Category Archives: listen

Blessed Is He Who Comes

1696182087[1]Rodney Delasanta was one of best teachers and colleagues I ever had the privilege of knowing. Rodney was a true Renaissance man—a Chaucer scholar, family man, sports fan (especially the Red Sox), award-winning accordion player (really), and classical music aficionado. The accordion business made him a regular recipient of the latest accordion joke from me. “What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the accordion—and doesn’t.” Once Rodney responded with an even better one: An accordion player is trying to find the location of his latest gig in downtown Manhattan. He parks his station wagon on the street with his accordion in the back, locks it, and sets out on foot to find the address. Upon returning to his vehicle he is crestfallen to find that the back window has been broken—Brandoni%20Mod%20149W[1]and even more crestfallen to find five more accordions in the back of the station wagon!

Rodney lived fifteen miles from campus, and told me shortly after we met that he had spent the past several months of commuting (fifteen miles is a very long commute in Rhode Island) listening to Bach’s Mass in B minor, about which we was as exuberantly effusive as he was about life in general. He was particularly taken by Bach’s setting of the Sanctus in this composition. According to Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, the angels continually sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are fully of His glory.” This inspired Bach’s setting, music that Rodney, in his usual measured fashion, declared to be the “most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus                    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord

Dominus Deus Sabaoth,                       God of power and might

Pleni sunt coeli et terra                         Heaven and earth are full of Your glory

Gloria eius.                                                Hosanna in the highest

I miss Rodney. He died of cancer a few years ago; the nine years I spent teaching honors students on an interdisciplinary team with him during my early years at Providence College strongly influenced  me both as a teacher and a human being. I cannot listen to any setting of the Sanctus, particularly Bach’s, without thinking of Rodney fondly.

200px-TheSparrow(1stEd)[1]With fewer than six degrees of separation, this makes me think of Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel The Sparrow. It is a wonderful story with a fascinating premise: Life is discovered on another planet through transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music, to which scientists respond with transmissions of their own, including selections from Bach’s Mass in B minor (Rodney would have approved). Eventually an expedition, including Jesuit explorers and scientists, make first contact — just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s Age of Discovery. “Catholics in Space”—it’s a great premise.

The mission goes disastrously and terribly wrong, leaving one of the Jesuits, Emilio Sandoz, as the sole survivor. hughjackman[1]Sandoz believed that God had led him to be part of this mission, that God had micromanaged the details to bring it about, and thought he was in the center of God’s will. In the tragic aftermath, after all of his companions are horribly killed, he is devastated, ruined physically, emotionally, and spiritually. From the depths of his pain he lashes out at God: “I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.” Only such blunt and brutal words could match his devastation. In conversation with fellow priests and his religious superiors back on Earth, Emilio says “It wasn’t my fault. It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship.”

The God of Power and Might responds, “Oh, really??” We already have a classic text on what this God has to say in response to demands for accountability—the book of Job.BookJob[1] There are a number of parallels between Emilio and Job: both are dedicated believers, both are all but destroyed by events surrounding them, and neither carries any blame for these disastrous events. Job, from the midst of the ash heap in which he sits, demands an accounting from God just as Emilio does from the midst of his devastation. God’s answer to Job, once he bothers to provide one, is along the lines of “Who are you, puny creature, to question anything about me or what I do? I’m God, you’re not, so let me offer you a large helping of ‘shut the hell up’.”tumblr_me3hnr8r2k1qdjda6o1_500[1] And a God of Power is entirely within its authority to give such an answer. Some afflicted believers, in the face of such a response, might say with Job “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” Others might rather say, with Emilio, “Fine, but this is a God I cannot worship.” In Emilio’s position, I would say the same thing. Thanks for sharing (finally), but you can’t do any worse to me than you’ve already done. I’m outta here.

The God of Glory and Mystery responds “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”img_6246[1] This, I suppose, is an improvement on “I’m God and you’re not,” but not much of one. The God of Mystery’s answer is a reminder that none of our human faculties, either individually or as a total package, can ever crack God’s code, can ever fully encompass divine reality. I’m sure this is true, but it can easily turn into a license for laziness and apathy. The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” If my heart, soul, and mind are incapable of touching the transcendent, then God can be whatever I want God to be, since all visions of God are equally immune from scrutiny. Let’s just make it up as we go along.

But there is another divine response. The God of Love created the world because, as Iris MurdochimagesCA6KS6YV writes, “He delights in the existence of something other than Himself.” But love limits power. In order for the loved to exist and respond to love freely, the lover must not manipulate or control. The language of love is the language of intimacy and vulnerability. The only possible response of the God of Love to suffering, pain, and anguish is to embrace and endure it with us, rather than to eliminate it. And the ultimate response of the God of Love to human pain is to become human. This is not a God who intercedes. This is a God who indwells. God comes as one of us, not as a distant source of arbitrary power or wrapped in a cloud of mystery.

The ancients had it easy, because the various and indefinite aspects of the transcendent were each given shape in a different deity. Power for Zeus, wisdom for Athena, erotic love for Aphrodite, mischievous creativity for Hermes, murderous tendencies for Ares, plain old hard work for Hephaestusnbvcn[1]—a different deity for every divine mood. Maybe monotheism isn’t such a good idea. But the God of Love is a good way to get a monotheistic handle on our polytheistic dealings with the divine. The God of Love chooses to ratchet down divine power in exchange for relationship. The God of Love is revealed in the most intimate mystery of all, God made flesh. God responds to our demands for answers strangely—nothing gets answered, but everything is changed. Christianity does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use for it. Christ in us, the hope of glory. In the liturgy the Sanctus is followed by the Benedictus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” exactly what the crowds are singing to Jesus on a donkey as the drama of Holy Week begins today. “Hosanna in the highest” indeed.palm_sunday[1]

Reboot and Retool

There are many modern conveniences that Jeanne and I could at least try to do without for a while. For instance, while she was in Vancouver for work this past weekend, our almost-twenty-year-old dishwasher finally decided to give up the ghost. It has been residing in our kitchen since we moved into the house in May 1996.dishwasher We have been expecting it to croak for a while (a few features stopped working months ago), but it was still a bit of a shock to push the “start” button and have nothing happen. So I bought a cheap dish drainer at Walmart and we’ll see how long we can go old school without a dishwasher. My guess is that we’ll be fine until the next time we have people over for a party.

But there are some things we absolutely cannot do without. Our Verizon FIOS cable/wireless service is one of them. We watch a lot of television (only the good stuff, of course) and often are not able to watch our favorite shows at their normal air time. Hence the importance of a working and reliable On Demand service. on demandThis service is particularly important to help us navigate Sunday evenings when at least two and sometimes three of our favorite shows are on either at the same or at overlapping times. Recently, this indispensable part of our daily lives has not been behaving properly. Every time we watch something “On Demand,” about twenty minutes into the show we get a blank screen. After fifteen seconds that feel like an hour, the show either picks up where it left off or kicks us back to a previous screen where we have to click “Resume program” to start watching again. Repeat this process every twenty minutes—very annoying and inconvenient. Imagine having to waste fifteen seconds of our valuable television viewing time doing nothing.

The problem escalated when Jeanne was away last weekend; as I tried to watch an On Demand movie, the blank screen appeared once again. After the allotted fifteen seconds this time, though, a message from the FIOS authorities came up on the screen. The message said something along the lines of “we are trying to get you back to your program, but are unable to do so at the present time. rebootPlease try again later. Should this problem persist, we suggest that you reboot your router and/or your cable box.” This made a certain amount of sense to me, since I have known for a long time that computer problems can be solved ninety percent of the time by shutting one’s computer down, letting it rest while one gets a drink, then starting it up again. Furthermore, whenever I have called Verizon for help with wireless issues, the person in India who I get after a half hour of muzak always starts addressing my issue by asking “have you rebooted the router?” I rebooted the router (which did not solve the problem), then the box a couple of days later (which seems to have solved the problem—fingers crossed).

How many things that you “cannot do without” could you actually do without? This has all the earmarks of a “first-world” question, but it’s one that the ancient Stoics regularly urged anyone who would listen to consider carefully. Stoics claimed that our natural human tendency is to rely on external things, things outside our control, to dictate the quality of our lives to us, even though the only true source of control over and value in our lives is to be found internally. In various letters to a friend’s son, SenecaRoman senator and Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested a regular practice that might help to establish what is necessary and what is a luxury.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself all the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Seneca, of course, is referring to a lot more than living without a dishwasher or television on demand—he’s suggesting that each of us regularly practice denying ourselves of what we believe to be essential in order to discover what is truly essential. But each of us has to begin somewhere. The passage from Seneca actually sounds a lot like Lent—setting aside a number of days to shake things up and reorder one’s priorities.

In truth, rebooting also sounds a lot like Lent. I don’t know why rebooting one’s computer or router works more often than not—such technical details are way above my pay grade. As a non-technical person, IMG_9677I imagine that over time the device in question has been overworked, various small things have gone awry, and the down time involved with a reboot allows such askew items to realign and refocus. Talk about anthropomorphism—this is worse than projecting my thoughts and feelings into my dachshund’s tiny brain. But I do know from experience that the human equivalent to rebooting is a necessary component in my life—and I suspect I am not alone in this. We tend to treat ourselves like appliances, indispensable items whose energies we take for granted. Just like our dishwasher and cable service, eventually neglect, overuse, and the simple passage of time will reap unwanted rewards. What it means to reboot and retool will be as individual as people are different from each other. But create a space in each day, or at least in each week, in which you deliberately step outside yourself and take a look. Do a virtual reboot and shut yourself down for a few minutes. Ask yourself: How did this day, this week, fit with what I know to be my best self? What loose ends need to be gathered together? What frayed ends need to be trimmed off? As the Benedictine prayer recommends, experience the fertility of silence. You are worth the time—because you are indispensable.

Educating the Uneducated

This is the point in the semester where teachers start returning the first graded assignments to students and students start having a fit. A bit over a year ago I wrote about one of these exchanges that was particularly satisfying . . . 

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. 🙂time will tell

I Am Because You Are

I almost never give up on a book half-way through; I was reminded a few days ago of why this is a good habit to have developed. I was deep into a book that I should have loved. Patrick Henry (a descendant of that Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” fame),ironic christian the author of The Ironic Christian’s Companion, is a historian of religion and the former director of the ecumenical institute where I spent a sabbatical semester in 2009. But I was struggling with the book. I liked most of the author’s ideas, but not his writing style, the haphazard organization of the book, or what seemed to me a minor case of his being a bit too full of himself. I had not dipped into it for a week or so, and decided to give it one more go. I’m glad I did, because the next chapter resonated on several levels, beginning with perhaps the most famous claim in the history of Western philosophy.

“I think, therefore I am”—it is not much of an oversimplification to say that with this single sentence Descartes rewrote the playbook for Western philosophy and set Western philosophy and science on a path that it has taken more than four centuries to begin steering away from. The subjective turn, the insistence on certainty that begins with me, the dualism that separates mind from body as well as intellect from emotion—the list of thorny philosophical problems traceable back to Rene Descartes goes on and on. cogitoI am very familiar with Descartes—I wrote my dissertation on his moral philosophy in which he struggles mightily with the problem of how the solipsistic individual mind that is the center of his metaphysics is to live her or his life in a world that sharply distinguishes neither between mind and body nor between the autonomous self and the billions of other such selves on earth. Patrick Henry, a dedicated academic with a powerful intellect, writes that

When I used Descartes, as elaborated by a whole intellectual and academic culture, as my guide, I got the world wrong. I have spent much of my life trying to unlearn Descartes’ lesson.

Long before I went to graduate school, a theologian friend of my father’s once told me that the darkest day in the history of Western civilization was the day that Descartes shut himself alone in a stove-heated room and began to think. I didn’t know what he meant then, but I do now—and so does Patrick Henry.

Philosophical puzzles and problems aside, the real problem arising from the vision of reality that Descartes creates is that it closes each of us off from each other and establishes the autonomous human individual as the measure of what is true and real. becausePatrick Henry writes that he began to break free from Descartes’ hold when a friend from Kenya told him that “in Africa, we say I am because you are.” My existence is not self-defined; I cannot start from scratch and it is no accident that each of us finds ourselves surrounded by other human beings. We define ourselves not in the solipsistic privacy of our individual minds, but through interaction with others. This is a difficult thing for academics to learn; some of us never do. Trying to get academics to do anything collectively is often referred to as similar to trying to herd cats; it’s actually a lot more difficult than that. My years of chairing a large academic department, then directing an even larger academic program, revealed that trying to organize academics is like trying to herd cats when each of the cats has a PhD and truly believes it is the smartest cat in the room. The chances of creating an academic community when each individual in the community trusts her or his own intellect more than what might be learned from others are very small.

My own academic department is currently a prime example of what can happen when a group of very smart people over time becomes convinced that they have little or nothing to learn from each other, unless they already happen to largely agree with the others in question. My department is large as philosophy departments go; the very idea of more than twenty philosophers occupying the same space might be enough to cause normal people to despair. sienaBut for the first fifteen or so of the twenty-two years I have been a member of this department, we argued, challenged each other, took contrary positions, but were also mutually supportive and largely managed both to get along and learn from each other. For a host of reasons—more than I can even remember—this began to change several years ago.

Factions began to form, suspicion replaced trust, posturing replaced dialogue, and ideology replaced the pursuit of truth. After a few years of this poisonous brew stewing, we have come to the point where there is little conversation in the halls other than between people who know they all agree, no benefits of a doubt have been given in months, the administration and lawyers have become involved, and our dysfunction has made us the laughing-stock of the campus. Although I would love to think that I am the only person in the department who can listen to and communicate with all sides, I know this not to be the case. I am just as likely as anyone else to roll my eyes when certain colleagues raise their hand in a meeting before they even open their mouths, because I “know” that I will entirely disagree with what they say and since I “know” there is nothing I could possibly learn from this person; I have no doubt some of my colleagues have the same reaction when I raise my hand. better than thisA junior colleague said to me at lunch the other day “But we’re above all this!” And indeed we should be, but sadly we are not.

Patrick Henry tells a story of how a botched prayer unexpectedly provided an insight into why no one person’s or group’s intellectual commitments can possibly serve as a foundation for truth. Once when offering grace before a meal, Henry’s mother-in-law recited a well-known prayer that ends with asking God to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” Except that this time she closed the prayer with make us ever needful of the minds of others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better counter to Descartes’ claim that my own activity of thought is sufficient to establish my identity. As Henry develops in the following pages, I (and each of us) need the minds of others because I cannot know enough, what I do know is distorted, my ways of knowing are different from the ways of others, and I can easily fool myself. Only through constant engagement with others, not in order to prove oneself right but rather in order to truly come to knowledge together, can a true community be formed.

I am continually reminded of this through regular seminars I conduct with friends and fellow travelers once a month after the morning service at Trinity_Cranstonthe Episcopal church I attend. I am the “professor” in the group and we use one of my recent blog essays as a jumping-off point for conversation each month. Yet I have learned far more about faith and life itself from the members of this group than they could learn from me in a million years. Each of us has developed not only trust in each other but reliance upon each other, because each of us knows that we are needful of each other’s minds, hearts, and experiences. Whether the situation in my department can be turned around or even salvaged, I do not know. But I do know that if there is any hope for improvement, it might begin with each of us taping on our bathroom mirrors and computer screens what Patrick Henry learned from his African friend: I Am Because You Are. Even if we don’t particularly like each other.

Sabbatical Report–The Early Returns

I have been on sabbatical officially for a bit over a month—in many ways, it doesn’t feel any different from the middle of any summer for an academic. I’ve been reading and writing a lot, something that all academics do during the summer. I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the yard, something I always enjoy doing in the summer. WIN_20150701_150659The greatest evidence that this summer is unusual is that since July 1 I have been riding my new bicycle 15-25 miles every day. And this reminds me that this isn’t just the summer—it’s the beginning of sabbatical. I received sufficient funds to purchase a beautiful new bicycle from my very generous colleagues who teach in the academic program I directed for the past four years, money presented to me as a thank you gift (along with a very expensive and very lovely bottle of Laphroaig) at a surprise reception after the program’s annual end-of-the-academic-year workshop in May. laphroigI have only been to the gym twice since July 1 (my habit has been four times per week for the past twenty or more years) because I have ridden my bicycle every day but two since July 1. I highly recommend it.

August tends to be the month when professors remember that they actually will be teaching classes within a few weeks and put the final touches on each of their fall syllabi (or begin their syllabi if they are less anal about class preparation than I tend to be). And now I’m beginning to feel weird, because I have no syllabi to prepare. With a full academic year sabbatical, I will not be in the classroom again until the day after Labor Day 2016. I know that my colleagues who are getting ready for the students who will arrive on campus in a month are probably jealous of those colleagues who are on sabbatical—but I don’t feel guilty about that. I felt the same way each of the last six Augusts about my colleagues who were beginning sabbatical. Unfortunately sabbatical only shows up once every seven years—that means that six out of every seven Augusts a professor is going to be overwhelmed by envy.

sabbaticalExplaining sabbatical to non-academics is very difficult, and in my experience most academics do a lousy job at such explanations. Most non-academics do not know exactly what sabbatical is. But they do know that for a semester or year the person on sabbatical is not going to be in the classroom, which means (obviously) that sabbatical is vacation. When a teacher is not in the classroom, she is not working—right? No amount of explaining that sabbatical is the time when professors research, write and publish, all of which are requirements for promotion and tenure (another academic thing non-academics don’t get), or of describing the hoops that must be jumped through (proposals, committees, etc.) in order to be approved for tenure matters a whit. What makes you so special to warrant getting several months off every seventh year? Paid, no less? Do you think you work harder than normal people do? Do you live in a rarified atmosphere than normal mortals can only aspire to? This, of course, is likely to produce an ill-conceived and defensive response from the academic, who then comes off sounding as if she really does think she is special, that he does work harder than anyone else, that the academic does deserve a perk that virtually no one else has access to. But I think we can do better than this, fellow professors. Step one—stop apologizing for having access to something that, netflix family leavein a better world of work and employment, would be the norm rather than the exception.

The other day on one of the NPR shows I listen to when in the car (I forget which one—they all start melding together after a certain time), Netflix’s newly announced policy of a full year’s paid leave to new parent employees was the topic of discussion. “Wow, those wild and crazy companies like Netflix, Google and Microsoft! Unlimited vacation time, no required number of working hours per week, and now this! What will they think of next?” A bit of perspective was provided by a caller about twenty minutes in. The caller was from Scotland but married an American and lives in the U.S. He reported that when each of his children was born, his wife was allowed a mere six weeks of paid maternity leave, then she had to return to work.scotland parental leave By comparison, when his sister gave birth recently in Scotland, by statute her employer was required to provide her with six months of paid maternity leave, to be followed by six more months at half salary if she chose to avail herself of it. “What’s driving me crazy about the conversation so far,” the caller said, “is that everyone is saying what a great and spectacular thing policies like Netflix’s family leave program are. But this is how things should be. Every employer beyond a specified size should have to provide a year’s paid leave. This isn’t a luxury—it’s how people should be treated.”

Rather than getting defensive when conversing with non-academics about sabbaticals, professors should make a similar argument to the one offered by the guy from Scotland. The idea of Sabbath and sabbatical is ancient—most people who know anything about it know that several chapters in the Pentateuch from the Jewish scriptures describe in detail how a scheduled change in the daily, monthly, yearly routine is to be a fundamental part of the fabric of Israelite life. ot sabbaticalNot just for people, but also for the land, for non-human animals, and even for God itself if the divine seventh day rest in the first chapter of Genesis is to be taken seriously. Why are the Sabbath and sabbatical years commanded in the Jewish law? Not because the children of Israel worked harder than anyone else or because they deserve it more than other human beings, but because the rhythms of work and rest, of activity and contemplation, of expending energy and recharging batteries, are built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves part of. Stepping back and taking a look at things from a different angle in the middle of a culture fully dedicated to manic production and 24-7 work sounds like a quaint luxury, but really it is a psychological necessity.

Joan Chittister, one of the most powerful voices for peace and justice in our world who happens also to be a Benedictine nun, puts it nicely when reflecting on the genius of Benedict’s Rule:chittister

Benedictine leisure is a life lived with a continuing commitment to the development of a culture with a Sabbath mind . . . The purpose of Sabbath is to reflect on life, to determine whether what we’re doing and who we are is what we should be doing and who we want to be. Sabbath is meant to bring wisdom and action together. It provides the space we need to begin again.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Jeanne pointed out that employers could set up programs where employees wanting sabbaticals could have a seventh or a tenth of their salary set aside from each paycheck to accumulate until the seventh or tenth year came—and sabbatical money would be waiting for them. Good start, I say, but I’d go even further—savvy employers will fund these sabbaticals because it will empower their employees in a way that a raise or a couple of extra vacation days could never do. The immediate pushback, of course, is that such a proposal strikes directly at the heart of capitalist efficiency and productivity. To which I respondpoint

I myself am a testimonial to the power of sabbatical. As Joan Chittister writes in the above passage, one of the purposes of sabbatical is to determine whether who we are is who we want to be. During my last sabbatical, before I even was consciously aware of it, I started asking that question—and I found that at least in some important parts of my life the answer was “no.” I was not the person I wanted to be. In reflecting, then acting, on that emerging awareness, internal changes occurred that would have never happened without the time and space provided by sabbatical. It offered me the opportunity to begin again and changed my life—I highly recommend it.highly-recommend

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

Pleasure and Joy in the Work

As the end of the semester draws near and my upcoming sabbatical looms, I’m wondering what it will be like to be out of the classroom for fifteen months. This post from a year ago makes me think that it’s not going to be easy.

Last Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. PerlmanHe was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for twenty-five years now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever last year when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.

The Vision Thing

BushIn 1987, as Vice President George H. W. Bush prepared to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and run for the Presidency, he was occasionally urged to step back and take a large view of the America he wanted his possible Presidency to help create. This, as it turned out, was not particularly easy for the Vice President to do. Colleagues reported then and later that while Bush understood thoroughly the complexities of issues, he did not easily or naturally fit them into larger themes or frameworks. This led to the reputation, deserved or not, that Bush lacked vision. It rankled him. At one point, the story goes, he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country, urging the VP to think about a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. vision“Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.”

The vision thing has been front and center for me over the past few weeks. Last month I spent a day on the campus of a state university in Connecticut as one of two outside reviewers of their liberal arts core curriculum. As one of several state universities, this one’s “brand,” established more than a decade earlier, was claiming to be Connecticut’s state liberal arts university. The core curriculum, created with that vision in mind, was a rather complicated three-tiered system that all students are required to navigate through steps from familiarity to expertise in a diverse range of skills and classroom experiences. Six years after its inception, it was time for both self-study and external review.

The good will and commitment of everyone my colleague and I met on our visit, from students through faculty to administrators, was clear. It was also evident that the core was the result of a few years’ worth of debate and compromise in the early 2000s, a process of negotiation and give-and-take that I am very familiar with from my own campus. ecsuWhat was not clear in the self-study, nor in our campus visit, was the original vision behind the core program. Clearly someone, more likely several persons, originally provided the reasoning behind the core, the evidence that this new system of required courses, undoubtedly risky on a public university campus, would over time in practice embody the university’s public commitment to the liberal arts.

But no procedure for “keeping the vision alive” was established at the outset, and now several years later many of the original visionaries have retired. My colleague and I met with one of them, a professor emeritus who confided that the core curriculum as it exists not “isn’t what we had in mind.” coreProfessors hired in the last decade told us that they had received no orientation to the core curriculum upon being hired—they had just picked up what they knew about it on the fly. The students had nothing to say when asked about the value of the liberal arts education they were in the process of receiving—as far as they knew, the core so carefully planned several years ago was just a bunch of courses to “get out of the way” so they could get to the real purpose of their being at the university—their major courses which they perceived as being their direct vehicle to a good job upon graduation. There was no system for assessment in place, because no one really knew what the core was supposed to be accomplishing. And now it is just something everyone does—and no one can really explain why. The report that is due from my colleague and me in couple of days is writing itself.

As I live out the final weeks of my four-year stint directing my college’s large interdisciplinary, team-taught humanities program required of all students during their first four semesters, regardless of their major, my outside evaluator experience has been a reminder and warning. Don’t let the vision die. a classic makeoverAfter a number of years of debate, starts and stops, and hard work we are in the third year of a new core curriculum, a new core of which the program I direct—in a re-energized and exciting form—is the centerpiece. I was an active participant in the creating of the new core, but my real task has been to steer the program I direct from the old to the new, to urge, force, and seduce the faculty to “buy in” to this new thing that is replacing what we had been doing for more than thirty years. And this requires, first, knowing what the vision behind the new program is (I do) and, second and most importantly, creating systems and methods to keep that vision alive as we original establishers and keepers of the vision fade away like thecheshire cat Cheshire Cat (I’ve been working on it). I imposed the vision largely by force of my own enthusiasm for it, assisted by faculty who shared the vision and enthusiasm, in the first couple of years as director, but realized eventually that a transition had to begin that would move the program from personality to vision-driven.

If this program and the core curriculum on my campus is to avoid becoming the program I evaluated two weeks ago across the state border, succeeding waves and generations of faculty and administrators must keep the vision alive. The other day a good friend and colleague told me at lunch that the most hated colleagues on campus from the perspective of the faculty in his department are the members of the committee whose charge is to approve (or deny) courses proposed as satisfying various elements of our complicated new core curriculum.no I agreed with my friend that these committee members, all of whom are our faculty colleagues, do indeed draw the ire of many faculty on campus. Why? Because they often say “no.” They are responsible for making sure that the objectives of our new core are adhered to. They are, in other words, the committee charged with “keeping the vision alive.” And that makes them very unpopular. “Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done, perhaps with a minor nod toward the new core objectives?” many faculty want to know. The answer is that there’s a new vision in town. This committee’s job is to make sure that the energy and creativity infusing the new core at its inception is not lost in the daily grind of getting shit done. It’s not an enviable task, but someone’s got to do it. Really. The alternative is to find ourselves not many years down the line just cranking out bunch of courses, organized somewhat differently than they used to be, having lost any awareness of why we made the change.

According to the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And so, I would add, do programs, curricula, plans, hopes and dreams. vision 2One of the most important continuing lessons I have been learning over the past few years is “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Make a point of paying attention to the trees instead of obsessing about the forest, in other words. The vision thing is the flip side of that. I could spend so much energy and time with the trees that I might forget that there is a bigger picture. As Thoreau wrote, it would suck at the end of my life to find out that I hadn’t lived. The rather boring but absolutely true thing is that it’s a matter of balance. The vision thing helps me to remember the difference between living and living well, as Socrates described shortly before his execution. But the vision thing has to be lived out incrementally and daily. After all, this forest is made up of trees.

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”