By Guest Author Ronald Grant Nutter, Ph.D.
(Editor’s Note: The following essay is a departure from our usual content at The Blue State Conservative. It’s lengthy and relates more to our culture than it does to the political realm. But if you give it a chance, you’ll be glad that you did. Ron’s story is compelling and informative, and we hope you like it.)
An Homage to the Good, the True and the Beautiful
They all laughed. Every last one of them. They all laughed – at me.
My career as a college student was just beginning that September day in 1969, and I looked forward to the discussion that was about to take place among a group of first-year students I had only just met, hardly knew. Exciting as it was to be there, it was an improbable journey I had made, from an isolated and lonely ne’er-do-well to my showing up on the campus of Milligan College as a 21-year-old freshman, sight unseen.
The class was Humanities 101, a large lecture course that breaks out into smaller groups for discussion. This was my small group. The discussion that day was to be about the French novel The Plague by Albert Camus. I very much looked forward to it because I had much to say about Camus. I reveled in the opportunity to at last – at long last – be able to talk to another about the French novelist.
To this day I still use a quote of his as part of my “sig” in e-mails sent: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” Camus said that to a group of monks at Latour-Marbourg in 1948. He was chiding the monks and through the monks the Church, for not speaking with an unambiguous voice against the sheer evil of Hitler and the Third Reich.
He would also tell those monks gathered that day, “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man.” I truly admire Albert Camus.
So yes, I very much looked forward to being able to discuss Albert Camus. The moment came. I spoke. They all laughed. Every last one of them. They all laughed – at me. “Who is this rube,” I could imagine they all were wondering, all while it was being explained to me by the professor the proper pronunciation of his name.
Since I had never spoken with another about Camus and his writing, I called him Albert Cay’-mus instead of Cah-moo’. And they all laughed. Every last one of them.
Oh God, I wondered as I sat in my chair, utterly embarrassed. Have I made a terrible, terrible mistake in coming to college? Life is sometimes lived in a flash, and so it was for me in that moment.
For most of my youth, there was never any consideration of college. I was a “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” kid growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Kensington, MD. The neighborhood has since evolved into a tiny village on the outskirts of Washington, DC, but that certainly wasn’t the case when I was growing up there.
My school days were marked with classes in which most of the other students strived ardently for success. They were the sons and daughters of ambitious parents themselves working to advance their careers as well as the options available for their children. It was intimidating for me to be with these seemingly more gifted kids and thus, for me, school was not a happy place. Instead, it was a place of casual insults and unending embarrassment.
At the beginning of one year, I tried to get into a History class taught by a Mrs. McHugh. “No,” she sternly and immediately answered. “I’m not going to have any trouble from your kind this year.” Students nearby avoided looking at me, but they all heard, they all saw, they all laughed. Did I mention that school for me was a place of casual insults and unending embarrassment?
Being the third of three boys to a widowed mother, I suspect my two older brothers may have created low expectations among teachers who would encounter me. My oldest brother, Larry, for example, never got past eighth grade. He beat up a teacher and was permanently expelled.
I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was kind of a goof. I skipped a lot of school, and I rarely did any homework. As one can imagine, my high school record is quite poor. It was made comparatively more so in that Albert Einstein Senior High School was filled with so many talented and dedicated students who constantly were smiling and happy, and clearly successful in class. I simply wasn’t one of them. So maybe Mrs. McHugh had good reason to make sure I wasn’t in her History class. I do wish she hadn’t expressed herself as she did, though.
During my school years, I would often leave my home in the middle of the night just to walk the streets and think and enjoy the darkness and the solitude. These wanderings allowed me to fantasize a life very different from the life I was living. In later years I would, half-jokingly, characterize myself as the only 12-year-old existentialist stalking the midnight streets of Kensington, MD.
A ray of hope emerged one day as a seventh-grader when I stayed homesick. Honest, I was sick. Having nothing to do I decided to go ahead and open my English book and begin reading an assignment. It was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It opens in a graveyard where a young boy, Pip, is accosted by an escaped convict who threatens to slit his throat if he doesn’t do as he is ordered. That opening scared the bejeezus out of me. I spent that day and night reading the novel. Actually, I didn’t read it so much as I devoured it, thrilled especially at Estella’s invitation to a kiss. In my changing young teenage body such a passage was indeed thrilling in ways which, at the time, I could barely comprehend.
That thrill extended to a young girl named Carol in Mrs. Tucker’s English class. One day she read a passage from W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, a story that tells of a spritely jungle nymph named Rima who is clothed in gossamer spider webs. Totally smitten, I envisioned Carol in place of Rima, and I longed to be near her, to talk to her, to touch her. Never happened. I was too scared, too timid.
Reading Great Expectations and listening to Green Mansions in class did show me there is a whole other world of experience in reading, and that my problems such as they were perhaps do not matter so much in a world with kids being threatened with murder and subject to the machinations of the Miss Havishams of the world, not to mention running for one’s life when threatened by menacing groups of superstitious natives in Amazonian jungles. So, I began reading, mostly on my own rather than school assignments.
For reasons I do not recall, I found myself reading George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm as well as some of his essays, including “Shooting an Elephant,” “Inside the Whale,” “Politics and the English Language” and others. “Inside the Whale” put me on to Henry Miller, so I read Quiet Days in Clichy and Tropic of Cancer. Something about Orwell and Miller transported me to another place. And that was what it was all about – getting to another place.
I also came across the writing of Ray Bradbury. Talk about being in another place. But the novel of his that seemed to pierce me at the most personal and emotional level was Dandelion Wine. It is about a young boy who discovers one Summer day that he is alive, only to subsequently realize that to be alive means that one day he will die.
The novel speaks of death and loss, with a series of vignettes, of young lives and old, almost as an expressionist painter might create a work of art. The individual vignettes in toto form a serious contemplation of the meaning of a world filled with threats of “the Lonely One” and of old age and of the sudden disappearance of a life. I must have read that novel at least half a dozen times since.
Something about what I was reading was magical, transforming, especially when compared to the lessons being taught in school. So, in a real sense, my reading became my real school. I did not realize until many years later just how impoverishing my experience was. Not that reading is bad – far from it – but that reading is just a part of the great conversation that is education. But I wasn’t ready for that understanding yet.
So, I kept reading – Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Malamud, Fitzgerald, Salinger, the poetry of Frost and Sexton. I discovered Russian literature, starting with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, followed soon thereafter by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Nietzschean tale of murder Crime and Punishment. Another novel by Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, centers around the murder of a father and includes a story within a story with the telling of the God-haunted tale of “The Grand Inquisitor.” Thrilling all. And dark. And searching.
And then I found Albert Camus. I read “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which reminded me of Orwell, followed by The Stranger, with its dyspeptic opening and surrealistic and meaningless violence. I read The Plague and recognized not only a medical story but an allegory of Nazi pandemic in France. I read The Rebel about the various kinds of rebels in their metaphysical plight. I read The Myth of Sisyphus and its harrowing view of human endeavor and the constant attraction to suicide. I read his plays Caligula and The Just Assassins and others, with their images of being on that liminal edge of madness or of fanaticism. I read The Fall, with its contemplation of the cesspool of our soul and the fabrications we tell ourselves when we instead want to see ourselves as heroic. Fact is, I read everything the man ever wrote that was translated into English. I just didn’t know how to pronounce his name.
In the early Spring of 1969, three years after graduating from high school, I was living in San Antonio, TX., working as a brick laborer. Still reading, it was after finishing Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead that my life took a turn. Reading it, I constantly had to refer to a dictionary for the unfamiliar words I was encountering in his novel. Regardless, I was spellbound by the story of a disparate group of soldiers carrying out a mission during World War II in the Pacific theater.
Completing the novel, I thought to myself that it would be nice to be able to read a book without constantly having to refer to a dictionary. That was when the thought first emerged that perhaps I should try college. Sure, I read a lot, but deep down I knew my mind was filled with a disorganized series of impressions and that I lacked real, structured knowledge.
Driving that summer back home to Kensington, I traveled Interstate 40 and 81 taking me through East Tennessee. I was thunderstruck by the beauty of its hills. After getting a job as a payroll clerk at United Parcel Service, I set myself to finding a college that would accept me. Out of those that did, I chose to attend Milligan College, a church-related school in East Tennessee. I did so remembering how beautiful the area was as I drove from San Antonio to Kensington. I figured if I didn’t like college at least I’d like where I was living. So that Fall I would sell my car, get on a Greyhound bus, and head to East Tennessee.
After I settled in and registered, classes started and I found myself in that discussion group for Humanities 101, prepared to discuss The Plague by Albert Camus. Well, you know the rest. But not all of it. During the next 40 minutes after the laughter subsided, I displayed an understanding and knowledge of Camus and his works that made the others realize perhaps one shouldn’t judge a person too quickly just because he mispronounces an author’s name.
Milligan was a Godsend for me. It engendered in me, over the years, a deep sense of obligation. The fact is, Milligan College helped me to grow spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, and I put much of the credit for that on that very course in which I had felt such acute embarrassment – Humanities 101. Actually, that was just one semester’s worth of the course. In its fullness, it was a two-year, 24-semester-hour course that combines art, architecture, history, literature, poetry, philosophy, and music in a chronologically coherent overview of Western Civilization.
The writers I had exposed myself to over the years were finally placed in a cultural context that fleshed their ideas out even more than I had ever imagined. Without question, that course has been one of the blessings of my life. I cannot express strongly enough the sadness I feel that such courses of late have been canceled on contemporary university campuses for reasons more politically correct than prudent.
The general ambiance of the school also played a role. The college’s Restoration church roots are in the Scottish Enlightenment of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Reid, the legacy of which was a humanistic rationalism that rejected governmental and theological authority that could not justify itself through rational argument and empirical evidence.
As a Philosophy major, I was introduced and grounded in the works of Greek philosophy, the Scholastics, Reformation and Counter-Reformation thinkers, the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, Continental Rationalism, Romantic Era thinkers, German Hegelianism with its offshoots of Marxism, Fascism, and Progressivism, American Pragmatism and Existentialism. Under the aegis of the Dean of the college, himself a philosopher, I was well-grounded in Wittgenstein and analytic philosophy.
In learning about the historical waves of ideas, and the ensuing revolutions and wars justified by these ideas, we came to understand the dangers of a too-ideological approach to what William James describes as the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of life. We came to distinguish the magnificent structures we are capable of creating when our intellect is creatively aligned with vision, intellect, and prudence, and what chaos can result when unchecked Jacobin revolutionary passions are allowed to lead to Committees of “Public Safety” and the guillotine.
During my time at Milligan, a new, much broader understanding of education evolved in my thinking. During my public-school years in Kensington, I never understood what the point was in the various classes I was taking. Why this class, why that one? I’m one for whom it is not enough to simply be tasked with learning x, y, and z. I want to know why; what is its raisson d’etre. All of my different classes seemed jaggedly distinct and separate.
Insight came one day in my Freshman Logic class as we reviewed various rules of logic. It suddenly hit me, “This is algebra!” It was indicative of other insights gained in other classes.
What my time at Milligan showed me was that the more I came to understand the great sweep of our culture the more that disparate group of courses from my past began to intertwine and inform each other creating a vast tapestry of knowledge blanketing all our shared experience. One begins to understand in a very real way those classic goals of all education: the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Like a prism refracts light into its components, the Good, the Beautiful and the True refract knowledge into its various disciplines but it is all, once wisdom attaches, one integral interdisciplinary whole.
A great advantage of a college like Milligan, as well as other colleges like it, is that students are instructed by actual faculty. As an undergraduate student at a big-name university, good luck trying to work with faculty. Working with undergraduate students is not even on the radar for most faculty in their quest for tenure and endowed chairs at many more prestigious universities. Working undergraduate classes is generally left to graduate students, who in turn have their own problems trying to get through their own programs of study.
When I think about where I started, and where I ended up, I often just shake my head at the improbability of it all. How did it happen? Miracle does not seem too strong a word. And I have to say that Milligan College is what made the biggest difference in my life. As I said, it was a Godsend. Only in America could a kid with my background be able to turn his life around from the hardscrabble kid wandering midnight streets to, eventually, a college professor of Philosophy and Religion.
For this fatherless son of a working mom, I can never fully repay the personal guidance and mentoring I’ve experienced from faculty who became role models and mentors through the years. All I can do is take what they have given me and treat it as a great cultural legacy to then share with others, which is exactly what I have tried to do in my years of teaching, especially with those who, like me, are first-generation college students. That is the obligation I formed during my time at Milligan, and which I have sought to satisfy through teaching and writing over the years.
I honestly imagine that Albert Camus, himself a downtrodden Algerian man of the street who managed to find his way, would be proud of me.
By Ronald Grant Nutter, Ph.D.
Ron Nutter is a retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.