Mercy was a concept that I would not allow myself to articulate to my colleagues at a seminar on "The Liberal Arts Education: A Contested Concept," that I attended at Transylvania University over the week-end. It seemed too sentimental, too tiny in the face of the grand pronouncements being made about what education might do. There were two basic schools of thought: 1) education should elevate the mind (and soul) by exposing both only to texts of intrinsic value, and all else (all good) will follow; 2) education should expose its students to the world in all of its relativism, as that is the only way that society will be transformed for the better. The first school produces thinkers of beauty and truth, the second of critique and politics. We had all been chosen, we decided over what was for many of us our first glasses of truly fine bourbon ever, much like the cast of a reality TV show: with purposefully oppositional views. There were a few die-hards (mostly in the beauty and truth camp), but the truth is that most of us want beauty and critique, truth and politics. These should not be oppositional terms. Dewey is the big educational thinker that promoted the idea that a free and just society had to be an educated one (and his ideals of just how many people should be fully educated remain radical - everyone), and that it was not anathema to teach Accounting alongside Aristotle. If we want our NGOs whose beautiful principles are nurtured by truths of human dignity to not flounder and fail, then maybe their members should take an accounting class. Pragmatism does not tarnish the liberal arts.
You can start to see why "mercy"as a motivation for teaching seemed out of place in the midst of this debate. And truth be told, it is not a pedagogical ideology that I would ever elaborate upon in public. But out here, whispering in the reeds as I can, mercy seems like one of those fundamental ideas that, if I stop and think, keeps me going. Perhaps it's being a medievalist, or perhaps it's having accumulated just enough experiences, but I cannot escape the idea that the human condition is fraught. That there is no perfect state, no equilibrium, no stasis. There is great joy and happiness, but it is the contingencies and fragilities of that joy that I have come to appreciate and treasure, not just the blazing happiness itself. And so yes, to me, education is merciful, education offers mercy to aching questions and deep desires - sometimes by shifting the horizon line (by altering your perspective), other times by distracting you (by showing you something, anything, else). Embedded in its definition and operation are the ideas of compassion and thankfulness, and my aren't those good things to include in an education?
|Ruins of a portico of an antebellum house|