Free-born minds

A few years ago I wrote at National Review about the idea of “the free-born mind,” as C.S. Lewis presented it in The Abolition of Man. He writes on the repercussions for a culture that has decoupled the civic and moral aspects of its shared identity into separate and competing arenas.

What results? Cultural schizophrenia, where the warden-caretaker becomes the master:

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, [which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will] Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Despite all the talk of education reform of all varieties and degrees in America, a still surprising amount of the conversation is focused on the tactical rather than strategic. Too much talk about iPads and whiteboards. Too much focus on whether Wikipedia might be a legitimate learning tool.

On the strategic end, I’m suggesting a more sustained conversation on our first principles, on answering questions like:

  • Who do we want our children to grow up understanding themselves to be?
  • What historical narrative and flow can we help them to discover and join?
  • Should we equip students with a love of the Greek tradition and its heroes?
  • Do we any longer care about the idea of our Constitutional history?

These are questions often either laughed at or utterly ignored, so the implied answer seems to be: No, to hell with all that.

Anyway, continuing with Lewis, perhaps my favorite excerpt:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

Wonderfully vivid: a citizen snapping his fingers at ideology and pretense.

Whether the specific “strategic” type questions I posed above really matter or not can be debated. What I’m really trying to get at is answering how a culture (through education) can transmit a coherent a narrative about itself and the world to the young. This is the age-old question.

In November 2011 I did an on-air radio recitation from Joe Paterno’s 1989 autobiography Paterno: By the Book in which he talks about Virgil’s Aeneas and how his reading of it (in Latin) shaped his entire life and approach to coaching college football:

“Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece,” writes Paterno in reflecting on the Aeneas, “the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.”

Ben Novak joined me on the broadcast, explaining Paterno’s reflection:

That was once the meaning of a college education, to have that experience that lasted forever. Joab Thomas gave a talk to the Board of Trustees [of Penn State] in the early 1990s pointing out that almost every one of our curricula (science and business and so forth) had their maximum value upon graduation to get your first job, and they declined in value every year after that as what they learned became obsolete. Everything was moving so fast in business and science and engineering that almost everything you learned was obsolete five years after you graduated! What Joe was pointing out in the original idea of an education, to experience the masterpieces in college, was that those experiences grow in value with every year of your life.

Cultural masterpieces like the works of the Greeks, or the Constitution and the whole constellation of history and principles that inform it, are sufficiently far removed from the present and sufficiently time-proven that they represent a means to approach reforming a coherent narrative.

They represent excellent things, enriching things that elevate a person beyond his particular milieu and can help him know when the time has come to “snap his fingers” at meddlers and ideologies alike.

Scattered SEPTA thoughts

I started writing this last week while riding SEPTA into Philadelphia and thinking over a few things that have been marinating for a few months.

1. The “Silverliner V” commuter trains have been around for a while now and they’re very nice. The next generation (double deckers like NJ Transit has long had) are in the works. These new cars have automated station announcements, display screens, better lighting, and nicer full-height seats. They’re obviously designed not only to replace the old cars, but also to position SEPTA for a reduction in necessary on-board conductors.

In some ways I will be sorry to see so many conductors strolling the aisles go the way of the horse and carriage, but ultimately I’m more sorry to see them still here now, still punching tickets. We both know, me and my conductor, that his days are numbered, union contracts be damned. His responsibilities only require maybe one or two of his kind on board, now. Yet he’s still here, doing something my iPhone will do better, cheaper, and more efficiently in about 24 months. Someday, when all the stations are ADA accessible, what really will there be for him to do?

We’ve got to stay ahead of the obsolescence curve. I think about this more or less constantly: what are the things I’m good at that just won’t matter? What are things I can learn that will ensure I’ve got specialized knowledge? How can I create mechanisms to make obsolete other things or streamline a process?

2. These new train cars are nice, and while I understand that SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines are commuter lines, I’m still left wondering why there’s no equivalent of Amtrak’s “Cafe Car,” except without the food service. In other words, where is the “work lounge” car for people to sit with tablets or laptops and do work comfortably on what might be a daily hour or more ride back/forth? There are a lot of daily man hours wasted because there environment makes it easier to take a nap than finish a book or start a new project.

3. SEPTA’s board of directors consists primarily of Pennsylvania politicians and suburban people. The Regional Rail lines to wealthier suburbs enjoy nicer service and heavier investment (I think) than the city’s subway and trolly system. New York City built a subway system to bind together its boroughs, and that helped create the entire city as we experience it today. Philadelphia needs a SEPTA board that shares a vision for the future of Philadelphia’s city system of subways and trolleys. We need to do more to bind our city and our region together, and to make it easier to spend a night in neighborhoods as disparate as Northern Liberties, University City, and South Philadelphia. We don’t have that now, and a vision for achieving this is, I believe, vital to the culture of Greater Philadelphia.

Catholic social teachings

In the latest Legatus magazine Andreas Widmer writes:

What makes business leadership Catholic?

…knowing and implementing the Church’s social teaching. Many business leaders are surprised to learn that the Church’s rich social teaching didn’t start with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891); it goes back to Sts. Thomas and Augustine, the Church Fathers and the apostles. It goes back to the radical charity that Jesus himself described in John 13:35: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.”

As scholars have studied, meditated upon and lived Christ’s social teachings through the centuries, they’ve synthesized them into nine basic classic principles:

  1. Human dignity: Men and women are made in God’s image and destined for eternal life.
  2. Justice: This cardinal moral virtue consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and to neighbor.
  3. Social justice: Groups and individuals must receive what is rightly owed them.
  4. Common good: All the conditions in society must allow individuals and groups to reach their fullest human potential, both in this life and the next.
  5. Solidarity: This is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.
  6. Subsidiarity: Social functions should occur at the lowest possible level so that individuals and groups have a true sense of purpose.
  7. Universal destination of goods: God gave the good things of the earth to the entire human race, not just a select few.
  8. Charity: Charity disposes us to love God above all creatures for Himself, and to love ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of God.
  9. Preferential option for the poor: Charity requires us to place the needs of the poor before our own.

Worth referencing from time to time…

No lazy lover

I’m standing outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Michael Novak’s funeral took place just hours ago in the Crypt Church, where I’d estimate some 400 or so came together to recognize death and to pray for a man they knew who has left the stage.

The funeral was also occasion to remember Fr. Richard Novak, Michael’s brother. I worked on a manuscript with Michael a few years ago, telling the story of Fr. Richard’s life through his letters. (We never found a publisher, but I hold out hope that the book will see life in some form in time.) Fr. Richard was killed in January 1964 in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during sectarian conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims. Fr. Richard’s body was never recovered, but his chalice made it back to the states. That chalice was used during Michael’s funeral mass today.

In tribute to them both, I’m sharing some of Fr. Richard’s poetry:

I Am No Lazy Lover
Fr. Richard Novak, C.S.C.
1962

I am no lazy lover
With sweeping grandeurs
of small talk. Words, you discover,
are passing; love endures.

Proffered is no measured length
of the potential soul.
Rather, influence of strength,
corner-stone, cemented whole.

The senses know the form
and smile and eyes
of love, but the lover’s norm
is to pierce through this disguise

to spirit which is all things
does love intensify
to ripened being. Each day that sings
our love is more July.

Sand below and stars above
give instancy of me.
Mine is no lazy love;
come taste my love and see.

Actively crafting a life

I once heard a priest tell this joke during his homily:

Three men are talking after a long night of drinking (“philosophizing”) about how they want to be remembered when they die. The first man said, “As a good father and husband.” The second man, a teacher, said, “I hope my students remember me as a good teacher.” The third man said, “I hope when my friends and family surround me in my casket they say, “Look, he’s moving!” Cue laughter.

None of us want to die, yet we do. Living meaningful lives is our daily challenge.

A friend recently shared Michael Novak’s 1996 article commemorating the death of his brother, James. I found this description of his life so fascinating:

As an independent writer and international consultant, [he] cultivated an intellectual life and a life of adventure in the nineteenth-century British style. Indeed, among his papers is a brace of short stories on daily life in Asia, conceived as the observations of an American, Somerset Maugham.

In 1995, Jim accepted a dangerous assignment as consultant to the Koh-i-Noor Foundation for Afghanistan, which required extended travel in the regions controlled by feuding Afghan guerrilla armies. One of Afghanistan’s provincial governors appointed him an “honorary colonel” in the Afghan resistance army, guaranteeing his safe passage.

Michael Novak died last week. I’ll be at his funeral in Washington tomorrow. I might share a tribute to him at some point, but I’m not sure. In the meantime, I wanted to share his remembrance of his brother.

Both shared the sense of actively cultivating an intellectual life and life of adventure. Actively crafting a life is a great strategy for living one worth remembering.

Where did fake news come from?

I wrote the following in September 2012, and am sharing it in light of the “fake news” controversies of the moment:

I believe the news and most of television has become poisonous to our culture. Our parents grew up in the fading days when Cronkite was the embodiment of news, and when “straight reporting” was almost never laced with opinion. Functionally, not ever in the public consciousness. There was news, and then there were others on other shows who might comment on the news.

We don’t even pretend what we’re doing today is lacing the “news” with “perspective” — we know it’s all just spin.

Let me explain. I watched Mitt Romney’s convention speech last night. He delivered a fine speech, of the type that for much of it made me proud to be an American because he spoke to some of the best qualities of what we try to be as a people. I expect Obama will make me similarly proud for much of his own convention speech. They’re speeches. They’re trying to explain themselves to us in a way that makes sense. It makes sense that we should feel proud about our country and our electoral process when we hear them.

And within seconds of the speech ending, whatever network we’re seeing them on springs into action. What surprised you in this speech tonight? Where did he succeed in connecting with undecideds? Where did he fail? How much will this move the needle? And on, and on, and on. And on.

We might watch a quarter hour of either soaring or grounded rhetoric. We might be feeling like we’re right to think brightly about ourselves, and our future. And within maybe two minutes we’re being brought low. We’re dragged along through the cliquishness of contemporary news; the clucking-hen culture that wants to talk about what the talk will be about, and wants to think about what the thought will be about. It’s all become so meta as to become unreal.

I remember reading in one of Peggy Noonan’s books years ago (I think it was in What I Saw at the Revolution) where she spoke about a marked change she witnessed in America between the 1980 and 1984 elections. The questions reporters asked were the same: What do you think of the candidate? Will you vote for him? What don’t you like? etc. In 1980 many of the answers were straightforward: I like him; my family’s always been Democrat; I wish he was stronger on X policy. By 1984 the answers had become echoes. Americans were now answering by saying things like, “Well I saw CNN said X about him, and the New York Times said Y,” or “He’s five points behind in the polls so people don’t think he can win here.”

Americans went from citizens with opinions to third-rate news commentators, sharing what they had come to understand as the prevailing opinion of the moment over any particular opinion of their own. More “this is how I’ve heard things are playing out” than “this is what I think.”

And who did this to these people? Noonan doesn’t say, but I think that the news media created these conditions. It’s alright to feel good about things without having them so analyzed as to have the effect that we watch a speech we liked and that elevated us and yet end up leaving the room more cynical and sour than we entered it thanks to the “news” commentary that ran before, after, and sometimes during its delivery.

Everyone will have an opinion. The one thing that once set journalists apart is they were people who wouldn’t have opinions. I said in the beginning that I think news has become a poisonous force because I believe it’s not so often simply informing viewers as damaging our ability to think, because we now have to think about what we’re thinking about.

The cocktail parties are where journalists once had opinions, not the primetime slot. In elevating themselves they’ve abused the public trust. They’ve corroded their profession.

Americans will be asking themselves some form of “What are we all doing here?,” more than ever.

Fake news

The world gets neither better nor worse… just different. I’ve heard some formulation of this over and over and over applied to all variety of subjects in conversation with people who would rather recite a trite saying than engage even a thought experiment. The Christian is obligated to concede the world was better before the fall; that things have genuinely “gotten worse.”

This short snippet of a conversation with Bill O’Reilly in 2012 hopefully can serve as an example of things “getting worse” in America:

I’ll go so far as to suggest that listening to this conversation is like hearing a grown man talk with a boy. There’s the paternalistic desire to impart perspective and come to agreement, and the boy’s desire to be heard while ignoring the voice of authority. And hell, if anyone in journalism deserves authority it’s someone like Ted Koppel or his predecessors:

“I think that ideological coverage of the news, be it of the right or be it of the left, has created a political reality in this country which is bad for America. I think it’s made it difficult if not impossible for decent men and women in congress, on capitol hill, to reach across the aisle and find compromise. And if we can’t do that, Bill, we’re going to be in, and we have been, I think for the past few years, in a terrible situation in this country… It [cable news media] is a business and it’s operating as a business, and once upon a time you and I actually thought journalism was a calling.”

To understand how journalism could be a “calling” rather than simply a career requires an understanding of vocation. The traditional conception of vocation is understood through the Latin as a calling or summons. What Ted Koppel raises is this: Are we elevating, simply maintaining, or degenerating in the quality of our news? Who are the sort of people called to the profession of “journalist” today? How are they serving their neighbors?

Practical v. practicable

An important distinction from G.K. Chesterton in his book St. Francis of Assisi:

If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.

Even a basic reading of the life of St. Francis makes you appreciate his desire to act; for prompt effort and energy. I think in this way he could be called a patron of our era, even if we’re often unsure what we’re acting to achieve.

Meanwhile, Chesterton’s core point stands even a century later: to be practical shouldn’t mean to be pragmatic. Our organizing principles (whether personal, familial, national, whatever) have to be clear before we can talk about what’s “practical,” because practicality is simply our response to what’s necessary. Often the necessary things are the least practicable, yet seeking to bring about a necessary thing is a damned practical thing to do.

And don’t you love that about Chesterton? He’s so pithy and we’re so longwinded in stating the same things.

Why are you silent?

Why are people silent? The two clearest reasons: you either are trying to listen rather than speak, or you’ve got nothing to say.

I grimace when hearing the most common broadsides leveled against social media and communications. “What could I say in 140 characters?” “Who wants to know what I had for lunch?” Et cetera.

Can you imagine if people had had such lack of imagination 150 years ago? We would have let the telegraph rot. We have the means today to draw ourselves closer and share more intimately than ever before in history, and suddenly many of us seem to be struck mute.

Witness. Speak. Share. If you refuse to speak using the media of our time, it’ll be assumed in the future that it was because you didn’t have anything to say. That you didn’t have much to witness to. That maybe there just wasn’t much going on there—much soulfulness, much vitality, much life. (That won’t be a fair perspective, but the future often marginalizes the past and so it’s worth thinking about how to defeat its stereotypes while we still have time.)

I think about everything that my grandparents left behind in heirlooms and artifacts and especially in writing, and how my heart aches for the same sort of things but from every generation of my family over the past 200+ years in this country. How I wish I could read even the slimmest diary entries from my frontier ancestors and what their lives were like. I know some things from newspaper records, church records, etc. These aren’t particularly intimate things, but they’re something.

We have the means to speak and to be heard more simply than ever before.

Figure out what’s worth saying, and say it.

THON, Mountain, Arboretum

Visited Penn State this weekend with brother Nick, his first trip there with just me. It was great to spend this time together in Happy Valley with him, introducing him to some of the most special aspects of life there. We visited THON at the Bryce Jordan Center:

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We visited the Penn State Arboretum, which was my fist time there too. It was incredible to me to be able to experience and catch a scene like this—a feeling of being lost someplace in the middle of nowhere—right on Penn State’s increasingly urban-feeling campus:

And we hiked Mount Nittany at dawn, where I captured the sunrise photo above. It was incredible to hike with him for the first time, and we met up with my cousin (who’s in her junior year) and her boyfriend who graduated a year or so ago. It was their first time on the Mountain, too.