Culture

Ideas: Quoting G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a journalist, author and what can be best described as a complete thinker. He wrote over 100 books and over 5000 newspaper columns. His gift for aphorism has made him familiar to many by his eloquence if not by his name. He wrote about everything because he believed that everything was in one way or another connected. He took delight in arguing without losing his temper, his reason, or even the friendships he had with his fellow debaters.

There is a modern revival of his works going on today, so if you enjoy and/or are challenged by what you read here, please visit The Society for Gilbert K. Chesterton. There’s lots to explore including more quotations, lectures, etc. and even an annual conference. They’ve even got the Chesterton Schools Network of high schools which offer classical education through a Catholic lens. I used to be on the American Chesterton Society board of directors, and believe that this guy (who’s been dead since 1936) probably knew more about the today than most people now alive. The past can often reveal much of what has yet to happen as well as explain a lot of what’s going on right now.

1. The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

2. If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?

3. The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

4. Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

5. In the end it will not matter to us whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.

6. The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside of us.

7. It is of the new things that men tire… of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young.

8. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.

9. The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.

10. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

11. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.

12. Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

13. The test of all happiness is gratitude.

14. We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.

15. Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

16. Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

17. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

18. Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.

19. Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

20. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

21. Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.

22. No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.

23. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

24. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

25. Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

26. We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine.

27. Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.

28. We are learning to do a great many clever things … The next great task will be to learn not to do them.

29. Chaos is dull.

30. There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.

(Note: the graphic of Chesterton is from an old cigarette card. Packs of cigarettes used to have trading cards, sometimes of sports figures, and this was from a set of literary figures. Imagine a time when smoking cigarettes and famous literary figures went together.)

Emanuel Philipp Elementary School Milwaukee

A Milwaukee School Designed for Children

Milwaukee is well known for having beautiful, old architecture and when strangers come to town, they often comment on how lucky we are to have preserved so many of our old buildings. Those visitors will also point out things we don’t see and they can remind us to pay more attention to some beautiful things that too many of us have learned to forget.

Ironworks decoration on tower of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

Emanuel Philipp Elementary School is a fascinating and mostly forgotten school building. The Milwaukee Public School District decided to close this school in 2006. As we say goodbye, let’s take another look and try to remember why it was built it in the first place.

Located at 4310 N. 16th Street, it was designed by the architectural firm of Eschweiler & Eschweiler who also designed the art deco Milwaukee Gas Light tower and the art moderne Hotel Metro, This one is a nice blend of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco design.

Stone penguin balustrade over the entryway of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

This is a school designed for children. One might believe that all schools are built that way, but at Philipp Elementary there are Mother Goose-themed terra cotta panels wrapping the building. Want to know how the elephant got its trunk? Look on the child-height, carved-relief sides of the steps leading to the front doors, where you’ll also see an alligator and a storytelling brave and lions and tigers and well, bears too. Look up from there to meet the stone-cast stares from the five penguins guarding the entry. All who enter here should know this was not designed to just be a place for education, but it was to be a garden for the seeds of imagination, adventure and a lifelong love affair with learning.

Cast panels showing fairytale images at a Emanuel Philipp Elementary School in Milwaukee

Step within and you’ll find two kindergarten rooms just around the corner. In one, look at the floor to find hidden panels that lift out to reveal a sandbox. Just inside the other is a fireplace with small animals carved into the surround. Look farther into the room and find a fountain. What did these things teach children about learning? What did they reveal about their teachers, parents and community of that era?

This is a school built in the early 1930s for a neighborhood of poor immigrants from Germany, the country where kindergarten was invented. During those comparatively unsophisticated and cash-starved years, even they knew what must always be inside the lives of children. Back then, they knew that whimsy could be part of the bottom line.

Tower at Stone penguin balustrade over the entryway of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

Today, the panels over the sandbox are sealed, the fountain is dry and the fires have been put out. Why don’t these things have a place in twenty-first century education? Have they been crowded out by the unfunded mandates and unfettered liability? Have the contending and contentious interest groups evolved past even the possibility for little children to sit around a fireplace while stories are told and lessons learned? Are we all just too busy, too distracted and too discouraged to recognize that timeless things are being left in the past? Can the future of education ever again be made safe for sandboxes?

It is a hard earned tradition that our schools are supposed to secure skills, knowledge and citizenship leading to a better future for all. But we keep failing at that, and in the confusion of constant reform, we now find ourselves with an easier tradition of making sure that schools are at least secure employment programs for adults.

In our constant rush to create perfect schools and perfect students, we oddly find ourselves with educational policies which are almost always younger than the children themselves. Why does so much in education constantly change? Are policy makers and educators such good life-long learners that they always need to update their methods? We know change is good, but so is continuity. Sometimes the most progressive thing to do is not to change, but to stand firmly upon hard earned traditions which will always be true.

Why did they really close Emanuel Philipp Elementary? Is the building too old and inefficient? Do we have too few students and too little funding? Or is a beautiful building like this too embarrassing because we don’t want to be reminded that the district, city and citizens who built it in 1931 knew that schools are not always about the bottom line, they are always about the horizon.

Relief carved entryway of alligator pulling the elephant's nose at Emanuel Philipp Elementary in Milwaukee, WI

David Zach is a futurist who speaks on trends, traditions and the choices between them. He’s been on the board of the American Institute of Architects, the board of AIA-WI, the board of The Woodlands School, a member of a Milwaukee Public Schools school-based management council, and was ad-hoc faculty in the School of Education at UW-Milwaukee.

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

Review of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. Please support local bookstores by by buying the book through this link – for which I get no remuneration. I just like local bookstores. (I consider buying local as a sort of taxation for having nice neighborhoods, like Bay View, WI.)

I would put this in my list of top ten books you need to read. And, it’s a short book, only 163 pages.

How do we find truth in an age of information? This is vital because the economy is based on information – and bad information can harm, if not destroy, the economy. Rauch says there are five approaches that people take to find or argue for the truth:

  1. The Fundamentalist Approach: God (or some other unassailable authority figure) has given me the truth and I will give it to you. Arguments ensue but unless you are that god or unassailable authority, your arguments are irrelevant.
  2. The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held ideas are of equal value. If I sincerely believe that aliens are among us in the form of Pugs, who are you to doubt me? If I sincerely believe that you are wrong, again, who are you to doubt me because my ideas are as valid as any – and any evidence to the contrary is just as absurd or relevant. This approach quickly goes nowhere.
  3. The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Because some people have been held out of the discussion, they get first place back in line. This approach is quite often quite popular with those who have either been held out of the line, or didn’t know the line was there.
  4. The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with any of the other approaches, but adds that you must not cause harm with your words. And, the recipient of your words gets to determine how harmful your words are. One sees this used when some protest group says that words are literally violence.
  5. The Liberal Science Approach: In any argument, no one gets final say and no one gets special status. Even if you have special status, say you’re speaking on behalf of a god, a college president, or you’re a charismatic-type leader of a group, you do not get to win the argument based on those roles – you have to win the argument on the merit of your ideas ands the skills of presentation. And, even if you win the argument today, but someone finds contrary argumentation tomorrow, the argument can begin again. For many this approach is exhausting. We want rest and repose, but what we get is life. In the end, Rauch says that this is the only one that can work.

As this was written back in 1995, there have been others who have approached this question of truth-finding in an age of information, but this is a clear book and it is short. It has stood the test of a few decades to still have validity.

Twice I have bought this book for executives who have found themselves confronted by absurd but popular ideas from members/faculty/students. I thought it might give some long-term insights on how to have an argument with radicals. Sadly, I doubt it had any real effect, or that it was even read.

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