Old Willow in winter

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I’m visiting Penn State and the Nittany Valley this weekend with my little brother, and during a walk from the Nittany Lion Inn on the northwestern edge of campus down to College Avenue we passed Old Willow. I explained the tradition of this tree and its special status as a living piece of the past.

It’s rare to see (or rather, to notice) Old Willow in winter. It’s there, but like any willow in winter it lacks the calm and billowing fronds that make it such a beautiful place to sit in warmer weather and think or read or be alone.

I hope this third generation survives for many years to come. In its nakedness it reveals its bent and somewhat top-heavy look more obviously than other times of the year. In any event, Old Willow’s tradition will continue.

A poet writes in the 1894 La Vie yearbook:

Sentinel thou art!
Dear old Willow!
’Neath thy waving, verdant tresses,
Ever coming, ever going,
Pass the tides of busy students,
Ever ebbing, ever flowing:
Untamed Freshmen, all-wise Sophomores,
Stately Seniors, hearty Juniors,
In a motley, ceaseless thronging,
’Neath thy ever-faithful guarding,
Chatting, laughing, thinking, studying
As they go.

Complaining about your strengths

“Hey, great to see you. Nice hat.”

“Oh, it’s pretty old actually. I really need to get a new one.”

A better response?

“Thank you.”

I had this exchange almost verbatim recently. A simple compliment, given earnestly. But not well received, and instead turned into mild self pity.

How often we do this to ourselves. Turning our strengths into a weakness, and in effect complaining about a strength.

We don’t always conceive of the thing as a strength, though. Others often do, because they’re not in our doubt-filled heads. They just see the nice hat, and want to give a compliment.

Even when a strength is only perceived (rather than real), better to just go with it:

“Hey, thanks.”

Politics is more than economics

Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols write:

Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keep institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

Chris Arnade on why Trump voters are not, as Jonathan Chait suggests, “complete idiots:”

Trump voters may not vote the way I want them to, but after having spent the last five years working in (and having grown up in) parts of the US few visit, they are not dumb. They are doing whatever any other voter does: Trying to use their vote to better their particular situation (however they define that).

Labeling them dumb is simply a way of not trying to understand their situation, or what they value.

In choosing a candidate, a voter is buying into that candidate. It is, in an oversimplified way, like buying a stock. In that sense, it is helpful to use some basic analysis from finance, to look at how/why voters make the choices they do.

This is entirely conventional political insight. Insight that nonetheless seems alien and unconventional in today’s political climate. In any event, what are Trump voters try to do? Arnade explains:

Frustrated with broken promises, they gave up on the knowable and went with the unknowable. They chose Trump, because he comes with a very high distribution. A high volatility. (He also signals in ugly ways, that he might just move them, and only them and their friends, higher with his stated policies). As any trader will tell you, if you are stuck lower, you want volatility, uncertainty. No matter how it comes. Put another way. Your downside is flat, your upside isn’t. Break the system.

The elites loathe volatility. Because, the upside is limited, but the downside isn’t. In option language, they are in the money.

To put it in very non-geeky language: A two-tiered system has one set of people who want to keep the system, and another that doesn’t. Each one is voting for their own best interests.

Again, this is conventional and obvious. In past election cycles, the press covered candidates like John Edwards who spoke frequently of the emergence of “two Americas.” (These divisions that have been developing are complex and not easily reduced to the usual storylines of race or engineered social inequality.) Yet years later, the election of Trump should prove that the “two Americas” are a reality. That’s a social problem on a new scale, isn’t it? One that, by its existence, hasn’t been addressed by past administrations. Arnade suggests it’s because our politics has become obsessed with a single dimension of social progress at the expense of others:

Where do most of the press and elites get it wrong? They don’t believe that we live in a two-tiered system. They don’t believe, or know they are in, the top tier. They also don’t understand what people view as value.

When the Democrats under Clinton in the early ‘90s shifted towards a pro market agenda, they made a dramatic shift towards accepting the Republicans definition of value as being about the economic.

Now elites in both major parties see their broad political goal as increasing the GDP, regardless of how it is done.

This has failed most Americans, other than the elite, in two ways. It has failed to provide an economic boost (incomes are broadly flat), and it has forgotten that many people see value as being not just economic, but social. It has been a one-two punch that has completely left behind many people.

The common good. A “worst case”, profane candidate to break a complacent system in the most peaceful way possible with an eye toward the broadest upside.

We’re living through a time when all that’s old is new: politics was once more than economics.

THON and its consequences

Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is happening this weekend. It’s known for being the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America.

Since 1973 it’s raised more than $100MM for the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. It’s a great Penn State tradition, it’s a great community effort, and it’s often a genuinely life-changing experience for its participants.

A few years ago I sat down at the Rathskeller with an alum for lunch. We didn’t meet to talk shop on THON, but the conversation eventually turned to Greek Life and fraternities, which have been incredible developers of community life and growth for most of Penn State’s history. This alumnus presented a provocative thought on how to look at the future of Penn State’s Greek Life. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college (he was), so I’m sharing this mainly to think out loud and without knowing how much weight is worth putting behind my friend’s thinking.

The basic idea was this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity, and so over the course of each year THON consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternity or sorority is spending within the Penn State community. And all capital that—at other universities—ends up being spent on the efforts of each fraternity’s or sorority’s national chapter philanthropies and efforts.

What this means is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters than their peers (even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else) and this resentment manifests itself in that the national associations are less likely to strengthen, support, and defend their Penn State affiliates when they need reform, mentoring, or other assistance.

Again, this alum was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today. I was not a part of Greek Life. I’m presenting this here simply in the spirit of asking, “Is this a plausible explanation for why Penn State Greek Life might be doing more good than ever and yet finding itself weaker and less secure than ever?”

An obvious example of a national Greek organization abandoning its local chapter was the destruction of Phi Delta Theta a few years ago.

In downtown State College there are some 50 historic, beautiful mansions built by fraternities over the past century and a half. And while it seems few fraternities have retained their gentlemanly character, there is the chance for real and tangible loss to Penn State and the community if these houses (and more importantly, the young people within) are left to the fate of bureaucracy and national leadership whose vision seems to involve, in its best instances, tepid disinterest in leaving them to their own fate.

If the framework laid out to me by my friend is basically correct, it means that new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life needs to come from within the Penn State community, or else we risk the slow collapse of a system once responsible making so much of Penn State so great.

Infallibility

Fr. John Hunwicke writes on papal infallibility. I’ll try to summarize his essential points, but am including what I think is an important excerpt, too.

The pope’s infallibility is essentially “negative” in its nature. A responsibility of the Holy Father is to avoid cloaking his pronouncements in the garb of the Holy Spirit and in so doing make himself a dictator. Instead, the Church institutionally should perceive when any particular generation’s innovations require a response on the question of their compatibility with Christ. This isn’t being merely reactionary; it’s being responsive.

The Holy Father is not a spokesman on behalf of a “God of surprises,” but a protector of the received knowledge of humanity’s destiny with its creator. So if the pope must speak in his infallible capacity, it must nearly always be simply to say, “This is not what we have received.”

When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative. We see this in two of the most important exercises of the papal magisterium in the years since Vatican II—indeed, since the Council of Trent: Humanae vitae (1968) and Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).

Humanae Vitae was not the first major magisterial intervention on contraception. That had taken place a generation before, in Casti connubii (1930), when the See of St. Peter judged that a reply was needed to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference. In other words, Rome spoke against an innovation. And there can be no doubt that it was an innovation, throughout the Christian world, to suggest that contraception was anything other than immoral. Previous Lambeth Conferences had taught this; and when the 1930 Conference changed its teaching, one of the great theological luminaries of the Church of England, Charles Gore, Bishop first of Worcester, then of Birmingham, finally of Oxford, attacked it publicly. His paper excoriating the 1930 Conference was far more damning and outraged than any document I have seen on this subject from a Catholic source. As far as Byzantine Orthodoxy is concerned, as late as 1963 a popular book by a popular hierarch of English origin concluded its section on marriage with the unadorned statement, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” (Later editions of the book did not maintain this position.)

In the 1960s, the discovery of pharmaceutical means of preventing conception without modifying the sexual act itself provided an opportunity for some Catholic writers to argue that the old prohibitions no longer applied. With historical hindsight it is easy to see that sexual ethics were the major problem of that decade—the point at which the zeitgeist most directly challenged the Church.

Blessed Paul VI, un po’ Amletico, as his predecessor described him, saw the crucial importance of the doctrinal questions involved here, and the responsibility that lay upon him as Successor of St. Peter to give a decisive and authoritative ruling. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was given to him so that he might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the teaching handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith. He did not summon synods in which he invited selected bishops to express with Parrhesia whatever views they had. He did not repeatedly suggest that the Holy Spirit might be abroad advocating a change in the established teaching. He did not float an ambiguously worded document in order to create an atmosphere in which those bishops who regarded themselves as closest to the pope’s mind could feel that they had been given sufficient authority to abandon the Tradition. Instead, Paul VI stated: “Therefore, having attentively sifted the documentation laid before Us, after mature reflection and assiduous prayers, We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.” And his reply was a decisive negative. It failed to claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

A similar pattern can be seen when John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994. This document appeared at a stage in the sexual revolution that already seems as old-fashioned as grandmother’s lace. The veteran English feminist Germaine Greer had not yet been no-platformed by the student guardians of the dogmas of gender diversity because she had declared a “trans” candidate for a fellowship in her women’s college to be “not a woman.” Prepubescent children were not yet being encouraged to consider whether they might wish to change genders. But the proliferating absurdities of the next three decades are surely implicit in the question the pope set out to answer. That question was quite simply whether women, interchangeably with men, could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And, in a brief magisterial intervention, John Paul II declared that the Church was unable (nullam facultatem habere) to ordain women.

In each of these cases, the proponents of innovation downplayed the significance of the changes they sponsored…

 

Christian citizenship

Dale M. Coulter on gifts and debts:

The original sin was in moving too fast from the language of gift to the language of right, and missing entirely the language of debt. Bernard claims that ignorance makes beasts of humans, because they begin “to use gifts as if they belonged to one by natural right.” The ignorance in question is not simply a lack of awareness of the creator, but a fundamental failure to know oneself as a creature. And so, Bernard asks that each person know two facts: what you are, and that you are not that by your own hand. With the acknowledgement of these two facets of human existence come the moral obligations that should shape human freedom. In short, humans owe their existence to something beyond themselves, and they should live in light of that debt. Before claiming their rights, individuals need to acknowledge their debts and order the discharge of those debts accordingly, as first to God and then to neighbor.

Anselm of Canterbury would build his understanding of the atonement on these premises. The gift of human nature entails the obligation to pursue justice as the vehicle by which humans fulfill their debt to God and realize their potential. They fulfill the appetite for happiness through the pursuit of justice. When humans turn this debt into a “natural right,” they turn away from the origin of the gifts of nature and forfeit justice in the process. Anselm’s use of the language of debt in relation to sin is part of an overarching moral framework in which humans come into this world with gifts and a purpose that entail obligations. All obligations to other humans, including political communities, stem from the recognition of the more fundamental debt one owes to God for capacities one possesses.

This is the medieval underpinning to Kennedy’s words of 1961 [—ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country]. It is also the Christian basis for citizenship in any nation, and for the particular gratitude Christians should have for living out their earthly existence in the United States. Too many people today have skipped over debts and gone straight to rights.

Reducing learning to outputs

Scott Schwartz writes on the “financialization” of higher education and what impact this has on the experience of learning, ostensibly higher education’s raison d’etre:

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest urban university system in the country and ranks alongside the California and New York State systems for total enrollment. Until 1976, CUNY was entirely tuition-free. While remaining significantly cheaper than other private universities in New York, CUNY has increasingly pursued a neoliberal business model reflective of for-profit institutions. This is hardly surprising. The financialization of CUNY has occurred in tandem with the financialization of New York City itself, and indeed much of the nation and world economy. …

The banality of this particular evil glazes over the continued emaciation of public education. Several authors have addressed this process (see Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education), as well as discussed models for attempting to stem this trend. While CUNY continues to struggle for funding, both for its students and its large number of precariously contracted educators, the learning experience becomes increasingly denigrated – classroom sizes balloon, facilities erode, teachers exhaust. Commoditizing education (prioritizing its exchange-value over its use-value) inevitably impoverishes public institutions, no matter how skilled CUNY’s Chancellor (with his $500k salary) is at branding. A for-profit space reduces its occupants to their potential output, rendering experience marginal or impossible. By this, I mean to convey the mutual exclusivity of the concepts output and experience. Experience is something that only occurs in the present (one can remember a past experience, but the experience occurred in a present). Output, on the other hand, is something that cannot have a present (if I say ‘I have an output’, it denotes either something that is done or something that will be done).

A deadly thing that this “financialization” does to places meant for learning is the favoring of activity over leisure. “Leisure” meaning not a checked-out vacation-type mentality, but a thoughtful, contemplative, inquisitive way of living. If every school becomes a place for its students and faculty to demonstrate professional output, there’s no longer a purpose to it compared to any vocational school or the professional world generally. 

It seems to me that “financialization” might simply be the packaging and selling of what something is at present, at the expense of what it might become.

Catholic identity on campus

Jason King shares some great insight on Catholic identity on campus. He describes three different types of Catholic culture:

On campuses characterized by students as very Catholic: Eighty percent of students identify as Catholic; three classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated every day of the week; few if any residence halls are co-ed; and strict limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as mostly Catholic: Seventy-five percent of students identify as Catholic; two classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated most days of the week; most residence halls are co-ed; and some limits are placed on co-ed visitation.

On campuses characterized by students as somewhat Catholic: Sixty-eight percent of students identify as Catholic; one class is required in theology; Mass is celebrated on Sundays; all residence halls are co-ed; and minimal limits are place on co-ed visitation.

What does any of this mean for the sort of outcomes that different Catholic institutions will tend to produce amongst their people?

On very Catholic campuses, less than 30 percent of students hook up. Given that very Catholic campuses have such low rates of hooking up, one would expect somewhat Catholic campuses to have the highest rates of hooking up. They do not. Less than half of the students on these campuses—45 percent—hook up. While this rate is higher than that on very Catholic campuses, it is lower than that on mostly Catholic campuses, where 55 percent of students hook up. Thus, mostly Catholic campuses have the most hooking up, very Catholic campuses have the least, and somewhat Catholic campuses are in the middle.

You’d think that there’s not much of a difference between “very” Catholic and “mostly” Catholic, but there is. These strange, apparently complicated results don’t strike me as strange at all. 

It’s like the difference between a “very” serious athlete and a “mostly” serious athlete. On the one hand, you can look at both and say, “Well, they’re both NFL players.” But the “very” serious athlete is always going to have the better chance of becoming a Hall of Famer. The “mostly” serious athlete, after all is said and done, is just as likely to end up as forgotten a player as the “somewhat” serious athletes who are conscious enough of their weaknesses that they consciously try to compete at a higher level.

If nothing else, it’s a lesson that there’s no downside to going all in. If you’re going to be Catholic, then be Catholic.

Spirit of ’76

That’s the spirit that I hope the soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia gives its visitors. I hope the place feels like its recreated little bits and pieces of Colonial America. I hope that it provides the context for visitors to understand one of the things that made the American Revolution so extraordinary: that it was a revolution to conserve inherited rights and liberties, and so to preserve a cherished way of life rather than an attempt to create some utopia from abstract principles.

The Museum opens in late April, though I don’t expect to visit until sometime this summer. Whether it fulfills all my own hopes or not, it will be good to have this Museum takes place among so many others in this city, and intentionally try to tell a story of the country’s founding capital that has just been so much a part of our history that it took us more than two centuries to think of creating a museum for it.

State College mayors

Earlier this week I got a text from a friend in State College who was in a Borough Council meeting. He had gotten word that Elizabeth Goreham, the town’s mayor, wouldn’t be running for a third term.

I was sort of surprised by this, if for no other reason that the mayor’s isn’t particularly old and she seems well liked by most people. Being State College’s mayor is one of those things you could do forever as a way to serve the common good. And it’s a nice part-time job, if nothing else.

I’ve only met Goreham a handful of times, and I know more about her during time as a member of the State College Borough Council than I do of her time as mayor. I knew more of Bill Welch, her predecessor in the mayor’s chair. Bill was one-time editor of the Centre Daily Times and a Borough Council member among many other things before his time as mayor. He was also a friend my friend to Ben Novak, and inspired him to write his mid-1980s beer columns that became the basis for The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Bill was just one of many of a whole generation that was still alive and active when I came into Happy Valley as a freshman in 2005, but who have mostly passed from the stage today. Their generation created and shaped so much of the contemporary Penn State and State College that we’ve inherited—theirs were memories that knew of the college campus before the Sexual Revolution, and knew a Penn State that was something much closer to a practical liberal arts school than the corporation it is today. Theirs was a generation in its prime during Penn State football’s national championship era, and seized  on Paterno’s vision to raise Penn State to new academic heights on the back of his player’s fame.

Theirs was a generation that built so many great things. It makes me wonder what our generation will be remembered for.

Last night Don Han announced his candidacy for mayor. I’ve met Don a few times. He’s got a good reputation, and works for my friend’s old law firm. He’s quoted saying:

“State College is a great town. Penn State is a stable and well-paying employment center, the downtown is vibrant, property values remain strong, and State College consistently earns high ratings for safety… However, the borough needs to protect the stability of its neighborhoods through a combination of zoning, ordinance enforcement, and owner-occupied housing initiatives, such as the Community Land Trust and the Homestead Investment Program.”

No doubt this is all important, but I wish we could speak more simply in local politics. The job of State College’s mayor is to preside over the beautiful rituals of the town, and to encourage it to become an even more beautiful and enchanted place.

That’s what Bill Welch did. It’s what Elizabeth Goreham has tried to do. And it’s what I hope Don Han does.