It would have been nice to stand amid these ruins [of Ephesus] reading Paul, or to talk about how to reconcile material happiness with spiritual joy as we were on the very spot where Paul preached, where the ethos of Athens met the ethos of Jerusalem. But our guide never really told us Paul’s story. He spent most of his time instead taking us through the royal palaces, with the grand chambers, frescoes and meeting halls. He gave us those material facts about the place that tour guides specialize in (who built what when), but which no one remembers because they don’t really have anything to do with us emotionally. The Ephesus visit was an occasion to have a good discussion about how to live and what really lasts. But if anybody was thinking such thoughts, they went unexpressed.
When we encounter a great book or work of art, I think it makes certain demands of us if we’re paying attention and approaching it with sensitivity. Because life is a mystery – an ultimately unanswerable riddle of incomparable richness – the best books and works of art reflect that richness. This doesn’t mean that we live our life without convictions, adopting a cynical and nihilistic relativism that lets us off the hook from responsibility of choosing how to live. But it does mean that whatever convictions we choose to hold – whether faith in God, or inalienable rights, or reason, or something else – must be recognized as expressions of faith or choice and not as articles of dogma.
This is an approach to living which was deepened and solidified in me at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a college that eschews the typical lecture approach of education – a kind of dispensing of information – in exchange for a pedagogy of engagement and inquiry. According to this approach, education is not the passive result of receiving information but the active process of synthesizing information through thoughtful reflection and discussion.
This approach has served me well, both in life generally and in my former teaching career. It has also served me well on my culinary trips to Italy, particularly in Rome where we take daily cultural excursions in addition to our work in the kitchen. We visit museums and go on walking tours, and so we study not only cooking but also the history, art, and culture of Rome.
Although there are legions of guides in Rome with better credentials to lead tours of the city and its museums, I like to do most of the tours myself because the experience David Brooks describes above is also my experience. Because our society has embraced an educational model based on passive receiving of information, the almost universal temptation of guides is to take on the role of authority, dispensing for two or three or four hours a litany of facts and technical details which, although they certainly have value, miss the forest for the trees. Those who study art history, for example, are often interested in the technical aspects of the painting (which are certainly important) but they rarely use the painting as an opporunity to engage in reflection, and they rarely ask their clients to engage much in the process either. The tour becomes a one-way street of information instead of a commual effort of inquiry.
Discussions on history tours are full of names and dates which are easily forgotten five minutes later because they’re not connected to anything that matters to anyone. I’ve been on tours of the forum in Rome which give the names and dates of various ruins, but I’ve rarely been asked to reflect on the fragility of civilization (including our own!) — which seems to me the greatest value of visiting the ruins of the Roman forum. Which consul or emperor did this or that is not going to be remembered ten years later, but having thought about the ways in which our own civilization reflects the blessings and defects of Ancient Rome certainly will.
Knowing that the Colosseum’s proper name is the Flavian Amphitheater because it was built by a father and son of the Flavian dynasty – Vespasian and Titus – will be forgotten by most people before dinner. But discussing the addictive nature of the ancient gladiatorial games and the ways in which people today still struggle with addiction, and pondering whether human combat to the death might one day come again to our own culture… I hope these questions stay with clients long after the tour is finished.
One of the most profound questions I’ve ever heard about Bernini’s miraculous sculpture Apollo and Daphne came not from a professional guide but from another amateur, Sister Wendy. The sculpture depicts the story of Daphne being turned into a tree to save her from the unwanted sexual advances of the god Apollo. But after she becomes the tree — a laurel – Apollo continues to revere it and adopts the laurel tree as his symbol. In speaking of the pagan myth, Sr. Wendy asks us to ponder it from a slightly more Christian perspective. She speculates that the myth represents Apollo getting exactly what his heart desired, but not in the way he thought he desired it. We can agree or disagree with Sr. Wendy’s speculation. That’s not the point. The point is to engage with a work of art not as a series of facts to be absorbed but as a series of questions to be encountered.
At the end of the day, we can study history, art, and literature in order to become more thoughtful people with a more nuanced and mature understanding of life and both its enigmas and truths, not to become “experts” or to prop up our own preconceived notions. When we go on tours, we should seek the same approach. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Perhaps some would just prefer the ease of receiving information. But I enjoy a different approach, one which invites engagement and reflection.