Sunday, April 27, 2008

Against Monoculture

Nature abhors monocultures. Nature abhors them so much that they do not exist in accordance with nature. They would be unknown but for modern man.

A monoculture is a single form of life - or, by extension, a single culture - that exists over a large expanse of space, even globally. Nature abhors monocultures because they are so susceptible to annihilation by one agent of destruction. In plant or animal life, for example, a single virus or bacteria, a single destructive fungus or disease, a single hostile predator or pest would wipe out an entire monoculture without the barest resistance. It is the very nature of nature to avoid monocultures - indeed, it cannot be otherwise since any form of monoculture cannot long exist in nature. Life in the natural realm is manifold and varied, precisely so that some life will weather the inevitable deadly challenges that arise.

It could be posited that modernity is defined by the introduction of monocultures. In politics, thinkers like Hobbes and Locke articulate the first universal and anti-cultural theory of politics, obliterating considerations of local culture, history and tradition in the name of a singular and monolithic conception of political legitimacy. In economics, thinkers such as Adam Smith introduce a world-transforming economic theory that renders the entire globe subject to the logic of the market. In the sciences, thinkers like Bacon, Descartes and Spinoza introduce a method that renders all local knowledge irrelevant to the specialized knowledge of the expert, the universally valid findings of science.

We live at a moment of monoculture's triumph - and demise. Around us is the evidence of the near-total victory of monocultures in nearly every field of human activity, at the same time that the recklessness and fragility of monocultures comes ever more fully into focus.

In agriculture we have sought efficiency through crop monocultures, circumventing the need for rotation and variety through high levels of petroleum inputs. We have created monocultures of wheat, corn, potato, rice - all with a growing sense of fragility of their futures in a world of constrained petroleum and water. Industrial methods of farming have severely depleted topsoil around the world, the very source of agriculture and hence human life. Agricultural monocultures - attractive because they can be efficiently produced by means of industrial production - have led to an atrophy of knowledge of how to grow numerous other crops. Even as we face the prospects of decreasing supplies of industrially produced crops, we want the knowledge of how to produce in accordance with local conditions that is the possession of a dying generation.

In finance we have "rationalized" our economy to a worldwide scale, seeking to avoid the risk of a failure of local or regional markets by spreading risk across a worldwide market. For instance, where once mortgages were made and held by local banks whose interest in their soundness was vested in the community, now those same loans are immediately sold to distant financiers who in turn chop, separate, recombine and sell these loans as a variety of debt instruments to the broadest possible array of buyers. The fact that no one bears responsibility or accountability actually increases the risk of default, since there was every impetus to make loans to people who could not repay, secure in the knowledge that the loan would be off the lender's books within 24 hours. In turn, the mortgage crisis is a worldwide phenomenon in spite of the vast majority of loans made on American properties, damaging banks and investment firms on every corner of the globe. The Bear Stearns debacle - and the Fed's unprecedented intervention - was the consequence of the deep intertwining of the finances of innumerable firms with the largest financial concerns in America, and hence the reason why it could not be allowed to fail. Had BS failed, by all accounts it would have led to a worldwide "run on the bank" - a panic that could have resulted in international chaos and upheaval as all money ceased to have value.

The schools that are supposed to educate human beings for responsible lives also are undergoing transformation into a monoculture. Their aim is to create a mobile army of itinerant vandals, laborers in the international corporate culture whose one and only aim is to produce a monoculture of economic growth. Our schools were once a patchwork of local and particular traditions - regional, religious, pedagogical diversity, as diverse and lovely as a local ecosystem. Now they all race to be identical, deathly afraid that they may not be conforming closely enough to the nearest competitor who harbors exactly the same fears. During my fifth year at Princeton University - a year before I was to submit materials for tenure - I attended a meeting for all fifth-year untenured faculty held by the Dean of the Faculty. His most memorable advice (in addition to, "publish, publish, publish") was to apply for other jobs. The reason: a job offer from another institution would prove your worth in the eyes of Princeton. I asked, "if Princeton looks to other institutions to establish the worth of a faculty member, who is actually establishing their value?" Dean of Faculty: "The market." Me: "I thought WE set the standard. Why else do we brag about our number one ranking?" The message was clear: the standard was "academic excellence" defined as our reputation beyond the gates of Princeton, and as defined by the international community of scholars. Its coin was publication in refereed journals - "the creation of knowledge" - and not the contributions we were making specifically, and even possibly limited to, the community at Princeton. It is in the image of this ambition for "academic excellence" that all institutions are being remade, all in the same and monolithic fashion.

In the end, we were told, there was no standard other than a vast and anonymous interchangeable monoculture of higher education. In the end, it didn't matter if anyone who received an offer stayed at Princeton or left, since one would find the same sorts of colleagues and students at any elite institution. Money and esteem by the international community of scholars - not institutional particularlity and loyalty - increasingly becomes the currency for faculty, just as it is for students. An itinerant and rootless intellectual class prepares an itinerant and rootless student class - indeed, considers such interancy and rootlessness the sign of success. All prepare and assume equally that the future is one of economic growth and expanding globalization, without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it could be otherwise. The monoculture of higher education prepares our students for the monoculture of the world. It is at once the agent of, and the consequence of, modernity's monocultures.

In these three cases - and one could offer many more - the potential for failure is acute. In agriculture and finance, the dangers posed by our monocultures are obvious. In education we are more prone to self-congratulation, but we no less embrace a monoculture that could fail in the increasingly likely event that the future does not align with the expectations for which we blithely prepare our students. At this moment especially we should be protecting actual diversity - bio-diversity, financial diversity (i.e., local markets) and educational diversity in the name of local, regional, religious and pedagogical traditions (rather than being blinded by the monoculture-based claims of "multiculturalism"). Yet, at this moment we are apt to cling to our modern faith in the logic of monocultures, even as the news seems to be undeniable that nature hates monocultures, and nature will not be indefinitely denied.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Our Best and Brightest

In today's Washington Post, Steve Pearlstein has a bracing column in which he tells us that our short national nightmare is far from over - we are just at the outset of a long hangover that will demand great changes by a spoiled nation and a citizenry that has come to believe itself to be entitled to something for nothing.

He writes that there are two plausible explanations for how we got into this mess. The first - tying our current crisis to the shenanigans of our financial wizards - would, if true, mean that we can dig our way out of this mess once the bad loans have worked their way through the system:

"One explanation is that we got here because mortgage bankers and brokers were sleazy, investment bankers were greedy for fees, banks were incompetent, rating agencies were compromised, and regulators either were blinded by deregulatory ideology or chose to look the other way."

A second explanation, however, is more structural, and therefore less readily redressed.

"What if, for the better part of a decade, the United States had been living way beyond its means, consuming more than it produced and investing more than it saved? What if China and Taiwan and Saudi Arabia and even Japan were willing to finance that trade deficit on easy terms because it allowed them to peg their currencies to the dollar in a way that generated higher job creation and economic growth in their home markets? And what if this mutually advantageous imbalance in trade and investment flows wound up creating a huge supply of cheap dollar-denominated credit that virtually invited the bankers and brokers and rating agencies and private-equity firms in U.S. markets to throw caution to the wind and make ill-advised lending and investing decisions? Not only is this a plausible explanation, but I think it is the underlying story."

Pearlstein writes that both the accounts are likely correct, meaning that our recent financial shenanigans were the precipitating event that exposed the rottenness at the core of our modern economy and our modern "lifestyle."

Because of the likely accuracy of the second structural explanation, he writes that we are going to have to cease individually and collectively living past our means, and this belt-tightening will force us to confront that we are not remotely as rich as we think we are (the kind of confrontation that bankrupt debtors always have to face):

"Such a broad reduction in wealth and living standards will take many forms. It will come in the form of higher unemployment and stagnant wages and falling income, which take statistical form in slower or even negative economic growth. It will come in the form of inflation and its first cousin, a lower value for the dollar. And it will manifest itself in lower values for pension funds, 401(k) accounts, university endowments and house prices."

I can't help but read this column in light of the season: this is the time of year when we send off our best and brightest graduates to join the mobile army of the corporate empire. At our top universities we will be celebrating the accomplishments of our top students, loudly advertising the various awards they win - Rhodes, Fulbright, Mitchell, etc. - and praising them for their achievements and promise.

Where, one wonders, are the concomitant admissions of failure that is reflected by those graduates who, in the first instance, were responsible for the subprime mortgage fiasco? Given that these loans were packaged at some of our elite financial institutions, there can be little doubting that they were cooked up by some of our best and brightest graduates. From what colleges and universities did Pearlstein's lineup graduate: those "mortgage bankers and brokers [who] were sleazy, investment bankers [who] were greedy for fees, bank[ers who] were incompetent, rating agency [employees] who were compromised, and regulators [who] either were blinded by deregulatory ideology or chose to look the other way"? Why don't these graduates get equal time when we think about what we, the educators, have been doing? Do we gleefully advertise and promote the graduates of our elite schools out of a sense of well-placed pride, or out of a self-delusion that allows us to be blind to our own deep complicity in our current economic falsehood?

Or, what about an admission that our present course of massive indebtedness and the wholesale transfer of national wealth abroad was orchestrated, more often than not, by the most successful of those graduates from our elite institutions - political and business leaders especially. Why don't we list not only their accomplishments, but those very graduates who will be responsible, among other things, for "lower values in ... university endowments."

Lest I be confused with seeking to play "the blame game": we had better start looking much closer to home, namely, in our own actions and complicities, rather than looking to blame it on a few individual bad apples or an impersonal "economic downturn." We have all been gladly complicit in the good times, and for that very reason we need to be reflective about our participation in the hard times.

We will be told that that's just "the market." Doubtless. The current economic crisis seems to have been precipitated by no one in particular. But it is precisely this delusive belief that made it possible in the first place - by detaching loans from the places and communities from which they originated - itself preceded by the detachment of people from the places where they came from - no one in particular would be responsible for them. Our current confrontation with the consequences of our actions demands a stricter accounting, but I am guessing that we will not see any such claiming of responsibility in this season when we send out our best and brightest.

Monday, April 21, 2008

It's a Big World After All

Paul Krugman writes in his op-ed in today's New York Times that it's starting to look "peak-y" to him - peak oil, peak agriculture, peak everything. Considering the options to explain the recent spike in commodity prices - including another all-time high for a price of oil today - he is forced to conclude that many signs point to a permanent state of material constraint. He concludes his essay with the not-very-cheering reflection that we may not face "Mad Max" anarchy (though some countries, I would submit, already are), but that "rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it. Don’t look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling."

Cranky theories
about the end of the oil age and their apocalyptic outcomes seem to have migrated from the oddball conspiracy theorist internet websites to the pages of the likes of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist - and the list can and will go on. Evidence continues to mount all around us that "the good times may have stopped rolling," meaning, in particular, that the great build out and expansion everywhere may be teetering on a literal peak, about to start sliding down the other side as we are forced to begin moving closer to things of value, and closer to each other in order to acquire those things.

A recent report on NPR disclosed that airline carriers - now being forced to merge simply to stay in business - will be "limiting flights to rural airports," while those routes that continue to be flown are costing more for passengers. As reported in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, these rising costs are due most fundamentally to rising fuel prices. "American Airlines' annual expenses are increasing at a rate of about $1 million per hour because of out-of-control fuel costs, estimates analyst Kevin Crissey of UBS. The 12 largest U.S. airlines will have to raise revenues by $15 billion this year as flying demand is slowing, just to keep pace with the cost of oil at $110 per barrel, according to market research firm AirlineForecasts LLC. And there's no assurance that oil prices will stop rising." Another NPR report acknowledges that consumers may be in a bind: even as costs for flying rise, so too the cost of driving becomes increasingly prohibitive and there is no well-developed rail system to pick up the slack.

From the myopic perspective of most "consumers," this seems just one further inconvenience, yet another annoying and seemingly inexplicable cost of the price of being a modern human being. But, viewed in light of Krugman's acknowledgement of "Peak Growth," the market is indicating that there is "less" travel even as demand remains steady and even growing. Higher prices are the signal of a dearth of the capacity to move easily. In effect, we will be having to spend more of our time in place - to grow accustomed to less movement. This is because the world is not getting smaller - as all the assumptions of globalization would instruct us - but is, in fact, getting bigger.

Every day, in one way or another, the leaders of my educational institution - like that of many others - tell us that we are driven by the imperative to prepare our students for a world of globalized commerce, a world in which they will need the skills of a vagabond or an itinerant vandal. In the throes of a dogma, they are unable to see the evidence before their eyes that suggests that their belief in historical inevitability may be at least slightly out of touch.

If so, we are preparing our students for a future that has no future. In light of these pieces of "evidence seen" which militate against our curious and touching faith in a globalized future, it is worth revisiting an uncharacteristic graduation speech that was delivered about a year ago at this time. In his address at Bellarmine University, Wendell Berry asked the graduates whether they were prepared for a very different future than the one so many of our elites believe to be awaiting us. No doubt, he suggests, they have been sold a certain bill of goods (and ones at a very high price): "You will be told that you and your community are now ruled by a global corporate empire, to which all the earth is a 'third world,' against which you have no power of resistance or self-determination, and within which you have no vocational choice except a technical and servile job which will give you a small share of the plunder. You will be told also – ignoring our permanent dependence on food, clothing, and shelter – that you live in a “knowledge-based economy,” which in fact is deeply prejudiced against all knowledge that does not produce the quickest possible return on investment....

Then he asks, what about a real education for real times? "What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? ...

"Even to ask such questions, let alone answer them, you will have to refuse certain assumptions that ... the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted."

Our elite institutions continue - in the words of Jeremy Beer - to stripmine our brightest students away from their homes to prepare them for lives as itinerant meritocrats, giving them skills that will allow them to do anything but to be prepared to live in one place and contribute to a particular community. Yet, there is growing evidence that this may be the future for which we should be preparing them, not the one that we imagine. The inability of our "leaders" to acknowledge these facts, much less to begin reconsidering our perilous course, is yet further evidence of the abject failure of education in our time. Education is doing the opposite of what it should be doing - preparing the young for a future of responsibility and gratitude in which we take in what those before us have given us as inheritance and in which we prepare to leave behind so generous a legacy.

How much longer will it be before our young look at us - seeing the plundered world we bequeath to them and the debts we leave behind - and ask us, "what in the hell do you think you were doing?"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Freedom and Limits

The latest issue of "Harper's Magazine" has a bracing and important essay by Wendell Berry entitled "Faustian Economics." Berry begins by noting our incapacity to face the fact of imminent changes to our lives with the arrival of "peak oil," pointing to our desperation to find the magic "technology" that will allow us to avoid any change in how we live and any accounting of the debts we have accumulated and the payments we have delayed. Tartly, he writes that "perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but - thank God! - still driving."

Berry's main argument is to point to the literary tradition - naming Marlowe and Milton, but drawing on Dante and including Goethe - of depicting Hell as a place without limits or boundaries. Hell is a place where bounds are not known, where judgment has been abandoned and where, because appetite roams free and wild, its denizens are enslaved to desire. We have made our own hell, largely because we have discarded the self-imposed limits of traditional human understanding, whether derived from religious, literary, or other cultural sources. "Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans - that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed." Berry quotes a passage from Milton's Paradise Lost in which the Archangel Michael, replying to Adam's request to be told the story of creation, agrees "to answer thy desire/of knowledge within bounds...[Berry's emphasis]...," explaining that

Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

And Berry glosses these lines thusly: "Raphael is saying, with angelic circumlocution, that knowledge without wisdom, limitless knowledge, is not worth a fart... but he is also saying that knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous."

As I read these passages I found myself pondering some lines of Pope Benedict XVI's address to Catholic educators during his recently concluded trip to the United States. This address could not have failed to disappoint many who expected a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of various invidious practices at Catholic universities, including, many hoped, an Index of prohibited activities beginning with performances of the V-monologues. However, Benedict's address, while brief and often general, will, I hope, provoke a good deal of conversation - perhaps temperate and good willed, even - in particular in light of several sentences that will no doubt anger some and confuse many, seeming on the one hand to praise the unlimited openness of academic freedom but then simultaneously to demand its limitation:

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it."

At the heart of the Pope's faith in the great good of academic freedom as a necessary path to true knowledge is his abiding belief in the compatibility of faith and reason, and his confidence that honest and valiant exploration will yield knowledge that is ultimately compatible with faith. This understanding is accompanied by the demand to eschew justifications of teachings behind the bad-faith invocation of "academic freedom," an invocation that is made implicitly from the stance that one has the right to defend a wrong. Essentially the modish use of the words "academic freedom" rests on a debased and insidious understanding of the word "freedom" - one that, much as Berry likewise understands in his essay, is understood to mean the complete absence of any restraint or limit. Academic freedom, like any freedom, is only praiseworthy and defensible when it is employed to choose right, that God-given grant of liberty to walk the virtuous path. Freedom is not a license to limitlessness, but precisely the condition that makes the self-imposition of limits the core definition of what it is to be human.

What we see in so many universities - even ones that profess to be Catholic - is the regnant understanding of this debased form of freedom. Disciplines (note the word) that were to teach us how to be human - most centrally, how to limit ourselves and our appetites, how to govern ourselves as individuals and as members of polities - have been transformed into "liberative" studies. No discipline has fallen further from its original role as a discipline and into a "liberation movement" than English literature - and it generally doesn't matter if one attends a secular or a Catholic university. Over a dozen years ago Maureen Dowd reported on changes being made to the English curriculum at Georgetown University, where courses on Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare would no longer be required, and rather the emphasis in reading literary texts was to be on "the power exerted on our lives by such cultural and performative categories as race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, and on the ways in which various kinds of representation aid in the construction, reproduction, and subversion of these categories." Presumptively, by exposing these "constructions and reproductions" of power, and subsequently by "subverting" them, we could be liberated ever more fully and ever more perfectly. By interrogating the texts, rather than learning from them, we could become more fully autonomous. Such is the typical fashion in which "academic freedom" is defended.

Compare this liberationist ethic with Berry's commendation of a discipline in the humanities:

"It is to the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer's and the reader's memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex."

To take seriously the admonition of Pope Benedict that we must begin to use our freedom well, we must again learn the lost art of imposing limits - of line-drawing, as difficult as that practice inevitably is. Even as our English professors undoubtedly decry the destruction of the "environment" (certainly a word that reflects the belief that we "construct" the world, given that an "environment" is something outside of us - we should again be more honest and use the word nature), they overlook their complicity in their rejection of the self-governance that their discipline could and might begin to inculcate. It is a discipline that is rejected in the name of "academic freedom," and one that lies at the very heart of the betrayal of the educational aim that - perhaps uniquely in our time - a Catholic university ought rightly to provide. The great fear, of course, is that such discipline would lead to reduction of our sexual liberation. True enough: but without such constraint it is also certain that we will continue our depredations of the world - it is the nature of appetite to be indiscriminate, after all. As we use people, so we use the world, and there can be no doubting that everything is now consumed for personal satisfaction in the name of a freedom without limits. It is a freedom that now destroys all that it touches - except the truth, which increasingly tells us that we have "turned wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind."

Maureen Dowd reported a Georgetown professor to have justified the changes in the curriculum based in the desire of the professoriate "to get away from the notion that literature is sacred. That is really a secular version of fundamentalism, the belief that there are magic books that have all the wisdom, all the authority, and if students passively attend to these books, they'll have all the answers." I would submit, to the contrary, that literature is now approached in the belief that "we have all the answers" - or that all the answers can be got - and what has been abandoned is an education in humility. When we are certain that all we will find in a great text is evidence of oppression which must be "subverted," then we forestall the possibility that we can learn anything from such texts, we inoculate ourselves against curiosity and wonder, we begin with a preliminary rejection of the possiblity of education. What is needed for an education in humility and limits is just such a recognition of the sacred that is rejected here. The texts themselves may not be sacred but Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton - who surely have written as close to sacred texts as we might conceive - teach us of the noble human striving toward, the existence of, and the demands made by, the sacred. But in a world in which openness to the sacred has been banished, all that will remain is a world and humanity profaned.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

False Consciousness All Around?

I am extremely uncomfortable with some of what I wrote in a previous posting (written about another previous posting), and Rod Dreher has forced me to acknowledge it publically. There is the express danger in the argument that we are ALL in the throes of embracing an unmitigated narrative of progress - even the good people who "cling" to guns and religion in Pennsylvania - that the social conservative position contains simply another version of the accusation of "false consciousness" that was implicit in Obama's remarks. That is, Obama implied, a la Marx, that religion is the opiate of the masses who don't have the same opportunities as our cosmopolitan city dwellers. In my previous post, I suggested that at the very least some of the anger expressed in the rural towns of our heartland has its sources in resentment toward the "successful" (and hence, a degree of jealousy), inasmuch as the narrative of progress appears to have been embraced widely and deeply in our culture. No doubt I overstate this, and far be it from me to claim comprehensive knowledge of the views of the many diverse peoples throughout this land. But, my libertarian critics are nevertheless correct to note that many small towns have emptied as other opportunities have arisen. I have a good number of students at Georgetown who come from these sorts of towns, and whose parents hope that they can be given opportunities at a place like Georgetown that will allow them to live and succeed in places like San Francisco. Moreover, and perhaps most problematically, many who remain in those towns have been complicit in the destruction of the economic bases of those very towns by readily embracing the opening of Wal-Marts and Home Depots, and ironically killing off the manufacturing base that once undergirded their communities.

So, Russell Arben Fox asks nevertheless whether I'm just a wee bit populist. I'd like to say yes, of course I am, but what does this mean exactly? I fear that we romanticize a time when - as critics note - there were no other good options other than to be involved in small town, rural, local life. But what do we mean by populism now? Are our small town denizens now any less inclined to shop at Wal-Mart or to watch American Idol than many other Americans? I doubt it; indeed, I suspect they are likely to be more inclined. The populists of the turn of the last century were notable because they realized that they needed to actively defend their way of life against encroachments from the centralizing and homogenizing powers of business and government. I am not so certain that many small town Americans are as willing, or perhaps able, to defend their way of life and the fundamental philosophical bases on which it rests. I would like to argue that they are not in the throes of false consciousness - that is, that they do not know their own good and it is for me, an urban college professor, who must enlighten them to fully embrace their way of life. Rather, I think we need to acknowledge that the dominant narrative of progress (and growth and globalization) has become well-nigh monolithic in our age, and intellectual sources of opposition have withered. As discomfiting as it may be, I am inclined to conclude that people who are blessed with some degree of time and the opportunity for reflection, but more importantly, intellectual connections with a countervailing philosophical and religious resources, need to articulate and propound this alternative from every available soapbox. This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case. This was no less true for someone like Chesterton living a century ago than it is for someone like Wendell Berry who - while every bit the farmer - is known to us for being a writer.

I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Progress and Resentment

Great comments on my last posting, ones that beg for some clarification of my pugnacious if hasty posting on the evening when I first read of Senator Obama's now infamous San Francisco comments.

Russell Arben Fox, both in a comment and on his own blawg, suggests that Obama and I fundamentally agree. On his site he writes:

"It seems to me that Patrick's suggested statement is actually the same as Obama's, only with the rhetorical advantage of being able to make a well-known point in reverse. What is that point? It's a comment about borders, and identity, and the value of such to those who are living lives closely tied to family and the land, and the rhythms of nature and scarcity invariably embedded therein. Obama's comment, condescending and crowd-pleasing as it may have been when it came out of his mouth in San Francisco, implicitly acknowledges all that, while Patrick chooses to snarkily underline those transformations and assumptions which allow certain people to go merrily along all while denying those very same essential things. So really, they're in agreement: just that one is making the point in a much more clever, yet also much more respectful way."

And Susan McWilliams in a comment chastises me for encouraging divisiveness, inasmuch as my "alternative speech" given to the people of Latrobe would only incite the reverse kind of class war that was implicitly on display in Obama's comments in San Francisco. (Susan also has smart things to say about globalization, so you should read her comment and she should start one of these stupid narcissistic web things one of these days. No, I didn't just write that).

But here's the thing: Mine wasn't meant as a literal incitement that Obama should say these things to the people of Latrobe (though, boy, wouldn't it be refreshing!). I'm not a big fan of populist demagoguery, all appearances notwithstanding. Mostly I was trying to point to the absurdity of the idea that Obama would say these things, that a Democratic front-runner, if asked how to explain about those folks living in big cities, would frame his response as one in which we could justify their beliefs in terms of a kind of economic determinism. So, imagine people in the heartland asking a Democratic frontrunner to explain their pro-choice position, saying something to the effect "I have to hold this position in spite of my personal beliefs because the elites of the party, who are our biggest donors, live in an economic condition in which the obligation to carry children of accidental pregnancies to term would prove to be economically inconvenient and a limitation on their personal freedom." This would be a moment of extraordinary frankness of just the kind that Obama demonstrated in San Francisco - and just imagine the response if that statement, made behind closed doors in Latrobe, were to get out in the same way the San Francisco comments got out. But - here's the point - it's a kind of moment one musn't remotely expect, because the current set of assumptions is that we explain the beliefs of people in Latrobe in light of the assumptions of the people in San Francisco (or New York - don't get bent out of shape, Susan!), and not vice versa.

And why is that? Well, Bill Kristol hit it on the head yesterday by dusting off his old copy of Marx's "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." The Democrats remain deeply caught up in the 19th century narrative of progress, and thus understand the conditions of traditional religious belief, identification with place and community, and preference for stability (or, to use John Stuart Mill's language, "Order" vs. "Progress") to be temporary conditions that will be overcome with the spread of enlightenment. Thus, in the face of economic stagnation and recession, the small town people of Pennsylvania "cling" to their traditional beliefs (which, Obama has suggested, is an understandable and even justified reaction). However, the deeper implicit assumption is that if the good people of western Pennsylvania could enjoy the same fruits of upward mobility as urban cosmopolitans, they would no longer have to "cling." They would no longer need the limiting old verities amid the enjoyment of limitless opportunity.

Why I thought it was pretty funny to write the speech that Obama didn't give in Pennsylvania was that "the reverse" is well-nigh impossible to imagine. All of our candidates, regardless of party or purported ideology, are proponents of the basic narrative of progress. In this fact, our Republicans are no different than our Democrats - and, thus, why you will find none of our candidates raising questions about the reasonableness and logic of endless "growth." (Meanwhile, we can read articles like one appearing on the front page of today's New York Times, which reports the resentments of leaders of impoverished nations toward the developed West's precipitous decision to make food into fuel, thus leading to starvation and food riots around the world.) Our ignorance of the cost of growth is a necessary underpinning for the narrative, and it's an ignorance that we all share - whether in San Francisco or Latrobe - because we all want to "cling" to the narrative.

Indeed, it could be suggested that the very animosities - the "bitterness" - of the people of Latrobe have some ground in the deeply shared belief in progress, and the resentments that they have not benefited to the same extent as various elites on the coasts. Fewer and fewer people are able to defend the goods of a less prosperous, less mobile, less opportunity-filled life for their own sake. All the candidates promise Middle Americans the return of upward mobility, and there can be little doubt that it is a message that is well-received and expected. We don't so much despise the lifestyle of glittering Californians as we envy them - certainly if the popularity of magazines like "People" and "Us" are any indication. My version of Obama's speech is finally laughable not only because it's one he would never consider delivering, but it's one that I wager the people of Latrobe would not demand that he make.

Imagine a day when we will speak of the bitterness felt by the isolated and childless individuals in our big cities who can't exactly understand why they suffer from a lack of community, meaning, and belonging like the kind experienced by people in small towns in the heartland. That would be a profoundly different narrative, and one that's better than the current one that laments or valorizes the "bitterness" of people who are arguably better off in some of the most important respects.

Friday, April 11, 2008

What He Should Have Said, and Where

Given all the swooning from people on the religious Left like E.J. Dionne, Amy Sullivan and Jim Wallis over Obama - that Obama is the real deal, and that he "gets" religion in ways that many recent Democratic nominees have not (think Kerry and Dukakis, for starters) - then you'd think we wouldn't be seeing some of the typical Left-Coast elitism when it comes to explaining the backwardness of those superstitious townies who inexplicably do things like hunt, drink Budweiser from long neck bottles, and believe in God. However, consider what Politico has reported that Obama said at a recent fundraiser in San Francisco:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Someone should advise him to go to Latrobe and say the following instead:

"You go to these big liberal cities in California, and like a lot of cosmopolitan centers of libertarian lifestyle individualism, they have benefited from the wrenching displacements you've experienced. They benefited immensely from free-trade and globalizing policies of previous Administrations - Democratic and Republican alike - and they've been told that they have earned their status and they owe nothing to anyone.

"And it's not surprising that they get optimistic, they believe that they can dispense with religion or borders or community as a way to remake the world in exactly their image."

Yea, right.

It's really not good for the Democrats when they tell what they really think to a crowd in San Francisco whom they think shares their view of the world. When will they figure this out???

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gone Fishing

Stanley Fish is one of our smartest, savviest, and most penetrating intellectuals - which makes him at once invaluable and supremely dangerous. He is the most engagingly seductive of the sophists, and even, dare one say, the most sophistical.

Take as evidence a recent blog posting in which he argues that the entirety of the culture wars fought in the 1980s until now was really so much ado about nothing. In the post he argues that Left postmodernists and Right traditionalists were fundamentally mistaken about the nature of postmodernism itself, and lined up to fight a battle over a philosophical approach that, upon further consideration, actually had no political implications whatsoever. As Fish concludes, "For both what was important about French theory in America was its political implications - but [my main contention] is that it doesn’t have any. When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise....

"Criticizing something because it is socially constructed (and thus making the political turn) is what Judith Butler and Joan Scott are in danger of doing when they explain that deconstruction “is not strictly speaking a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established.” But those “exclusionary operations” could be held culpable only if they were out of the ordinary, if waiting around the next corner of analysis was a position that was genuinely inclusive. Deconstruction tells us (we don’t have to believe it) that there is no such position. Deconstruction’s technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction."

Fish explains there's nothing really new about deconstructionism - that one can already see its main features at least as far back as Hobbes, who declared that "true and false are attributes of speech, not of things." As Fish tells the story, this argument was developed in great part as a response to Enlightenment and scientistic thinkers like Bacon and Descartes that human reason and empirical investigation could be employed to develop clear and distinct - that is, objectively true - understandings of the world. In a word, Hobbes's insight - later elaborated by deconstructionists - is that all perception of the world is mediated through language and particular perception. There is no objective point of true perception, only infinitely refracted and unstable interpretations of the world.

Stanley Fish is nearly always half-right about things. Reading this essay, I found myself in agreement with his argument against the high-Enlightenment belief that reason, logic and science were the means to a final and authoritative knowledge of the world. Much political mischief has resulted from this belief that reason and logic could be relied upon to design political societies - starting with the guillotines and likely not ending with the Gulags. The impulse of deconstructionists is not 100% in the wrong, and there are points in which they seem to echo some of the epistemological uncertainties and humility of Augustine (indeed, Augustine is often a curiously but understandably attractive figure for many post-modernists, such as William Connolly).

But Fish goes badly astray in his modest claim that the culture wars were really a big misunderstanding. For, deconstructionism takes a basic and fruitful insight - that human perception is mediated in a host of ways, including most fundamentally through language, through culture, through prejudice, through contingent facts of one's existence - and concludes therefore that that's all there is. All perception is constructed by minds; and while Fish suggests that there's a "there" out there, in the end it really doesn't matter because we can't really "know" it; all we can do is refract it through the constructs of human understanding.

Thus, one argument - arising from Enlightenment optimists - is that the world can be definitely known through the exercise of human reason. The reaction against this supposition is the argument that there is not, and cannot be, any final knowledge of anything that exists. As Fish suggests, all that one can do is endlessly deconstruct.

Fish suggests that there was no point engaging in a culture war because no politics could arise from this stance. And, in once sense, he is quite correct - no politics can be derived from a deconstructionist position because, finally, there is no basis to take a position on anything. Nothing can be defended or asserted. All that can be done is endless and infinite deconstruction.

Ironically, but revealingly, both sides of this argument effectively disallow politics. If deconstruction eliminates politics because there is nowhere to stand, Enlightenment rationalism eliminates politics because it knows exactly where to stand. Foucault was at his best in understanding that the logical trajectory of enlightenment reason was bureaucratic, expert, and centralized control. Sure knowledge of what was scientifically true meant that politics - negotiation, deliberation, debate, tentative agreement, agreements to disagree, endless talk and argument and occasional if fleeting victories - was off the table.

To continue to beat a horse that I've been working to death of late, what both these positions do is to sever the connection of culture to nature. For enlightenment rationalists, nature can be fully known when culture is overthrown and replaced by reason. For deconstructionists, there is no "nature" - only infinite and endless forms of culture - even cultures limited to individual perceptions, as absurd as that might sound. All perception is mediated through language - we are, thus, creatures of our cultures, made by our mode of perception. For all practical purposes, there is no world outside our interpretation of the world.

In an earlier post I suggested that a Catholic worldview, lodged reasonably enough in Catholic universities, had something unique to offer the modern world. Here, in particular, is one area where, I submit, this can be readily seen. Catholicism represents the "middle way" between these two extremes, holding that culture, language, history, tradition, law, interpretation, community, discourse, and finally, politics is the medium of human knowing - but holding simultaneously that there is something to be known. We "see through a glass darkly," but there is something to be seen, even if we can't be positive of its precise outlines and exact dimensions. Mediation is the means to truth and knowledge, not its obstacle, on the one hand, or all that there is, on the other. It is, finally, a sacramental vision, holding that through earthly and corporeal media we gain an access - if indirectly and still imperfectly - of the Divine. This indirectness and imperfection does not result in the call to deconstruct, but to ascend. Ritual and liturgy are ways we enact that ascent in our daily lives.

Here again we see evidence of the paucity of options that exist in our current intellectual milieu. Our universities are dominated, on the one hand, by enlightenment rationalists - most often found in the natural sciences and Departments of Economics and of Philosophy dominated by the analytic approach. The universities are considerably populated (if less dominated, in spite of the fears on the Right), on the other hand, by the various postmodernists and "multiculturalists" who deconstruct away their lives. What is largely missing is a strongly and proudly humanist population who simultaneously defend the possibility of knowledge and the centrality of culture as the medium in which the common pursuit of knowledge takes place. What modernity has put asunder - and Fish would keep that way - should be joined again. This is the fundamental insight of Christian realism - a truer understanding of reality than that emaciated understanding of various modernities. Over this issue, surely, we are right to fight, even to the point of kulturkampf.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Freedom and Virtue

A host of economic news, really too much to note here, has lately been blazoned across the headlines and editorial pages of our nation's newspapers and widely disseminated on the internet. Much of it speaks of the challenges the nation - and the world - face as we confront an array of limits. Most immediately the world is experiencing rapid inflation of the cost of basic goods and commodities, a phenomenon experienced by individuals as an inexplicable constraint of their spending power, but the source of which can be traced back especially to constrained supplies of petroleum and the concomitant associated costs of higher industrial agriculture - so deeply reliant on petroleum inputs - as well as the short-sighted policies that provide incentives to turn food into fuel.

In his column on Monday, Paul Krugman confirmed that a major source of "grains gone wild" (NB: will Georgetown students begin protesting the NYTimes because of his insensitivity?) is the rising cost of oil imports used in the production of food, costs that are the result of constrained supplies combined with growing demand. One source of the increased cost, he writes, is "the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least, transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs.

"High oil prices, by the way, also have a lot to do with the growth of China and other emerging economies. Directly and indirectly, these rising economic powers are competing with the rest of us for scarce resources, including oil and farmland, driving up prices for raw materials of all sorts."

However, in enumerating the causes of the "food crisis" - higher costs and increasingly limited supplies worldwide - he counts the increasing cost of oil as among the factors "that aren't anyone's fault" - in addition to rising oil prices, factors like bad weather. That is, only those causes that are directly attributable in particular to government policy are regarded by Krugman as "someone's fault." The rising price of oil is comparable only to uncontrollable acts of nature, such as weather patterns.

I disagree. In every respect, the rising cost of oil and the concomitant constraints, limits, and even suffering it is inducing is very much the fault of particular humans, above all we Americans who consume on the order of 25% of the world's oil every day. While these are the largely unreflected and unconscious choices of millions of people, collectively and every day we engage in continual and deeply habituated society-wide acts of gluttony, avarice and greed. As a nation we have greatly enjoyed the benefits of this exploitation, particularly during the decades during which our nation reached its peak oil production - along with the absence of real competitors for resources following World War II - and transformed our civilization from a patchwork of local and distinctive communities to a nation, and increasingly globe, of homogeneous and identical commerce, culture and patterns of life. We have wallowed in our wealth and luxury, employed every conceivable machine to replace human labor and endeavor, abandoned traditional patterns of living in the pursuit of individual satisfaction, and adopted the belief that the best means of providing for our young is to shower them with stuff and educate them to mimic our own gluttonous ways. Above all, we dispensed with virtue - and particularly, the constraints upon actions that aimed at the governance of appetite in the name of the good of our communities, the natural world that surrounds us and provides our sustenance, and future generations - in the optimistic belief that we had superseded a need for virtue in light of a civilization that no longer required the restraint of appetite.

Many readers, respondents, and critics of the arguments I have made here in many of my postings point to one simple fact as dispositive proof that arguments on behalf of virtue are a fundamental repression of natural human liberty or at best a lifestyle option for traditionalist minded people. Namely, they point out that, given the option, people have chosen to dispense with traditional notions of virtue, to pursue their individual satisfaction and make choices without great thought or regard for future generations. Given the option, people have moved off the farms and into the cities or the suburbs. Given the option, people choose to live in suburban developments and not in traditional towns or "new urbanist" communities. Given the option, people prefer to shop at Wal-Mart than the town general store, at Home Depot rather than the town hardware store, at McDonalds rather than the local diner. Given the option, people would rather engage in hook-ups rather than date and marry. Given the option, people prefer educations that ensure upward mobility rather than a moral formation. Given the option, people prefer mobility over community. Given the option, we prefer a conception of liberty that represents an absence of constraint rather than a conception of liberty that rests upon self-governance. And so on.

At the base of this argument - a compelling one, it must be granted - is a more fundamental argument that what the pre-moderns called virtue was really mere necessity. Indeed, the ancient phrase "to make a virtue of necessity" - originally coined by Chaucer and later immortalized by Shakespeare - might even be construed to mean that virtue itself is a way of re-defining necessity itself. Given the lack of the many options that modern man enjoys, pre-modern man argued on behalf of self-governance as the path to human excellence and human flourishing, and thereby (it might be assumed) endeavored to make otherwise poor and opportunity-less premodern peoples more reconciled with their impoverished condition. People could congratulate themselves for their great virtue and their limitless capacity for self-governance only because of the absence of other options. However, given the option to live differently, people chucked off virtue faster than their bodices and chastity belts.

In recent weeks and days, there have been an equal number of articles and stories that oddly suggest that we may be returning to this condition - assuming, at least for the moment, that this is an accurate portrayal. A recent story in the New York Times writes with some sense of tragedy of a couple being "tied down" in their unsalable home and unable to engage in the American norm of mobility. As expressed by its author, problems in the housing market "is distorting the normal workings of the American labor market. Mobility opens up job opportunities, allowing workers to go where they are most needed. When housing is not an obstacle, more than five million men and women, nearly 4 percent of the nation’s work force, move annually from one place to another." Note that our "housing" is now an "obstacle" to our mobility - rather than mobility being a destroyer of our capacity to settle in a home. A front page story on Monday's Washington Post relays the news that long-fought battles over housing growth vs. restraint have been rendered moot in the face of a constricting housing market and a withered mortgage market. On the editorial page on the same day, Sebastian Mallaby explores the possibility that our financial woes are more than a mere correction of the business cycle, but rather could be the comeuppance for several decade's worth explosive indebtedness readily embraced as a consequence of America's unwillingness to live within its means after the heyday of its economic dominance (uncoincidentally, occurring at the time of America's experience with domestic peak oil in the early 1970s). The downside of our debt party is likely to be as unpleasant as our gorging was enjoyable. He writes, "The nightmare is that this long party will be followed by an equally extended hangover. Savers will lose confidence in the United States, preferring to hold euros. Financiers will re-evaluate their models and bring borrowing levels down with a bump. This "deleveraging" will depress the economy, further encouraging savers and financiers to ration credit. The growth-fuelling debt expansion of the past quarter of a century could be followed by a growth-dampening contraction."

In effect, these articles and countless others suggest that we are beginning to enact a new austerity, a confrontation with limits and consequences from which we have pretended ourselves to be immune. Just as anyone who believed that pre-modern humanity wasn't virtuous because it wasn't really a choice, so too we would be wrong to confuse this new austerity with virtue - unless we want to call necessity virtue. But then, we might just be kidding ourselves.

We should notice an accompanying presupposition of the theory that pre-modern virtue wasn't really virtue, but merely a kind of feel-good patina on widespread misery in the absence of any other good options. What this argument assumes is that pre-modern humanity had a pretty good idea of what life might be like absent all those miserable constraints that necessity forced upon humanity. That is, such an argument can only hold if we can imagine that pre-modern humanity was keenly aware that their condition was comparatively worse than some other unseen, unexperienced and yet unknown condition that we now know to be industrial modernity. If so, then our forbears described self-governance of appetite as virtue only by imagining the possibility of a life unproscribed by necessity, even perhaps vaguely envisioning the ease and comfort of life enjoyed by modern humanity. However, if this is this case - as suggested implicitly in this argument - then, in fact, the calls for virtue were in fact calls to avoid efforts to engage in activities that would lead or promote just those liberating and ultimately costly alternatives. There is an implicit contradiction at the heart of the claims of those who would dismiss pre-modern calls for virtue as only the fact of brute necessity and the absence of other options.

I think that this notion represents an overstatement in lots of ways. Still - if we credit some part of the insight of those critics who suggest that ancient "virtue" was nothing other than necessity - then we must simultaneously credit the possibility that such calls to virtue were made not wholly as a result of necessity or the absence of options, but from some other source of knowledge about the undesirability of an ungoverned life or unrestrained appetite. Otherwise, there would be no need in the first place to suggest that necessity should be defined in any other way - given that it was permanently and inescapably necessity. One only need to read Plato or Aristotle to recognize that ancient thinkers regarded a life lived in accordance with unrestrained appetite to result in the deformation of the human character and the likely rise of tyranny, which would use any and all other humans, as well as the world, for the means of the tyrant's personal satisfaction. While we might regard ancient conceptions of appetite as permitting only comparatively unsatisfactory satiation, nevertheless in matters pertaining to a range of conceptions of common good - from seeming private behaviors of eating, sex, work, childrearing, to more public matters pertaining to politics and commerce, pre-modern thinkers argued on behalf of restraint of appetite as a fundamental necessity for human flourishing. Absent self-governance, we were nothing more than slaves to our desires.

Here's the intriguing part of the argument: by dint of the widespread acceptance of such conceptions of virtue, ones embedded deeply within cultures that habituated their young in virtue and which transmitted this culture from generation to generation - one especially seen in the institutional and cultural life of the Church that was at the center of cultural life for pre-modern, post-classical European humanity - pre-modern civilization effectively forestalled the development of modernity and prevented the release of appetites that we now see culminating in the ravaging of the planet and the obscenity of modern culture, so-called. What some attribute as "the lack of options" in fact was the cause, not the effect, of those lack of options. Conscious of the human capacity for limitless appetite, without even knowing the possible outcome of a society premised upon the release of unrestrained human appetite, nevertheless pre-modern theories of virtue were keenly aware of the deforming results of such a course. While one won't find predictions of resource depletion and food inflation in pre-modern arguments on behalf of self-governance, we live all too familiarly with their anticipations of the deforming experience of enslavement to desires and the tyrannies that arise as a result.

Presented in this way, we must understand the eventual abandonment of old forms of life not as the eager and wholesale rush to escape pre-modern forms of virtue, but a long-term and concentrated assault by the progressive and elite agents and proponents of modernity upon the limits that pre-modern culture enforced. This long and ferocious battle required three victories. First, it required an understanding of nature as an opponent which we rightly sought to master. Second, it required the redefinition of human beings away from the pre-modern conception as creatures of and in nature whose flourishing required cultivation in keeping with our nature, instead to an understanding of humans as fundamentally self-interested and utility-maximizing creatures - homo economicus. Lastly, it required the displacement of God by man and the prospect of humanity achieving the creation of heaven on earth. While there were many proponents of this assault, three of its generals (respectively) were Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche. What these, and many other modernist thinkers share in common, was a shared objective of assault on the limits that had traditionally been imposed by a long-standing culture which rested upon longstanding belief in the central necessity of human virtue. While such ancient conceptions could not have exactly predicted our contemporary and frightening confrontation with awesome and irresistible limits, pre-modern humans well understood that the consequences of unrestrained appetite were severe and inescapable. Icarus may fly high for a time, but his plummet to earth is swift and merciless.

Even in the course of my lifetime one can think of the transformation of residual virtues that seemed to govern even a generation or two earlier. My parents eschewed credit card debt, and only bought automobiles when they could purchase one outright. One understood one's home to be a place of some permanence, a settled homestead within a community. Commerce was considerably more local, and even as a young person we would watch movies in the local 99 cent movie theater located in the heart of downtown (easily reached by walking a few blocks on ubiquitous sidewalks), to be followed by camaraderie in the local ice-cream shop. Our fathers expected to work for one employer or to practice one craft their entire lives, vastly preferring the settled state of affairs over the fantasies of better opportunities elsewhere. We considered ourselves from a place, and even as young people many expected to return. And many did, though many left, and many more left after that.

I reject the notion that given the "option" of freedom, people abandoned settled cultures and ways of life with the alacrity of rats from a sinking boat. One must see a vaster and even more nefarious story of concerted and ferocious efforts to weaken and undermine persistent forms of local culture, whether by dint of official policies that promoted mobility and encouraged indebtedness and gluttony, or more often by the subtle and nearly irresistible seductions of commerce that ultimately demolished every persistence of virtue in its path. We should note, too, that it was not easy - the battle was hard-fought and not-easily won - but being now won in most places, it is deeply and firmly entrenched and is highly satisfied that, having destroyed the necessary connection of a culture based in virtue that requires continuity between past and future, that the field has been captured and only some isolated immolation of a few injured opponents remains. Yet, even as it congratulates itself upon its victory, envisioning a globalized future of infinite prosperity, limitless growth, unchallenged mastery of nature and unending self-creation, the ancient premonitions daily assert themselves and doubt crosses the visage of the apparent victor.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Confirmative Action

Last week the Rev. Wilson Miscamble, a professor of History at University of Notre Dame, spoke at Georgetown about the conscious and strenuous efforts that he believes would be required to maintain the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher education such as Georgetown. His main proposal – that Catholic colleges and universities should seek to hire and retain a faculty composed of a majority of Catholic professors – received a critical response by incoming interim Dean of the College, Prof. Chester Gillis of the Department of Theology. Prof. Gillis argued that such a course was undesirable because, above all, it would compromise the “academic excellence” of the institution. It was suggested that such a compromise would lead, in turn, to the reduced academic status of a university like Georgetown.

I find this response puzzling in at least two respects. First, this University – like most others – currently considers criteria that, it is argued, should be included along with the ambition to achieve “academic excellence.” These include, but are not limited to, efforts to increase gender and racial diversity. There are times – most expressly in efforts to promote affirmative action – when it is argued that “academic excellence” should not be the sole or exclusive criterion. At other times, it is suggested that additional criteria such as gender or race should be considered when “all things are equal.” If either of these two arguments hold true in such cases, why cannot the same hold for the effort to actively and consciously recruit Catholic faculty? I raise this question not to criticize affirmative action policies per se, but precisely to point out that we are already willing to consider additional criteria deemed to be important to the institution. If such criteria can be deemed to be legitimate in addition to “academic excellence,” then why not Catholicism at a University with an official affiliation with the Church?

Secondly, and to my mind more importantly, I am puzzled that the very criterion of “academic excellence” is invoked as if it is a self-evidently neutral and objective standard, one that is not itself worthy of investigation. The criterion of “academic excellence” is largely guided and influenced by the canons of scientific inquiry, and is measured mainly by the ability of faculty to publish original research in peer-refereed journals and highly ranked academic presses. As a consequence, this criterion valorizes specialization over the integration of inquiry and education across fields toward the end of forming the whole person; it emphasizes the training of graduate students over that of the formation of undergraduates; it implicitly rejects or at least mistrusts the legitimacy of tradition as a source of authority or guidance and makes little or no place for pedagogic approaches that seek to convey tradition or emphasize one’s own cultural inheritance; and it places most emphasis upon the judgments of wholly secular disciplines outside one’s own institution, thus ultimately conforming any University to the expectations of highly ranked secular and religiously disaffiliated peer institutions. In short, the seemingly neutral criterion of “academic excellence” is loaded with a deep set of philosophical presuppositions that ultimately influence and shape the institution, and which have led universities around the nation inexorably toward the rejection of religious affiliation and a dogged pursuit of conformity to a single and unquestioned norm.

The irony is that it is precisely a Catholic worldview – one that understands the compatibility of faith and reason and which seeks to achieve a comprehension of the connections between all the branches of knowledge in light of a created order – that is particularly well-suited to gaining a critical distance from the unexamined presuppositions contained in a criterion such as “academic excellence.” A university guided by such a worldview could quite ably achieve excellence according to that standard without necessarily conforming wholly to the commonly invoked standard now rendering our nation’s institutions wholly identical. I would submit that Georgetown can do a greater service to higher education – particularly in the education of our secular peer institutions and to the cause of diversity in higher education – and ultimately and most importantly to the education of our students, if we keep vibrantly alive such avenues of inquiry. It bodes ill, however, when faculty and officers of this institution invoke a criterion such as “academic excellence” without further reflection on what it really means and avoid asking whether we must wholly conform to the world or be willing to resist its narrowing and homogenizing tendencies.

This essay ran as a "Viewpoint" column in the Georgetown Hoya;
and, see Thomas Hibb's excellent reflection, here.