By Christine Norvell
I found when I first visited with Dr. Robert Woods by phone in 2011 that he had a winning way. I was simply calling to learn more about the Great Books graduate programs at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. I told myself I was just investigating, but by the time our conversation ended, I found myself agreeing with his pivotal question, “When will it ever be easy to go back to school?” Hearing echoes of Lewis’ famous quote from his essay “Prayer in War-Time,” I knew I wanted to learn more, to think deeply. And more so, I knew I wanted to learn from Robert Woods. This same engaging connection is evident in his 2016 collection of personal essays.
Dwelling on Delphi: Thinking Christianly about the Liberal Arts is both a defense of and conversation about liberal learning through a choice of personal essays. It’s a delightful foray renewing our understanding of educational reform in approachable bite-sized pieces. Woods culled short works by a range of scholars—from Erasmus to Jerome to John of Salisbury and Christopher Dawson—and in turn provides a short reflection on each, chapter by chapter. Woods reflects on Erasmus’ conviction “that God worked in history to ready all things for the benefit of Christians” and then echoes the cautions of John of Salisbury who saw wisdom manipulated as sophistry to gain wealth. He next cites T. S. Eliot’s commentary on the limited role of schools as they mirror culture. Education is not mere training, but a fruitful source with multiple ends according to Eliot. Finally, Woods explores the best of succinct essays by Mortimer Adler and Russell Kirk before providing his own call to action—liberal Christian learning can affect society and potentially change it.
Woods does caution, “If the Liberal Arts are to survive in a meaningful manner, or even thrive with new and significant scholarship, it will be among Christians, unique communities, and institutions shaped by Christian conviction. While I know and trust in the presence of those old-school humanists still fighting the good fight, their days are numbered.” The world of academics has unfortunately shifted: “Instead of the good, the true, and the beautiful, one can major in the relative, the mundane, and the insipid.”
Rather than feeling bereft in the varied waters of the liberal arts though, I was left inspired to be a more thoughtful and focused Christian educator. These essays are so akin to an educator’s devotional that I feel a part of a community, one that Dr. Robert Woods epitomizes: “Knowledge must never be separated from love: love of learning, love of sharing, and love of one’s fellow human beings. . . Let us strive to seek the truth of things in the spirit of love.”
Christine Norvell is an author, speaker, and longtime educator. She graduated from Faulkner University’s Great Books program with a Masters in Humanities and teaches high school literature and humanities at a classical Christian school. She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2017) and writes weekly at her website christinenorvell.com.