Holmes and Wimsey

Soon, Rhetoric students at the Abbey will write their rough drafts of their mystery stories.  They'll read several masters of the genre—Raymond Chandler, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe—and of course they're already familiar with the most popular detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes.

    But Holmes is not the most popular with me; give me Lord Peter Wimsey any day.  While Holmes is alert, easily bored, abrupt and arrogant, Wimsey—the finest creation of Dorothy Sayers—is ditzy, easily overlooked and, generally, a nuisance.  He is welcome all over England (he's a lord, after all), but most who converse with him write him off as “rummy.”  This peculiarity is (mostly) a pose, and criminals who overlook him usually end by cursing his name.

    In his off-handed way, Wimsey makes a very important point about education in his debut, Whose Body?  He is explaining how to get away with murder:

    "You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you've got to do is to prevent people from associatin' their ideas.  Most people don't associate anythin'—their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin' a lot of noise and goin' nowhere, but once you begin lettin' 'em string their peas into a necklace, it's goin' to be strong enough to hang you, what?"

    Doesn't even sound very educated, does it?  But Wimsey's point seems more and more important to me the longer that I teach: if you want students to really think, you have to help them make connections, both between the abstract and the concrete.  And to make connections, you need to begin with a framework—namely, your worldview.

    What makes the best framework?  The worldview that matches reality, of course.  But Christianity provides even more than that: because God is sovereign over all, then the Christian worldview can actually be comprehensive.  Because God is sovereign over family and shopping and planting and Zumba, then the Christian worldview provides a way to think about all of those things, and everything else.  Once we understand basic Christian principles like the nature of man and the nature of God, imago dei, stewardship, servant leadership, etc. then we can bring those to bear on every aspect of reality.

    And the more we learn about reality, the more we will be able to connect ideas to what we already know—until we string those peas into a necklace, as Wimsey would say.

    Making connections happens to all of us.  You might own a rather hum-drum pink polka dot dress that you intend to give to Goodwill in a year or so.  Perhaps it seems completely forgettable.  But if you happen to be wearing it on the day you win the lottery, you will always remember that pink polka dot dress, because it is connected to something you consider significant.

    I know, I know, you don't play the lottery.  So let's put it in more sophisticated terms.  Both Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal were French philosophers.  (See what happened there?  We already made two connections: nationality and vocation.)  There's more: they were actually contemporaries who had met; Descartes and Pascal argued about whether or not a vacuum could exist in reality.  Because Pascal believed it could, Descartes said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”  Perhaps that's not a very nice thing to say, but it certainly helps you associate the two men, and even remember one of their differences.  Which makes it easier to remember the most important difference: although both men focused on epistemology (how to know truth), Descartes began with himself while Pascal began with scripture.  You can't really understand Pascal's Pensees except as a response to the radical skepticism of Descartes—something you can more easily remember because you have made connections between the two men (and your worldview).

    This, too, is why story matters so much.  Memorizing dates and facts with no context can get pretty boring.  If I made you memorize the year 1564 because that's when Michelangelo died, you might not care too much.  But if I told you it was also the year when William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born, you might find more connections that interested you.  Then if I told you all the crackpot theories about other people writing Shakespeare's plays, and that one of the most popular suggestions was Marlowe, you'd have more reason to be interested.  If we went on to compare Marlowe's greatest story, Doctor Faustus, with Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, you'd be hooked.  The year 1564 is on a necklace now, instead of just rattling around making noise in your brain.

    And isn't that why detectives seem so brilliant to us?  We might all see the same clues, but only the detective knows how they connect.  Shouldn't it be that way in education?

The student with the best framework and the most consequent connections should be the man or woman most capable of leading others to the truth.




- Jeff Baldwin