Demystifying Logos: A Life Beyond Reason

A few excerpts from this excellent article on how a man who prized intellectual aptitude was disabused of his own blindness when he was given a son whom he loves, who has severe mental disabilities.

My son, August, has a number of quirks that distinguish him from the typically developing 10-year-old. He lives with cerebral palsy, is a spastic quadriplegic, has cortical visual impairment (meaning he is legally blind), is completely nonverbal and cognitively disabled, has a microcephalic head, and must wear a diaper. Moreover, he is immobile—he can’t crawl or scoot around or hold himself up or even sit in a chair without being strapped in it. If someone were to put him on the floor and leave him there, he would be in the same location hours later, give or take a foot.

As I grew older, I was inspired by Socrates’ statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Similarly, Aristotle’s dictum that man is the animal having "logos," the power of reasoning, impressed me. The notion that the human being is a rational animal made sense, and I internalized it as a basic assumption, as I did Socrates’ pronouncement. At San Francisco State University, I became intrigued by the Enlightenment. John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant fascinated me. Who would not want to be enlightened? Who in his or her right mind would choose in favor of a benighted past of superstition, ignorance, and blind faith in custom? I put my faith in reason. Eventually I obtained my doctorate at Stanford in 18th-century British literature—the age of reason: Anne Finch, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson. In sum, I grew up prizing intellectual aptitude—not that I am a candidate for Mensa—and detesting "poor mental function."

After his birth, as I entered the intensive-care nursery, I was deeply ambivalent, having been persuaded by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s advocacy of expanding reproductive choice to include infanticide. But there was my son, asleep or unconscious, on a ventilator, motionless under a heat lamp, tubes and wires everywhere, monitors alongside his steel and transparent-plastic crib. What most stirred me was the way he resembled me. Nothing had prepared me for this, the shock of recognition, for he was the boy in my own baby pictures, the image of me when I was an infant.

Especially in an academic environment that rewards being smart, how do I broach the idea that people with intellectual disabilities are fully equal? We academics advance in our careers by demonstrating how clever we can be, and because so much depends on flaunting intelligence, it is harder for us than for most people to steer clear of prejudice. In posing my awkward questions, I have focused on teaching literature and disability-studies courses and writing articles that examine the rhetoric and representation of intellectual disability.

We wrongly assess our value in terms of our contributions, skills, aptitudes. Humanities value is in bearing the image of the Father.

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