Radio address for November 11, 2012. I elaborate upon my ideal of a college and the search for a lifestyle of literacy.
The title was perhaps given with Sherlock Holmes’ “The Woman” in mind; as well as references like this in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis:
“‘Of course,’ said Merlin. ‘And that was how I knew you were of the College. Is it not our pass-word all over the earth?’”1
Mention is made of A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken2, and of a blog post called Rediscovering Literacy by Venkat Rao.
Music is Anon: Tolling of the Knell, from Early Music by Kronos Quartet; and A Window to the Past from the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by John Williams.
Very interesting. Robyn and I were having a conversation which overlaps with your podcast only a few days ago. This conversation was sparked by the comments of an older man who was complaining that universities and colleges are no longer places where radical ideas are born.
Naturally we discussed whether this was indeed true, and if it was why it might be. For the most part I think we agree that it is true. Our experience after several years of undergraduate and graduate education is that for the most part students in our day are not radical at all. Instead they spend their time completing assignments, playing video games, and getting absurdly drunk. The student that has the courage to dream for more than that is quite rare. The student that has the ability and the talent to see dreams made into reality may be yet rarer.
Probably the best explanation we came up with is that students live in a world that is too comfortable. Why dream about great ideas if you are already comfortable and everything is easy?
However, we also discussed the hypothesis that radical ideas require a belief in absolutes and in objective truth. The radical person must be prepared to say that what they think is right and what you think is wrong. Of course, the postmodern turn has done much to destroy that sort of radicalism. If all we do is to try not to ofend each other, then we pretend that every idea is as valid as the next. One could discuss this at length, but I think the short explanation for this phenomenon is the secularisation of society. In a world where “God is dead” (as Nietzshe put it) there is no room for objective truth and there is no room for radicalism. I think you may be interested in this Joel because I think that the link between radicalism, creativity, and ultimately the excellent conversations that you are looking for is quite strong.
In short, I think that you may have great difficulty finding those great conversations that you so long for in the so called “halls of learning” of the current age, even though we are not far removed from what Vanauken describes. Of course the disease of secularism hasn’t killed all creativity and you may yet find some good centers of learning where the students care enough to talk about interesting things. I suspect that in North America, at least, such places will be rare.
Regent College, for one, is a place where original ideas are sometimes born and where students sometimes take time from their “busy lives” of homework and facebook to talk with real people face to face about interesting things. Yet, even at Regent busyness has taken its toll and creativity gives way to routine.
One final thought is that students are far more interested in credentials that will get them a job than in enriching themselves, honing their minds, and developing the literacy which you talked about.
In my opinion you have made the most explanation of the whole difference in your last sentence. Why should getting a job be contrasted with enriching oneself? Why in particular in a collegiate setting?
Because college is no longer designed or formed for the intellectual worker. We say we have a knowledge economy, but that requires at least as bankrupt a sense of “knowledge” as Joel has already described for “literacy.”
I don’t know about birthing radical ideas, as that brings to my mind the 1960’s and a bunch of children who thought they had invented what their fathers didn’t consider worth remembering. “Radical” to my mind is a close synonym for ignorant. I suspect you have a different sense of the word because you relate it to an appreciation for absolute truth. The term I would seek is “clarifying,” the ability to make a subject more clear—discussion as a rendering process, in the antiquated sense of simplifying or reducing. On that note I’ll tip my hat to Alistair, as I appreciate the clarifying quality of his fourth essay on “Triggering”.
But the thinking-places have become crowded, and nobody goes there any more for thinking. The thinkers have retreated to the mountain-tops, and light signal fires to each other, and wish for a time when villages were ordinary and cities were strange and thinkers went to the the thinking-places.
Joel, if you can find a college where you can meet a Mower, tell me, and I shall endeavor to meet you there.
Suzy Olsen #
Well, Joel, it sounds like you could get in a room with Jacques and Arlan…meaningful conversation is sure to ensue!