From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Two Boys & One Academy

An Old School Education & Modern Novelties

August 3, 2018

"I have a few images of my maternal grandfather, who died at 62 when I was four," -- I shared those personal memories last week.

Another image of my grandfather, James McNie (b. May 24, 1894), is from a photograph (now damaged), taken in front of Dumbarton Academy, Scotland, in 1904. He (2nd row from bottom, 3rd from left) was an excellent student and won a scholarship to attend the University of Glasgow. He excelled in mathematics and may have become a teacher.

His stepmother had other plans. She want him to take a job and contribute his paycheck to the family. So, James dutifully went to work at Denny & Co. shipbuilders, where he learned finished carpentry. He married, served in the RAF in WWI, had three daughters in Dumbarton and one son after the family moved to Detroit in 1923 when he was 29.

James's fellow student at Dumbarton Academy, Archibald (b. July 19, 1896), two years his junior, had just moved with his mother to Dumbarton after the death of his father from tuberculosis. His maternal grandfather, a hatter, owned a shop in Dumbarton. Archibald proved to be a precocious student and won prizes in writing competitions.

Like James, Archibald's family had plans for him: they decided he should either study to serve the church or become a medical doctor. He, too, won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine. He practiced medicine in Scotland, England and Wales, before being forced by illness in 1930 to take a 6-month sabbatical in the country. During it, he indulged his love of writing. He returned to Dumbarton to do some research, and within 3 months completed his first novel, The Hatter's Castle. It sold very well; he never practiced medicine again. 

Archibald, A. J. Cronin, went on to write The Citadel, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Green Years, and many other novels. A number were made into films. His books often dealt with religious themes. At medical school, Cronin recounts, he had become an agnostic:

"When I thought of God it was with a superior smile, indicative of biological scorn for such an outworn myth." During his practice in Wales, however, the deep religious faith of the people he worked among made him start to wonder whether "the compass of existence held more than my text-books had revealed, more than I had ever dreamed of. In short I lost my superiority, and this, though I was not then aware of it, is the first step towards finding God."

Cronin also came to feel that "If we consider the physical universe, ... we cannot escape the notion of a primary Creator.... Accept evolution with its fossils and elementary species, its scientific doctrine of natural causes. And still you are confronted with the same mystery, primary and profound. Ex nihilo nihil, as the Latin tag of our schooldays has it: nothing can come of nothing." This was brought home to him in London, where in his spare time he had organized a working boys' club. One day he invited a distinguished zoologist to deliver a lecture to the members. The speaker, adopting "a frankly atheistic approach," described the sequence of events leading to the emergence, "though he did not say how," of the first primitive life-form from lifeless matter. When he concluded, there was polite applause. Then, "a mild and very average youngster rose nervously to his feet," and with a slight stammer asked how there came to be anything in the first place. The nave question took everyone by surprise. The lecturer "looked annoyed, hesitated, slowly turned red. Then, before he could answer, the whole club burst into a howl of laughter. The elaborate structure of logic offered by the test-tube realist had been crumpled by one word of challenge from a simple-minded boy." (Wikipedia)

I can fancy myself that average nervous boy. There are two kinds of education today represented in this exchange. One with its materialist, secular, agnostic or atheist "superiority," and the other of humility, willing to acknowledge God and free to ask probing questions.

My grandfather, the student, carpenter, father, and grandfather, built the wooden desk in my boyhood home, where I studied math, pondered science, and took up the halting and circuitous path which I still walk, writing, posing questions, even offering answers.

To become educated, one must submit to a good teacher, not make up your own truth. My grandfather, a modern educator might say, was not allowed to be true to himself. Balderdash. He submitted to the Truth Who gave him life, and he was glad of it. And he was a skilled carpenter, too, for he knew how to take the measure of things and put them securely where they fit.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.