Intellectual Traditions: Molly Dodd’s Story

Molly Dodd blogs at Sticky Green Leaves.

After some eleven years of homeschooling, overlapping with three years of local community college Gen Eds and art classes, my parents drove me and a few suitcases up to a medium sized public university, where they had met, married, been enchanted by ideas, and baptized as Christians. In the car, I read them excerpts from For the Life of the World, a book on sacramental theology by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest. We talked about the way he insists that Christianity is not a religion, comparing it to the Evangelical slogan we had grown tired of, “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” We appreciated the precision with which he laid out what he meant by that — what both “religion” and “the Church” meant to him, and in what way he believed them to be different, along with his obvious love for the sacramentality of Creation.

In addition to academic and life skills, I learned from my parents to be conscious of the intellectual and theological traditions we inhabit; the philosophical lenses though with we encounter the world. Their beloved philosophy professor, Dr. Wood, had studied under O K Bouwsma, who studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was influenced by Kierkegaard, who was known to exclaim things like “shout it from the rooftops: truth is subjectivity!” and leave it to the reader to figure out the extent of his irony. Along with that, I inherited a tradition of beautiful theological fairy-tale tellers, myth makers, and mythopoetic enthusiasts (Inklings, George MacDonald, G K Chesterton, Antione de St. Exupery), and great, dense, thoughtful stories (The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Greek epics). By the time I went to college we had also started reading Eastern Orthodox writers, including some beautiful Byzantine, Arab, and North African theologians. We were a little snobby about self-consciously Christian books, from heartwarming prairie romances, to earnest pleas for courtship, to stifling Bible study booklets. We had read enough truly good books to recognize the mediocre or saccharine ones.

My parents were evangelical when I was growing up, because Evangelicals believed that the Bible was true, without equivocating, and so did they. Still, we never quite fit in. We were introverts in an extroverted church, engaging with a different intellectual tradition than most of the church. They were also passionate about education in general, not only homeschooling, and have both taught in public schools since I graduated.

In a lot of ways, my parents did homeschooling right, at least for me.

When I transferred to the university as a junior, I decided to major in Art Education because I had a lot of art credits already, but wanted an obvious job to do when I graduated. I had a mix of romantic excitement about books, ideas, and intellectual engagement, and cynicism about the College of Education. Despite some engaging classes in art history, wood fire ceramics, and argument analysis, cynicism largely won out within the institutional coursework. Education was a poor fit for my temperament, strengths, and life experience, which emphasized philosophical pondering over real world management concerns. Also, most of my courses assumed a good grasp on what public school classrooms are actually like, based on experience as a student, which I didn’t have. I spent a lot of time wandering around campus and pacing my dorm hall muttering to myself about “cognitive dissonance.” Transitioning from homeschool to college was much easier than from college to teaching in a public school.

One thing I do regret about my college experience is that it nearly extinguished my love for arts and crafts, which had been encouraged through near daily 4-H meetings. I’m good with my hands, at devising beautiful and occasionally useful objects, and also with my mind, at picking apart ideas and tracing them back to assumptions and reasoning. But postmodern, post-industrial art criticism is a precarious business, destroying as much as it illumines. I would regularly end up, in the course of art apologetics (the branch of art education aimed at policy makers, school principles, and the students who would prefer not to be there), concluding that visual arts can be true, good, and beautiful; they can be good for people’s creativity, observation skills, and appreciation of the world; they may come in handy for various reasons; but it’s more or less arbitrary what exactly students learn, or how exactly they learn it. And I hate enforcing arbitrary things on unwilling students. So eventually my own work began to feel arbitrary as well, and I largely gave up on it.

A few years later I got a Masters in Liberal Arts at a lovely little Great Books college with a long and venerable history (for America), because even though my degree had opened interesting, practical doors to me in the real world, I still felt I had missed out on my romantic ideal of what college should be. I got to read important books from the Western canon all day while sitting on balconies or in parks and watching the sky, then sit around a table and talk about them. It was delightful.

I got pretty solid grades, but aside from a few electives, most of my positive intellectual, spiritual, and social engagement came about through involvement as a catechumen at the local Greek Orthodox mission. There were theological books to be read, Byzantine liturgical chants to be learned, a complex liturgical tradition of feasts and fasts to practice, and a warm, welcoming little community made up mostly of first or second generation Greeks and students. My parents were supportive and interested in what I was learning. In my second year of college, they drove up for my baptism into the Orthodox church, and to bring my home for Christmas break, which included a week stay at a Serbian monastery.

Every now and again my Protestant high school, and later college, youth groups had talked about all the temptation I was expected to face in college, which never materialized, but it was a very minor part of my overall experience. The same people suspected icons of being idolatrous, which I was also unconcerned about. They invited me to a crafts class, college dinners, and a ball (where my neckline was deemed too low), and were pretty accepting of any perceived theological oddities.

It’s hard, and perhaps not even desirable, to trace back everything I experienced in college to specific causes, be they homeschooling, religion, temperament, or anything else. Was I somewhat awkward and naive? Yes. I still am, to an extent. Would I have been less awkward and naive if I had gone to a regular school? It’s hard to tell. Maybe. Has my awkwardness and naivety hurt me? Also hard to tell. Not in ways that are very important to me, I think. Maybe if I had gone to a good school I would have learned math and science better. Maybe then I could have taken a more technical major.Maybe I could be working in a neuroscience lab! In some alternate reality I’m well on my way to becoming an important neuroscientist. Or maybe not. Probably not.

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