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 Nittany Valley Press and encourage a spirit of cultural conservation in Central Pennsylvania 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.

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.

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:

Pontifical John Paul II Institute conference

A few years ago I joined Matt Kuhner in Washington for the John Paul II Institute’s Dignitatis Humanae conference. It took place Feb. 21-23, 2013 and I wrote on the experience at the time and am sharing that now:

Dignitatis Humanae is the Declaration on Religious Freedom issued during the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in 1965. This was my first experience of the John Paul II Institute and it was as fresh and revitalizing as it was grounding. It was not so much the intellectual depth of the speakers as the earnestness of those I met there that have left me with admiration for the work of Dr. David L. Schindler and the Institute.

Dr. Schindler, recently profiled as the “Philosopher of Love,” has set about articulating what is something like a wholly new vision for modernity—so the stakes of the conference were not low. In short the “metaphysics of liberalism” which undergird our culture, argues Schindler, are inadequate to the task of ensuring the survival of Constitutional promises of things like limited government, the separation of church and state, human rights, and religious freedom. Instead, Dr. Schilder presents a “metaphysics of love.”

Excerpting from The American Conservative profile:

Schindler’s argument is multifaceted, but as his son David C. Schindler draws it out inBeing Holy in the World, on one level it goes like this: by asking Christians to “bracket” their metaphysical commitments for purposes of public order, liberalism essentially asks them to accept a different metaphysics—indeed, a different theology. Christianity does not present itself as just one pre-critical commitment among others, but as the matrix or “paradigm” of rationality itself. One either rejects that claim, and is therefore not a Christian, or one accepts it as a Christian as the basis for reflection and understanding. There can be no middle, “bracketing” way.

For the Christian, the only adequate notion of reality is one that grows out of a Trinitarian understanding of the logosThe Trinitarian life of God means that love, as we have seen, is at the heart of the structure and meaning of being. But we do not really receive that logos as a logos unless we see that it grounds and transforms our understanding of everything. It is the furthest thing possible from a truth claim that might safely be bracketed from public discussion. Thus, “bracketing” one’s Christian commitments from one’s thinking at any time, as liberalism demands, is to be not only false to Christianity, but to be false to reality.

In this way, all of our political, economic, legal, and religious institutions are necessarily grounded in some conception of order—in a metaphysics—even if they reject or ignore the Christian claim. From the Christian view, liberal institutions foster a problematic “mode of being”—a distorting matrix for the formation of our intentions, attitudes, and ideas. Thus, the idea that just putting “good people,” or at least those with the “right ideas,” into political office will make a decisive cultural difference is insufficiently attentive to the shaping power of this matrix in a liberal regime.

To attempt to imperfectly translate this, Marshall McLuhan’s timeless insight that the “medium is the message” might be applied here. The medium of contemporary life is the medium of liberal democracy—this medium, for better or worse, is the message. It “messages” in shaping our basic assumptions, in nurturing and directing our public and private thought, and in determining the ways in which we will live. In other words, there is no neutral social order.

Schindler argues that the hidden metaphysics of liberalism is instrumentalism. Put another way, its ontology is technology, the necessary result of bracketing the “logic of love proper to created being.” Despite its overt intentions, liberalism therefore fosters relations of power rather than love: mutual manipulation rather than human dignity and freedom. It marginalizes the weak and the vulnerable, as is obvious precisely in the “intrinsic evils” that understandably preoccupy today’s Catholic bishops. Such marginalization is central to its logic.

If proximity to power is the measurement by which we live—that is, if we seek power or closeness to it as a means to the good life—we are destined to raise ourselves and lower others or other things as less central to reality in our seeking of power. This is my certainly imperfect and perhaps even flatly wrong way of understanding this excerpt.

All of this is to share a bit of what underlies, to my understanding, the work of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. I’ve cheated here in the sense that I haven’t done much to describe the actual debate over Dignitatis Humanae. I’ll do so with just one sentence: By the end of the three-day conference, there seemed to be a consensus that Natural Law has become an insufficient framework for appealing either amongst ourselves or to others as a common basis for reason.

As I am one working in the area of technology and with specific interest as to whether it can be used in a humane way, this conference was a treat and a wonder—one of those all too infrequent experiences that opens up an entirely new universe of thought at once provocative and humbling.

Conserving what’s already lost

Ben Novak wrote in response to recent posts in Pierre Ryckmans, and I want to share that here. Ben makes an important point worth sharing.

I asked yesterday: “What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death?” I further suggested that without something like spiritual feelings for the physical things, the physical things alone didn’t matter. Ben’s caveat:

I have to take a little exception to your last sentence. Sometimes the feeling goes away for a long period of human time. Then it is most necessary to preserve words or monuments or places, even though they fail to stir men’s minds, for they must be carried through such dry, stony, and desert-like times so that they will be available for when minds are needful of them, and ready once again to be stirred by them.

Those who carry such things through the dry and stony times are those with sufficient imagination such that, though they and their times have no need or perhaps no capacity to respond to the words, they nevertheless can imagine times and men in the future who will. So, the word or words or monuments or places have a double function: first of inspiring men directly to respond to them in action; and second, of inspiring men to have imagination and faith.

At any given time, certain things can seem to be without meaning. Yet then the sun brightens and new light reveals something that wasn’t seen before. A thing that might seem lost (or without purpose) can still be conserved in the hopes that light will reveal its nature to new observers.

I’m thinking of collegiate architecture as a way to apply this point. We can’t tear down in any one generation what previous generations have built up simply because we’re not enthralled with its aesthetic or practical value. While the traditional, elegant buildings tend to have obvious worth, even the little cottages and more recently the uglier buildings of the 1950s-70s deserve conservation in some cases. Because without something glaringly different to jar a future generation out of its own fascinations, a campus can become stiflingly uniform on the one hand or saccharine on the other.

It’s worth at least considering conserving things that consensus/common sense would instinctively reject—because in matters of taste, what’s common is more often simply common to a single generation. And the future deserves to hear and see more of reality than just one generation’s sense of what was important.

Conserving the timeless and fleeting

I wrote the other day about Pierre Ryckmans, and want to share another aspect of his New York Review of Books feature that struck me. It deals with concepts I’ve been working through for a while relating to locality, sense of place, and cultural memory:

In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.

I think a worthy challenge lies in attempting to live out a reconciliation between Eastern and Western tradition—in embracing the worth and place of tradition and real tributes and monuments and markers as “timeless” symbols in the same way the written word might, while also embracing their fleeting nature.

What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death? We have to be moving toward something, with some metaphysical basis for virtue, to understand that the sweetness of our tributes and memorials isn’t really sweet at all if those things don’t lead to a stirring in our souls, and a visibility in our own lives.

If “the word remains” but the heart has lost its capacity for feeling, then words become worthless. We have to be moved, transported, utterly awed by history for it to matter.

Remedying cultural malaise

Nathan Huffstutler writes:

I have a confession to make: I’m almost to the point where I don’t want to follow the news anymore.

Life can be exhausting in a nation of people who are constantly outraged at something. People seem to be losing a sense of respect for others. Our corporate and political leaders seem to be getting more arrogant, more corrupt, and less willing to actually solve problems.

But in the midst of this frantic, stressful world, I’m thankful for the moments when I can sit down and read a book. I’m especially thankful for writers who help me slow down and stay sane. One of them is Welsh poet R. S. Thomas. ….

Thomas’s poetry offers several ways to stay sane in dark times:

1. We can reconnect with nature

Thomas’s poetry reminds us that despite its flaws, this world is a beautiful place, and life itself is a gift. Thomas paid close attention to the beauty of his land, and his poetry shows an eye for detail.

2. We can focus on the individuals in our local communities, not huge, abstract problems out of our control

Despite his frustration with changes in his world, Thomas was fascinated by the people of his community, and his poetry includes some amazing sketches of individual human beings.

3. We can remember people of the past who have found hope in dark times

Thomas seems to have been deeply afflicted with depression and doubt. And yet he disciplined himself to remember the community of souls who had gone through dark times before, and who had found hope.

Huffstutler is writing about one particular poet, but draws out three core principles for living a healthy life. It’s about this time every four years that I get about as sick as possible from the media maelstrom of the national election season. Obviously this cycle it’s particularly bad. Withdrawing at least mentality but maybe also physically from the scene of this drama can be a healthy response.

Little renaissances

Are you watching Stranger Things this summer? I did. I loved it, and I love Gracy Olmstead’s reflections on why so many have.

Among other things, Stranger Things “reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything.”

Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end. …

“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes [Josef] Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.”

This is the thing about tradition, so often maligned as the milieu of the dead or the playpen of the romantics. Properly encountered, tradition isn’t a means of robotically re-enacting the past, but rather it’s a means of entering into a way of being, or a way of experiencing, the world in communion with the past, but with a character and tone wholly distinct and particular to the time.

Every little renaissance is an echo of the past as much as it is an echo of the future.

Nonprofit board engagement

An article from the Association of Governing Boards came across my radar, and I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, because I think it provides a framework for boards on how to create a culture where there is genuine engagement. Second, because it echoes many of weaknesses of the Penn State Board of Trustees leading up to the Sandusky scandal—you’ll get the full sense of this if you read the article. Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of Chicago’s DePaul University writes:

In 2004, a board-effectiveness study revealed broad dissatisfaction among the trustees that the board’s executive committee met two weeks before every single meeting and essentially predetermined the outcomes of the major decisions brought before the board. The study also revealed that the executive committee members themselves felt that the decisions were largely predetermined by the board’s chair and two vice chairs, who in turn felt the administration was choreographing the board leadership’s work.

When board members are disengaged, they’re not performing their function. Whether a board becomes this way because of an overly strong executive committee or just malaise, it’s time for change.

We pushed decision making from the executive committee into the full board, and from the full board down into the committees, all to better engage board members. We focused on recruiting new members to fit the specific strategic initiatives of the university and created a stream of ad hoc, short-duration task forces to advance various key strategic initiatives.

And slowly, as we repopulated the board and educated the members, we shifted the board’s conversation to strategy. The annual budget approval process is now a strategy conversation.

When smart people start thinking in diverse (and sometimes necessarily divergent) ways about the strategy guiding their organization, you’ve got the makings of a dynamic group. Committees can be great ways to channel that sort of dynamism and work out strategy when a common vision for the future is lacking. The result?

… shifting the authority matrix of the board away from the executive committee and down toward the committees—that created an even more notable improvement in board engagement.

I think any board member should serve with at least a private mental sense of what his or her term length will be, and then engage in the work of the board based on that mental clock.

“Board Engagement” is simply how we describe members who recognize that their time is finite, and value their organization’s time and their personal time enough to get to work.

Conservatives oppose ugliness

As a follow-on to yesterday, I want to share part of a piece written by Reid Buckley a few years ago:

When last did you hear a conservative spokesman deplore yet another six-lane highway, yet another fast-food alley, yet another graceless subdivision, yet another Super Wal-Mart or Lowe’s that sucks the life out of small village businesses, yet one more onslaught against neighborhood and nature that is masked under the name of progress? Unless it is a bridge in Alaska from nowhere to nowhere, you will not hear the deepest red-dyed congressman denounce the progressive uglification of our natural inheritance, as though beauty is of no concern. Have you flown recently from Newport News to Boston at 25,000 feet on a clear day and gazed down upon the horror of American civilization? What man hath wrought! What we have done to this beautiful land? Dear God, forgive us! But when last did you hear a conservative oppose a new mall because it is ugly, an affront to the eye, accustoming thousands of human beings to dehumanizing blows against the aesthetic sense until it is benumbed? The good, the true, and the beautiful are inseparably joined. One cannot damage one without doing harm to the others.

This relates to something I’ve written about before, which is that when people love their communities they’re more likely to take part in shaping its environment. They’re more likely to be a part of the civic mediating institutions that influence the sort of things that Buckley writes about.

One of the reasons I think environmentalists get lost in abstractions is because it seems like they often forget that humanity is a part of the landscape. I’m not sure environmentalism per se matters without a recognition that the beauty of the natural world is worth conserving because people exist to admire and enjoy themselves as part of it.

This is why I think the cultivation of a personal interest is the first-order concern of environmentalism, and that appeal is most effective when revealing the beauty of the wild world and the inexplicability of our place in it.