It should be of urgent concern that the meaning of the English word “belief,” an indispensable lens for both the confession of faith and cultivation of wisdom, has profoundly evolved. In his work Faith and Belief, Wilfred Cantwell Smith outlines this dilemma:
Allow me to tell you The Fable of the Fearsome √2, a proud irrational number with an unsettlingly sinister story behind it.
Feel free to share this story with the little children whom you tuck in. Please note that this is, like any respectable fairytale, the stuff of legend. Furthermore, as is a storyteller’s prerogative, I’ve taken a few minor liberties—mostly with respect to vocabulary—in retelling the legend.
It finally happened. I forgot. Sitting down to lead my last webinar of the year with my first class of graduating apprentices, I realized I was unprepared. Too many commitments, too many things on my schedule, and too much reliance upon my insufficient memory meant that not only had I forgotten to pack the text into my bag, but I had forgotten to check the syllabus and even read the text to be discussed.
Recently, under pressure from budget shortfalls, a University of Wisconsin campus approved a plan to cut thirteen academic majors, including English Literature, Philosophy, and History in favor of programs with “high-demand career paths.” Funds will be redirected to “career-ready” programs such as business, chemical engineering, computer information systems, law enforcement, fire science, and graphic design. The plan was proposed after a Republican legislature voted to eliminate tenure in 2015, thus leaving degree programs vulnerable to cuts.
I teach rhetoric to 11th graders, and it has become apparent that some of my students believe that we should not spend so much time studying rhetorical devices and tropes. Either it’s a waste of time or, worse, it’s a form of manipulation and deceit. I'm not surprised that some students don’t get jazzed about exploring the beauty and depth of language, much less how to give a persuasive speech in front of one’s peers.
Writing about a writer is like painting a portrait of person when she’s standing right next to you. While you are deciding what color her shirt should be and whether or not to emphasize the cheekbones, she is there, expressing her thoughts on everything from dinner plans to Shakespeare. You end up thinking to yourself: “Why am I painting a portrait? It’d be better if people just met her.” But a portrait can be more accessible than a person. For a quick and easy acquaintance, it is easier to read an article about a writer than to read her books.
I have at times attempted to define classical education by referring to the liberality of the liberal arts. Maybe I aimed too high, but surely a word that denotes generosity and freedom is favorable. That word liberal, however, is so misused today that it brings confusion not clarity. No, I’m not speaking of the political spectrum. This isn’t about a liberal bent in social issues.
In my last article, “Can Mathematics be Parables?” I considered the fantastical realm of “imaginary” numbers. Now, wander with me across a terrain of numbers even more dazzlingly head-spinning . . . and even more hazardous, perhaps, to encounter.
American poetry education has fallen in a bad way. Any young person who reads poetry for pleasure knows this, for the lover of verse often knows few, if any, fellow aficionados of Keats and Yeats, let alone Brodsky or Baudelaire. When I ask people my age what they think about poetry, they usually say it is boring, difficult to understand, and elitist. They recall their experience of reading poetry in grade school as learning to decode the impenetrable and all-elusive meaning of an early-modern text, or perhaps just making one up ad-hoc, in hopes of a good grade.
Are stories and parables told only through words?
Perhaps some might grant that parable-like tales are also told through visual art and music. I’d like to suggest, in addition, that there are many math – and, by logical extension, science – “parables” most of us have never heard. And even if we’ve heard them, many of us have likely overlooked the radically fantastic domain they represent and reflect.
The primary reason for this, sadly, is that few of us were told them as bedtime stories (though somewhat tongue in cheek, I’m actually quite serious about this).