With James Gandolfini's untimely death this last week, an old clip from The Sopranos came to mind. (The link appears above.) Even Tony Soprano was looking for meaning and this brief encounter reminded me of just how tortured and torturous the search can be.
On the face of it, the spectacle of a mob boss and his wife reacting to their nihilistic son's worldview and the education that brought him to that place seems improbable. Why would a professional criminal have scruples about God? But the scene is, in fact, so true to life that even Gandolfini's considerable skills are not the only key to the scene's credibility. The scene is also thoroughly human, and deeply rooted in the meaning-making that is part and parcel of our existence.
It is commonplace to attribute that need to religious training and, of course, even in this scene from the series, one can argue that Tony Soprano's reaction is rooted in his fictional Catholic upbringing. But, in truth, the quest for meaning is a human activity. It is not, strictly speaking, religious in nature.
What is striking in this clip is the assumption defended by the Sopranos' children that real education is, by definition, a destructive and nihilistic enterprise. Having taught for years now on both the graduate and undergraduate level, I don't believe that is the case.
Educators cannot simply underwrite the values of a student's home. They do not and cannot know what those values might be. They also vary greatly across a classroom and higher education may offer an opportunity to think more deeply and systematically about those values for the first time in life (or so we might hope). But the systematic effort to destroy or denigrate the values students bring to the classroom with them is a lazy approach to the educational process. It is far harder to make a case for what they should believe in.
The destructive educational enterprise is also born of an ideology of its own. Witness, for example, Curtis White's criticism of Christopher Hitchens' book, God Is Not Great. White, who is also an atheist, skewers Hitchens for relying on narrow caricatures, for playing fast and loose with history, and for failing to define what he means by "reason"—all in the service of ideology. But the ploys Hitchens uses are so common in the average classroom that White is all but alone among mainstream writers in drawing attention to the flaws in that kind of argument.
It is little wonder, then, that the Sopranos are not the only American family outraged by the gaps in the education their children are getting. But what is missing is not a simple endorsement of what our children are taught at home. What is missing is an approach to education that honors the deeply spiritual enterprise of making meaning. It takes no effort to challenge the values that anyone might choose to give their life direction. It takes deep integrity and academic rigor to discover and own a worldview and values in a world where there will always be unanswered questions. The latter is both a deeply spiritual and intellectually demanding task that should be facilitated, not frustrated in the academy.
The difference between the two should be the difference between a freshman and senior. It is definitely the difference between a teacher and an ideologue with a classroom.