Friday, November 27, 2009

Our "Other Education"

Once again, David Brooks nails it in today's column, "The Other Education"--broaching a core argument I make in Desiring the Kingdom. Listen to how Brooks' puts it:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

While Desiring the Kingdom is very much interested in our "formal" education, a big part of its argument concerns what Brooks here calls our "second education" or our "emotional education." And in the book, I try to provide a news lens in order to see all sorts of cultural practices (the mall, the stadium, the dorms) as a powerful "second education," as well as the lineaments of historic, intentional, Christian worship as an arena of the same. And as I think I note in a footnote, it was some of Brooks' own columns--particularly his persistent forays into cognitive science over the past several years--that led me to think about this "formation" in dialogue with contemporary work in neuroscience (particularly work on "automation").

Today's column also points to themes I'll be developing in Volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies trilogy about the "mechanics" of formation, or "how worship works" (cribbing on James Wood's How Fiction Works). Again, consider how Brooks paints the picture:

This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.

The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious. [...]

I find I can’t really describe what this landscape feels like, especially in newspaper prose. But I do believe his narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events. Just as being from New York or rural Georgia gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so spending time in Springsteen’s universe inculcates its own preconscious viewpoint.

I'm particularly interested in the dynamics and mechanics of this "absorption," how this non-cognitive education "seeps" into us (a continual metaphor in Desiring the Kingdom, too). I think Brooks' rightly intuits--but doesn't articulate--that this is fundamentally a matter of aesthetics. This is precisely why what he "feels" (or "understands") can't really be described "in newspaper prose." I'm fascinated by that tension and dynamic. Thus in volume 2 (yet to be titled), I'll be working out an analogy between literature and liturgy, drawing on recent work at the intersection of cognitive science, literature, and poetry in order to find a framework for understanding how and why liturgical practice can also function as a "second education."