Embrace the Pain: Living with the Repugnant Cultural Other

This is the text, more or less, of the talk I gave at Duke University last Monday afternoon. The talk is derived from one of the key concepts I employ in my recent book How to Think — Susan Friend Harding’s notion of the “repugnant cultural other” — but I have focused here on the university context. I have added some links that I hope will be useful. My thanks to the Kenan Institute for Ethics for inviting me, and especially to John Rose for making it all happen.

In what follows there are three things I will try not to say. I cannot promise that I will succeed in not saying them, but I will make every effort.

  1. I will try not to ask, in plaintive tones, “Why can’t we all just get along?“
  2. I will try not to make a plea for civility. (I best commend civility by practicing it myself rather than chastising other people for their failures to do so.)
  3. Above all, I will try not to exhort you to consider that you may be wrong. As G. K. Chesterton said about a century ago,

What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.

With those three commitments firmly in place, and with the promise that you’ll have a chance later on to tell me if I’ve failed to keep them, let me move on to one more preliminary thing.

I’m talking to you tonight about university education, and everything that I think about my topic is colored by my own experience. So let me just say quickly — and sorry if this sounds like one of those “in my day we walked five miles to school through the show, uphill both ways” stories — that I am the only member of my immediate or extended family to attend college. Neither of my parents even finished high school, though they did eventually take and pass the GED exam. Through much of my childhood my father was in prison, and my mother worked to support us while my grandmother effectively raised my sister and me. The expectation was that when I graduated from high school I would get a job and pay my own way; nobody thought that college made the least sense for people like us. As a result I ended up attending for my first two-and-a-half years what was then the local “commuter college,” the University of Alabama in Birmingham — I did not know that places like Duke existed — and paying for it myself by working 25 hours a week during term and full-time between terms. You could actually do that then, which, given the student loan burden that people carry today, is amazing to contemplate. In some ways I had it harder than most of you, in some ways easier; but it was certainly a different world in many respects, though most of the challenges I faced as a first-generation college student are still faced by first-generation college students today. Which is why my heart is always with them. Anyway, please just keep all that in mind, because that early experience is central to my understanding of the university today.

Now to the substance of the talk.

I sometimes feel that this is John Stuart Mill’s world, and we’re all just trying, with varying degrees of success, to learn how to live in it. Mill gets plenty of credit as the philosopher of the liberal social order, but I am not sure he gets enough. And tonight I want to set two brief quotations from Mill next to each other and see how they interact. Both quotations, not at all incidentally, are from Mill’s book On Liberty.

The first is a passage that has been much quoted in the last couple of years by people who believe that this nation’s universities are becoming ideologically uniform and hostile to genuine debate. It goes like this:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

And here’s the other one, Mill’s concise articulation of what has come to be known as the Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill had a quite carefully restricted definition of “harm,” but the Harm Principle as understood today has been extended to a wide variety of experiences, often, if not always, in ways that make perfect sense.)

I think we in the American academy are living through a moment in which these two statements seem to be in serious tension with each other. For what happens if, in my view, the opposite side of the case simply through its public presence does harm to me or to others?

There are many ways of talking about this general problem. I could speak of what the United States Supreme Court, in the notorious Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision of 1942, called “fighting words.” I could look at the long history of debates about the limits of free speech. That would be to put the debate in a legal context, and indeed there are always legal dimensions to these issues — especially for public universities, like UNC down the road, but often for private ones as well. Nevertheless, I’m going to set law aside for this talk, and turn my attention instead to the ways disagreement, even painful disagreement, works in a community of learning — and how it might work better.

I’m going to start by describing a phenomenon identified by the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding. As a graduate student, she decided that she wanted to do ethnographic work on a curious social group: fundamentalist Christians. She felt she had hit upon a useful project, focusing on an understudied group — and therefore was surprised and dismayed when her professors displayed considerable skepticism about the plan. In an essay she wrote some years later about the experience, she says that she gradually realized that they were all, in effect if not in so many words, asking her, “Are you now or have you ever been a fundamentalist Christian?” (An echo of the standard question of the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s: “Are you now or have you ever ben a Communist?”)

As Harding reflected on this unexpected and uncomfortable experience, she came to understand that fundamentalist Christians, in the mental world of her anthropological colleagues played a distinctive role which she came to call the Repugnant Cultural Other (henceforth abbreviated RCO). Of course, the sorts of peoples that one imagines anthropologists studying — Bedouins, or tiny communities in the Amazon basin or the highlands of Papua New Guinea — are certainly quite other to American academics, but they aren’t nearly as repugnant, for an obvious reason: they don’t impinge on the lives of those academics any more than the academics want. When an anthropologist flies back to Boston from Sudan, the Bedouins don’t come along. But fundamentalist Christians shop at the same grocery stores that you do — and worse yet, vote in the same elections. And attend the same universities.

The psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander puts the distinction this way: You have an Ingroup, an Outgroup, and a Fargroup. Members of the Fargroup will probably be considerably more different from you than members of the Outgroup, will very likely take moral and political stances that you find abominable, but they do not arouse the same repugnance as the Outgroup — simply because they are Far. Only those who share the same daily world with you are likely to become for you the true Outgroup, the true RCO.

This is why I tend to smile when I see many academic arguments for accepting otherness. An extreme example, perhaps, is Donna Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble, in which she celebrates all sorts of connections with “oddkin,” multifarious forms of the nonhuman. When Haraway asks me to envision “a symbiogenetic join of a human child and monarch butterflies” I think, well, that’s cool, I guess, but what kinship do you have with that dude sharing the coffee-shop line with you in his Make America Great Again cap? Now we’re really talking oddkin.

Let me pause here to remind you of one of the things that I promised not to say, or promised to try not to say: Why can’t we all just get along? I am not going to suggest that maybe that guy in the MAGA cap is actually a decent fellow — just so, so misunderstood — and if Donna Haraway would simply take the time to get to know him she might discover that they share some interests, and then the next time they’re in the coffee shop — she sipping her organic soy cortado, he dumping three packets of sugar into his drip coffee — they could bond over a mutual love of origami, or NASCAR. I sometimes read newspaper stories about this kind of meeting of minds, and while those invariably are heartwarming, I don’t think we can assume them to be common or likely.

Let’s go, rather, with something close to the opposite assumption: that your RCO really is kinda repugnant, or at least many of his views are. What now? And — to bring this discussion back around to the academic context, where it belongs — what if you share a dorm floor, or an apartment building, or a seminar class, with him? How are you going to manage that? Can you somehow make kin with someone that odd? And if not, what do you do instead?

I think the first step should be getting a strong grip on the kind of environment you’re actually in. A couple of years ago, when there was a massive controversy that many of you will remember at Yale’s Silliman College, one of the charges brought against the leadership of the college was that they had allowed damage to the students’ home. (I wrote about this situation in more detail in this essay, and borrow from that in some of what follows.) One student wrote, “I feel that my home is being threatened.” The associate master of Silliman “did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.” I don’t blame the student for saying that, because many colleges and universities — most of them? darn near all of them? — promise or at least express the hope that students will find that place a real home. What do we call that one weekend each fall when graduates return to what some of them still refer to as “alma mater”? Homecoming. “Hi mom, I’m home!” As though alums are all Telemachus returning to Ithaca, to Penelope, after a perilous journey to Pylos and Sparta.

And this is not a contemptible conceit. Kenneth Tynan, the great English theatrical impresario and writer, wanted his ashes to be scattered at his Oxford college, Magdalen, because it was the only place he had ever felt he truly belonged; and was heartbroken when told that it couldn’t happen. I’ve talked to former students of mine who feel much the same about their own college years. And when that happens it’s a kind of victory for those of us who teach — but not an unalloyed one. Because no college or university is supposed to be any student’s home. It is, at Duke anyway and in places where I have taught, a largely residential academy where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together for about 30 weeks a year for about four years, before moving on to the rest of their lives. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship, and it is meant to be temporary. We may call that common autumn event Homecoming but after a long weekend at most the children all scatter and dear alma mater is left with her most recent brood of hatchlings. Magdalen College was not Kenneth Tynan’s home, and could not have been, because there were other people there who didn’t even know him, or who knew him but didn’t like him, or whose preferences were radically different than his, and who had no long-term bond with him to force them to come to some mutually agreeable terms beyond basic tolerance for (in his case) three years. The notion of college-as-home is not a contemptible conceit, but it is a conceit, and if we set it aside we may be able to accomplish two things: first, to lower the temperature of the disputes, and second, to understand better how students are situated.

There’s a fairly comical story to be told about my attempts, as I was thinking about this talk, to come up with the right metaphor for what I believe the college years are supposed to be, at least in relation to the problems I’m trying to address tonight. I don’t know whether any of you have seen Whit Stillman’s movie Barcelona, but it features a couple of very funny scenes in which someone tries to describe U.S. foreign policy in Latin America in terms of rival species of ant. A cautionary tale, let me tell you. For quite a while I was enamored of an elaborate set of images built around how motorcycle stunt jumpers practice their stunts without getting killed, and when I abandoned that I toyed for a while with a detailed comparison to a demolition derby — you can ask me about that in the Q&A if you want. Eventually I discarded all those images, and some others I prefer not to talk about, but not before it occurred to me that what they all had in common, what I was trying to get at, however ineptly, was the collection of ideas that cluster around our practices of play.

Please don’t bolt for the door at this point. When I speak of play I do not refer to anything frivolous or trivial. Play is a highly structured form of experience that is essential to the intellectual and social development and health of humans, and of many other creatures. We do well to reflect on how it works and the functions it can fulfill. So bear with me.

In Homo Ludens, the single greatest study of “the play element of culture,” Johan Huizinga identifies several characteristic of play, all of which are relevant, I believe, to understanding how college life should work for students. For Huizinga, “the first main characteristic of play [is] that it is free, is in fact freedom.“ Like many teachers, I often point out to my students that the word “school” derives from scholia, leisure, and though they typically respond to this by rolling their eyes so dramatically I fear that they’ll do themselves an ocular injury, the point is nevertheless true and salutary. Students’ parents, or some generous donor, or some government agency, or their future selves, have paid to liberate them from some or all work obligations so that they might have the leisure to study and think. It is precious freedom, bought for a price, often a heavy price. I am perhaps more aware of this than sime because I had the privilege, though it then seemed a heavy burden, of paying that price myself, quite directly. “Pay to play” is a phrase that has special meaning for me. Going to class felt like a magnificent luxury.

So: play is freedom. Huizinga continues: “A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Moreover, “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning…. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over.’” You see the relation between this point and my earlier claim that the university is not anybody’s home, but rather a temporary and spatially specific place of learning and development.

One more point from Huizinga: “Play … creates order, is order…. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play … seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful.” And that is one of the reasons why people love it. At its best, the university experience, with its order and structure and room for artful creativity within that order, is really, really beautiful.

None of this is to say that the boundaries between play and the rest of life are fixed and uncrossable. They are, rather, quite porous, and need to be: we easily see how the play of animals relates the skills they need for survival. We also see, in big-time college sports, the way that the elements of actual play are can be stripped away altogether from what are supposed to be games. But the boundaries are nevertheless actual boundaries, and useful.

But essential to all game-playing is some measure of resistance, of conflict — and even of pain. People get hurt in games: sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally. In the game we call undergraduate education, physical harm is rare, and excluded whenever possible … but some level of mental and emotional pain is part and parcel of the game. And that is not always and inevitably bad. When my son was quite young, I took him to our family doctor for a regular checkup, and during the examination the doctor said ”Now I need to look for bruises.“ I was instantly offended and alarmed: I don’t hurt my child! ”No, no,“ he said, ”I want to see bruises. Because if he doesn’t have a few bruises, that means that he’s not taking the physical risks that he needs to take to develop as he should.“ If playing too recklessly can lead a child into trouble, timidity can create its own, very different, troubles.

I have often reflected on what Dr. Judge said that day, and even now I apply it to myself — not in terms of physical risk, physical development (that ship has sailed, for me), but in terms of intellectual risk-taking. I see too many people my age, indeed younger than me, who have ceased to take any chances, who have settled into complacency, whose outlook on the world can never receive any bruises because it is never risked on the playing field. I don’t want to be like that, not now and not ever.

And here we’re getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it: I want to argue — with considerable trepidation, I admit — that the task of the undergraduate student is to embrace this kind of bruising, such pain, and the task of teachers and administrators is, if they can, to structure the game in such a way that that pain doesn’t escalate into harm. And if we can manage that, then it’s good for students, good for the university, and good for the society at large. So now I’m going to unpack this argument.

My attempt to reconcile those two statements of Mill’s that I quoted at the outset is based on the distinction between pain and harm. It does not follow — and in many of life’s venues we understand this perfectly well, it is an uncontroversial point — it does not follow that all pain is harmful. But it is still pain. Yet our current conversation about the culture of the academy too often collapses into hostilities between those who think that if there is pain there must be harm and those who think that if there is no harm there can be no pain.

Note this well: I do not claim to have the resources to judge for anyone else the intensity of their pain or the degree of harm it inflicts. Do any of you know the podcast Song Exploder? One of my favorites. A recent guest on the podcast was Questlove of The Roots, who described the making of the gut-wrenching song “It Ain’t Fair,” which appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit. At one point during the interview Questlove made a comment that has really been haunting me: he said that, though he appreciates what Detroit does, he does not think that Hollywood is ready to open the Pandora’s Box of black pain. That’s a very powerful phrase: the Pandora’s box of black pain. It suggests not just intensity of pain but a great variety of manifestations of pain. And it is not for me to assess the depths of that pain, or the profound harm that accompanies it.

But what is for me to do, as a teacher, and for all of us to to who work in the university, is to be aware of the potential for our educational and social environments to create pain, and therefore perhaps harm. As many of you know, I am a Christian, and while I am not nearly as prayerful as Christians are supposed to me, I get pretty prayerful twice a year: when I’m ordering books for my classes. I am very aware through long experience of the damage that books and ideas can do to young people (older people too, sometimes), and I don’t want to inflict any more of that damage than I have to.

Not long ago I saw a tweet from a professor who quoted from his teaching evaluations a student who said that after taking that professor’s class she, or he, no longer knew what to think about anything. And the professor commented, with evident self-satisfaction, “My work here is done.” No, dude, your work, if you understood it properly, is just beginning. Because most of us who have been around the academy’s rhetorical block a few dozen times know how to knock beliefs down. And some beliefs need to be knocked down, if only because of the unhealthy and unhelpful ways in which they are held and deployed; but if you’re not helping to provide the tools by which something better might be built in place of what lies in ruins, then you haven’t done your job at all. And that is a very difficult job.

This is why I pray when I’m ordering books, and while I can’t expect everyone to join me in that, I think it’s fair to ask all of us involved in education to consider the pain that inevitably accompanies deep learning. And I do mean inevitably. I taught for many years at a Christian liberal-arts college, and sometimes parents of prospective students would visit, or write, and ask me to assure them that their children would emerge from their four years of college with a strong Christian faith. And I would always say: I cannot promise you that. Liberal education is inherently risky. College students are exposed to powerful ideas and curious people that can shake the very foundations of their self-understanding. And they can’t control that exposure in the same way that they can control who they interact with on Snapchat or Instagram. Plus, you know, everybody changes, often quite dramatically, between the ages of 18 and 22!

There will be blood, you might say. But I don’t want to spill any more of it than I have to. The task, then, for people who work in universities and especially for teachers, is, as best we can, to understand some of the pain that accompanies learning, and to try to prevent the accretion of harm, and to steer those who experience that pain towards finding some benefit in it. And I mean that in small ways as well as large. When I was an undergrad — as, again, a first-generation college student who knew nothing about the rules by which the game of college education was played — I failed two classes because I had not been introduced to the concept of “dropping a class.” I thought you just stopped going and that was the end of it. It would have been nice if someone had cared about my flourishing enough to give me some information on that point.

In any case, it is in the hope of more caring surroundings for students today that that I make the recommendation to them that’s embedded in the title of this talk: Embrace the pain. Because that is not counsel that any reasonably person would take unless she is persuaded that we teachers and administrators mean her well — that we wish her to flourish. In today’s university, where administrative and legal structures tend to imprison us all in what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of rationalization and to render us all mere executors of functions, trust is more to be prized than rubies. All honor, then, I say, to those who seek it. And maybe even greater honor to the university leaders who ask: What can we do, collectively, institutionally, to nourish our students’ trust in us?

So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.

In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.

Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.

I suggested at the outset of this talk that embracing the pain, that learning to live with the RCO, has personal but also larger social benefits. In other to explain how that works, I am going to go back a couple of centuries to a fascinating little document, a series of letters by the German playwright and social reformer Friedrich Schiller on what he called “aesthetic education.” Some of Schiller’s argument I am going to take straight, some I am going to steal and shamelessly adapt for our purposes, so what follows will not be reputable scholarship — but I hope it will be enlightening.

Like many German Romantics, Schiller believed that the society of Athens in the period between Socrates and Aristotle was the greatest in human history, and what made it great was that it achieved the highest possible level of cultural richness and complexity that is graspable by the individual person. That is, the whole genius of the culture could, in theory, be held in each citizen’s mind. From this point, Schiller believed, there could only be decline of one kind or another. The society could lose some of its complexity and retreat into a less highly developed condition — or, conversely, it could continue along the path of increasing complexity and quickly reach the point at which a general comprehension of the lifeworld was impossible and people would have to become specialists in particular bodies of knowledge and practice — and therefore lose their unity with one another.

Germany in the eighteenth century, Schiller believed, suffered from this overcomplication, which led to differentiation and specialization, which in turn led to a lack of social cohesion. (I think we can recognize these conditions in our own society, can we not?) And he believes that what he calls “aesthetic education” can help address this unfortunate situation.

Schiller argues that all these specializations of knowledge and practice can be understood through the identification of two major human impulses: the material impulse and the formal impulse. It’s easy to oversimplify these concepts, and I always like doing what’s easy, so: the material impulse seeks immersion in the chaotic and manifold world of the senses; the formal impulse seeks to find, or if necessary impose, intellectual order on all that chaos. The material impulse is therefore the RCO, as it were, of the formal; and vice-versa. Here’s Schiller’ summary of the opposition:

Expressed as a general concept, the object of the material impulse is called life, in its widest meaning: a concept signifying all material being, everything directly present to the senses. The object of the formal impulse, expressed again as a general concept, is called form, both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word: a concept that includes all the formal properties of things, and all of their relations to the powers of thought.

But what if these principles can be brought into constructive relation with one another? — which is to ask, What if people who gravitate towards the one can be brought into constructive relation with people who gravitate towards the other? The result, Schiller says — and this may be surprising — is play. The union of the material impulse and the formal impulse is the playful impulse. Remember what Huizinga says about the relationship between play and beauty? Well, Schiller contends that, if the material impulse is about life and the formal impulse about form, then “the object of the playful impulse, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty.” And the centrality to Schiller’s vision of this creation and appreciation of beauty is why his little book is about “aesthetic education.”

But here’s the most important point of all: Schiller wrote these letters in more-or-less direct response to the collapse of the French Revolution into tyranny, and as an implicit accounting of what, in his view, went wrong. The kind of playful engagement — again, with the understanding that play is a particular structure of experience rather than something frivolous — with the RCO that can produce something beautiful was altogether absent from the characters of France’s revolutionaries. Schiller is therefore presenting a model of aesthetic education as necessary to political progress.

If we translate Schiller’s proposed union of divergent impulses into the terms of today’s American university, which is what in my unscholarly way I am hoping to do, then we might draw certain useful conclusions. Chief among them, I think, is that we might see the possibility of bringing Repugnant Cultural Others together in a structured, game-like social environment guided by trustworthy people as an opportunity for genuine play, genuine beauty, genuinely creativity. And we might then see that such an environment could be good for the flourishing not only of the people directly involved, but also for the good of society as a whole. Because there is nothing, except mutual charity, that our social order needs more right now than political creativity. We have been locked for far too long into the same reductive set of simplistic oppositions. If at university students can “play” in ways that take them beyond those oppositions, into a new social imaginary), then we would all benefit. And such a possibility is worth staking our universities’ future on, or so I believe.

I want to take a moment here to remember and honor Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the very greatest writers of our time and one who has meant the world to me personally, who died last week at the age of 88. In 1983, at Mills College in Oakland, California, she gave what she called a “Left-Handed Commencement Address,” and rather than conclude with my words I think I would do better to conclude with hers.

I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country…. What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.


the future of Christian educational institutions

Carl Trueman writes about the future of Christian higher education:

Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.

The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts — certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment.

Therefore every Christian institution of higher education needs to be pursuing “financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked.” Trueman has other things to say as well, but I want to focus on this point, and to indicate another dimension that he does not address.

As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”

All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.

Oakeshott on education and culture

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

— Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning.” The idea that “a culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers” is one of the most beautiful and illuminating depictions of historical understanding that I know.

guidance for my students (& others)

As a new school year is about to begin, I’m going over the things I want to say to my first-year students — the ones I’m welcoming not just to Baylor’s Honors College but also to collegiate life. Here are my standard recommendations:

(1) Be religious … about washing your hands. (And not with hand sanitizers: use soap. Soap is much better at killing the critters that need to be killed.)

(2) Buy some earplugs, minimum NRR 32, and get used to wearing them. You might need to try several different brands before you find a variety that’s comfortable for you. But none of them will be comfortable at first, if you’re not a regular earplug-user, so try any given pair for at least a week before you move along to another. And then put the dang earplugs in your ears when it’s a good time to go to sleep.

If you don’t do anything else on this list, do these two things. In November, when all the other people in your dorm are exhausted, sick, and full of hatred for one another, you’ll be smooth-skinned, energetic, and cheerful.

(3) Find community outside the university. For those of us here at Baylor, a church community makes the most sense — and not just for “practical” reasons — but even if you’re not planning to be a regular church-goer, find ways to connect with people who are not your age. Old people, middle-aged people, children, it doesn’t matter — though if you can help those who are poor or in other ways needy that would be ideal. It is vital for you to be reminded regularly that there’s a whole world out there of people who are not in college and who, consequently, have very different troubles than yours.

(4) Spend time outdoors. In the Texas summer, that might need to be first thing in the morning, but stroll around under the live-oaks on campus, or walk up the Brazos and Bosque in Cameron Park, or drive a few miles west to see the really remarkable Lake Waco Wetlands. And when the cooler weather comes you’ll be able to be outdoors all the time, if you so desire.

(5) During the school day, keep your smartphone in your bag. Seriously: don’t take it out. Look around you, talk to friends, practice your breathing, pray. Just ignore the phone.

(6) Find a system of organization and stick with it. You need to be always aware of what your responsibilities and what the key due dates are. If you keep careful track of such matters, then when other people are “pulling all-nighters” you’ll be restoring your bodily strength in sleep (protected by your earplugs). There are many wonderful digital tools, but don’t overlook the amazing power and flexibility of pen and paper.

(7) If you’re not one of the extremely fortunate students taking my first-year seminar, read the syllabus and follow some of the links on it. You could learn a lot.

(8) School won’t kill you — least of all through putting challenges in your path you can’t surmount. Nobody’s perfect; nobody’s invariably excellent. Remember Pascal’s warning against the error of Stoicism, which is to believe that you can do always what you can really only do sometimes. Don’t be afraid.

The education of German youth, however, proceeds from precisely this false and unfruitful conception ofculture: its goal, viewed in its essence, is not at all the  free cultivated man but the scholar, the man of science, and indeed the most speedily employable man of science, who stands aside from life so as to know it unobstructedly; its result, observed empirically, is the historical-aesthetic cultural philistine, the pre­cocious and up-to-the-minute babbler about state, church and art, the man who appreciates everything, the insatiable stomach which nonetheless does not know what honest hunger and thirst are. That an education with this goal and this result is an anti-natural one is apprehensible only to one who has not yet been fully processed by it; it is apprehensible only to the instinct of youth, for youth still possesses that instinct of nature which remains intact until artificially and forcibly shattered by this education.

— Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

an educational Dark Age?

In response to this post on a lament by David Gelernter, one of Rod Dreher’s commenters cites, as evidence of cultural decline, an episode of M*A*S*H in which the characters all sing “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I think the idea is that people in the 1970s thought that people in the 1950s all knew that ancient hymn, so therefore … I’m not sure. Can’t quite follow it. I can tell you this, though: absolutely none of my Alabama Baptist redneck family, whether sixty or forty or twenty years ago or right now, could tell you whether “Dona Nobis Pacem” is a man or a horse. Though some of the elders might have a story or two to tell about Tommy Nobis.

When you’re arguing that what Hollywood TV scriptwriters in the 1970s put into their show about the 1950s is a reliable guide to the cultural capital possessed by that long-ago era, your narrative of decline needs some serious work. But Gelernter doesn’t provide it either. For instance, he says:

The problem is – the incredible richness of American civilization in the years after the Second World War, the generation after the Second World War. When we were creating such extraordinary art and painting, such extraordinary science and mathematics and engineering. Such extraordinary music. Gershwin – we were still in the Tin Pan Alley generation of Gershwin and Kern, and Cole Porter. Leonard Bernstein was the first American born maestro, and his young people’s concerts were broadcast by CBS, coast to coast. We were – people were excited about novelists. When Hemingway did something, shoot himself, it was front-page news. People knew and cared. They knew who Picasso was. He was a celebrity. They knew who Matisse had been. They heard of Jacometti [sic], they cared about Chagall. Chagall was a big celebrity in the United States.

Who knew who Mastisse had been? Who had heard of Giacometti? Not me, when I was growing up. Not my parents or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends. (Also, not the person who transcribed the conversation, but never mind.) Gelernter again:

Music appreciation was never taken seriously. But what we used to do was, at least, expose students to things that they might be excited about, that their own minds would propel them into. So they would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata. Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open, they have some concept of what culture is.

Again, not me, not anyone I knew, in my generation or the previous ones. In my music appreciation class we never got beyond “Reuben and Rachel.” So which educational model was closer to the American norm, that of my world or that of Gelernter’s? Where’s the evidence? (I’ve looked at his book America Lite and I don’t see any.)

Now, there are some changes that are easy to discern. For instance, in 1947 Time had cover stories on C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr, and reviewed W. H. Auden’s book-length poem The Age of Anxiety. Not something that would happen today, to put it mildly. The television networks felt that they had some responsibility to bring culture to the masses, thus, to take just one example, the creation of a classical music celebrity in Van Cliburn. But about education we seem to have nothing but anecdotes, and anecdotes that fail to come to grips with massive demographic changes especially in American university education.

So we end up getting rants like this one from a professor who seems to hate his job and have contempt for his students, who insists that students aren’t interested in learning and “no one [is] being educated” in universities today and parents are “allowing [their] children to become steadily less intelligent” — and all with the implication that once upon a time thing were better in higher education.

But were they? When? Back in the day when a tiny fraction of Americans attended college? In the days of the “Gentleman’s C,” when the smug sons of robber barons got such grades because, though they loved learning for its very own sweet sake, their professors were so intellectually rigorous that a C was the best they could do? Please. I’ve been saying this for years: Narratives of educational decline need data. My experience as a teacher doesn’t match these stories. Students always vary in their interests and abilities, but I have not seen any decline in either since I started teaching in 1982. Maybe my experience is an outlier; but without the data I don’t know. And even with data we need to reckon with the fact that college education now has a radically different place in American society than it had before the 1944 G.I. Bill, one of the most momentous legislative acts in American history.

P.S. At least some of the data is out there, for people who’d actually like to know. It’s not easy to find, and it’s not complete, and it’s always aiming at a moving target, given those huge demographic changes I’ve mentioned. But we can do a lot better in comparing eras, and regions, than even enormously smart people like David Gelernter typically do.


A thought I had while eating hot dogs with friends today: What if Christian colleges and universities were to think of educating their students into distinctive charisms? And took as their models some of the charisms of the Roman Catholic religious orders?

  • Students called primarily to service would explore a Franciscan charism
  • Those called to preach and teach: a Dominican charism
  • Those called to live out their faith in commitment to a particular place: a Benedictine charism
  • Those called to a scholarly life, with its inherent cosmopolitanism and pursuit of intellectual communities wherever they can be found: a Jesuit charism

Each of these paths could be pursued within a single institution, if its faculty and curriculum were flexible enough. In an ideal world — which we do not live in, mind you — a structure like this could replace, or at least complement, the more typical pursuit of a “major.”

On Not Defending the Humanities

I don’t think that the humanities or the liberal arts can be defended, at least not in the sense that most people give to “defended.” Here’s why, starting with three texts on which I will build my explanation.

The English theologian Austin Farrer used to say that some Christian doctrines — he was thinking especially of the hypostatic union — cannot be defended, but can be homiletically expounded.

Similarly, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre writes,

In systematizing and ordering the truths they take themselves to have discovered, the adherents of a tradition may well assign a primary place in the structures of their theorizing to certain truths and treat them as first metaphysical or practical principles. But such principles will have had to vindicate themselves in the historical process of dialectical justification… Such first principles themselves, and indeed the whole body of theory of which they are a part, themselves will be understood to require justification. The kind of rational justification which they receive is at once dialectical and historical. They are justified insofar as in the history of this tradition they have, by surviving the process of dialectical questioning, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical predecessors.

And in The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes,

Those who understand the spirit of the Tao and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing about the matter. His attempts at alteration, as we have seen, contradict themselves. So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit, he merely snatches at some one precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death — for no reason that he can give. From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao. This is what Confucius meant when he said ‘With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel’. This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible. He may be hostile, but he cannot be critical: he does not know what is being discussed…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else.

I think that these passages, read rightly, suggest a few things. First, that it’s probably impossible to defend the artes liberales, or the studia humanitatis, to people who are firmly outside their Tao — who simply do not acknowledge the value of the foundational commitments that have shaped the tradition. The person who relentlessly demands to know what kind of job a liberal-arts education will get him “may be hostile, but he cannot be critical.” And this is not a temporary or trivial impediment that can be maneuvered around; it’s an immoveable object.

But apologetics is not the only mode of suasion. In some cases the more appropriate rhetoric relies on narration and exposition: perhaps something as simple as telling the story of what we do. There are many places around the country where older models of the humanities are flourishing, even as those who have rejected this Tao are floundering — those older models having, as it were, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical successors, or would-be successors. But what happens in these institutions, in these classrooms, is simply invisible to people who question the value of the humanities. Rendering the invisible visible might be one of the best services those of us following those models could perform in “defense” of our practices.

I’m teaching a class called Philosophy Versus Literature and right now we’re working through Lucretius. Yesterday we talked about philosophy as therapy — drawing on Martha Nussbaum, among others — and the odd but, in the end, strong logic that leads Lucretius (following Epicurus) to believe that physics is first philosophy, that understanding the constitution of the world is the necessary first step towards being liberated from fear and unnecessary pain. Next time I’m going to tell the students about Stephen Greenblatt’s (very bad) book The Swerve, and ask them why a book about the early modern recovery of Lucretius became a bestseller and award-winner in 21st-century America. These conversations concern matters ancient and permanent and are also about as relevant as relevant can be, if that happens to be one of your criteria for educational value. Moreover, De Rerum Natura is a book that runs pretty strongly against the grain of all that my students believe and hope — but that does not deter them nor me from treating it with the utmost attentiveness.

I can’t defend the value of this kind of exercise in some kind of abstract, characterless intellectual space; nor am I inclined to. It makes sense within the Tao; and if you want to see what kind of sense it makes you have to think and act within the Tao. You have to take it on as a living option, not a dessicated proposition. To those who doubt the value of what I do, I probably have little more to say than: Taste and see. (But I’ll use more words to say it.)

School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist.

In each of these three roles the teacher bases his authority on a different claim. The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines.

The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state.

The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.

The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil. When the schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, ideologue, and doctor, the fundamental style of society is perverted by the very process which should prepare for life. A teacher who combines these three powers contributes to the warping of the child much more than the laws which establish his legal or economic minority, or restrict his right to free assembly or abode.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

How many wealthy young Americans have ever held a minimum-wage job, or had an internship that placed them amongst America’s poorer classes? Would such involvement change their attitudes toward lower-class families? Would their discrepant cultural tastes rub off on each other, perhaps: the upper class obtaining a greater appreciation for pro sports, the blue-collar worker deciding to give classic literature a try?

L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie’s internship model, if instituted in the United States, would present interesting opportunities for bridging class divides. The Yale student could work at Chik-fil-A, the Harvard student in a local Wal-Mart. One wonders what application their education might have in daily interactions with customers, fellow employees, and supervisors. One wonders what they might learn of a class people that they’ve rarely encountered—at least not for a long time.

Education is not meant to isolate: rather, knowledge is meant to help us bridge divides of every kind. How should we put our educations to use? Do we use them to distance ourselves from the “unwashed masses,” or do we use them to connect with people unable or unwilling to obtain higher education?

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

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