Cultural Conservation

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Vision for Penn State Greeks

    I remember touring Beta Theta Pi a few years ago. It was over Arts Fest in 2013, and I had been invited along with some others to see inside the new crown jewel of Penn State’s fraternity system.

    An alum had contributed a huge sum of $6+ million to entirely renovating the historic fraternity basically from floor to ceiling and now that it was in physically excellent shape, Penn State administrators had been making a show of the place and talking on their website, their magazines, and everywhere in between about what a model Beta would be for fraternities. Beta had cameras throughout for monitoring conduct in its public spaces. It had a house mother to help regulate basic administration of the property. It had a working relationship with Schreyer Honors College, if I remember correctly—or at least a minimum GPA requirement and other superlative standards for membership. And it had been reformed as a dry chapter.

    It was a lovely story, and one I was tempted to believe. If anything could work to pull Greek life away from the worst stereotypes of Animal House culture, maybe it was Penn State’s effort with Beta. I took some photos during my tour of the house that summer:

    It took less than a decade for Penn Staters to learn what we got in return for $6+ million in alumni generosity and a years-long PR-campaign from administration: one of the the worst breeding grounds for scandal and ultimately tragedy in modern Penn State fraternity history.

    After the terrible death of Timothy Piazza during a drinking party at Beta earlier this year, administrators hastily suspended the chapter and booted its members midway through the semester. And today, as criminal investigations continue into the total neglect of Beta brothers to look after a sophomore at their house, Penn State administrators announced there will no longer be a Beta chapter. I can’t help but marvel at what’s happened at/to Beta in so short a time.

    A Penn State challenge, not a Greek problem

    While the question of legal culpability for Timothy Piazza’s death is determined through the legal system, the larger question that we can all consider is the moral culpability of Penn Staters writ large—and administrators in particular—in modeling ethical and moral behavior for our 45 fraternities and dozens of sororities.

    I wasn’t in a fraternity at Penn State, but I care about fraternities and sororities because I believe in their potential as distinctive communities to form young boys and girls into men and women. I believe in this potential because we know that historically they did exactly this—particularly through ethical and moral formation and the development of brotherhood and sisterhood. (John Shakely, my grandfather, was in a fraternity at Penn State, and my grandmother Marion was in a sorority at Penn. I saw the formative impact those experiences had on them even late in life.) If nothing else, America desperately needs to rejuvenate social structures and experiences that cultivate character and singular men and women with confident and grounded senses of self who are capable of being strong threads in the communities they settle. Fraternities and sororities served that role once, and while we could get rid of them due to the nuisance they’ve become, it’s not clear we’d be any closer to some better system of social development for young people. Fixing them seems a far more worthwhile challenge than the easier route, which would be washing them down a drain that’s already clogged with cultural traditions jettisoned over the the last century.

    So I care a great deal about Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. I think the young people in them have largely been abandoned and left to their own idle and directionless ends for decades. After the death of Timothy Piazza, I was amazed at the number of older people so ready to condemn kids aged 18-22 for their negligence. I was amazed not because I condoned their negligence, but because I wondered what other than blame-shifting and poor behavior we could expect from the kids in an environment where they receive no meaningful ethical or moral instruction—or more importantly, actual modeled behavior.

    Penn State administrators did just about everything right in their renovation and reform of Beta except the most important thing in failing to provide any concrete sense of ethical or moral vision for a fraternity. Instead, they held up lofty words. But words have little meaning when divorced from behavior, and something our culture almost universally lacks today is the sort of sustained and authentic relationships where modeled behavior has a chance of influencing another person. Without relationships, words are just abstractions and bound for failure.

    Abstractions v. concretes

    Beta had words: “To Develop Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” Beta had a purported vision, which included things like “Betas will be universally known as friends, gentlemen and scholars” and “Beta Theta Pi will be acclaimed and respected by the academic community” and “Betas will be in high demand by leaders of business, government and the professions.” And Beta had a mission, which included things like “devotion to intellectual excellence” and “high standards of moral conduct and responsible citizenship.” Beta sought to cultivate “lifelong friendship” and “cultivation of the intellect” and “responsible leadership” and “responsible social conduct” and “commitment to community.”

    Beta shared, more or less, basically the same sort of vision and mission of every fraternity and sorority. Let me suggest that the problem with Beta’s words are that they’re abstractions. And abstractions can be bent to mean anything, or nothing.

    Aspirations (for fraternities and sororities especially) need to find expression in concrete habits and traditions and ways of being. You’re not “universally known as friends.” Instead, you’re “known as the smiling and stopping-to-help fraternity.” You’re not “devoted to intellectual excellence.” You’re the “top-tier engineering fraternity.” You’re not “committed to community.” You’re “the visiting-sick-and-elderly fraternity.” You’re not “developing men of principle.” You’re “a fraternity that attends mass/synagogue/mosque together.”

    These are the sort of specific habits and traditions that can sink into the bones of those involved. They’re not abstract, fluffy PR material constructed to earn “acclaim and respect” from the academy community.

    I’d bet every fraternity and sorority proclaims some sort of commitment to “intellectual excellence.” That’s a beautiful thing. If it’s true, then tell me: Where are the obviously and distinctly intellectual Greek students? Why aren’t they being spotlighted every fall at Homecoming? Why don’t any specific names immediately leap to faculty or administrators’ minds at every Board of Trustees meeting, so they’re thinking, “I need Trustee Such-and-such to meet fraternity-brother So-and-so.” More broadly, where are fraternities and sororities cultivating distinctive strengths? Let’s have fewer vague pleasantries about “commitment to philanthropy” and instead be able to answer specific questions like, “Point me to the jazz sorority, please.”

    We don’t literally need a “jazz sorority,” but we should be cultivating a Greek system as distinctive and full of obviously (and literally) remarkable men and women as we can. That’s what real community looks like.

    Not alcohol, but a lack of spiritual meaning

    Every time a tragedy at a fraternity or sorority happens, some alcohol or hazing or illicit behavior is cited as the problem. That’s certainly the case today:

    Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct among students are challenges at nearly every college and university across the country. Greek-letter communities throughout higher education are distinctly affected by these issues, and have generally failed to effectively address them through their self-governance processes. The same is true at Penn State, where research shows that fraternity and sorority members are four times more likely than the general student population to be heavy drinkers; sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted; and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

    A large part of the challenge stems from the autonomy these groups have assumed. Typically, colleges and universities cede ultimate responsibility to the organizations themselves, and while alumni boards and national organizations share part of that responsibility, the undergraduate members are often given broad latitude.

    I think the second paragraph could have been better written, but if its identification of “autonomy” is speaking to the need for better relationships between fraternity and sorority students with others, then I agree.

    What we need, though, are not legal relationships for the purposes of rear-end covering. We need the sort of authentic relationships with young people that can say something like: “You’re 20 years old, and have just joined a fraternity whose mission is to cultivate ‘principled men.’ How specifically are you going to achieve that, and how will you make amends if you fall short?”

    That’s the sort of question that hasn’t been asked for decades. And because no one in a position of authority has been asking that sort of question, young people have lost connection to ethical and moral vision and consequently what I’ll call a sense of “spiritual meaning” for what they’re doing in a fraternity or sorority in the first place.

    It’s for these reasons that I think the solution lies not in fixing the drinking problem, but fixing the spiritual void that leads to total, unregulated, and unrepentant public drunkenness and debauchery in the first place. It’s a spiritual problem, in other words.

    (I don’t mean to take this “spiritual meaning” problem too literally, but I have to point out that for the first 50 years of fraternity life at Penn State, something as specific as Sunday chapel attendance was mandatory for all students, not just fraternity and sorority students. There was a larger, common campus culture that rooted behavior. We’re less than 90 years removed from mandatory chapel, and many within living memory still remember how a practiced religious experience publicly shaped their lives and behavior, rather than simply serving as a sanitized, privatized “worship” service that wasn’t supposed to be seen or discussed in polite company.)

    Too many today will brush aside the idea of a “spiritual meaning” problem, and ignore the void of meaning that I think exists in the hearts of most people (not simply young fraternity and sorority members) and will instead decide that trying to better regulate alcohol consumption, or make already-illegal activities like hazing somehow more prohibited (one of today’s recommendations), will be a better way to help people. Down that path lies the dual fate of morally-pleasurable virtue signaling for the “helpers” and ultimately disaster for the “helped.”

    We can’t look to our collegiate peers for help. If someone else had fixed the root problems of Greek life, we would have heard about it. Continuing to adopt one another’s surface-level policy reforms won’t fundamentally change Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. That’s just a recipe for becoming derivative, and if that’s the plan, then we might as well close shop. No one seems to be doing any better, and that means we have an opportunity to lead rather than follow. To attempt to foster a whole sense of Penn State community again. If we want a better outcome than what we’ve got for nearly 50 years, we’ve got to consider different approaches.

    Do we really care?

    Do we really care? This is the uncomfortable question at the center of this conversation.

    If we care, we’ll figure out how to mandate that fraternity and sorority students have full-time older people who live with them and have meaningful power to regulate their personal behavior—not only through an enforceable code of conduct, but also by earning respect through real relationships and decades of personal investment.

    If we care, we’ll figure out how regular alumni (Greek and non-Greek) can be routinely and specifically invited into fraternities and sororities during special times of the year like Homecoming to be impressed by the talents and habits and traditions of young people, and those alumni will be given ways to form relationships with those young people. We’ll do this because we’re smart enough to remember that every passionate alumni giving relationship is simply one form of commitment to the community, and it’s well past time to cultivate deeper relationships with those graduates.

    If we care, the reaction of townspeople and administration and faculty will not be to first condemn or tsk-tsk fraternities and sororities at every turn, but to figure out how to model behavior and form relationships (and even publicly shame them when necessary) in ways that encourage a healthier way of being. When is the last time a professor, for instance, showed an interest in building up the sense of self of a fraternity or sorority student, let alone a chapter or the system? When have professors been encouraged by the Faculty Senate or administration to do this as a necessary part of earning tenure—or simply as something looked upon favorably during contract renewal season?

    As much as the students at Beta are morally culpable for Timothy Piazza’s death, so are Penn State administrators who have an obligation more directly than any other to elevate the Greek system. Today’s steps are small but important ones, but I can’t help but point out that Penn State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has lacked a leader for quite some time. (And its last prominent leader was most recently in the news on charges of disorderly conduct and prostitution.)  Today’s statement identifies “autonomy” as a large part of Greek life’s challenge, but it’s an autonomy that a generally indifferent administration has long seemed to be fine with—getting to condemn the Greek system’s worst cases of debauchery without ever being willing to insinuate itself into the day-to-day lives of those young men and women.

    (A key threat in today’s news is that future sanctions could result in Penn State declaring the entire Greek system dry. What kind of a plan is that, given that Beta itself was allegedly dry? We’re instructing students that the solution is to drink less, but we’re not instructing them in how to drink responsibly—which isn’t typically the same thing as simply drinking less.)

    It’s an indictment of administration, but also all of us in the larger Penn State community, that it’s taken a student’s death to even take today’s small steps toward changing something deeper than surface-level policy in viewing Greek problems as our whole community’s challenge rather than some vague sense that every generation of socially neglected 20 year olds have faulty ethics.

    Showing that we care

    Ours is a problem of spiritual meaning, and the solution lies somewhere near the cultivation of authentic relationships with the young people in fraternities and sororities that every Penn Stater should be encouraged to visit, know, mentor, and help elevate as distinctive members of our community.

    Featured photo credit

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Are you watching Stranger Things this summer? I did. I liked it, and I like 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.

  • 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.