Cultureless ciphers

Patrick Deneen paints a harsh but not untrue portrait of the state of American education:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present. …

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words …

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends …

Conservatism and T.S. Eliot

Roger Scruton writes on T.S. Eliot, prefaced by this from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

Conservatism as understood by Burke and Eliot, isn’t blind adherence to tradition but the ability to immerse oneself in and clearly see present realities. Conservatism’s eye to the present makes it a modern animal.

What was T.S. Eliot about and why does his thinking resonate and endure? Scruton writes:

T. S. Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination—even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it. …

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture. …

The Waste Land was later republished with notes in which Eliot explained some of his references and allusions, such as that contained in the title, which alludes to the Fisher King of the Parsifal legend, and The Waste Land over which he presides, awaiting the hero who will ask the questions that will destroy winter’s bleak enchantment and renew the world. The allegory of modern civilization contained in this reference to the medieval fertility cults, and their literary transformation in Arthurian romance, was not lost on Eliot’s readers. Nor was it the first time that these symbols and legends of medieval romance had been put to such a use—witness Wagner’s Parsifal, to which Eliot refers obliquely, by quoting from Verlaine’s poem.

Nevertheless, there was a peculiar poignancy in the very erudition of the poem, as though the whole of Western culture were being brought to bear on the desert landscape of the modern city in a last effort to encompass it, to internalize it, and to understand its meaning. The use of anthropological conceptions parallels Wagner’s use of the Teutonic myths. (In The Waste Land there are more quotations from Wagner than from any other poet.) Eliot is invoking the religious worldview—and in particular the sense that life’s renewal depends upon supernatural forces—but as a fact about human consciousness, rather than an item of religious belief. In this way, he was able to avail himself of religious ideas and imagery without committing himself to any religious belief. As he was rapidly discovering, without religious ideas the true condition of the modern world cannot be described. Only by describing modernity from a point of view outside of history can we grasp the extent of our spiritual loss.

After The Waste Land Eliot continued to write poetry inspired by the agonizing dissociation, as he saw it, between the sensibility of our culture and the available experience of the modern world. …

Culture seems to me to be a necessarily directed thing, meaning that it’s not just a word used to describe community habits or ways of being together, but rather that culture and its roots in the cultus is concerned with elevating and holding sacred certain things, while marking out those things which are not life-giving. Scruton writes on how Eliot thought of culture and democracy as parallel and perhaps oppositional forces:

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world, and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. …

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated—a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is.

And Scruton on how Eliot thought of religion not simply as dogma, but as something with a rooted and timeless character:

For Eliot, however, religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, should not be seen merely in Platonic terms as an attitude towards what is eternal and unchanging. The truth of our condition is that we are historical beings who find whatever consolation and knowledge is vouchsafed to us in time. The consolations of religion come to us in temporal costume, through institutions that are alive with the spirit of history. To rediscover our religion is not to rise free from the temporal order; it is not to deny history and corruption, in order to contemplate the timeless truths. On the contrary, it is to enter more deeply into history, so as to find in the merely transitory the mark and the sign of that which never passes: it is to discover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” which is, according to Four Quartets, the occupation of the saint. …

And finally here’s Scruton describing Anglican Christianity in a way I’ve never seen it described before:

For Eliot, therefore, conversion was not a matter merely of acknowledging the truth of Christ. It involved a conscious gesture of belonging, whereby he united his poetical labors with the perpetual labor of the Anglican church. For the Anglican church is peculiar in this: that it has never defined itself as “protestant”; that it has always sought to accept rather than protest against its inheritance, while embracing the daring belief that the truths of Christianity have been offered in a local form to the people of England. It is a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community. And in order to fit itself for this role, the Anglican church has, through its divines and liturgists, shaped the English language according to the Christian message, while also bringing that message into the here and now.

Kevin Williamson wrote on Elon Musk and Eliot’s The Waste Land recently.

‘Better now and unimaginably changed’

I saw this excerpt on Twitter from a conversation with Nick Cave; a brief meditation on the death of his son:

It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madness exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that led us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

If “infinities of experience” can exist in finite creatures like us, it makes sense to me that our fate is not ultimately finite, either.

Notre Dame at Northwestern

I caught the South Shore Line from South Bend Airport to Chicago’s Millennium Station as Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” conference was close to winding down on Saturday in order to catch Notre Dame at Northwestern’s Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.

It was a beautiful day, and the game was close right up until the final few minutes at which point it was raining steadily and quite cold. We caught an Uber back into the city afterwards.

Higher Powers

Notre Dame’s 2018 Fall Conference was a good and worthwhile experience, focused on the theme of “Higher Powers”. I was fortunate to meet Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Rod Dreher for the first time, and many other good people. Here’s context on the conference:

What is the proper relationship between God, the human person, and the state? In a 1993 address, Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that, “having refused to recognize the unchanging Higher Power above us, we have filled that space with personal imperatives, and suddenly life has become a harrowing prospect indeed.” Twenty-five years after Solzhenitsyn’s address, and one hundred years after his birth, the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference will consider how every human pursuit can be oriented toward higher powers and reflect on the true measures of social progress, the role of morality in law and politics, and the dynamics of liberty, dignity, self-sacrifice, and the good in public life.

Daniel J. Mahoney’s conversation/interview with Ignat Solzhenitsyn on “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Art and Truth in a Fearsome Century” was the highlight of the conference for me. Other highlights were Alasdair MacInytre’s talk “Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland” as well as Adrian Vermeule’s “Liberalism and the Invisible Hand”. Carter Snead moderated the closing colloquy on “Catholicism and the American Project“, which provides glimpse into a wide and deep debate within American Catholicism on how to Catholics are to move forward in this country in the 21st century.

The colloquium “I Shall Write My Law Within Their Hearts” moderated by Rev. Séan Mac Giollarnáth, O. Carm. was also very good. It featured Hon. Thomas Donnelly (Loyola University) who spoke on “Freeing Law from Legalism”, Marianna Orlandi (University of Padua) who spoke on “Judges Who Refuse ‘Higher Powers,’ and Judges Who Die for Them: An Italian Case on Assisted Suicide, and on Sanctity” and Bernard Prusak (King’s College) who spoke on “The USCCB and the U.S. Supreme Court on Cooperation with Evil”.

Donnelly advocated the restoration of the U.S. jury trial to common practice and the habit of judges not hiding behind a technocratic method of rendering judgment, but instead fully engaging their cases as moral agents. Orlandi contrasted public disengagement from moral issues in the case of suicide by physician and contrasted this with the witness of Rosario Livatino, a young Italian judge murdered by the mafia who is now a Servant of God. Prusak spoke on the danger of all public questions of moral philosophy and moral reasoning being distilled to a narrow set of “religious liberty” issues in constitutional practice, making the point that many if not most so-called “religious” questions in American law are not properly theological disputes that are, consequently, unresolvable in law, but are in fact generally issues of moral philosophy and moral reasoning.

All Saints and All Souls

I’m at Notre Dame for the Center for Ethics & Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference. This year’s theme is “Higher Powers”. Since I got into town late on Halloween, and am marking All Saints and All Souls days while here, I thought I would pay my respects to the dead at Notre Dame’s Cedar Grove Cemetery on campus:

Cedar Grove Cemetery provides a dignified Christian burial to members of the Notre Dame community. By setting aside a holy place for burial, Cedar Grove Cemetery offers a fitting environment for full liturgical celebrations. Just as in life, we believe that in death the human body deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We also foster a type of remembering that is enlightened by faith and sees death as a bridge to the Communion of Saints. Our bond with the believing is not broken by death.

We celebrated mass with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. It’s a beautiful time of year to be on campus.

Writing as a habit

Seth Godin writes:

For years, I’ve been explaining to people that daily blogging is an extraordinarily useful habit. Even if no one reads your blog, the act of writing it is clarifying, motivating and (eventually) fun.

A collection of daily bloggers I follow have passed 1,000 posts (it only takes three years or so…). Fortunately, there are thousands of generous folks who have been posting their non-commercial blogs regularly, and it’s a habit that produces magic.

Sasha, Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan add value to their readers every day, and I’m lucky to be able to read them. (I’m leaving many out, sorry!) You’ll probably get something out of reading the work of these generous folks, which is a fabulous side effect, one that pays huge dividends to masses of strangers, which is part of the magic of digital connection.

I’ve been writing or sharing something daily for a few years now, but Seth Godin has been doing it for much longer. I think he’s right that daily writing is “a habit that produces magic”, at least for me insofar as it’s helped me learn to be accountable to myself first.

When I write here, I sometimes think about the possibility that these words will be read by friends or family generations from now. I also realize there’s a possibility some of these words might never really be read by anyone. Both outcomes are alright.

I’ve written here before that I think it will be amazing to future generations that we who were so connected generally said and left behind so little. We share and post and engage on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, but we rarely share coherent stories there, or narratives or anything other than little vignettes. Even assuming those those networks preserve that content, the idea of grandchildren or anyone else trying to make sense of most of it will be like sifting through the charred remains of family letters after a fire; what’s there will still be valued, but very little will tie together.

What got them up in the morning? What did they believe about the world? When did they decide to start a family? What were their challenges and triumphs?

We can think and write out loud now, and if we’re comfortable being a little vulnerable in doing so, we might do more than just create a record of the sort of things we’re doing and experiencing and thinking about—we might just foster a culture that’s a bit more empathetic and connected, too.

And no, writing doesn’t require having an audience in mind and it doesn’t require being perfct. Develop a voice, then speak.

Mirra Mitta and the occult

Happy Halloween. Ryan Briggs shares an incredible account of the Victorian-era cult of “Mirra Mitta” in South Philadelphia:

The stench of death hung heavy along South 11th Street in 1905. The smell had grown so bad that neighbors had gone to the local police district to complain. They claimed that a crazed man and woman were guarding a dead body inside a row house near Washington Avenue. They had been barring the door for weeks and, judging by the smell, the corpse had entered a state of advanced decay. There were flies covering the shutters of a rear bedroom of the building.

But they also recounted unbelievable details. Strange rituals went on inside and the residents of the home, which they had for years referred to as “House of Mystery,” worshipped a woman who they said could grant eternal life. …

On South 11th Street, they would find two gaunt and aged guardians barring the entrance to a row house that reeked of death. Even from the doorway it was clear the brick home had been transformed into a temple, replete with an alter and portraits of a woman called “Mirra Mitta” stationed astride Jesus Christ.

The elderly pair, Caroline Lang and John Rapp, said they were the last two followers of this woman, who they described as the manifestation of the biblical Holy Spirit made real on Earth. Although Mirra Mitta had died nearly two decades earlier, they had been here ever since, fasting, praying, and awaiting their goddess’ return, awaiting eternal life. For years, Lang, who called herself a high priestess, had barely left the house. …

Ryan Susurrus, an expert and lecturer on cults in Philadelphia, says that Meister was in many ways a product of her time. In the mid-19th century, interest in the occult, seances, and esoteric religion was sweeping across Europe and North America. The spread of Enlightenment ideas, the introduction of new belief systems through the spread of colonialism, and the prevalence of death in new, industrialized urban centers all contributed to this new interest in the unknown.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that spiritualism and seances were once commonplace here. This was a cottage industry. And there was a lot of focus on immortality and of one person being the conduit to mastering death and what’s beyond, very much like a medium,” Susurrus says. “People saw so much death in their lives, then. Someone who says, ‘I’m the mainline to immortality and conquering death and its only through me that you’ll access that,’ that was so appealing.” …

If Meister learned anything from these embarrassing public ordeals it was only the necessity of discretion. At this point, Anna Meister disappears from public record, never to be seen again.

Her birth name would not be mentioned in newsprint again until after her death nearly three decades later, the head of a powerful cult that had been operating in secret, known as the “Holy Ghost Society.”

By then she would only be known as “Jehovah Elimar Mirra Mitta”–“The Daughter of Jehovah, Mirra Mitta”–a name she had taken to her grave.

I think at least part of the problem with the occult, and a reason for prayer for Mirra Mitta and those like her, is the problem of confusing an awareness of the transcendent with themselves being the cause of transcendence.

I’m in transit to Chicago and then South Bend today for Notre Dame’s “Higher Powers” fall conference, well-timed for the start of November and a month traditionally focused on remembrance of the dead and prayer for their souls. An endearing little moment in the airport, heard over the speaker at one of the gates: “As your unofficial sponsor of Halloween, JetBlue is now welcoming priority passengers including ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and zombies to board at this time.”

‘You might be the source of your own pain’

Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, reflects in an unexpectedly beautiful way on the good life after she was literally hit by a bus:

Sin is like this in that one small lapse can cause great damage. The split second in which I did not see the bus resulted in the breaking of my body and the torment of physical and emotional pain—damage that will take months to heal. Likewise, even small decisions by those in positions of power to look the other way, to fail to see or heed, can result in a multiplicity of brokenness in the church body—brokenness that, like the fractures in my body, must be tended to with great care, time, and skill in order to prevent deformity and malformation from setting in.

Sin is like this in the way its consequences roll like a small snowball into a heaving avalanche. The moment in which I failed to see the bus rendered profound costs for many other people: the members of the medical teams serving in the ambulance crew, emergency room, and the trauma unit; the other patients sharing space and resources in an overcrowded hospital; the witnesses to my accident, one of whom, a fellow believer, connected with me through the increasingly small world of social media and blessed me with her prayers, but who needs prayers herself because of what she and her husband saw that morning; the family and friends whose lives are directly impacted by the care, concern, and service they offer now out of their love for me. Even when the original error seems small and insignificant, sin’s toll is infinite.

Sin is like this in that it’s terrifying to acknowledge that you might be the source of your own pain as well as the pain of others. Sin is like this in that it’s easy, when facing this truth, to become entangled by self-pity, regret, and a sense of helplessness.

And yet, the God of the universe doesn’t leave us alone in our own error. He offers help in the form of people made in his likeness, whether they be strangers who reflect the image of God by intervening out of compassion or brothers and sisters in Christ who serve as his hands and feet in our time of need.

God also intervenes through the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered on our behalf to remove our pain once and for all, not here on this old earth but in the new earth to come: a new earth where busy crosswalks will become streets of gold, where buses will be replaced by horse-drawn chariots, where medical personnel will make way for the Great Physician, and where every tear wrought by our own sin—and by those who have sinned against us—will be wiped away.

But to ignore our sin, to refuse to repent of it once it has been pointed out to us, is as disastrous as ignoring a massive bus bearing down on us.

What a gift she has to write in such a penetrating way after something so physically traumatic. I’ve had this excerpted for a long while sitting in my notes, and keep coming back to it.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.