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.