in the lived Creation.

As Puritanism waned their long and highly sophisticated habit of seeing in events patterns of meaning that were portable, and that could be used to understand other events, lost some of its relationship to Creation as Divinely Authored and thus ordered with meanings, but powerfully metaphorical thought persisted in the symbolism of New England literature of such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville–the sense that images and events signified greater and more universal meanings.

They weren’t the only thinkers who understood that events in the physical universe can be understood by human consciousness when they are given form in stories or theories. When Robert Frost encountered Einstein’s theory, he was struck by how similar Einstein’s thought was to his own. Frost incorporated Einstein’s thinking into his conception  ways the natural order is related to the mind of man. Harvard physicist Harvey Brooks said that the poet understood Einstein better than many of his colleagues in physics–specifically because they lacked the poet’s grasp of natural dualism led him to understand that  metaphorical thinking was the way to make nature intelligible. Frost referred to Einstein as a philosopher among scientists who trusted intuited perceptions which transcended the rational-empirical assumptions passed on by Galileo and Newton. Einstein was able to leap from sight to insight, using intuition in the way that an artist uses imagination. He was a convinced theist whose “cosmic religious feeling” was his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

After spending much time with Madame Curie, Einstein explained her inability to rise above the mechanistic determinism that followed seeing reality as pure matter by noting “Madame Curie never heard the birds sing.” For Einstein, the pursuit of a simplified view of the world as simply matter which could be understood by science was a catastrophic illusion.

Both Einstein and Frost were dualists who believed that human knowledge of nature was indirect, conveyed through metaphors and symbols, rather than direct, conveyed through empirical experience brought into focus by logic. For Einstein,  metaphors in science reveal “the unknown in terms of the known.” Frost saw that Einstein did for matter the same thing poetry did for spirit. Frost used Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory to deepen his thought about metaphor.  He noted the metaphor involved in describing a thing as being an event. Frost quoted him, saying, “in the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” This delighted him. “ Isn’t that a good one!”

Einstein’s theory rejects the monism of matter alone that has become widespread among contemporary scientists. By arguing that moving bodies are perceived “relative to the standpoint of observers,” he made the observer essential to the perception of all reality.

Einstein held that there was no such thing as an objective physical universe as recorded through sensory experience; there was only a conceptual mental world perceived through the “free play” of the mind through conceptual ideas working upon the raw materials provided by the senses. (Robert Frost, The Poet as Philosopher, 166)

In other words, an age’s scientific theories provide the metaphors by which that age perceives itself in relation to the universe. This is analogous to some postmodern writers who eschew metaphor. If the universe lacks a transcendent realm and we do not live in Creation but merely in a material universe governed by chance, then typology is not a true way to grasp reality, for reality does not really have any meaning beyond those we construct for ourselves for our own purposes. When postmodernists see the use of symbols and metaphors as a way of being false to reality–imbuing it with meanings and qualities that it does not possess–they are asserting, in essence, that reality has no meaning. The loss of faith or interest in symbols and metaphors is one consequence of a loss of faith generally.

Walker Percy saw an intimate linkage between Christianity and the main metaphor of most novels–that of a human character acting in time. He suggested that it was Christianity, mainly, with its view of reality as a meaningful story within which each person could find a meaningful life that accounted for the reality of narrative and the idea of the novel. “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos…. It is no accident, I think, that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist and Brahmin East, to say nothing of Marxist countries.” Further, he says “Though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of that faith, so to speak, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel.”

Does the novel itself survive in the disenchanted world without metanarratives that postmodernists are urging on society? Joseph Epstein has observed that “literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.” He points out that “greatness of literature cannot be determined, solely by literary standards.” We also bring our “ethical, theological, and moral standards” to bear on such judgments. “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards.” Unfortunately, as Eliot said decades ago, “‘there is no common agreement.'” Certainly, one can see the declining importance of literature in schools, along with a declining ability to say what literature is good for–except reading for reading’s sake. This loss of a trandscendant reality so far as education is concerned may be epitomized by the spread of John Dewey’s ideas.

Dewey was a dedicated monist. He hated talk about transcendence–metaphysics and religion. Science and sensory experience and a social process, he believed, would supercede the authority of the past, including religion but also to a great extent books. As Dewey’s pragmatism metastasized through schools–spreading the supposition that the cave from which Plato and others tried to liberate us, the cave of nontranscendant sensory experience and information, was all that we knew and all that we would ever know.

In Deweyan schools, we do not pass on the great insights of the past so much as we collaborate to resolve “felt difficulties”, with the collaboration very near an end in itself. It’s “social” and “democratic.” It “empowers” people by giving them a “voice.” “Constructed knowledge” is all the knowledge there is. A collaborating group is the purpose of the ideology. There is no truth that we can access ourselves, and there is no order to perceive in the transcendent.

We had little need for the noble intellect. What we needed were endless iterations of experiment and innovation. Ideas of good and evil–evil mainly–interfered with constant experimentation aimed at social redemption which could be ours within the cave. There is only now and our groups and our impulses. We can innovate and choose, and democracy empowered by science would replace noble old ideals concocted by philosophers and prophets.

Though being “student centered” was a useful slogan to shift the emphasis away from teaching the knowledge acquired by traditional academic disciplines, there’s precious little interest in individual students in Dewey. They are but abstractions in the social processes that were his real interest. Dewey sought a social process rather than individual virtue, imagining schools as a means of reconstructing society. The old ideals interfered with people accepting the ideology of social redemption. “Intelligence” and “growth”–never defined or explained clearly–should replace reason and tradition. “The point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.” Selves moved by impulse toward an ever receding horizon, unbothered by teachers, who had been replaced by guides and facilitators.

So like the denizens of Plato’s Cave we are governed by debating societies wherein members give each other degrees and awards to make it all seem real. We are slaves to laws promulgated by little emperors to make a name for themselves. What has happened in our progressive liberation from transcendental ideals has been a proliferation of moralistic substitutes. For cave dwellers, the coin of the realm is data.

What advice might Dewey give to Odysseus? The question brings to mind a comic picture. They would have little use for each other. Heros didn’t count for much in Dewey’s universe. For him, democracy was an end in itself, and he had nothing to say about the personal quest that, I think, should lie at the center of the educational journey of every student.

Great literature was long understood as the most important secular resource for awakening young people to who they are, where they are, how things work, and what is necessary for them to be and do. The old questions–Odysseus’s questions and Socrates’–are their questions: What is worth believing? What is worth approving? What is worth choosing?

What we mean by truth, beauty, and justice comprise the traditional answers to those questions, as well as we have for far been able thus far to form them. Such questions lay at the center of education for centuries, until the rise of modernity not long ago. Such questions will survive modernity, which will fail, as did Epicureanism and Hedonism and Stoicism because like them it can construct no satisfying solutions to the problem of despair.

What will also survive is the story that dominates the human past–that of the heroic quest. It’s true in ways we can’t exactly say, but we sense at its core that this is the way reality is structured. To be human is to be on a heroic quest. This is why Odysseus cannot linger on any enchanted isle. He needs to turn his life into a story, which means he needs desire and action even at the cost of death.

Joseph Campbell found versions of this story in human cultures throughout time. It isn’t necessary to understand this pattern, this type, in quite the way Campbell explicated it, as entangled in the Freudian and Jungian concepts that were familiar to him. The pattern doesn’t depend on Freud–it has emerged and been attractive to people throughout human history because of its essential human truth. We needn’t think the caves in which we find ourselves from time to time, even the enchanted ones, are our true home. As long as we are longing our journey is unfulfilled. We may need heroic endurance and courage–often in the form of remembering what we are after and learning better what that means–and we may find ourselves quite hapless without occasional cosmic intervention on our behalf.

What Homer saw was that it was possible to step forward boldly to string one’s own bow, relying on some cosmic justice that might impel the gods to take our side. The pragmatic revolution was premised on giving up that culture–turning from history and philosophy, turning from literature and books–in homage to the quite groundless faith that experience and science would get us, if not to the promised land, then at least to a reasonable adjustment to our plight.

That’s not what Odysseus wants, and it’s not what the best of our students want. His driving desire was to be free to live a fully human life–which meant getting home from the disorders of war and wilderness to a clearing in the light. It was to return to his marriage.

He knew the value of home because he could only have it only by choosing it, and the choice involved the loss of everlasting life with a forever young goddess. To make that choice he needed to desire marriage and home more than pleasure or ease. To speak as those who created this civilization often spoke, he needed to elevate his thoughts from the base to the sublime. The greatness of Homer is glimpsed in those moments when human characters experience, with assistance from the gods, an opening of the soul, a perception that the order in the world has its source in a transcendent order, the order of being.

These decisive realizations in Homer–that we are surrounded by an order that favors some sorts of actions and disfavors others–led to generations of discussion and questioning that formed a culture that, in time, formed the philosophers. Justice was an emotional response echoing the cosmos before it was a philosophical ideal. Existence has an order that extends beyond the senses–that transcends the cave and reaches to the divine.

To desire the higher things, we need to hear something of that. To claim his place and to fulfill the vision of his youth, Odysseus needed to liberate home from those who offended justice. Suitors had moved in, trying to claim his place–trying to steal his world. They abused the claims of hospitality, devouring what was not rightfully theirs. Odysseus purged his home of those who had chosen their doggie little lives–trying to win by deception and threat and flattery the world that Odysseus and Penelope had made.

Odysseus was sustained by memory and vision. Each day he left the cave of Calypso’s delights and stood at shore and gazing beyond the sea toward home. What was he thinking, lost on a somewhat enchanted isle with his back turned on delights that might titillate but could never satisfy him to the depths of his being in ways that he knew were right? Surrounded by a wilderness of wonders and terrors, he knows that the way forward, the direction of hope, is a return, a homecoming. The hero’s journey ends with a return home.

Students have an innate sense of justice, which is an innate sense of universal justice, of cosmic order. “That’s not fair!” is a thought expressed in every language in every culture. What they need, in much the way they need food for their bodies, are the old stories of the births and kings and the coming into the world of justice. What they need are the stories of the virtues we need to move toward our true home–courage, diligence, endurance, patience.

What they need are the compelling visions of who they are, where they, what is worth believing, what is worth admiring, and what is worth choosing. They need an education in desire. Even John Dewey understood that much: “The highest outcome of a sound education is intelligent desire.” It is desire that drives choice, and there a real sense in which every student at every moment exists on the verge of the transcendent moment–the moment of decision when one is “all in”–like a hero. Or not–like a captive.

Moments, though, are not moments until we see them.

Teaching ignobility

stairs downIt’s harder for teachers now than it once was to get students to consider what Odysseus turns his back upon and what he opens his heart toward. The classics teacher has always faced the intellectual docility of youth, but the work of revealing and naming the ideals that formed this civilization was once backed by the authority of a culture.

However, we now live amid something of an anti-culture–which is what sociologist Philip Rieff called the society that developed through our release of desire from sacred interdictions or prohibitions. Those interdictions once guided human desire–educated it. However, champions of a therapeutic view have argued that human happiness lies in the liberation of desire from precisely such prohibitions.

One of the noisiest popularizers of the therapeutic was Abraham Maslow. With his “hierarchy of needs,” he promised to provide a “scientific” basis for the study of motivation–though his method was closer to cocktail party musings than to scientific research, consisting of hanging out with people in his social milieu and contemplating how much superior they were to the masses. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.” He promised liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies.

He suggested a new type of human, which he called “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need. Once a therapeutic regime was in place, he said, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities.

For the superior persons–i.e. Maslow and his liberated friends–were truly superior, i.e., healthy, and doing what they wanted to do made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about–perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was the dream of self–indeed, it’s a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation, which left love of others as a mid-level appetite. He seemed genuinely puzzled by what other writers said about love. For example, he mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge.” This annoyed Maslow. It “sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness,” he said. Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.” “Healthy” people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments.

If Maslow is right, it may be that Odysseus on the enchanted island might need therapy more than he needs to return to Penelope. But if Homer was right, then a good life is not simply one’s own. Humans have responsibilities, duties, obligations, and debts.

When the “New Left” made the “sexual revolution” a mainstream phenomenon in the sixties, they believed that releasing eros from capitalism was key to “the revolution.” Without sexual repression, guilt and the work ethic would melt away, and individual satisfaction of instincts and desires could become the proper goal of the collective. The sixties, to those who defended the cultural revolution, represented a “widespread shared feeling” that a new world was dawning. The pursuit of individual virtue gave way to a euphoric emotion of virtue, fed by mass meetings, marches and street protests. Individual development of character mattered less than social development of policies to support the liberated individual.

The psychological release of the individual from the sacred didn’t destroy capitalism, but it has succeeded at creating a deeply divided nation, with the social cleavage fundamentally organized around ideas of religion and sex–on one side, people who believe the old understanding of the sacred helped form character and encouraged commitments necessary to family and community, and on the other people who see them as superstitious sources of guilt and judgment.

David Lapp recently made a quite old-fashioned observation about shifts in America’s moral vision. He had been visiting a small Ohio town, which include attending an ice cream social. His comments and the responses on his blog illustrate the rift that characterizes America today:

An elderly married couple sat across from us at the ice cream social, and they described to us how, like many of their neighbors, they moved up from Kentucky when they were young, in search of better jobs (we’ll call them Bob and Kathy). Bob grew up on a small dairy farm—“we milked the cows by hand”—and his family didn’t even have electricity until he was a teenager.

The elderly married couple sitting to our right were self-described “hillbillies” from the coal mines of West Virginia (we’ll call them Ernie and Wanda). Wanda’s family in West Virginia was dirt poor: they didn’t even have a car, and her father, a coal miner, would arrive home caked in coal and take a bath in the kitchen tub (“I don’t know how he ever got clean!”).

Their humble origins notwithstanding, both couples insisted that life today is worse than it was when they were growing up. “I feel sorry for you kids, ‘cuz you don’t get to live in those good ‘ole days,” Wanda remarked.

“What were the ‘good ‘ole days like?’” I asked.

“Families were close,” Wanda remarked without a moment’s hesitation.

Kathy elaborated that “People had more time for each other,” and described how people would leave their doors unlocked and neighbors would come over to visit unannounced. Families had regular meals with each other, she said, and they sat on their front porches and visited with other families.

Lapp mused on the fact that although times had been harder economically, lives had been better. There was more happiness, and this happiness was related to morality. “How do we square that [economic] explanation with Wanda and Kathy’s insistence that family life was better for dirt-poor Kentuckians and West Virginians than it is for today’s relatively better-off working class men and women?” he asked.

This reminded him of an earlier conversation, when he asked an old woman to describe marriage and family life in her childhood compared to now. The woman said life used to be better. “They don’t marry today,” the sixty year old woman answered. “They just live together…. You didn’t live with someone back then—it was disgraceful. They had morals.”

They had morals. If that sounds like old-fashioned morality from a hillbilly in Middle America, well, I say, chalk one up to hillbilly wisdom. It seems to me like a fairly succinct explanation of why, a couple generations ago, families could thrive in poverty-stricken communities of Appalachia and why they’re falling apart in a time of relative abundance. I don’t mean at all to minimize the seriousness of the Great Recession, and how it is no doubt putting a strain on working class marriages. However, at least today even many unemployed working class men have big-screen TVs with a Dish Network attached to their house—the point being, most of us aren’t living in the kind of poverty that Wanda and Kathy’s parents experienced in Appalachia. However, what many working class folks don’t have today are norms against easy divorce and having children outside of marriage. So I think my elderly friends are on to something: marriage and family life is not necessarily always at the mercy of “economic forces”—norms make a difference.

Such an observation of course provoked the usual anger from people who hate the old morality. These are some of the comments the post triggered:

“My experience growing up as a Southern Baptist in Louisiana is that these people have very narrow ideas of morality. . .There is a lot of social pathology that informs ‘hillbilly wisdom.'”

“I rather doubt these norms produced much happiness, at least not for many people. The stultifying effects of small town ‘morality’ is an abiding theme of American literature, as is the need to escape small towns and provincial attitudes in order to discover happiness. You don’t have to be Richard Florida to know that the brightest young people feel stifled and trapped in cultural backwaters.”

“My objection to this kind of nostalgic vision of the past, especially when it is coupled with such a subjective and nebulous concept as ‘morals,’ is that it tends to reify some of the worst aspects of American life and history. In general whenever people start talking about their superior morals, I begin watching my wallet because I suspect that they are either hypocrites or hucksters or both.”

“I don’t think the ‘hillbilly wisdom’ version of morality was actually very moral. I’m pretty sure it involved ostracizing everyone who didn’t conform to unsophisticated people’s notions of sexual morality. . . I suspect this ‘hillbilly wisdom’ contributed to a lot more unhappiness than happiness.”

“One problem is that the ‘norms’ you are celebrating, even the ones I agree with, are so tied up with ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred, that it is hard to take them seriously. They have been besmirched by being captured by right-wing ideologues who are more interested in manipulating people than improving the lives of even those they manipulate.”

Most adults are well aware of the cleavage that now runs through American life, that is quickly visible if the topic of morality comes up. We do not inhabit a shared sacred order, and no one has authority to sustain any rival order. We maintain an illusion of serene harmony by avoiding, in mixed company as it were, the discussion of moral questions. That might work for many social situations, but how does it work as the educational philosophy of a people? The apostles of sexual liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, were clear that such a liberation would have profound consequences.

Marcuse contended that relaxing sexual morality would lead to a relaxing of social morality generally. Without psychological moral inhibitions, the individual would enjoy a “loss of conscience,” becoming less able to make moral judgments about political and social functioning. “Marcuse refers to this ‘loss of conscience’ as a ‘happy consciousness,’ meaning that since the individual is ostensibly incapable or differentiating between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, good and evil, his ignorance is a passive contentment” (Bernstein, Frankfurt School: critical assessments, Volume 5). The pacified consciousness is content with its material and social situation.

For a teacher still concerned with justice and injustice, this pacified consciousness appears as little more than moral stupefaction. According to the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, moral stupefaction is an accurate description of many of today’s young people. Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. What they found was that when “asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life, many young people grope “to say anything sensible on these matters.” They lack the mental categories, the vocabulary, and the inclination to engage in moral thought.

Here’s a typical exchange between the interviewer and a young respondent:

I: Do you think people have any moral responsibility or duty to help others or not?

R: Um, if others are your family and you see someone in danger, yeah. But I don’t ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road, so I guess somewhat sometimes. Maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try and pull them out, but, no, not really.

I: Are there some other examples of ways we’re obligated to help other people?

R: I mean, I really don’t donate money, and even if I had money I don’t know if I would, so.

I: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something?

R: I really don’t think there’re any good reasons, nope, nothing.

I: What if someone just wasn’t interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not?

R: No, I don’t see why that would be a problem.

I: And why is that?

R: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we’re here for? I mean, they can help [themselves], if they’re just getting by, doing what they do by themselves, then do they really need anyone else? So if they don’t need help from anyone else, if somebody’s asking for some other people all the time then they’re not giving in return.

I: So if someone asks for help, we don’t have an obligation to them?

R: Yeah, it’s up to each individual, of course.

According to Smith, to understand these young people it’s necessary to understand that they “do not appeal to a moral philosophy, tradition, or ethic as an external guide by which to think and live in moral terms.” They see the world as consisting of individuals, each of whom comprises his or her own moral universe. This makes it impossible for them “to rationally evaluate or criticize any moral wrong, including the horrific destruction and violence that helped drive them to this tolerant position in the first place.” Even when the topic is murder done by terrorists, they cannot form a moral judgment: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of ‘people?’ Like what does that even mean?” Fully of third of the young people interviewed said that “they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.”

Even more sobering, many of them could not make sense of the questions–could not understand what a moral question was. They did, however, have a social sense, and they vaguely felt that what others thought of them was the basis of what was right or wrong. “About four out of ten (40 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed referred to how other people would think of them as (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong. To the extent that emerging adults feel morally lost in their own minds, looking to the reaction of others (who they presumably trust) may provide what they consider to be mostly reliable guides to determine right from wrong.” Thinking about right and wrong, for them means “how you want yourself to be known, to be looked at.”

Smith says “we are letting them down, sending many, and probably most, of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims. And that itself, we think, is morally wrong.” Though the blame for the moral stupefaction of young Americans is widespread, the researchers believe schools in particular should think about what they are doing:

Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. . . . One big theme that stuck out. . .was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.

The sociologists suggest that young Americans “are a people deprived, a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.” They point out that the young people are pleasant and that their desire to please and to go along probably masks the extent to which they do not think of themselves as moral beings. ” They have had withheld from them something that every person deserves to have a chance to learn: how to think, speak, and act well on matters of good and bad, right and wrong.”

Such is the social context in which many of us teach today. The intentional corruption of eros was at the heart of modern ideology’s assault on capitalism. The stated goal was to undermine capitalist society by dissolving the psychological orientation our which traditional society had flowed. Sexual liberation was always a liberation from tradition, including from family–-from husbands, from children. It was a liberation from shame and guilt, from the expectations of others. Its success was enough that we are now in position to see that in myriad ways, some unintended, it was also a liberation from right and wrong in general, leaving the self to operate alone in a cosmos of desire.

In Symposium, Diotima told Socrates that eros is “desire of all good things and of being happy.” It is a divine force that permeates all of being. It is vast–much more than genital sexuality–and it initiates every action we take. Socrates understood that it is eros, James Rhodes tells us, that lies “at the heart of who we become–how we use food and drink; how we love spouses, children, friends, and sexually attractive beauties; how well we perform our jobs; and how much we involve ourselves in the great scramble to gratify the acquisitive instinct.”

The sexual revolution was never mainly about sex. It was about burning an ancient bridge from individual desire to realities beyond the self.

The enchanted cave, part 1

Odysseus with Calypso

Odysseus spent his days staring at the sea toward home.

We see our educational crisis most clearly when we turn our attention to desire. We can’t miss the dispiriting reality that many young people don’t desire what we offer. We talk about disengagement and lack of motivation. We discern even among those who do their assignments what seem to be unintelligent or even ignoble desires. We talk about narcissism, cheating and consumerism.

Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–-at the flick of an Ipod high tech speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more. Probably we want something different.

Listening to contemporary arguments about education, carried on for the most part with no mention of anything very important, I find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s quite compelling distractions. Every morning he left the enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach to gaze out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. It was not what he was made for.

He was born to make worlds. That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him–-his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone to the underworld and posterity not yet born, and, most important, the kingdom that had emerged through his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond or even a sacred bond. Wendell Berry notes that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family of both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth” (The Unsettling of America, 127). He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” which is necessary if love is to be enacted and embodied, was the goal of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a home that could only be had by making the world which situated it. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, keeping him from a stronger desire. It was a vacation from the things he felt seriously.

Calypso’s island is a familiar place to most people. Many of us reached some island of relative peace and pleasure, compared to other places we’ve experienced. It isn’t what we set out for, but it’s better than it might have been, and who knows if there can be any more? One could settle.

Last week one of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. She was in a desultory mood, and the novel was tied up with her vision of how she wished the world might be. She was trying to bring into focus career plans for after high school. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after,” I said teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

It’s certainly true that they are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remains high.

Increasingly, young people feel trapped in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” cultural relativism had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” which thrives on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

Reality and art mirror each other, or become each other. In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing 2011, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty; country music’s embrace of the stripper pole and a holiday performance from Lady Gaga in which she did a bump and grind while performing ‘White Christmas.’” At this point, such reports fill volumes.

A typical response to them is to affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of bad youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact lived at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. He was quite aware of a general dissolution–cultural suicide really–of Greek society. In fact, the moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

But what’s a teacher to do? Our work is difficult enough, amid such distractions as percussion lines marching in the halls to celebrate spirit week, phone logs to document calls home, emails with deadlines for curriculum maps to show compliance, PA announcements about photo retakes, staff meetings to discuss yet again the tardies, the dress code, and PDAs. All this can make it hard to wonder whether what Homer saw is still real, and therefore still relevant to that boy with the sly grin in the second row–to wonder what, precisely, such a kid might need to hear  from a man who rejected hanging out in a place where he could stay forever young, with no hassles, on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”?