going big, going small

Here’s the promised follow-up my recent post on the university. In one sense I want to think bigger than Daniel and Wellmon do, and in another sense I want to think smaller. Let’s start with “bigger.”

When Ross Douthat recently commented on my new book, he used it to turn his attention to the condition of the humanities in American universities today. I responded to that turn in a couple of tweets that probably have been deleted by the time you read this, so let me quote them here:

I think it’s important to distinguish between the humanities (intellectual disciplines located primarily in educational institutions) and humanism, or humane reading and learning (which have fuzzier and more flexible institutional placement). It is possible to renew humane learning without renewing “the humanities,” and to some extent vice versa. It’s worth remembering that only one of my five protagonists was an academic (CSL), though Auden taught for a while to make ends meet.

All of my protagonists were concerned with education, but none of them particularly with university education. By then, most of them thought — Lewis was particularly explicit about this — it was too late for major interventions into a young person’s formation. Nor were any of them especially concerned with the curricula of lower schools. Rather, what they wanted to shape was a culture in which humane learning was valued — a culture that, for at least some of my protagonists, began with the family and extended into the public sphere. On this model, what happens in schools at any level is downstream from other, more fundamental forces.

I’m attracted to this idea and think it applicable to our own moment — maybe more applicable now than it was 75 years ago. Given the tentacular infiltrations of the internet, the building of a humane culture can begin anywhere, and even if you’re a professor it’s not necessary to confine your efforts at culture-making to the inner structures of the university. You can think of culture as neuronal, branching dendritically, memetic axons carrying information and moral impulses among family, school, public sphere. Indeed it may be the case that if we want to make our universities healthier the best course might be not to aim directly at them but to nourish families and the public sphere, in order to stimulate universities from without. In that sense I am thinking a little bigger than Daniel and Wellmon do.

But cultural nourishment begins at home. While I can think of my interventions occurring along axons that link multiple cells of culture, I can rarely control my levels of access to any given cell or aggregation of cells. To take a very homely example: I am very interested in the informational culture of the institution where I work — the ways the technologies we have adopted shape our reading, our writing, and our pursuit of knowledge, and while there are several faculty committees on campus that deal with these matters, I have never managed to get myself appointed to any of them. Every year I volunteer; every year I hear nothing. (I am not sure why this is — I think it’s a product of some long-standingly perverse politics here at Baylor — but the reasons aren’t relevant to this post.) It is very difficult to see how you can directly help to shape “the university” if you can’t get appointed to the very faculty committees that a great many of your colleagues are trying to avoid having to serve on.

So, as needed, you get more local. You start with your classroom, or your personal blog (hi), or whatever is, as Heidegger might put it, zuhanden. One of my favorite scenes in Dickens’ Bleak House comes when the indefatigable Mrs. Pardiggle tries to enlist our heroine Esther Summerson in her “militant” evangelism among the poor — which is in truth not evangelism at all but rather relentless moral hectoring. Esther finds it appalling, and overcomes her characteristic diffidence sufficiently to resist:

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.

This is what I counsel in relation to fixing the university: note what is to hand, make your interventions locally, see where they take you, and “try to let that circle of duty gradually and natural expand itself.” This is not a matter of “think globally, act locally”: you are thinking and acting locally. But if you do so faithfully and consistently, then maybe over time your “local” becomes rather more expansive.