The Human, “Shod”
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
—from “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins
In a visually spectacular scene in the film War Horse, a team of horses ascends a steep, muddy grade with a howitzer in tow. These cannons and similar automated munitions were the reason for the early slaughter of the Great War cavalries and the reason why horses, by and large, were abandoned as tactical equipment in the subsequent wars fought by strong Western powers. One could say that, ironically, the animal pulled its destruction behind it. This is how we usually tow our cannons.
Never again would muscle—either human or animal—have such an integral part in movement. Organic fibers were not required to do the work that the potential energy from rotting animal and vegetable life and chemicals could do for them, and the result was momentous. Whole armies were moved afield by vehicles powered by gasoline; only legs had ever done the job before. Something even as immense as the night or as wide as the ocean was penetrated or traversed in relative ease. For a man to kill another, it no longer required the muscles and energy and nourishment to heft a stone above one’s head and bring it down upon that of another. (Perhaps 3 to 5 calories of energy.) It required a fraction of 1 calorie to release a mechanism which incited the potential energy of coal and sulfur chambered behind a small piece of lead. This gimmick alone felled troop after troop of charging equines.
Before 1914, even many Europeans still lived their lives from beginning to end with the same type of tools their great-great-grandparents had used. Very quickly, the War closed for them this gap—and did so with the force of a muzzle blast. One hundred years ago, muscle was replaced in many aspects. Within our lifetimes, the mechanization of movement might well culminate. Muscle power may give way to computer-controlled machine where it yet has not, and what muscle necessities of humans and animals that remain (sports, intercourse, fine motor skills) may be augmented or designed by machine and technology to the point that they no longer resemble our organic fibers of today. A similar gap-closer may be in store for us—with the force of a muzzle blast. This alteration, however, comes with an increasingly high cost to the wisdom of a Christian and may come with an ultimate one. The “shod” foot cannot feel the Grandeur of God.
The goal of this essay—to indicate the danger of the problem and the need for a solution—must not come from a pro- or anti-science point of view; rather, it must come from an educational one, which, in contrasting the robot existence with the earthy, proves the earthy to be superior. It is essential to define the term first: education is how God instructs His creatures—young and old, human and non-human alike, and almost exclusively outside of school. Only by arguing for the spiritual education, can I gain traction; otherwise I lose. It only makes sense, after all, that if one wants to knock a hole in his brother’s head, it is best to use as little energy as possible; only learning from God’s grandeur makes a man think twice about his brother’s worth to begin with.
By its very essence, Nature instructs where complicated technology fails. We, clay, are open to earthy forces, and here first shall we learn. The horse, for instance, also made of clay, requires quality care, dedication, feed, shelter, and will work best when treated lovingly. Its source of power is the same as the master’s. We learn about ourselves by caring for it. A car, in comparison, teaches us much less. A car burns a substance which from well to pump to tank we see only in drops and hate to smell. Very few of us see how these gasoline engines are constructed. And the car is certainly not the worst of what is out there. The advent of the internal combustion engine belongs to the generation of our great-great-grandfathers, and much “cutting-edge” technology and human engineering is classified information, certainly denied to you and me. Too improbable an example? How about something closer to home? Verizon advertises a service which allows users to control their home locks, lights, and heating and cooling all through a “smart” phone remotely. With a click, one can heat one’s house. In other words, with the slightest movement of the fingers, a customer could incinerate 70,000 BTUs in an hour, or 17,600,000 calories, which it would take an average human 8,800 days to burn through corporal usage (Randall). This is something that sounds too good—too easy—to be true. The automobiles look downright primitive in comparison. Something, somewhere, has got to give.
Late-model technology is not the root of all evil any more than the sandal was innately evil, but its use as a tool for education pales in comparison to that of a horse, a sailboat, a train, a bicycle, skies, and one’s own hands and legs. And if the tool is ever worshipped instead of the Creator, then real damage is done. Does one understand the significance of central heating until one has built a fire against the cold? Modern education as practiced in nearly every public and most private schools is as far removed from real life as flipping a switch is to gathering sticks and rubbing them together until a spark flames. Just as many students graduate from high school today with the ability to work on a car’s engine (a tool nearly all use) as graduate with the understanding of the “standards” their schools tried to teach them. Paradoxically, as students fail to learn about the world more and more because they are in school, the more they fail at school. Students don’t know, and they don’t care. Someone else can do the useful work—or something else, even better. Mostly, successful students care about grades.
While I have always loved reading, I read and was read to when I was out of school, not in it. This is because there was no connection to life in school; there was nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Nearly every honest school teacher will admit to the enormous problem of electronic devices in the classroom. Too much of an overstatement? When was the last time you saw an audience at a concert, theater, movie, ballgame, speech, debate, or worship service enticed enough by the proceedings to forego entirely their “smart” phones, no matter how highbrow the milieu? Students, who find themselves in a dulling environment, dull themselves even more with their glowing screens which they return to with the compulsion of an addict for a fix. And should the concert, play, speech, or preacher fail to entice the highbrow audience, how can we possibly expect to entice away from glowing screens young brains and bodies with the discussion of grammar? I love words, yes, but I learned them outside of school—mostly through honest conversation about real work or meaningful topics. When I learned to hunt and fish, I learned much new vocabulary I still remember decades later. The same applies to when I learned to sail, drive, and camp.
Just as it seems like a good idea to save the body’s energy by doing away with horses, so does it seem like a good idea to draw the student away from the world of work and nature and seclude him—so to be more “efficient” by teaching all the “necessary” stuff. But there is a dangerous lacunae here, which does as much disservice to the learner as it did to take away the animal muscle and give the gift of the car without understanding anything of the cost. The great amassing of standardized objectives, if looked at in the light of day, is ludicrous. A highly successful student in a good public school will be unable, if dependent upon the schools, to work on a car, sail a boat, ride a horse, clean a kill, butcher a hog, catch a fish, clean out a sump pump, replace an air-handling unit, drive a clutch, change oil or even change a tire. At the cost that these tasks go more and more to experts (or replaced entirely), the potential benefit is that students may:
- 2.2.5 [ . . . ] use suitable traditional and electronic resources to refine presentations and edit texts for effective and appropriate use of language and conventions.
- 3.1.1 [ . . . ] demonstrate the advantages and limitations of speech and writing when communicating in various situations for specific audiences and purposes.
- 4.3.3 [ . . . ] alter a text to present the same content to a different audience via the same or different media.
- 3.2.2 [ . . . ] conclude that cells exist within a narrow range of environmental conditions and changes to that environment, either naturally occurring or induced, may cause changes in the metabolic activity of the cell or organism.
- 2.1.4 [ . . . ] construct and/or draw and/or validate properties of geometric figures using appropriate tools and technology.
- 3.1.2 [ . . . ] use the measures of central tendency and/or variability to make informed conclusions (“Standards”).
(These were taken almost at random.) Even the most highfalutin snob would have a hard time defending the need for these standards over a familiarity with the activities that have brought health to body, soul, and community for six thousand years heretofore. According to the educational establishment (ubiquitous today), these school tasks are requisite to doing any adult task, like driving, sailing, hunting, reading, writing, and thinking. These individual objectives may very well be of use to the individual to satisfy a need or job requirement or give pleasure, but to teach them one-by-one as though they were steps in a waltz is to start at the wrong end of learning and of life. These skills can only be learned if something natural (some pleasure used beyond grades) ever moved us to them, and certainly not all of them are necessary for everyone, not even the “intellectual.” (And these are merely a sample; there are hundreds of these standards in any given grade level.) Of what truly moves and feeds us, schools make us ignorant.
Teacher and writer John Holt wrote:
By telling the child he had to study Physics in order to find out about the jet plane would be like telling him he had to study initial and final consonants, digraphs, and blends in order to find out what words say and mean. [ . . . ] We put things backwards. Physics is not going to lead the child to jet engines, but wondering about jet planes will lead him to Physics. In fact, wondering about jet planes is Physics (84).
For many years now, one has not had permission to progress until these nightmarish checklists above have been satisfied. Hence, we digitalize ourselves in the name of technology. Gifts of God not available until we graduate? Nightmare indeed.
The solution is simple—but it is tough. We must choose to limit ourselves, go unshod—often, or at least be able to go unshod. As students of all ages, we must work and not sit idly in chairs. If our unique food source is the land and the sea, why shouldn’t we as citizens of our native land serve it for a tour of duty? I am a citizen of the land of Maryland more than I am a citizen of any political nation, although with mechanized, computer-planned transportation this becomes less and less true every day. A patriot protects that which gives his body, his family, his spiritual community nourishment, warmth, and shelter. More patriotic is the love of the Bay than the pleasure of having the Bomb. This is a realization that should occur to every man as he grows through life; it is the opposite of what is taught in arbitrary curricula, what is willingly and happily bypassed by parents. This servitude should be embraced, yes; but it cannot be mandated. A mandate, like reading in school, would remove the pleasure from it. It would be like a mandate to eat. What youth would not ultimately be happier having tilled, seeded, and fished a plot of earth and eaten what he got out of it compared to being bused to a gymnasium where he would “learn” the importance of eating right and exercising, how to lift weights (burning calories just to burn them), and then going to a cafeteria to eat calories to burn?
Practically speaking, there is not that much open land left, and fishing and farming may be impossible for many, both young and old alike. But there must be some self-imposed limitation on the forefront of technology and pre-fabricated curricula. An author puts himself at risk when he makes predictions, but here is an unabashed one: the struggle of the next hundred years will be that of choosing in the mind to forego ease. Never before was it a moral benefit to forgo tools; for the first time ever, it may be.
I suggest that the reader forego any unduly easy amenity. If it seems too good to be true, then you, as a human with a stomach between your heart and intestines, should know to forego it. What calories you consume, admit that they come from some soil or sea, and expend them in a way that will enable the next generation to consume calories that come from soil and sea. There is an irony in driving to the gym to burn calories that come from the land which the burned fossil fuels pollute. If it is obvious that using steroids in sports is cheating, then it should be obvious that using something even more potent than steroids is cheating—even if the majority is doing it. (I sadly suspect that the majority will.)
One must choose discomfort because otherwise ease will never cease. Ease will become disease. Pain receptors can be blocked, pleasure receptors easily augmented, and if a thought can ever “click” a mouse, and a click can burn 70,000 BTUs in an hour, then there is no limit to “free” energy. As George Herbert wrote nearly 400 year ago, if man is at complete ease and freedom, he would worship the tools of Nature and “not the God of Nature.”
God has given us an honest instructor in Nature and in our bodies. Hopkins saw the natural world as good for its own sake, not just a mere tool. We owe much more to the horse we lovingly raised than we could ever owe to a tank of fossil fuel which we did nothing to obtain or refine. Nature, as Wordsworth called it, is our “noble interchange.” Mechanize or computerize this universe as we wish, the universe is 28 billion light years wide and across (Tully). For he who loves Creation, there shall exist space enough always.
We know that he who denies the existence of God is a damned fool—but what of him who never devotes a thought to Him? He who goes shod over the paths of God’s grandeur, he who feels nothing, learns nothing but abstractions—could it ever be said for him that he knew God in his gut? There is a clear parallel to the rise of the industrial age and increasing numbers of Americans in particular perceiving God as dead or at best hibernating. If we want to find God and help others do the same, we need to reconnect to that which He created—the earth, the soil and water and air, and each other.
Holt, John. Instead of Education. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976. Print.
Randall, Allen. Message to author. 6 Jan. 2012. E-mail.
“Standards 9-12.” School Improvement in Maryland. Md.k12.org, n.d. Web. 31 Dec 2011. <http://mdk12.org/assessments/standards/9-12.html>.
Tully, Brent. “How Big is the Universe?” NOVA, 11 Nov 2000. Web. 2 Jan. 2012. <<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/how-big-universe.html>.