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.

State College changes

Robbie Rockwell at Onward State wrote to a bunch of Penn State alumni recently, asking for memories of the ways in which State College has changed over the years. I didn’t write, but my friend Chris Buchignani did. After his time as a student in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he decided to settle in State College. I’m sharing a portion of what he shared with Onward State:

Town and campus have changed so much in the 20 years I have lived here, you wouldn’t believe it. Commercial development along the North Atherton corridor has exploded. Campus roads have been closed or rerouted (Pollock Road once connected to Atherton; Shortlidge once connected Pollock and Curtin). Countless new buildings have been constructed (including Business, Forestry, Architecture, Law, IST, Science, and Hockey). The HUB has been renovated and expanded twice. Rec Hall and the IM Building have been expanded. The new Schlow Library has been built. The State Theatre repurposed and reopened. A total overhaul of State College High School is rapidly progressing, while Memorial Field has been tinkered with more times than I can count. These are a fraction of the substantial changes, and they’ve all occurred over just the last two decades.

The guts of the Nittany Valley are timeless and ageless, but we get some plastic surgery practically every year.

What I want to know is what big changes have occurred on or off campus that were particularly surprising or upsetting to you?

I lived in Toftrees for several years and absolutely loved the proximity to nature and illusion of isolation offered by the dense woods up there. The amount of development in the last several years is absolutely heart-breaking to me, so much clear-cutting. There was a charming character to the place that is irreparably diminished.

Were there any places that you spent a lot of time at that were torn down for something new?

I definitely think of the short-lived roller hockey rinks along Bigler Road that lasted less than a decade after their construction before they were demolished to make way for Millennium. Lots of pick-up and league games were played there, and it was a shame to lose that resource.

While it was not demolished, I also feel compelled to pour one out for the Playland Arcade on College Avenue. A relic of a bygone era for sure, but also a long-time beloved hangout for students and townies alike where I once inexplicably spent $10 in quarters to beat CarnEvil. Here’s a fun short documentary that tells its story.

How do you feel about high rises being built downtown? 

I have mixed feelings. I suspect, based on recent conversations, that some of my friends in The Nittany Valley Society feel more strongly than I do. While I think the process that got us to this point was basically a mess, I’m glad the Fraser Center is now a thing and not a giant hole surrounded by a dangerous, rusty fence. I am open to the new construction and think it has its place. I hope we’ll have the foresight to keep it to the periphery of the Downtown and not compromise the distinctive “college town” character of the main drag. That is a cultural resource for this place that could be mismanaged or squandered as surely as a natural resource.

What was a popular bar or restaurant that is no longer around? 

For me, it’s the Sports Cafe (once known as the Sportscenter), home of Tears of the Lions wings and $2 Michelob Amber Bocks. It was located on the corner of College and Burrowes where Noodles & Company is today. Huge projection TVs inside, outside deck seating in the front, pool tables in the basement, and zero belief in capital reinvestment. It was great. I gathered with hundreds of fellow Penn Staters to share many great (and not so great) moments in sports. I’m a Cubs fan, so this October, I went to Noodles & Co the day after the Series and got my picture taken in the exact spot where I stood to watch the Steve Bartman play. The Gingerbread Man deserves a nod, and I assume Rotelli’s closing is still fresh in the local memory, so Sports Cafe is the one.

Are there any things that were torn down or renovated for the better; meaning were some places on campus just a pain to have to go to? 

I never kept a car in Lot 80, but by all accounts, that is one campus change that no alumni will lament. If I’m not mistaken, Lot 80 was cleared out to make way for Katz and/or the Arboretum. The H.O. Smith Arboretum has been one of the nicest, most welcome additions to campus during my time here. It’s a great spot and keeps getting better. I hope they’ll get a planetarium soon.

I should also mention the studio facilities for The LION 90.7fm. The station was hidden away on the second floor of the Burrowes Building when I was a student and made the long-overdue move to the HUB (behind the fish tanks) in 2003. The new space in the HUB expansion is the best ever – it’s a tremendous resource for the organization, and I’m very appreciative of Dr. Sims and the Student Affairs leadership who prioritized that.

God willing, we will one day add Hammond Building to this list. it’s a truly miserable eyesore.

Can you think of any new editions to campus or downtown that you wish were there during your time at State?

Pegula. Easily. I had the extreme pleasure of getting to cover Icers hockey for The LION, and Coach Battista was exceedingly gracious with his time throughout. It was impossible to be around him and not feel the infectious passion he had for Penn State hockey and the dream of a top-flight varsity program. Many times I would sit in Greenberg as the crowd went wild and think, “What if this were a real arena, with ‘We Are’ chants going back and forth across the ice as we played Michigan or Ohio State?” It was a wild dream then, and I still can’t quite believe it’s become such a successful reality. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the Roar Zone.

How do you feel about the lack of open space and large buildings being put in like the Milenium Science Complex?

I’m not sure lack of open space is problem, at least not yet. We still have the IM fields and the Arboretum, and being a local, I know that the Centre Region maintains a sprawling parks system that is relatively accessible to the student population. That said, I did experience some melancholy as I watched the Thomas Building expand and then the Millennium Science Complex cover over what were once open fields. I spent so many happy hours in college playing sandlot football games on Pollock Fields – one of my best memories. No future generations will get to make more of those, plus it’s a damn shame to see the site of one of my all-time favorite athletic accomplishments covered over (a brutal block to clear out the lane for a punt return touchdown – it was a thing of beauty).


Philadelphia’s peripheries

I was driving through Philadelphia earlier today, specifically from my office on Logan Circle to the Schuylkill Expressway to get out of the city. I snapped this photo as I was waiting at a red light, about to merge onto the expressway.

The city is changing, most obviously with the near-topping-out of the latest Comcast tower to the far left. The Cira Center looms large on the right. Much more is planned and potentially starting this year on that side of the Schuylkill River in University City. Plenty of other large and smallish projects throughout Center City.

But I wonder how much is being done to create vibrant neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Not much, I suspect.

Places like Manayunk continue to thrive, but the poorest neighborhoods and those in transition like Brewerytown don’t seem to be developing coherent cultures of their own in the way a place like Manayunk has, or in the myriad ways that Center City enjoys from river to river.

The health of Philadelphia over the course of the long 21st century will be determined as much by the development of the cultures of these neighborhoods on the periphery as it will by the redevelopment and jobs available in Center City and West Philadelphia.

Fingers crossed.