The following is Part I of an insightful letter of advice my friend, Donn Taylor, wrote to his grandson as he prepared for his college journey. It has been modified to be of general interest to anyone beginning that same journey. Donn Taylor has his PhD in English literature (Renaissance), taught literature and history of ideas at two Christian liberal arts colleges, Wayland Baptist University in Texas and Jamestown (ND) College. He is the author of Rhapsody in Red and The Lazarus File. You can learn more about Donn and his writings at his website.
Letter to a Freshman Grandson
by Donn Taylor, PhD
Dear Grandson: Now that you’re heading out to college, please let me exercise a grandfather’s privilege to mention some of what I think I’ve learned in the past eight decades. These thoughts are for consideration, not necessarily adoption. But look back at them every once in a while, especially when things get confusing. Part One deals with ideas, Part Two with practicalities.
- To become an educated person, one asks three main questions, in order: 1) What am I? 2) What is humankind? and 3) What kind of world do we live in?
- Science and technology are wonderful, but they can’t address the first two questions except in the physical sense. The first two questions lie in the realm of theology, philosophy, and history of ideas. A person can be technically qualified without questions 1) and 2), but he can’t be considered educated.
- Science and technology deal with material things and physical forces. As marvelous as they are, they can make no claim beyond the physical. There is no scientific way to know that your wife loves you. In particular, science and technology cannot speak to theology.
- Within science, we have to distinguish between what is observed and proven, and what is inferred. I believe many of the inferences (e.g., the age of the earth placed at about 4.5 billion years), but I remain aware that this is based on the inference that the half-lives of radioactive minerals do not change in time. I agree with the inferences, but they are still inferences rather than facts.
- The way people went (or go) about thinking changed radically between A.D. 1600 and 1660. This period introduced the age of science and led to wonderful technological developments, but it also narrowed the definition of thought. People before 1600 lacked information, but they weren’t stupid and often were brilliant. We have to read their writings in terms of the way they thought then, not the way we think now. Our own province in time is not sacrosanct, and we have our own characteristic stupidities.
- The definition of knowledge was further narrowed during the nineteenth century so as to mean only the kind of knowledge produced by the exact sciences. Once we realize that, we can take a more liberal view of knowledge in general.
- It’s necessary to distinguish between technological progress and human progress (if any). We have a lot of marvelous gadgets and we know the distance in light-years to the galaxies (we think), but we are the same basic humans that we were at the beginning of recorded history. Consequently, the Ten Commandments are as valid today as they were during the Exodus.
- One of the current shibboleths in academia is that truth either does not exist or is socially constructed rather than being absolute. The statement “Truth does not exist” is self-contradictory. It’s hard to believe the law of gravity is socially constructed. (Don’t try to deconstruct it from a third floor window.)
That’s enough about ideas. In Part Two we’ll get more practical.
Part II will be published shortly.