Monday, December 19, 2016

Drinking and Storytelling

Last year for a Christmas present I received a copy of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Now that this year’s Christmas vacation is here, I’ve finally found time to read it (aren’t gifted books like wedding thank-you notes? One year to get around to them?). It’s quite good—Laing, a British writer, travels the US on a route that traces the haunts and tortured careers of six American writers of the last century: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (pictured above), John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. All of these writers also happened to be professional alcoholics, and Laing digs deep to find the roots of their drinking in their pasts, as well as its manifestations in their art. I’m more than halfway through, and so far it’s excellent. Laing's gaze is unflinching, neither glamorizing their drinking nor celebrity status, and in its ability to connect the dots among the six protagonists, the book reminds me of another of my favorite multi-person biographies: Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which presented the interconnected lives of the last century’s most influential American Catholic writers: Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Technocrat or Storyteller? On Hillbilly Elegy, Public Schools, and Trump

During weeks leading up to and after the presidential election, I read J.D. Vance’s much-talked-about memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The book had shot to the top of the bestseller lists before the election, and in the wake of Trump’s victory, Vance has been a go-to commentator for an East Coast media desperately searching for someone who understands what makes the rest of the country tick.

Friday, October 21, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 2: Three Suggestions for a Return to the Humanities

In Part 1 of my follow-up to my recent article in Commonweal, I attempted to explain how Catholic high schools encourage the achievement culture without perhaps realizing it. Online gradebooks, I argued, play a major part in fostering an “education-as-consumption” mindset, in which students are made to understand their classes as opportunities for them to gobble information in order to receive accolades. I think that most Catholic educators would agree that this is not what a Catholic school culture should be. So what should we do?

Monday, October 3, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

­­­­Thanks to Commonweal for running my piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Catholic schools. It's online now and is forthcoming in their print magazine. It’s been a while since I wrote the article, and in revisiting it in recent weeks, I realized that I have quite a bit more to say on the topic of the achievement culture and Catholic Ed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Andrew Sullivan on the Distracted Life in New York Magazine

I apologize for the sparse blogging as of late. I've started teaching at a new school, and the start of the school year, combined with learning the ins-and-outs of my new community, has filled up my mental space. I hope to have more time to think and write as all of these new things settle into a routine, which is already starting to happen.

While I have a minute, though, I wanted to draw attention to Andrew Sullivan's article in the most recent issue of New York Magazine. Sullivan, you might know, is among the most prominent cultural writers of our time. He was one of the first public figures to push for same-sex marriage. His blog was at the forefront of the push of the 24/7 cycle of news-and-commentary, and his influence is enormous.

Sullivan stopped blogging last year, and in his article he writes about his recovery from addiction to the information cloud. I won't recap the article here, but a few things struck me:

First, we can add Sullivan to the list of prominent writers who are leading the discussion about the harms of 24/7 access to information, along with Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Matthew Crawford, etc. These are folks who are arguing that personal technology is not only changing how we understand the world but how we understand ourselves as human beings. I tend to agree with them, of course, and think that our future depends on figures of their generation (30-and-older) speaking out now about what is happening. We have the privilege of remembering what I've heard called "an analog past"--a time when our thoughts were not directed towards the digital stream, when there was no alternative to being present where you were, when peace and rest and leisure seemed to come a little easier than it does now. My current students do not have this memory--as they grow older, smartphones and wifi will be to them what television is to most of us living now: something always there, as fixed in the universe as rock ledge.

It is easier for those with a memory of an analog existence to fall prey to technological cynicism and visions of the apocalypse, for sure. But those who have experienced life without the cloud are the only ones who are able to remember what the cloud obscures, what was lost. We are living on what we could call a "seam" of history, where the direction of society takes a drastic shift, and while we are on that seam we can see that direction as a direction, and not as the background scenery. To know something for what it really is, as Eliot said, is to know it "for the first time." We are there now, and writers like Sullivan, who do the work of preserving that vision of technological havoc while it is still fresh, are not unlike Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and the other Romantics, who witnessed what kind of transcendent vision was being lost in industrialization, and tried to preserve it in their art.

My second observation is that Sullivan's article is more proof that the current state of affairs moves intellectuals into two camps: those who follow the god of information and those who admit that there is a soul. Is human experience ultimately material or transcendent? There is no in-between, and one benefit of the rapid acceleration of personal technology is that it forces the hand of thinkers who otherwise wouldn't be caught talking positively about things like religion to admit that the world does have meaning. Consider Sullivan, a fallen-away Catholic who is publicly at odds with the Church, who in his article writes about the importance of monasteries and of creating a space in our routines, such as "weekly Mass...that lets your life breathe." Religion, Catholicism especially, might be the only cultural institution left that has a chance of surviving the information age with its identity intact, because its practices cultivate stillness rather than restlessness, silence rather than noise, being consumed by rather than consuming.

Sullivan, who should know better than anyone else the effects of 24/7 connection to the information stream, writes at the end of his essay that "the threat is to our souls." Strong words from a man who has chosen them carefully. I urge you to read his essay.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Further Thoughts on David Denby's Lit Up

In America Magazine's most recent issue you'll find my review of David Denby's Lit Up.  Some additional thoughts—on Denby's project, and teaching while Catholic—that I didn't have room to fit in the piece:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What is Education for? William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep and the Religious Tradition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Catholic school’s role in perpetuating our American meritocracy. It’s been an underlying theme of this whole blog, and I wrote about it most directly last year in a post on F.Scott Fitzgerald’s experience in a Catholic prep school. That post has since developed into a more polished article that should run in the near future in a Catholic periodical.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Townie and The Confessions

The year after he became Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine set out to write The Confessions, an account of his sinful past and conversion to Christianity. His story is familiar to many and chronicles behavior that we would not typically associate with a saint. By his telling, he passed his adolescence in a fog of lust, eventually fathering a child and taking up with various concubines well into adulthood. For a while he was a member of the heretical Manichean sect. Only after a long and gradual conversion did Augustine turn from his ways, and he was officially received into the Church at age 32. Soon he became a priest, then bishop, and, thanks to his great influence and spiritual writing, a Doctor of the Church.

Clearly, Augustine’s journey was one that passed from bad to good, from sin to redemption, from darkness to light. Why, then, after his conversion, would he look backwards to his waywardness in writing The Confessions? Now that he had put on new garments, so to speak, in his conversion, why would he want to focus on the soiled ones? What was to gain?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gregor Samsa as Grotesque (LMM #2)

(For more on the "Literature for the Modern Mind" series, see here.)

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis begins with one of the most famous lines in all of twentieth-century literature: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.” Depending on the translation, Gregor is sometimes transformed into a “monstrous vermin,” but the import is the same. An unprecedented change has occurred, something very much like a dream, but very real.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Classical Education and the Catholic School

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about classical education. Our oldest daughter is set to start kindergarten in the fall, and the rationale behind the trajectory of our modern educational system—what we teach our children, how, and when—suddenly seems much more relevant to me. My foray into teaching 8th grade this past year (a new level for our high school) has also piqued my interest in the purpose of the lower grades—how, for example, the structure of elementary and middle school points toward high school, college, and adulthood. My wife went to a classical high school, so I was already somewhat familiar with its basic principles.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Inferno and Incarnational Art (LMM #1)

To kick off my series on “Literature for the Modern Mind,” I’ll start with the one who started it all—Dante Alighieri. Really, I should address his whole Commedia here, but since I’ve taught the Inferno for the past three years in my senior class, and (I’m ashamed to admit!) I haven’t yet read the Purgatorio and Paradiso (both this summer, I hope!) I’ll stick to the first of the three-part journey.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Giraldi Article in Dappled Things (and some links)

The "Candlemas 2016" edition of the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things features an article I wrote on the novelist William Giraldi and his relationship to the Catholic literary tradition. The article is a loose response to Giraldi's own essay on being called a "Catholic novelist," which ran in the New Republic last summer. Some relevant links are below.

Thanks to Dappled Things, and please check out their journal. They do great work in nourishing those of us who read, think, and write about the intersection of art and faith.

Further reading:
Giraldi's essay "Confessions of a Catholic Novelist"

D. G. Myers' essay at Books and Culture on the "Catholic novelists" Giraldi and Christopher Beha

My initial thoughts on Giraldi's Hold the Dark

Some of my thoughts on the relationship between narrative and the spiritual journey

I hope to have the first installment of my series of posts on "Literature for the Modern Mind" up soon. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Weekend Reads and Thoughts: Feb 26

It's been a while since I've posted any links, and I've had some saved for some time now, so here they are to peruse at your leisure:

Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?
by David Denby, The New Yorker

This article seems to be largely taken from material in David Denby's new book, Lit Up, in which the New Yorker critic spends time in high school English classrooms to figure out if, and how, students can be taught to appreciate great literature in the age of smartphones. From what I gather from the article, Denby sees rays of light in the interactions great teachers have with students, but is a realist when it comes to just how much good this can do in an age when students are transfixed by their constantly flickering screens.

Over the course of the next month I'll be reviewing Denby's book for a Catholic publication, and I'll post the link here when the review runs.

Smartphone Era Politics
by Roger Cohen, The New York Times

While we're on depressing subjects, here's a lament for the loss of readers, and real community, in the twittering age. I don't know if what's more disheartening--the world Cohen describes, or the fact that this kind of lament has become so routine, proof that this distracted isolation has permanently lodged itself in us like a cancer that we tolerate because we are too busy to be bothered with seeking medical care.

Teacher, Heal Thyself
by Ray Schroth, S.J., America Magazine

Fr. Schroth has been with America for over 60 years, teaching for much of that time, and has compiled some excellent bits of wisdom here from his experience. His piece exemplifies, I think, a truly Catholic approach to education--practical, rooted in personal encounter, and steeped in great literature.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Literature for the Modern Mind: An Introduction

One of my major motivations for starting this blog, a year and a half ago, was my desire to sort things out for myself as a teacher of literature in a Catholic school. After several years of teaching, I had come to understand that the modern high school student is starved in many areas that should be of concern to Catholic educators.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Maclean on Teaching

As I mentioned in my previous post, Norman Maclean, for most of his career, was not a fiction writer but a professor at the University of Chicago. He was a good one, too, winning the university's Quantrell Award for Teaching Excellence twice, once in the beginning of his career (1941), and once toward the end (1973).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Norman Maclean

In spent the better part the 2000s in Western Montana, first working at a summer camp in the Seeley-Swan Valley, and then at graduate school in Missoula. I wasn't long in the area before people started urging me to read Norman Maclean. I had never heard of him before, but soon realized that he was a laureate of sorts for Montanans in general, and thanks to A River Runs Through It, for Montana fly fishermen in particular.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Eros and the Modern Student

In my recent post “The Endless Practice,” I wrote a fable of sorts involving a young boy who wants nothing else but to learn how to play baseball after seeing a professional game. Soon, though, he loses his enthusiasm after joining a baseball league in which he plays no games but simply practices the isolated skills, over and over again, that the sport involves. I hope the message wasn’t too obscure. In order for an educational experience to succeed, it must nurture desire.