Baby Bird Illustrations and the Limits of Romanticism for Going the Distance as a Teacher, Learner, and Flourishing Human Being

Each year about this time, I start wrapping up a unit on American Romanticism with my juniors. Each encounter reminds me of some helpful things about Romanticism for teaching, learning, and living well, but I also find important limitations in Romantic philosophies. 

At the start of this week, someone sent me a link to a cute, inspirational Pixar film about “Piper.” The short film portrays how a little Sandpiper learns life lessons about growth and resilience.

The Pixar film embodies a soft and virtuous lessons that fit well with some variations of Romantic philosophy. Nature can be a struggle  but the individual bird can strive and thrive through the hardships. 

The video reminded me a little of 19th century American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Bryant’s persona observes a lone waterfowl and reflects on how the bird struggles with dangers and difficulties but will eventually safely arrive at its destination, rewarded for its efforts and guided by some higher “Power” of generalized divinity.

This year I’ve been using a basic framework of philosophy to help students think through the differences in such approaches to life and long-term flourishing:

  • 1. Metaphysics: What is real? What is the context or angle of focus on reality?
  • 2. Epistemology: What is true? How does one know?
  • 3. Aesthetics: What is beautiful? How does one respond?
  • 4. Ethics: What is good? What should one do?

Reading “To a Waterfowl” or watching Pixar’s “Piper” sets us up to compare the philosophies and lifeviews implied by different communicators and their metaphysical contexts. The metaphysical contexts tend to shape thinking in the other three branches of philosophy, which in turn, shape the thinking about metaphysics. (I’m finding this philosophical framework increasingly useful for comparing authors and creators within a time period as well as among different time periods–e.g., Edgar Allen Poe differs from Bryant, Emerson, and the Fireside Poets.)

I couldn’t help but think of a much more naturalistic and realistic approach to birds and their aims at flourishing as a bridge into the realist period next week. BBC’s Life Story episode of “Baby Chick Jumps Off Cliff” intensely captures the difficult struggle to flourish for baby geese in harsh conditions:

“Three out of five chicks have made it…” Last I checked, those odds might be better than the number of teachers that stay in the profession over five years. I’m curious what the statistics will look like over the next few years. Nevertheless, I share with students that American Realism is much more of a method rather than a philosophy, but Realist writers (and filmmakers) often look much closer at experiences and welcome the details that challenge our fuzzy, warm idealism.

Recently, I’ve been rereading and catching up on Oxford theology and history scholar Alister McGrath’s work. Over the years, McGrath and his antagonistic colleague Richard Dawkins (also from Oxford) have both stimulated me to think deeply about real life and important philosophical questions. As I read his book on The Selfish Gene in the early 90s, Richard Dawkins indirectly got me thinking about the problem of where reason, consciousness, and personality come from if our world and our lives our essential explained (away?) by materialism. (Bonus trivia item: Dawkins came up with the word “meme” and shares a few pages of speculation about it in The Selfish Gene. The word “meme” has been a meme ever since.)

Dawkins is a brilliant zoologist and evolutionary theorist, but he’s also a reckless propagandist in some of his public criticisms of Christian and theistic ways of looking at the world. Among other tendencies, he’s quick to argue against God because of the harshness of nature, and he’s quick to level personal attacks at religious thinkers and believers who think in ways divergent from his materialistic orthodoxy. (I think that much of what Dawkins has found as contemptible in religious and spiritual thought is actually the overly Romanticized and idealized versions of these ways of thinking.)

In contrast to Dawkins’ approach, I especially appreciate how Alister McGrath thoughtfully and charitably explores Dawkin’s thinking. McGrath explores topics that combine consideration of faith, theology, science, history, and psychology. When younger, he was a devout atheist, Marxist, and science student. He completed his science studies at university but departed from Marxism and Atheism through an interesting process of student, reflection, and spiritual conversion over time. McGrath’s recent book title reads like a good elevator pitch for the scope of his thought: Born to Wonder: Exploring Our Deepest Questions–Why Are We Here and Why Does It Matter?

In light of those videos above, I was tempted to fly off into discussing multiple literary bird motifs and texts, but I think the metaphysical issues of meaning involving Dawkins and McGrath are way more interesting and important for long-term flourishing and daily survival in an often less-than-friendly world. The time I’ve spent recently reading and listening to Alister McGrath has help infuse a much more meaningful and encouraging approach to the big questions and daily struggles with living, teaching, and looking to the future. More to come…

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