Satisfying curiosities

On Abraham Flexner’s impact, and particularly on his insight into the usefulness of apparently useless knowledge:

Flexner’s Institute for Advanced Study is one of the greatest second acts in educational history. His first major triumph, of which we continue to be the beneficiaries, was the upgrading of medical education through tougher admissions and graduation standards, as well as a dedication to evidence-based teaching and research. Much of today’s medical school curriculum had its origins in the Carnegie Foundation’s 1910 “Flexner Report.” Taking Johns Hopkins (where he had studied classics) as a model, Flexner convinced some of the wealthiest men in America to donate massive sums for the establishment of modern, research-oriented medical schools at Chicago, Columbia, Rochester, and elsewhere. His efforts to transform the training of the nation’s physicians, as much as his founding of the Institute for Advanced Study, inspired the New York Times to say in a 1959 page-one obituary, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.”

Flexner succeeded in setting medical education on a modern scientific course through a powerful blend of knowledge, passion, and, perhaps most importantly, a knack for talking extremely wealthy people into following his lead. He next turned his potent skills toward changing the future itself. Surprisingly, in light of all of his efforts to enhance medical training, Flexner launched the Institute for Advanced Study by diverting a large gift that a wealthy family had planned to use to establish a new medical school. He convinced them instead to found a new sort of institution in Princeton, “a paradise for scholars who . . . have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Flexner’s pitch rested on a brief history of the major advances in science and medicine through the ages. He traced one well-known practical discovery after another back to its foundations in curiosity-driven, fundamental research that seemed, at the time, to have no possible connection with any sort of useful application. When one potential donor held up Marconi’s invention of the radio as the most useful event in modern science, Flexner reminded him that this was an instance of completely “useless” research in electromagnetic waves by Maxwell and Hertz half a century before being “seized upon by a clever technician.” Giants of Western science, from Galileo to Bacon, Newton, and many others, provided yet further evidence for Flexner’s basic insight: “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which . . . ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

Death of a White Oak

Bruce Shipkowski reports from Bernards, New Jersey (an hour west of Manhattan) on an incredible White Oak tree that lived for more than 600 years and became a part of American history:

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A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday… Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years. …

“I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I’m really going to miss seeing it,” said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.

The tree has been an important part of the community since the town’s inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.

Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. …

“It has been an integral part of the town, that’s for sure,” said Jon Klippel, a member of the church’s planning council. “It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We’ve been blessed to have it here.”

But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree’s acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.

Trees like this are natural landmarks, and special symbols of our country. I’m reminded of the old idea of planting trees at the founding of a new institution or public initiative as a symbolic act of the hope that whatever new thing takes root as the tree does, and flourishes for generations for the betterment of the people.

Trees matter.

First visits to Ave Maria

I was looking back through my old writings, and found the following reflection that I wrote in mid-March 2012 after visiting Ave Maria for what I think was my first or second visit there.

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia, riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor northward from Ave Maria, Florida. On the way down I had lunch with a woman who had never heard of the place, it being a town and university so freshly sprung.

For most of my time visiting, traveling, and working in Ave Maria the students were largely away on spring break. The exception was The Queen Mary Pub in the town square, the sole watering hole in Ave Maria and a place that ended up feeling like a second home, literally a place where everybody knows your name.

A few years after the founding of what was to become Penn State a lawmaker quipped that State College was a town “equally inaccessible from all parts of the state.” This isolation blessed the town with a separation from the day-to-day chaos of the world, providing a special atmosphere in which to learn. It’s also what helped cultivate the spirit of Happy Valley as a place “outside of time” in some sense.

I think much the same could be said for Ave Maria today, a college town that’s miles away from the nearest neighboring town on 5,000 acres of land near a 22,000 acre preserve. A special spirit could develop here, too. The place has existed here for fewer than five years, so time will tell.

In the center of the town there’s Ave Maria Oratory, a cathedral-like church. Outside the town square there are maybe 200 homes spread across the landscape. At night the sky is yours to behold in its fullness, while even in winter warm air tends to fill your lungs on an evening run. Children that ride bikes past one another on a street greet each other by name. It’s a deeply human place, even while still surrounded by marsh and swamp.

The “Notre Dame of the South,” I’ve heard it called, Ave Maria is an experiment in whether the values that once shaped both American and Catholic culture can be regenerated in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular time, whether old ways can again direct distinctly Christian lives.

“When we have broken from our god of tradition,
and ceased from our god of rhetoric,
then may God fire the heart with His presence.” 

—Emerson

Cato: A Tragedy

Reading Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy.” A few of my favorite parts:

Juba:

Honour’s a sacred tie, the law of kings,
The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,
That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her,
And imitates her actions where she is not

Sempronius:

Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence

Portius:

I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause,
And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in them.
‘Tis not in mortals power to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius — we’ll deserve it.

Bias against elderly people

I’m sure that young and old have been at odds since human beings emerged on the scene. Right now that’s playing out in terms of “Baby Boomers v. Millennials” complaining. That’ll change someday, and then it will be my generation’s fault, and we’ll criticize young people for their excesses.

These aren’t unique thoughts, but they’re two things I thought of recently as related reasons that younger people tend to be biased against elderly people.

First, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly have seen a lot, and this often makes them less enthusiastic and more skeptical of fresh ideas than younger people would like.

Second, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly are likely to know a lot by virtue of their long lives and their experiences “mining” different parts of the terrain of human experience. This makes the elderly possessors of different sorts of knowledge, sometimes acquired from deep “shafts” within the mine, and which can make younger people uncomfortable.

Maybe I’ll expand on these at some point, but if not at least wanted to jot them down for reflecting on in the future.

Democrats for Life membership

I’ve been following Democrats for Life of America for a while now, after discovering them last year. I’ve written about my perspective on building a culture of life in America, and specifically on the need to create a true spectrum of choice in terms of our thinking and public policies. I joined Democrats for Life as a basic member today because I heard good things about their recent conference in Philadelphia and particularly because I’m impressed with their successes in advancing the Pregnant Women Support Act through the Affordable Care Act:

The Pregnant Women Support Act – the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) is one of our proudest accomplishments. Signed into law as part of the Affordable Care Act, 17 States received PAF grants and are now helping pregnant women. It is not enough to simply oppose abortion; we must provide support and provide options for women facing unplanned or crisis pregnancies.

Senator Casey (D-PA) introduced legislation to expand the PAF. Please contact your Senator and urge him or her to support S. 144, the Pregnancy Assistance Fund Expansion Act.

Background:

DFLA proposed a comprehensive plan that will reduce the number of abortions by 95% in the next 10 years by promoting abstinence, personal responsibility, adoptions and support for women and families who are facing unplanned pregnancy. The 95-10 Initiative seeks to reduce the number of abortions in America through Federal, state and local efforts as well as support and encouragement to volunteers and dedicated people on the front lines helping pregnant women. Much attention has been given to ending abortion or keeping it legal. We believe that we must do more to reduce the abortion rate by helping and supporting pregnant women. …

We support helping pregnant women who wish to carry their children to term but because of lack of resources believe abortion is their only option. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Congressman Lincoln Davis (D-TN) and Pro-life Democrats in Congress who share this same commitment introduced the Pregnant Women Support Act in the U.S Senate and U.S House. The legislation is a comprehensive approach to provide support for pregnant women who want to carry their child to term. Most of the provisions were included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF).

Some of the programs included are:

  • establish a toll-free number to direct women to places that will provide support
  • collect accurate data on why women choose abortion
  • provide Pregnancy Counseling and Childcare on University Campuses
  • provide accurate information to patients receiving a positive result from prenatal testing
  • provide counseling in maternity group homes;
  • increase the adoption tax credit and it permanent
  • eliminate pregnancy as a pre-existing condition with respect to health care;
  • provide grants for ultrasound equipment;
  • support informed consent for Abortion Services;
  • increase awareness about violence against pregnant women;
  • require the SCHIP to cover pregnant women and unborn children;
  • provide free home visits by registered nurses for new mothers.

I would support Planned Parenthood if they no longer performed abortions, and instead focused on delivering on their pro-choice philosophy in a life-affirming way that equally supports both mother and child. In the meantime, measures like the ones Democrats for Life advocate are necessary steps toward public policy that recognizes that abortion should be “rare” as President Clinton envisioned. Today it’s not rare, and I have to think a huge part of the reason is because culturally we’re not empowering mothers and fathers to feel that they have any practical alternative other than abortion.

Good Friday and shamanism

Rod Dreher shares a really remarkable encounter he had with a young man in an airport recently:

On the bus north from the Denver Airport, I sat next to a clean-cut young white guy, maybe in his early 30s, who was well dressed, in a business casual way. Turns out he was a trained shaman transitioning to a real estate career. “Six months ago, I had hair down to my waist,” he said. It turned out that his Indian spiritual master told him to leave the reservation and return to the world, and take up a normal career. “That is your path,” he quoted the old man saying.

Turns out this guy had spent many years in South America, studying in various shamanic traditions. He knows a lot about ethnobotany. I could have talked to him all day. The conversation was deeply fascinating. At one point I lad my cards on the table, and told him I was an Orthodox Christian, and though I very much disagree with his metaphysical and spiritual take on the world, I do agree with him about the profound mystery of our existence. I tell you, this neopagan was in some ways talking like an Athonite monk.

“You cannot put God, or reality, in a box,” he said. “You just can’t. So many people figure if you can’t prove it, or can’t conceive of it, it doesn’t exist. I don’t even argue with those people. It’s fine with me if they think this way. I know that’s not true, because I have experienced so many things.” …

What that young man and I have in common is the conviction that the material world is not all there is. That living is an encounter with mystery. That most people, for whatever reason, cultivate deadness to that mystery, and to grace. Why? I didn’t ask him for his opinion, but my sense is that it frightens them.

Dreher quotes C.S. Lewis:

The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors—whether as themselves Christians they welcomed it, or like Gibbon deplored it as humanistic unbelievers—a unique, irresistible, irreversible event. But we’ve seen the opposite process. Of course, the unchristening of Europe in our time is not quite complete. Neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say, that while as all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, for us it falls into three, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. I’m not here considering either the christening or the un-christening at all from a theological point of view. I’m thinking of them simply as cultural changes. And when I do that, it seems to me that the un-christening is an even more radical change than the christening. Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with the post-Christian. The gap between those who worshipped different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who don’t.…

I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism. What lurks behind such prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows simple reversal, that Europe can come out of Christianity by the same doors she went in, and find herself back where she was. That isn’t the sort of thing that happens. A post-Christian man is not a pagan. You might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past…

Good Friday is a day we celebrate because a man who was God died to liberate us from meaninglessness, died to free us from the darkness and bring us into the light. We seem to be living through an historical interlude, where the memory of our Christian past is giving way to something new. I suspect that newness will turn out to be a new Christianity, rather than a truly post-Christian time.