Learning through encounter

Basil Chad Chisholm writes that when college disappoints, it’s worth starting a fraternal club that intentionally expands your world/mental range:

In the Classical Age of learning in ancient Greece, Plato argued that true education not only conveyed to us a right knowledge but also taught us to desire those things that are right and good. By the standard of the ancients, the current state of higher education is unquestionably prostrate and lamentable.

Fixing all this will take time: perhaps a generation of activism and argument. But for now the question is: what can you do to supplement what’s lacking in your education?

Much of education has to be what students make of it; in fact, it has always been so. But how can students take charge of their educations? I believe one answer can be gleamed from our past.

Much of the history of higher education is built around groups and clubs that sometimes were only tangentially related to the lecture hall. …

At Oxford University in 1929, a new faculty member named J.R.R. Tolkien started a club he called Kolbitar (meaning “Coal-Bitters” in Old Norse) that was dedicated to the Old Scandinavian languages. While Tolkien believed that the study of Old Norse and Icelandic had an intrinsic value, Tolkien possessed an understanding of what the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein later said about how the “limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Tolkien wanted his Kolbitar club to help those who enjoyed the Norse legends to experience these sagas in their original tongue; as members became more fluent in the old languages, Tolkien believed that they would experience the world of Odin and Sigurd as if they were native to the ashen tree of the Norsemen.

In 1931, Tolkien and one of his fellow Kolbitars—another faculty member named C.S. Lewis—were invited by Oxford student Edward Tangye Lean to join his new club called The Inklings. Members of the group would read aloud their own creative manuscripts at gatherings and receive feedback. Lean graduated after 1933, but The Inklings became Tolkien’s and Lewis’s creative hub for their professor colleagues, former students, and local friends. The group functioned as a crucible for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia novels that we read today, but as Alan Jacobs reminds us, the members of The Inklings were much more to each other than a writing workshop:

“They provided an enthusiastic, but constructively critical, audience for all sorts of stories and arguments; they formed a society in which formerly lonely and isolated men discovered that it was not necessarily so crazy to believe in God and miracles or to write stories about Elves and Dwarfs and creatures called ‘hobbits.'”

While few campuses can boast of a Tolkien or Lewis, this world of thriving student organizations was once the terra firma of higher education.

You have the power to seize your own college experience and make it what you want it to be. This might seem like something out of Dead Poets Society (conjuring images of Robin Williams standing on his desk, etc.), but the history of higher education is built around groups, both formal and informal, and their history dots the landscapes of our institutions: our past can be the future.

In his poem “Jerusalem,” William Blake proclaimed that a sword should not sleep in our hands. If dynamic learning is what you truly desire, then create autonomous groups rather wait on classrooms or campus bureaucracies. Such a solution is quite conservative, since it draws its inspiration from the past; however, it is likewise radical since the entire machinery of higher education is aligned in an antithetical direction.

Such a “once and future” model of the university could be appealing to those [feeling] helpless to do anything. Offer your fellow undergrads places where—in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson—their creativity and metacognitive awareness can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars.”

“Learning through encounter” is the simplest way I can think of to describe this fuller sense of higher education.

It’s basically the idea that spurred us to create the Nittany Valley Society a few years ago, though we’ve struggled somewhat to figure out how best to make the sort of encounters, reading clubs, vibrant discussions, etc. described here a reality in a consistent way. It seems likely that the sort of consistency we thought we could create initially through a nonprofit and through annual programming can’t really be imposed in a place that’s natural, organic, and focused on learning through encounter with one another, and that the variance from year to year is a natural thing as people come and go.

Subjective human rights

Mike May interviews Wesley J. Smith, board member of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and Wesley conveys some of the fundamentals that inform our mission:

How do you see these issues and any other trends that are occurring as undermining human dignity?

When you say that some people have greater value than other people, when you say that some people have a greater claim on our care and our concern than other people, you are establishing an invidious system which would tolerate medical discrimination, perhaps in the form of healthcare rationing, perhaps in the form of a situation sometimes called futile care where doctors are entitled, under certain rules, for example in the law of Texas, to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care. You open the door to things such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. Creating a system where people are valued differently will lead to oppression and exploitation of those who are deemed to be those less valuable.

What have you discovered to be the most powerful arguments against those trends?

I think the value system of the West, whether one is conservative or liberal politically, really accepts the concept of universal human rights and universal human equality. I think we need to fight any form of discrimination that challenges that, whether it’s based on race, whether it’s based on sex or whether it’s based on physical capacities, physical health or disability. When we point out that by engaging in these utilitarian practices and policies that you’re creating another form of invidious discrimination … I think people respond … .

The minute it’s subjective, the minute that we decide that in order to have the highest value you have to have a predicated capacity, then who matters and who doesn’t becomes more of a matter of who has the power to decide and you move into a great potential for discrimination.

Underscoring this: physicians can increasingly “refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care.” We’re debating whether we should have something like universal medical care, while at the same time evolving our ethics in a direction that allows for subjective delivery of that care.

Science deniers

Keith Stanovich is author of The Rationality Quotient and emeritus professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. He writes:

As a political strategy, this “party of science” labelling might be effective, but epistemic superiority cannot simply be declared on the basis of a few examples. A cognitive scientist is forced to be pedantic here and rain on the progressive parade. In fact, any trained social scientist would be quick to point out the obvious selection effects that are operating. The issues in question (climate science and creationism/evolution) are cherry-picked for reasons of politics and media interest. In order to correctly call one party the party of science and the other the party of science deniers, one would of course have to have a representative sampling of scientific issues to see whether members of one party are more likely to accept scientific consensus.

In fact, it is not difficult at all to find scientific issues on which it is liberal Democrats who fail to accept the scientific consensus. Leftists become the “science deniers” in these cases. In fact, and ironically, there are enough examples to produce a book parallel to the Mooney volume cited above titled Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2012). To mention an example from my own field, psychology: liberals tend to deny the overwhelming consensus in psychological science that intelligence is moderately heritable.

This isn’t the only instance of left-wing science denial, though. In the area of economics, progressives are very reluctant to accept the consensus view that when proper controls for occupational choice and work history are made, women do not make more than 20 per cent less than men for doing the same work.

Progressives tend to deny or obfuscate (just as conservatives obfuscate the research on global warming) the data indicating that single-parent households lead to more behavioral problems among children. Overwhelmingly progressive university schools of education deny the strong scientific consensus that phonics-based reading instruction facilitates most readers, especially those struggling the most. Many progressives find it hard to believe that there is no bias at all in the initial hiring of women for tenure-track university positions in STEM disciplines. Progressives tend to deny the consensus view that genetically modified organisms are safe to consume. Gender feminists routinely deny biological facts about sex differences. Largely Democratic cities and university towns are at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement which denies a scientific consensus. In the same cities and towns, people find it hard to believe that there is a strong consensus among economists that rent control causes housing shortages and a diminution in the quality of housing. [Research citations for all the above are available from the author here.]

I will stop here because the point is made. There is plenty of science denial on the Democratic side to balance the anti-scientific attitudes of Republicans toward climate change and evolutionary theory. Neither political party is the party of science, and neither party exclusively contains the science deniers. Each side of the ideological divide accepts or denies scientific consensus depending upon the issue in question. Each side finds it hard to accept scientific evidence that undermines its own ideological beliefs and policies.

Bias is difficult to see. That’s one of the reasons that toleration and a healthy pluralism so important.

Work ethic

K. E. Colombini writes:

Sasse laments the loss of a hard-work ethic, founded on a chore schedule, and its impact on a generation of younger Americans. He encourages parents to get back to basics when it comes to pushing their kids into harder summer jobs, especially outdoor jobs. Similarly, former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe has made a name for himself promoting the value of honest labor, and many people are calling on schools to bring back shop class. In our fixation with STEM in this digital age, we’ve lost track of the practical arts, and the younger generation would rather code a video game while bingeing Mountain Dew than do something practical and constructive, like grow food or make furniture. …

[W]e find the outdoor program at Wyoming Catholic College, a liberal arts college that takes its Catholic mission seriously. All incoming freshmen take part in a three-week wilderness orientation experience in the Rockies. There’s a winter program that teaches students to endure in snow and cold, and other outdoor opportunities that involve climbing mountains or rafting rivers.

These skills are helpful in building character and rediscovering the “vanishing” American adult the junior senator from Nebraska writes about. But Wyoming Catholic also stresses something deeper: Personally experiencing the glories of creation, away from the noise of modern civilization, brings us back to the glory of the Creator, who humbled himself to spend years as a wood-working carpenter before redeeming humanity.

A problem of individualism is that it doesn’t provide much guidance for what to do with our time. It also doesn’t suggest how to work cooperatively, which was one of the building blocks of civilization to begin with. Do capitalism and individualism have to function together? No.

Big little historical moments

Stanislav Petrov died at 77 earlier this year. Why am I remembering him? His incredible discretion and right judgment in an incredible historical moment:

On September 26, 1983, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov received a message that five nuclear missiles had been launched by the United States and were heading to Moscow. He didn’t launch a retaliatory strike, believing correctly that it was a false alarm. And with that, he saved the world from nuclear war. …

Karl Schumacher, a political activist in Germany, was one of the first people to publicize Petrov’s story back in the late 1990s. But Schumacher reportedly learned of Petrov’s death this month after contacting Petrov’s home. Petrov’s son Dmitry reported that the man who saved the world all those years ago had died on May 19, 2017.

How many heroes live among us, living quiet lives after their moment of proving has come and gone? No doubt this man was one of the least known heroes of the Cold War, but he was one of many who stopped nuclear war:

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was 44 years old and working at a missile detection bunker south of Moscow on September 26, 1983. His computer told him that five nuclear missiles were on their way, and given their flight time, he had just 20 minutes to launch a counter attack. But Petrov told his superior officers that it was a false alarm. He had absolutely no real evidence that this was true, but it probably saved millions of lives.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov told the BBC’s Russian Service back in 2013.

“I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” Petrov said.

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay,” he told the BBC. …

Perhaps importantly, Petrov noted that he was the only officer around that day who had received a civilian education. Everyone else were professional soldiers and he believed that they would have simply reported the attack at face value. The men around him were “taught to give and obey orders.” Luckily, Petrov disobeyed what simply didn’t feel right to him.

Petrov reasoned that if the Americans were going to launch a first strike they’d send more than five missiles, despite the fact that they could still do an enormous amount of damage. He also believed that since the alert system was relatively new it seemed likely that it could be sending a false alarm.

If Petrov had been wrong, he would have compromised the Soviet Union’s ability to retaliate against a nuclear strike. But if he was right, World War III would be averted. Thankfully, he was right.

Natural law’s origins

Bradley J. Birzer writes on Christopher Dawson’s thinking as an historian and meta-historian on natural law:

Certainly, the moment-by-moment unfolding and detailing of the past mattered, but only as these served as a means to understand the larger currents of thought and the human condition. It was the sea changes in thought and consciousness across cultures and over time that most interested him as scholar and thinker.

In the earliest awareness men had of their world, they worshipped the divine—whatever that divine might be. These various forms of worship, Dawson believed, served as the basis of all human culture(s). No Lockean, Dawson argued that men came together because of their mutual interest in defending what they each agreed was sacred, rather than as a compact in which each man sought to protect his own interests against the community. As Dawson viewed it, man’s first step in development was the formation of community based on the interests of the community and the community’s divine, not some recognition of individualism. As the title of Dawson’s first book, The Age of the Gods, suggests, this was an age of the divine. From the worship of the divine, each people developed their own distinctive way of life.

The second greatest moment in human history, Dawson argued, arrived around 500 BC throughout the entire civilized world—in the Mediterranean, in India, and in China. If the first great movement was the Age of the Gods, the second great movement was an age of the “humane” or of “humanism,” as Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Greek embraced a vision of what would become a common humanity that transcends nations, races, and religions. Amazingly enough, each form of humanism—whether in China, Indian, or Ionia—developed within mere years of the others.

What defined this age as brilliant and peculiar was, in fact, its non-peculiarity. Throughout the civilized world, from East to West, each of the great ways of thinking embraced what would one day be called the “natural law,” applicable to all times and all places. The law emanated from the divine toward and upon all, regardless of soil, culture, skin tone, and temporal existence. As Dawson noted, the Natural Law applied to men as well as to nature; thus, natural law allowed human thought to free itself from the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. …

Though Dawson remained unsure why the Natural Law developed, he did not hesitate to celebrate it. He remained firmly convinced that the development of Natural Law did not randomly emerge from individual genius, but rather believed that individual genius arose out of the various traditions and norms of each people. …

Dawson focused much of his own thought on the first of the great Greek philosophers—indeed, the first philosopher anywhere—Heraclitus. In seeking an answer to the cycles of nature and the human person, he came to believe that all things found themselves rooted in a divine (if very pantheistic) element, Fire, or, in Greek, Logos. The Logos, while not quite god, represented the mind of the universe, and it endowed all persons, everywhere, with Reason, the language of the gods and of men. By speaking the language of Reason, each person could embrace not only the divine in the next realm, but, critically, the divine in each person of this world.

With the Logos, men became human.

This is my first introduction to Dawson, but he immediately reminds me of Will Durant in terms of his interest in understanding history in an integrative way:

Penn State v. Iowa

An entire game unfolded in four seconds at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City last night, as Penn State somehow defeated Iowa 21-19 as time expired with an incredible just-above-the-defender’s-fingertips reception:

I was on the phone as the fourth quarter wound down, and had lost hope that Penn State had any chance of winning the game after watching our unsure and listless offense struggle to put real points on the board. I was already mentally preparing for a steep drop from the four spot in the rankings.

Then Trace McSorely and Juwan Johnson somehow connected in those last four seconds. I snapped the photos above of those final seconds; just incredible. I’ve never seen a game like that. Onward State’s got a good recap.

Liquid modernity

Rod Dreher introduced the concept of “liquid modernity” into my life through his Benedict Option book. Dreher writes a bit about liquid modernity in light of Sen. Ben Sasse’s recent remarks:

This weekend I am at an event called The Gathering, for Christian philanthropists. …

Yesterday I heard a wonderful lunchtime address by Sen. Ben Sasse, who told the audience that the US is going through an unprecedented historic transition right now, driven by economic restructuring, technology, and other things.

“We’re entering an era for the first time in human history where people are going to hit forty to fifty [years old], where their entire skill set will cease to exist, because of technology,” he said. Sasse went on to discuss the strong challenges this new world pose to human community.

According to Sasse, social science data show that a human being needs four basic things to be happy:

  • A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
  • A family
  • Close friends
  • Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”

Sasse said that technology and automation is going to rob more and more people of meaningful work — and that whether we like it or not, this is going to have tremendous impact socially and psychologically.

He also quoted some statistics showing that loneliness, isolation, and the withering of friendship in recent decades has gone up markedly.

In the years to come, he said, we will see lots of confusion as fragmented, atomized people scramble to find a “new tribe.” The senator said that Christians will have to “figure out how to revalue place and the local at a time when place and the local is evaporating for most people.”

He ended by urging the philanthropist to “invest time and treasure” figuring out how to teach people to do this, and to make it possible.

Whether the senator realized it or not, he’s talking about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity,” in which nothing is solid. The world Sen. Sasse describes is Bauman’s world.

Alright, so what does liquid modernity really mean? Here what Zygmunt Bauman thought:

Liquid Modernity is sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term for the present condition of the world as contrasted with the “solid” modernity that preceded it. According to Bauman, the passage from “solid” to “liquid” modernity created a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives.

Bauman’s vision of the current world is one in which individuals must to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like “career” and “progress” could be meaningfully applied. These fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability.[2]Liquid times are defined by uncertainty. In liquid modernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty.[3] The time it takes to fully consider options and make fully formed decisions has fragmented.

As society progresses, the creation of value liquefies and begins to flow unfettered. The production time it takes for value to occur declines. To survive, products and interfaces must quickly flow from spaces of high-resistance and poor usability to spaces of low resistance and user interaction. Successful interfaces induce a liquid state of flow in their users. Environments are becoming aware of relevant information, and are able to pull context-aware data into play when necessary. Devices can be small on the outside, but large on the inside.

If we’re living in a “liquid” time, that suggests that there really can be no meaningfully progressive sort of politics or mainstream social consciousness. It’s a radical idea, because it suggests that to thrive requires laying down the sort of social and physical roots that so much of the 20th century’s technology freed us from, starting with the combustion engine and automobiles and reaching its zenith with the internet.

Hurricane wine cellar

A great story amidst so much of Hurricane Irma’s tragedy is Richard Branson making the most of things, emerging “from wine-cellar bunker after Irma ‘utterly devastated’ his private island:”

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group who said he would ride out Hurricane Irma on his private Caribbean island, has emerged from his fortified wine cellar unscathed.

“All of the team who stayed on Necker and Moskito during the hurricane are safe and well,” Branson said in a blog post Thursday, which he explained was transcribed with a satellite phone after the storm brought down all lines of communication.

“We took shelter from the strongest hurricane ever inside the concrete cellar on Necker and very, very fortunately it held firm. …

“All of us slept together in two rooms,” Branson wrote. “I haven’t had a sleepover quite like it since I was a kid. Strangely, it’s a privilege to experience what is turning into possibly the strongest storm ever with such a great group of young people.

“We were listening to the parrots in their boxes in the next room chattering away. Watching the tortoises congregating together, as if they sense what is coming our way.”

A few hours before Irma’s impact, Branson wrote that he planned to retreat with his team to his concrete wine cellar below “the Great House.”

As one does.

“Knowing our wonderful team as I do, I suspect there will be little wine left in the cellar when we all emerge,” he wrote on his blog.

I heard that Winston Churchill said something like, “There’s nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and having the bullet miss.”

Appreciation Dinner

I visited St. Anthony of Padua Catholic parish in Ambler, Pennsylvania tonight for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia‘s Annual Appreciation Dinner for Christian volunteers.

As a board member wrapping up my sixth year, it’s particularly gratifying to be a part of events like this and see the oldest and the youngest generations coming together for fellowship and celebration for the mothers, fathers, and children who have been served over the past year and helped in difficult times.

This was a somewhat bittersweet year in light of Edel Finnegan’s impending departure as executive director after more than a dozen years. She and Fr. Chris Walsh and others spoke eloquently on the issues facing us, and the ways in which we can all witness to a culture of life that respects the dignity of all persons.