Tolkien on not restricting children to a small vocabulary

As for plenilune and argent, they are beautiful words before they are understood – I wish I could have the pleasure of meeting them for the first time again! — and how is one to know them till one does meet them? And surely the first meeting should be in a living context, and not in a dictionary, like dried flowers in a hortus siccus!

Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabulary to what you suppose to be within their reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #234, 22 November 1961 (via the Oxford Inklings blog)

I like his notion that meeting words “in the wild” is the best way. Oddly enough, I think it is close-minded adults who need to be addressed with a trimmed down vocabulary. Use a big word on them and they might dismiss you as a snob. Use too many in a row and their eyes will glaze over. It is assumed that children will do this for certain and perhaps sometimes they do, but the eager ones will keep listening and derive it’s meaning from context as soon as possible.

Why are student art exhibits (or composition recitals) often so terrible?

I’ve been to student art exhibits that were truly cringe-worthy. I’ve been to student composition recitals that could curl your hair. More than a few have noticed this over the years. How come so much terrible art, especially in our institutions of higher learning? Is it because the bar is so low for undergrads?

No, it is because the bar has been philosophized out of pedagogical existence. It still remains in a few class. An artist in “Drawing II” may be given an assignment to properly darken the angular shadows in a particular scene. He may complete it skillfully or in a shoddy fashion. A young musician in a style course may be allowed to come up with a melody on her own, but must write it “in the style of a piano solo by Debussy”. That’s a very good (and somewhat challenging) assignment. At the end of the day, it can be given an A, B, C, etc.

Aw, but the final show – the capstone, the student’s personal collection to show the last semester before graduation – who dare criticize it? Of course, it COULD be criticized, but will it be? We have taught our children that nothing is sacred because God is dead. We’ve taught them they deserve to be astronauts. We have taught our children that nothing is objectively beautiful – it all depends on how you look at it. We’ve thrown not just St. Thomas Aquinas in the garbage can, but even Aristotle right along with him. The old Greeks at least could say something like “That guy’s face isn’t symmetrical. It looks silly.”

Seriously though, what can a major professor say to a student who wants to present a ridiculous and slipshod sculpture? It’s not good enough? It’s ugly? No, he is not allowed to say anything like that. The secular relativism of the institution (even if this is not his own deeply person view, it rarely is) will not allow him to make any sort of value judgement upon his pupils work. The only aesthetic measuring rod he has left to enforce with is originality. An accusation of plagiarism is probably the only thing he can do to get a piece of art removed from an exhibition. The only other useful argument is possibly against laziness. A composition teacher may legitimately still say that a student has not “spent enough time” developing her symphony or whatnot. The final result can sound awful, but as long as there is a LOT of it, he has surprisingly little sway to direct the novice through the school of hard knocks. They may choose to journey there themselves, and more than a few do, but little can be done but to point them towards its door.

You can find a music critic, published of course, who will say whatever you want to hear. Do they simply all cancel each other out into meaninglessness? No. Some are wise, inspired, and correct. Others are foolish, twisted, and wrong. Secularism says it is impossible for aesthetics to be “twisted” or “wrong” – for it’s philosophy has nothing to twist and nothing to opposed except for unbridled personal liberty. Our teachers, especially in the humanities, are not empowered to teach what is beautiful. Fortunately, they can still model it themselves. Michelangelo and Bach are both bound to rub off.

What does base-line spirituality look like?

Here is a fantastic quote by philosopher Slavoj Zizek:

Postcolonial critics like to dismiss Christianity as the “whiteness” of religions: the presupposed zero level of normality, of the “true” religion, with regard to which all other religions are distortions or variations. However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion), they (often not so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

What he is describing here is what nearly the whole western world assumes, from the ground, to be what “spirituality” and religion is all about. There is this generic base-line core mystical experience that is legitimate and clearly valuable to the lives and experiences of people all over the earth, throughout history. Then, all the religions tack on extra stuff, extra junk to this meditative white pillar. They tack on morals, institutions, worship forms, myths, superstitions, power structures, etc. Hindu’s add in some incense, chants, and some neat statues. Christians tack on a bunch of commandments and structures for getting together and singing and praying. Islam does the same, but with a different flavor. Primitive tribal religions, like that of the Native Americans, are praised for being more minimalistic and less cluttered. Really stripped-down systems like Zen are considered acceptable since all the supplemental – obviously NOT spiritual elements – have been tossed aside. All religions are the same because when you take away the lies and nonsense, you get the same blank generic spirituality underneath.

Why? What is driving this view? Why has it become so normal in the past century? High criticism? The triumph of rationalism? Zizek says no. The answer is capitalism. This model works the best for a West full of little autonomous individuals who define themselves by adding on products to their persona: what they wear, what music they listen to, what car they drive, what color their hair is, what microbrewery they frequent, who they marry and marry again later. They still believe in God, to some degree, but their chosen (of course they get to choose it) fashion of religious devotion is going to be mix-and-match, just like their iTunes playlist. You can listen to old Run DMC or new hip hop, metal or Yo Yo Ma, it’s all cool, but at everyone is still using an iPod and a pair of headphones. That’s the baseline. This popular conception of religion fits in naturally with our daily consumption. It is king and gets to tell everything else how work.