Category Archives: teaching

FSM

Knowing the Unknowable

babelI just spent a week with over one hundred freshman exploring the familiar but challenging stories of Genesis and Exodus. I do this just about every year, but each time I’m in a different place and the students have different interests, backgrounds, and prior experience with the texts, so once again “all things are become new.” This time the focus most frequently was on the problem of how to make contact with the most important force in the universe in a meaningful way when, virtually by definition, that force is unknowable. The God of the Old Testament stories wants simultaneously to have an intimate relationship with apparently random groups of human beings and individuals, yet frequently falls back on the “I’m God and you’re not” position when things get dicey (such as when human beings start asking tough questions).

a wild godA friend of mine from church who also is a regular at the monthly seminars I lead afterwards asked me several weeks ago whether I had ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God. I had not, and honestly had never heard of the book (although the title alone made me want to read it immediately). “Put it on your list,” said my friend. “I want to know what you think of the end of the book.” That was at the beginning of the summer; I only got to my assignment in the last two weeks of August, right before the beginning of the new semester.

I found the book to be equal parts interesting, annoying, and incoherent. As Ehrenreich, best known (to me, at least) for her best-seller nickeled and dimedNickeled and Dimed, wanders back in time to her dysfunctional childhood and tries to pick up a thread of investigation now that she is in her early seventies that she dropped many decades earlier, she frequently gets lost in the jungle that threatens everyone who writes about themselves—the temptation to believe that just because it happened to me, it’s interesting and important to someone else. The fine line between fascinating memoir and suffocating self-absorption is often close to invisible. I should have loved the book, given that it is (roughly) the story of an atheist trying to come to grips with what can only be described as a series of  “mystical experiences” that occurred over a few years in her late teens and early twenties. Right up my alley—sounds exactly like what God would do, send mystical experiences to an atheist while giving well-intentioned believers the silent treatment. But it wasn’t until the final chapter when I realized why the whole thing just wasn’t clicking with me. Ehrenreich writes:

I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, ‘The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.’ Why ‘revere’ the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?

“Aha!” I thought. She’s trying to play the “seeking after God” game using a set of rules that guarantees that she will lose the game. balticThat’s like playing Monopoly using rules that guarantee you’ll not proceed past Baltic Avenue. Never a good idea.

Ehrenreich was trained as a scientist and came from a family with no regard for religion, so her categories of explanation for everything are objective evidence, provable fact, and calculating reason. She lacks the common vocabulary for even beginning to communicate about experiences that apparently do not fit into these categories, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. And it is a heroic effort throughout, regularly teasing the reader with impending breakthroughs in understanding—when she’s not spending page after page telling us about her love affairs, her immersion in sixties radicalism and a variety of stop-and-start careers, that is. But I hung in there because I was hoping for a big payoff of some sort—Barbara Ehrenreich meets the Divine.

In her final chapter, the one in which I hoped she would tentatively draw a line between the knowable and the unknowable as her experiences have led her to draw it, Ehrenreich instead unfavorably quotes the above passage from Goethe, then proceeds to speculate randomly about the “wild God” who has been lurking around the fringes of her rational and logical life ever since her mystical experiences as a teenager. Maybe God is the Presence we occasionally found ourselves in the middle of while experiencing natural beauty. FSMMaybe God is a creation of the “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” that cognitive scientists say our human brain comes equipped with, a device that predisposes us to project consciousness onto things other than ourselves, including rocks and trees. Maybe God is like a germ or a virus, not really alive but pervasively invading the various cracks available in living things. Or, I might add, maybe God is a Flying Spaghetti Monster, since apparently once one starts speculating beyond the boundaries of logic any guess is as good as any other.

“Why revere the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?” In the end, I find these questions to be sad, simply because the continuing assumption behind the questions is that everything, and I mean everything, is subject to not only logical scrutiny (that’s fine) but also the assumption that only those things that are at least in theory within the range and scope of human reason are worthy of even a moment of human attention. facebookIt is as if we have no other tools available for engaging with and trying to shape a meaningful life within the world we find ourselves so unexpectedly placed.

The other day I made the rare choice to get involved in a Facebook discussion. In response to my resistance to his universal claim that “Religious faith is bad,” a Facebook acquaintance (whom I’ve never met) said “Faith is belief without evidence. What else does it mean? Why else would it be needed?” My quick and inadequate response was “Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” As long as faith opponents are rejecting a definition of faith similar to TwainMark Twain’s “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” I’m with them. But that’s not what real faith is. Rather, it is applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” wrote the author of Hebrews. The relationship between faith, evidence, knowledge and hope is one worthy of extended investigation—perhaps a sabbatical?? But to assume that faith and evidence have nothing to do with each other is to define the game out of existence—or to guarantee advancing no further than Baltic Avenue.

assessment bumper sticker

Faculty-Administration War Games, or How I Learned to Appreciate (or at least tolerate) Assessment

ASSUMEEveryone has heard the old adage, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Although it does not lend itself to such a witty and pithy saying, there is another ASS word that gets a lot of buzz on college and university campuses: ASSessment. When the term arises in conversations of any sort, the faculty says “Look out, the administrative ASSes are coming for our academic freedom!” while the administrators say “Look out, the faculty ASSes are braying about academic freedom again!” I am by training and gene pool strongly aligned with the faculty side of this divide, but over the past decade have had to play nice with administrators so regularly and often that I’ve come to realize that there just might be fewer devils in the halls of the administrative buildings than there are in the faculty offices on campus. assessmentBut administrators and faculty are wary of each other, and fall back into stereotypical fears concerning “the other” at the drop of a hat. So when the third rail—ASSessment—becomes the topic of conversation, all bets are off.

I managed to ignore assessment while chairing an academic department, then directing an academic program for a number of years, but eventually couldn’t avoid it any more. And I had to figure out whether there was an academic Claritin available to help me with my assessment allergies. One of my friends and teaching mentors in my early years as a teacher had a favorite story about assessment that he liked to tell. During the meeting of a committee whose members came from various academic departments, the topic of assessment of faculty and students was on the agenda. RodneyMy colleague, a distinguished English professor who also ran the Liberal Arts Honors program on campus, bristled on principle. “How are you going to quantify and measure what happens when a student reads and then a room full of students with a teacher discuss a Shakespeare sonnet or a page from Dostoevsky?” he fumed. “Some things can’t be quantified!” “Rodney,” a professor from economics patiently replied—“Everything can be quantified.”

My friend did not tell this story as a remembrance of a day when he learned something new. Rather, he used it as evidence that even in the academy, even on the campus of a college whose bread-and-butter is the humanities and the liberal arts, barbarians and Philistines are at the gate, seeking to turn the richness of the humanities into a linear, number-crunching mockery—just as Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD seeks to do in his introduction to a weighty poetry anthology in this scene from “Dead Poets Society”:

I remember the first time I met B____, the newly appointed assessment guru on campus—his daunting official title is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs/Chief Institutional Effectiveness Officer. He was appointed to this position roughly ten years ago at about the same time I became chair of the philosophy department. Knowing that my department had done absolutely nothing over the years in response to regular administrative prompts to develop internal assessment strategies, I was not surprised when shortly after moving into the chair’s office I received a pleasant invitation to come to the Academic Affairs suite and have a conversation with the assessment guru. Shortly after I sat down, he said enthusiastically “Vance, I’m an assessment geek!” “This is definitely not going to go well,” I thought. “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than even think about assessment—assessment geekhood is beyond my range of comprehension.”assessment bumper sticker

I was allowed to effectively thwart and ignore the whole issue during my four years as department chair, but by the time I became director of the Development of Western Civilization Program, the four semester, sixteen-credit-hour required set of courses that is the core of my college’s core curriculum three years ago, the lay of the land had changed. Due to accreditation requirements and an increasing insistence from various constituencies on the peculiar idea that teachers should be held accountable in some measurable way for what happens in the classroom, I realized that benign resistance and neglect would no longer be an effective strategy. wesleyOddly enough, I also realized that I had started moving incrementally in the direction believing that assessment might after all be desirable beyond the pragmatic fact that we were going to be forced to do it.

This was not the result of any John Wesley-like “heart strangely warmed” conversion experience concerning assessment. I am still wary of and uncomfortable with the very idea of quantifiable measures of what happens in a humanities-oriented classroom. But I at least had come to the realization that the standard humanities faculty insistence that any sort of assessment in the classroom is bogus and a violation of academic freedom is untenable. Unless we want to live in an Aristophanes-like educational universe that is comically removed from how the real world actually operates, we need to recognize that being held responsible for what we do on a regular basis is not a violation of anything other than our hubris and pretensions. News flash, humanities professors—even God gets held to recognizable standards on occasion.

The program I inherited had been chugging along merrily without agreed-upon standards and without being answerable to anything other than itself in any noticeable way for a couple of decades. Accordingly, the ongoing interaction between dozens of faculty and hundreds of students from semester to semester tended to produce islands of excellence and rigor in an ever-widening sea of mediocrity. rate my professorAnd everyone pretty much knew it, both within the program and on the campus at large. The only assessment tool used in the program was an informal “popularity poll” in which the students at the end of the year got to take out their frustrations anonymously on their professors in the manner of RateMyProfessor.com.

The biggest reason why the assessment lay of the land on campus had changed was that when I stepped into directing the program, the more-than-five-year process of core curriculum reform on campus had just ended, producing among many other things a new streamlined and improved version of the program, the first such revision in its four decades of existence. My task was to help lead the faculty from the old into the new. Amongst administrators and many faculty on campus there was a commitment to making the new core curriculum work—which meant a renewed, sharp focus on assessment. In response to B___’s request for a report on assessment progress at the end of each of my first two academic years as director, I provided a summary of conversations the faculty was engaged in related to important issues such as grade distribution and inflation—archimedesbut this wasn’t exactly assessment. Then going into my third year as director, I had what at the time seemed like an Archimedean “Eureka!” moment—looking back, it was a realization and idea both disarmingly simple and obvious, but completely against the grain.

One of the reasons assessment is so problematic for faculty is that it always seems to be imposed on them from outside, antagonistic forces. What if faculty and administrators actually met in the same room with the charge of developing instruments of assessment to track the progress of students in important areas of learning over their four semesters in the program? Administrators and faculty collaborating with a common goal? Impossible! Insane! But it was worth a shot—knowing that there are assessment experts on campus, why not have them work with faculty focusing on what might work in the context of this program rather than having the faculty wait for the assessment shoe to drop? task forceI sent an email describing my crazy idea to B_____; he enthusiastically accepted my invitation to help form the first ever “DWC Assessment Task Force” on campus (I call them the “Assessment Posse”). Three administrators, four faculty members (specifically chosen because of interest expressed), and me.

Over the academic year, the assessment posse turned out to be one of the hardest working and most creative committees I’ve ever been involved with, producing by April a twenty-question reading assessment quiz to be administered to students at the beginning of their first semester and at the end of their third semester in the program, a tool intended to indicate whether the program is actually facilitating “deep reading” of primary texts as it claims.faculty meeting We did a dry run by springing the quiz on those present at the last faculty meeting of the semester, received unexpectedly positive feedback, and we were in business.

All of this is fresh in my memory because this coming Monday the newly created assessment instrument goes live as three program teams give the quiz to 250 unsuspecting freshmen. How well will it work? Will information useful for tracking the program’s success or lack of same be gathered over time? I certainly hope so, but one thing I have learned for sure. Humanities faculty and number-crunching administrators can learn to speak each other’s language sufficiently to work toward a common goal. I’ve seen it happen. Imagine that!

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Having a Human Experience

Several years ago, as my mother-in-law was steadily descending into the hell of Alzheimer’s, an acquaintance described Jeanne’s most recent difficult interaction with her mother this way: alzheimers-brainpuzzle-512[1]“Rose is a spiritual being having a human experience.” This was a helpful reminder that there is more to a human being than her body, a something more that is not necessarily subject to the vicissitudes of our physical existence. Because we know our physical selves are temporary and have a very short shelf life, comparatively speaking, human beings have a natural attraction to any way of thinking or belief that promises something more, that identifies something that is not subject to sickness, disease, pain, suffering, decay and death. It is an attractive promise, so attractive that I find that most of my students, the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education, consider the promise of life in heaven after one’s physical body has worn out and stopped running to be the primary, perhaps the only, reason to be a person of faith.

Shortly after Easter, as she frequently does whether intended or unintended, Jeanne made an observation that has been germinating ever since she planted the seed. We had just returned from church on imagesCAAQ2XYKDoubting Thomas Sunday, when Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has risen until he has seen and can physically touch the scars of the nails in Jesus’s hands and feet and the place where the spear pierced his side. “Why,” Jeanne wondered, “are the scars still present on Jesus’s resurrected body?” Great question, for which there might be quick surface level answers, but a question which worms its way deeper the longer it sits. Jesus not only bears the scars of suffering and torture in his resurrected body, but he also takes this scarred body back with him to heaven. Why? Wondering about that during a few days of silence and solitude on retreat took me back to a familiar text that never fails to shock me every time I hear or read it.

Psalm 22 is a seminal text on human pain and suffering, a psalm that Jesus quotes—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—as he hangs dying in agony on the cross. It is a text so powerful and wrenching in its portrayal of human affliction that I find it difficult to even read.

imagesCA2XEOYSLike water I am poured out

Disjointed are all my bones

My heart has become like wax

It is melted within my breast

Parched as burnt clay is my throat

My tongue cleaves to my jaws 

Even more crushing than the physical suffering is the psychological distress of isolation and abandonment.

O God, I call by day and you give no reply

Station%207%20Jesus%20Falls%20a%20Second%20Time%20Small[1]I call by night and I find no peace

I am a worm and no man

The butt of all, laughing-stock of the people

All who see me deride me

They curl their lips, they toss their heads

“He trusted in the Lord, let him save him

If this is his friend.” 

This is not fiction. Whether from disease, human cruelty, self-inflicted calamity, or just the chance misfortunes of life, human beings are in this place physically and spiritually as I write. What can be said when someone is dying physically, empty emotionally, hasn’t had a fresh thought in years, and has been abandoned by friends and family? Where is God? Is there God? Is there no help?

imagesCAM20K4VOne of the “New Atheists” whose popular books have made dabbling in atheism trendy in the past decade or so—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins . . . I forget which one—writes that he finds it impossible to respect any religion whose foundational symbol is an instrument of torture and death. But in truth it is this very image of torture and death that makes the Christian story disturbingly and inescapably real. The suffering and pain portrayed in Psalm 22 is the human reality, whether Jesus on the cross, my mother-in-law suffering from Alzheimer’s, an abused child, or a victim of injustice anywhere in the world. None of us is ever more than one step away from Psalm 22. Finding God in the middle of it requires taking the very strange Christian story very seriously.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that the suffering and pain that is natural to embodied, physical creatures will somehow be eliminated or overcome, incarnation[1]but rather that our very human condition will be transformed from within, from the presence of the divine in each of us first foreshadowed by the Incarnation, God becoming human. Christianity is a full-bodied faith, involving every part of us—warts and all. One does not follow Christ by overcoming or rejecting ones humanity, but rather by participating in a transformation of that humanity into a unique bearer of the divine.

In the end, Rose was not a spiritual being having a human experience, as if being spiritual and being human are two different things. Strangely, she was a human being having a divine experience. What can be offered or said to or about a person in the midst of a Psalm 22 experience? Perhaps nothing. But somehow suffering, emptiness, abandonment and exhaustion bear a family resemblance—they all look like God. God who empties the divine into each cracked, leaky human container. We are hard-wired to expect God only in the miraculous, the spectacular, the triumphant; when this invariably does not happen, hqdefault[1]we conclude that God is absent, agreeing with the first thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus. But if the heart of God is self-emptying, then isn’t the empty shell of a person, at the end of her resources and without support, the very image of God? The most ludicrous, inefficient, messy scheme imaginable, but this is a God I can relate to—one that doesn’t run away from human imperfection and ruin. One who embraces and fills us again—over and over.

Lady M

My Life as Lady Macbeth

NiccoloOver five hundred years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli raised a classic question in The Prince: for a person with power seeking to keep or increase that power, Is it better to be loved or to be feared? This question came up in two separate seminars during Old Testament week with my freshmen in only their second week of college. The texts for the day were the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis along with the first twenty-five of Exodus; the main character in these texts—God—seems in his omniscience to have decided Machiavelli’s question millennia before Machiavelli ever showed up. For an extraordinarily powerful being who also happens to be capricious, vengeful, manipulative, insecure and self-absorbed, fear is far more effective than love. My students frequently wondered why God so often found it necessary to express divine power in over-the-top and destructive ways, given that nobody doubted who was more powerful in a God-human comparison, nor was it likely that anyone was plotting an overthrow of God’s rule. GodThe ancient Israelites and their forebears had probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost and found out what happened to Lucifer when he tried that. And apparently God wasn’t aware that Machiavelli’s question applies only to those whose power can actually be lost. If one is omnipotent, one can do whatever the hell one wants.

But for mere mortals lacking the ability to generate world-wide floods or to drop creative plagues on non-compliant people, Machiavelli’s question remains pressing. If one finds oneself in a position of power or authority and is seeking to use that power effectively, is it better to cultivate love or fear among those under one’s authority? Although teachers sometimes sound as if they are entirely powerless in the face of pressures from all constituencies, in fact a teacher in the classroom finds herself in a situation of almost complete power that demands a constant, flexible, lived answer to Machiavelli’s question. A teacher’s success or failure depends on how she or he shapes love and fear into a structure solid enough to withstand challenge but flexible enough to address the ever-changing atmosphere of the classroom on a daily basis. dept chairI’ve been at it for over twenty-five years and am still working on it.

I had to think through the “love or fear” issue in an entirely different manner when I found myself in an academic administrative position for the first time. As the chair of the twenty-two-member philosophy department, knowing that if trying to lead faculty is like herding cats, then trying to lead philosophers is like herding a breed of cats who believe that ideas alone are enough and that simply thinking something makes it so, I worried about how to even begin. At the end of four sometimes exhausting years, I was surprised to look back on my term as chair and conclude that it had largely been a success. We rewrote the department mission statement, entirely revised our major and minor, and hired six tenure-track faculty, all without anyone getting killed or maimed. Not known for my “people skills,” it turned out that I had a knack for what might be called “diplomatic persuasion.” I sometimes described this new-found skill as the ability to “diss someone without their knowing they’ve been dissed until a day later,” or to “convince people that what you want them to do is actually their idea.” diplomatic persuasionAmid tedious solitary hours of paperwork and tedium, the people management thing was sort of fun—and no one hated me (that I’m aware of) at the end of four years.

When I was asked a couple of years later to step into much larger and more challenging administrative role—leading the large interdisciplinary program that is the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum—I dusted off my “diplomatic persuasion” skills and retooled them for the task of leading and cajoling four times as many faculty down a much more treacherous path than I travelled with the philosophy department in my years as chair. Within the first couple of my first semester as director, I established a few new policies and started some difficult collective conversations that I fully expected to generate significant pushback. Surprisingly, I received almost none—everyone actually started doing what I asked. “Wow!” I thought. “My ‘diplomatic persuasion’ leadership skills really work! I actually know what I’m doing!”

Early one morning shortly before the day’s classes began I mentioned to a colleague who was a teaching veteran in the program my pleasant surprise that no one had (yet) directly complained about the new directions the program was turning toward. “That’s because everyone’s afraid of you,” my colleague suggested. Afraid of ME? Really? Introverted little ole me?? VM Ruane 9Although my colleague is not known for her sense of humor, I assumed she was kidding. “Yeah, right (ha ha ha)” I said. She replied by revealing something about me that I never knew “No, really. You can be very intimidating at times.” Add fifteen years in the program, tenure, full professorship, introversion, a teaching award and a gray ponytail together and apparently the illusion of intimidation is produced. “Fine,” I thought. “If people are under the false impression that I’m scary on some level and it’s causing them to actually pull together in a good direction, then that’s a card worth playing as long as it works.” When I reported a couple of weeks later to my two sons at our annual Thanksgiving gathering that the faculty in my program is afraid of me, the news produced guffaws and laughter of a rolling-on-the-ground-and-gasping-for-air variety.Propero

I was reminded of all of this three years later just the other day as the latest Facebook personality quiz caught my attention. “Which Shakespeare character are you?” Fully expecting the typical bland “You are Hamlet” or “You are Prospero,” another unknown feature of myself was unexpectedly revealed.

http://quizsocial.com/which-shakespeare-character-are-you/

Lady MacbethYou got: Lady Macbeth! Wow, are you ever good at manipulating people into doing what you want! It is a valuable skill, one that could help you secure a job in government one day, but also a dangerous one. Like Lady Macbeth, you have a love of power that could motivate you to do evil things. Don’t let it overtake you.

Well now—that’s very interesting. Am I really channeling one of the most determined and evil manipulators in all of Western literature? The closest contemporary comparison to Lady Macbeth is Claire Underwood, the amoral, calculating, ambitious and uncompromisingly cold wife of Frank Underwood, claire and frankthe Senate majority whip who in two seasons has climbed, manipulated, lied and murdered his way to the Presidency in Netfix’s megahit “House of Cards.” The only person more ruthlessly calculating than Frank in the “House of Cards” universe is Claire—she keeps his manipulative batteries charged when they run low. And I’m not making this up—there’s a whole cottage industry on-line that documents just how indebted “House of Cards” is to Shakespeare, especially to “Richard III” and “Macbeth,” and just how much Claire and Frank’s marriage mirrors the relationship between Lady and King (for a short time) Macbeth. (Spoiler alert)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/21/house-of-cards-shakespeare-_n_4823200.html

So apparently my commitment to “diplomatic persuasion” is actually an expression of my deep-seated commitment to power and manipulation. w to p barMy expressed desire to lead the program I direct effectively into a new and more creative future is a thinly disguised working out of my need to control. Nietzsche was right after all—all living things seek not just to survive but to extend their dominance and influence as far as possible. Administering an academic department or program has unexpectedly turned out to be an effective way for me to get to do what all human beings secretly want to do but often never get a chance to do—boss other people around and make them dance to your tune. I may end up dead with indelible blood on my hands, but the journey will be a lot of fun.

Or not. I’m not buying this, because I’m not buying that leadership necessarily requires a commitment to manipulation and power. leadershipBut I might be wrong. Maybe my sabbatical project should be to establish a new Lady Macbeth School of Leadership on some campus somewhere. It’s a thought. P.S. From Facebook comments generated by the results of the above Shakespeare quiz, I have discovered that friends and colleagues have learned that they are Bottom, Iago, Falstaff or Richard III. But so far I’m the only Lady Macbeth. The “quizsocial” person must have been having a very dark day when he/she put this quiz together.

Entertaining Angels

Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

angel and jacobI’ve never known what to make of angels. I was bombarded with stories involving them as a youngster, from the angel chasing Adam and Eve out of Eden, to the one who wrestles with Jacob, to the one who brings bizarre news to Mary and the one who sits having a morning coffee on top of the stone that’s been rolled away from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But surprisingly, my favorite portrayals of angels are from the movies. Consider, for instance, the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a standard at my house (which probably makes my house the same in this regard as about a billion other households). G and C at nicksThere are many memorable characters and scenes; my favorite is when George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody have a drink at Nick’s, the watering hole in the alternative universe into which George Bailey was never born. George and Clarence get thrown out of the joint shortly after Clarence orders a “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Nick is not interested in customers who want to do anything other than drink hard and fast, and he certainly doesn’t want an old guy dressed in a 19th century nightshirt and claiming to be an angel taking up barstool space and adding “atmosphere” to the bar. As George comments, “you look like the sort of guardian angel I’d get.”dudley and julia

Then there’s Dudley from the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” the suave angel who comes as an answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who is struggling to raise money for the building of a new cathedral. Dudley’s mission turns out to be spiritual guidance rather than money-raising, a mission complicated by his increasing attraction to the Bishop’s lovely but neglected wife Julia. In both movies one learns that if angels exist, they almost certainly are not at all like what traditional art and sacred texts suggest. No wings flapping around here (although Clarence apparently gets his at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” upon the successful completion of his first solo mission).

angel unawaresI don’t know if I believe in angels as supernatural beings or not, but I’ve always liked the “entertained angels unawares” idea, thinking of angels not as non-human messengers from heaven but rather as unexpected vehicles and facilitators of goodness. The saying reminds me, first, that I never know which seemingly random person who drops into my life might be an unexpected game-changer. Second, I never know when I might unwittingly be a game-changer in someone else’s life. I’ve had many angels in my life—I’ve been with a certain red-headed one for more than twenty-five years; David Riceone of the most important was a close-to-three-hundred pound angel with a patrician New England accent.

My first teaching job after graduate school was at a small Catholic university in Memphis that focused primarily on engineering and business. They needed a philosopher (I was one of two philosophers in the six person Religion and Philosophy department) to teach a lot of Business Ethics (I taught four or five sections per semester). It was a good “starter job” and was tenure-track, but Jeanne and I hated Memphis and I couldn’t see myself teaching Business Ethics for the rest of my career. I started applying for positions in places like the northern Midwest and the Northeast immediately, but the job market was tight (as it still is) and we were worried. Then a close-to-three-hundred pound angel dropped into our lives.

The aging President of the university, Brother T., was such an incompetent holy terror that the university’s board created the position of Provost specifically in order to take the day-to-day operations away from Brother T. and nudge him into a retirement sunset. After a national search, David was hired as the new Provost. CBUThe university was small enough that even a junior faculty member just starting his second year at the place met the new Provost within a few days of his arrival; David’s office was just one floor down from mine. He was a breath of fresh air for Jeanne and me. David was a native, patrician Bostonian, spoke with an accent that we understood, was cultured and refined in ways that we appreciated, and had the wonderful Northeastern forthrightness and honesty that we embraced as opposed to the Southern hospitality and “charm” with which we did not resonate well. David was a wine connoisseur, had read just about everything, had wide-ranging interests, and had a heart as expansive as his waistline. boston-red-sox-alternate-logo-pair-socks-blue-59063And he was a Red Sox fanatic. Jeanne and I welcomed him like a long-lost older brother.

I don’t recall how I mustered the nerve to ask David for help escaping from the very institution where he had just been hired as Provost and day-to-day operations manager. I was only in my second year of teaching, my position was tenure-track (something many newly-minted professors nationwide would have killed for), and comparatively speaking I had nothing to complain about. fear and tremblingI came to his office on the morning of our scheduled appointment with “fear and trembling” of Kierkegaardian proportions, expecting him to do what a good Provost should, deflect my concerns positively (“It isn’t really that bad here,” “We need people like you here to raise the bar”) or shoot them down (“Shut up and do your job. No one likes a whiner”). Instead after a few minutes of intent listening (something few administrators do as well as David did), he smiled and said “I’m not surprised. You are too good for this place.” For a relatively new and still insecure teacher such as I, this was like the manna from heaven that God will dump down on the complaining Israelites in next Sunday’s Old Testament reading. “Tell you what,” he continued. “Let me take a look at your dossier; we’ll meet again next week and I’ll make some suggestions.” And so my boss took on the task of helping me make my dossier more attractive to a prospective boss at a better place. Only when angels get involved does this sort of thing happen.

David was as good as his word and more. Over several meetings that fall, he helped me revise my curriculum vitae, learn how to sell myself in ways a severe introvert would never think of, and begin to grow into the confidence as an academic that he saw in me long before I saw it myself. And it worked—not that academic year, but the next one. dustI landed my dream job at Providence College, where I am now in my twenty-first year, we shook the Memphis dust off our sandals and never looked back.

David unfortunately was not in Memphis to celebrate with us; he also was too good to be there for long. In the spring semester of his first and only year in his new position, Brother T. attempted to force David into making executive decisions that David’s strong moral convictions and big heart of generosity could not live with. Rather than compromise, he chose to resign—to the great dismay of the faculty and students who had come to respect and love him in the few short months he had been on campus. I can still see the huge banner the students draped off the side of an overpass outside the front gate of the college on the morning the word broke that David was leaving: DR. R—–, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US!

yaleJeanne and I stayed in touch with David over the subsequent years as we went to Providence and as he became a higher education administrative gypsy, taking positions at colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably others I have forgotten. We learned over time that he was a frustrated professor; despite a PhD in classics from Yale, life’s contingencies eventually plopped him in administration rather than in the classroom where he belonged. David visited us occasionally, we had the opportunity to return his generosity and write him letters of reference for a new position he was seeking, and he even took a thousand-mile nonstop road trip with us back to Memphis to celebrate the retirement of the athletic director at the college we had been so anxious to leave.

Despite many attempts, David never did lose the weight and sadly succumbed to a fatal heart attack five or six years ago. I miss him, not only as a friend and mentor, but also because I could use another good classicist in the interdisciplinary program I direct. The students and my faculty colleagues would have loved him. I’m not sure David ever fully understood how important he had been in my life, probably because I’m only fully understanding it myself now, twenty or more years later. David didn’t have wings and neither do I, but I pray that if a chance to be an angel for someone else arises unexpectedly in my life, I won’t miss the opportunity. I’m eternally grateful that David didn’t miss his opportunity with me. whtthe big guyIf there is a heaven, David is undoubtedly drinking fine wine with other portly angels such as Thomas Aquinas and William Howard Taft, while cheering on the Red Sox with Babe Ruth.babe

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Stuffed Soul Mates

I have a good friend and colleague in the philosophy department whose twin daughters have just begun their senior years in high school. DartmouthThis means that my friend and his family spent a significant portion of the summer just completed visiting college campuses—seventeen of them, to be precise. emoryThe young ladies in question, although twins, could not be more different in appearance or personality. Daughter #1, whose interests are predominantly focused on science, favors Dartmouth College but is also very interested in the University of Virginia and Emory University. Daughter #2, a quieter more bookish type, is strongly attracted to St. John’s College and its curriculum of the Great Books. This prompted my friend to email me, knowing that in the misty past—the middle seventies—I earned my Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s. “Do you have anything you would like to tell Daughter #2?” my friend asked.

St. John's booksIn reply I wrote:

I’m the world’s worst alum, but I’m quite sure that the program at St. John’s is virtually unchanged over the 35 years since I was there. I’ve recommended it very infrequently–it’s perfect for the right person, but there are very few “right persons” for what they do. If Daughter #2 loves books more than anything else, loves to talk, discuss and debate ideas 24/7, is ready to work really hard, is more concerned about learning than preparation for a job, and doesn’t care a lot about intercollegiate sports (there aren’t any at St. John’s), then she might be the “right person”!

“Sounds just like Daughter #2,” my friend said. I suspect the description might sound familiar to my “Johnnie” friends and Facebook acquaintances as well.

St. John'sExactly forty (!) years ago I began my freshman year at St. John’s College. The older I get, the more I realize what a life-shaping experience I was beginning. I have written frequently on this blog about how the Great Books program shaped me as a teacher, how it gave me ways to talk about the new directions in which I’ve been nudged the program I’ve been shepherding for the past three years, and how it stirred my soul in lasting ways. But one of the most memorable regular occurrences during my years in Santa Fe had nothing to do with tutors, books, labs or seminars.

The heart of the St. John’s curriculum is the seminar, which occurs every Monday and Thursday night from 8-10. Actually I don’t remember a seminar ever ending at 10:00. They always went at least until 10:30, then continued informally in the coffee shop until midnight. What was happening in the hour before seminar on Thursday nights? Students rushing to finish the reading? Checking notes and annotations one more time? Muppet showGrabbing a quick forty winks? None of the above, because at 7:00 PM every Thursday night in the lower dorms common room everyone—and I mean everyone, tutors included—gathered to watch “The Muppet Show.”

Strange to say, “The Muppet Show” was just irreverent and bizarre enough to be a perfect fit for the young misfits who had chosen to spend their first years of college immersed in the “Great Books,” the best texts the Western tradition had to offer organized into a curriculum so rigid and liturgical as to not allow students a single elective choice in class offerings until their Junior year (and even then only one class). I was too young to know then what I know now, forty years older and with twenty-five years of college teaching experience behind me: a college curriculum with no electives runs so against the normal grain of  pedagogy in this country that it sounds more suitable for youngsters from Mars than for earthlings.stallone

“The Muppet Show” was more for adults (or at least non-children) than for kids; definitely not your kid’s Sesame Street, although many of the characters were the same. Current events, the best human guest stars (none of whom visited more than once)—in many ways it played the role that current shows like “The Daily Show” now play. In the past couple of years I have occasionally taken the “Which Muppet Are You?” online quiz

Which Muppet Are You?

and regularly get the same result—Kermit the Frog. Nothing against Kermit or against the quiz—if you read this blog regularly, you know that taking online quizzes is my preferred form of therapy. But this one is wrong, because I have known for forty years which Muppet I am (actually two of them):untitled[1]

attitudeSince the first time I observed Statler and Waldorf criticizing and mocking everyone and everything on the stage from their perch in the box seats, I recognized them as stuffed soul mates. The natural foundations of my sense of humor are sarcasm, irreverence, bemusement, and irony—an extreme case of “don’t ever take anything too seriously.” Their removal from the action but self-authorization to critique the action from afar is very attractive to an introvert; it also provides an avenue for the introvert to be “involved” without really being involved.

Statler and Waldorf HighlightsOld school

It could be that Statler and Waldorf did nothing but sit up in the box seats and critique even when they were young puppets, but I choose to believe that, given their elderly status, they were “in the trenches” guys for decades and now have earned the right to step back and make fun as others make the same mistakes they made in their youth. Forty years ago I resonated with Statler and Waldorf because their senses of humor are just like mine and they struck a deep introverted chord in me. Both of these things are still true, but now I not only resonate with S and W—I am on the cusp of becoming them. I also have earned the right.

The academic year just beginning promises to be an odd one for me, a year of closure as well as a year of opening the door to new things. This is my final year (of four) running the large interdisciplinary program that is at the heart of our core curriculum. It is also (so help me God) the end of a decade of almost uninterrupted administrative duties (department chair followed by program director) that have occasionally threatened to take my life over and choke the life out of my teaching. sabbaticalThis will be followed by a sabbatical year in 2015-16 (YAY!!) during which I intend to write several scholarly tomes, a best-selling novel, steer my blog into the stratosphere, see the world and SLEEP. When I return from sabbatical, I intend to spend the rest of my vocational years finding out what is actually like to do nothing but teach—since that is what I went into the profession for in the first place. Of course as they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans. But there they are.

500074-R1-052-24A_025Whatever the future holds, I believe that as I approach sixty years of age I am entitled to channel Statler and Waldorf on whatever occasions I deem appropriate. The lovely coupleI even look a lot like them. They say that couples who have been together for a long time start looking like each other, just as dogs and their owners start resembling each other. I sure as hell hope that neither of those turns out to be true (at least for Jeanne and Frieda). But it is indeed true that over time each of us starts to resemble our stuffed soul mate. In my case, it could be a lot worse.

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They’re Baaack . . . .

We are in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

RI summerThe most beautiful Rhode Island August in the twenty years I have lived in Providence just concluded, the culmination of the most beautiful Rhode Island summer I have ever experienced. I hate heat—I will take zero over ninety-five degrees any day of the week. It’s not that we normally get endless days of ninety-five-plus even in the warmest RI summer, but this summer we got none at all. I recall only one day when our backyard thermometer said “90,” and that was with the sun shining directly on it.

RuaneDespite the fact that it usually contains hot weather, August is one of my favorite months because I am a college professor. August is very quiet on campus—no classes, few hosted events, few visitors other than prospective students and their parents taking tours. I can work out at the gym without competing for equipment and I feel as if our beautiful new humanities building is my personal playground. It’s all a wonderful period of solitude; but just as Louis XV reportedly commented in anticipation of the Revolution that would cost his grandson Louis XVI his head, August says to the academic Apres moiaprès moi le deluge.” Before long, the floodgates will open. They’re baaack . . .!

Actually, this is great news. I’m usually ready to be back in the classroom at least a couple of weeks before we commence classes the day after Labor Day. I’m not one of those professors who regularly moans and complains about their students; they are the reason I am in the profession to begin with, they keep me young (at heart if not in outward appearance), and let’s be practical: for an academic, a world sansstudents would be a world sans paycheck. I got a fictional look at the dark side of academic attitudes about students, fellow faculty, administrators, and reality in general when reading DCMJulie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members over the past week or so. Billed by Amazon as “A novel that puts the pissed back in epistolary,” it follows Jason Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing at Payne University, from the beginning to the end of an academic year through the exclusive lens of letters and emails of reference and support written for current and former students, colleagues, and acquaintances from graduate school days. Billed by reviewers as “funny as hell,” “hilarious,” “fun-as-heck,” and “funny and lacerating,” I must confess that although I smiled occasionally, I found the novel more sad than anything else. Sad because I know that the never-ending bureaucratic and pedagogical challenges of the academic life can turn someone into a jaded, sarcastic, and cynical curmudgeon like Jake Fitger (he’s four years younger than I am), and even sadder because it doesn’t have to be that way.

owaFitger is the graduate product of what he calls the “Seminar,” a graduate writing program that sounds a great deal like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which produced a few of my friends and colleagues—and none of them are like Fitger). After a reasonably successful first novel, followed by a couple more that fell still-born from the press, he finds himself in the final decade or so of a mediocre career at a mediocre public university in an English department whose infrastructure, both psychological and physical, is falling apart. As lines are closed down and the plumbing in the men’s bathroom fails, the Economics Department on the floor directly above is being treated to a complete upgrade of facilities. Fitger is the embodiment of what is actually happening across the country in more universities and colleges than I care to consider—the neglect and downsizing of the humanities while departments and programs perceived as job-producers and money-makers receive the lion’s share of funding and attention.

I am extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to have spent the last twenty years (and hopefully the next fifteen or twenty) at an institution that consciously attempts to swim against that tide. pcAccordingly, Fitger is for me the fictional embodiment of what could have happened had I not been as fortunate. I have few cynical and dedicated negative bones in my body, but some might have been created had I lived the professional life of Jason Fitger. Of course many of the most problematic aspects of Fitger’s life are self-created. He is hated across campus for various justifiable reasons, his marriage to a fellow professor on campus fell apart when she became aware of his continuing infidelities with an administrative assistant, and his affair with the administrative assistant ends when he accidentally hits the “Send All” button on an email intended for one individual in which he expresses his continuing sexual attraction for his ex-wife that remains strong even after five years of divorce.

I don’t know anyone on campus like Jason Fitger (although he might be lurking somewhere). But hidden like buried treasure underneath page upon page of sarcasm and nastiness are occasional and brief homages to the academic life that I was surprised and pleased to find. faculty on quadIn an email to a former colleague from the Seminar, an epistle drenched in anger, regret and bitterness, Fitger steps back for a moment.

The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.

Amen to that. I only get to wear black robes a couple of times a year—although it would be sort of cool to wear them all of the time—and I agree that the eccentricities of the academic process and of academics themselves can be a pain in the ass. But what a wonderful profession. It’s the best thing going, not because of money, fame, or notoriety (which come to only a miniscule percentage), but because of the privilege of making a living in the midst of the most exciting environment imaginable—the life of continual learning. VM Ruane 1As I noted in my remarks at the dedication of our new humanities building a little less than a year ago, the Apostle Paul’s words ring true at this time of year for every academic: Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And Jason Fitger knows it, in spite of himself:

There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one has learned—or failed to learn—during the previous year.

They’re baaack . . . and I can’t wait. Bring it on.

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In Praise of Snobbery

Last July, in the middle of an interminable stretch of high-90s heat (very unusual for Rhode Island), I found out that I am a snob. Actually, I already knew that but appreciated the confirmation. This produced the essay below, in which I invite everyone to join with me in celebrating what makes each of us special (and also better than everyone else!).

images[1]A few days ago a Facebook acquaintance, who apparently lives in San Francisco, posted a link to an article from the latest edition of Travel and Leisure entitled  “America’s Snobbiest Cities”. His post drew attention to San Francisco’s being at the top of the list; my lifetime interest in snobbery caused me to click on the link and see what other cities had earned this distinction.

Travel and Leisure runs an extensive poll every year to generate a “favorite cities list,” and used selected questions from that poll in producing the list of urban snobs. “To determine which city has the biggest nose in the air, we factored in some traditional staples of snobbery: a reputation for aloof and smarty-pants residents, along with high-end shopping and highbrow cultural offerings like classical music and theater,” the article explained. “But we also considered 21st-century definitions of elitism: tech-savviness, artisanal coffeehouses, and a conspicuous eco-consciousness  (say, the kind of city where you get a dirty look for throwing your coffee cup in the wrong bin).” I made a few guesses as to who might be on the list, then proceeded to see how well I had done.

SF_From_Marin_Highlands3[1] (2)1. San Francisco

2. New York (makes sense)

1280-boston-ma-smart-city[1]3. Boston (absolutely)

4. Minneapolis/St. Paul (Really?)

300px-Santa_Fe_Palace_of_Govs[1]5 (tie). Seattle (makes sense by reputation, but I’ve only been there once in my life)

5 (tie). Santa Fe (I lived there for four years and don’t understand why it isn’t #1)

I don’t like ties in polls—how can there be a tie in snobbery? I thought for a moment about what a “snob-off” competition between Seattle and Santa Fe might involve in order to break the tie for fifth place, then continued.

ProvidenceSkyline3[1]7. Chicago (I can see that)

8. Providence

Wait a minute!! PROVIDENCE??? My town? You’re sure you don’t mean Provincetown? This is effing fabulous! I immediately shared the link to the article with my Facebook friends:

Guess who made #8 in Travel and Leisure’s “Top 25 Snobbiest Cities,” behind only San Francisco, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Santa Fe, Seattle and Chicago? Our fair Providence! I love it!”

I tried moving on through the remaining top twenty snobby cities (I think DC was next), but couldn’t get past Providence being number eight, nor the fact that I thought this was really cool. brownUni[1]As I continued to think about it, supposing that those taking the poll had probably only visited Providence’s East Side around Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (we all know that any place close to establishments of higher learning is snobby), something even more interesting dawned on me, prompting another Facebook post:

“After thinking further about the “Snobbiest Cities” poll, I realized that Boston (#3) is my favorite big city, I married a New Yorker (#2), and did my BA in Santa Fe (#5). And I have lived and worked happily in Providence (#8) for eighteen years! What does that say about me??”

This second post generated more comments than anything I’ve ever posted on Facebook. A sampling:

This explains a lot . . . (this post is from a current student—I’m intrigued)

Santa Fe is only #5? (from a former classmate in Santa Fe)

I don’t think Boston is snobby! Who said Boston is snobby? They aren’t worth your time. (Who said Boston is snobby? Umm . . . only every person who ever visited Boston??)

San Francisco is number one. Having lived there, I can say that it should be number two, behind New York. (Though maybe in per capita snobbiness it is number one.)

That you are well influenced?

That the poll was flawed?

I am surprised … New Orleans and Philadelphia are more plebian than Chicago and MINNEAPOLIS?

Wait, wait … there seems to be some confusion between “snobbishness” and plain old “xenophobia.” (Maybe, but that requires far too much thought)

All liberal. Go figure. (I knew that one was coming)

And from a good friend and colleague at my college: Despite your protests to the contrary, you’re an extrovert.

To which I responded, Bite your tongue, Christopher! But I very well may be an introverted snob. I feel an essay coming on . . .

556053_10100368381612200_1903425426_n[1]Christopher knows me well, and knows from our many conversations, most over either beer or something harder (scotch for me, Rusty Nails for him) that my extreme introversion is a fact about myself that is not only definitive but that I embrace happily. I get along fine with extreme extroverts, or at least a few of them (Christopher, my wife), but my own experience shows that it is more difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert than it is for an introvert to walk a mile in an extrovert’s shoes. It is not easy being an introvert in an extroverted world. Don’t believe me? Check out susan-cain-quiet[1]Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World that Won’t Stop Talking. In a world in which extroversion is taken to be the norm, an introvert can easily be misread as aloof, superior, stand-offish, or rude. My introversion has been misread regularly since I emerged from the womb. It doesn’t help, of course, that my vocation is one that screams “ELITIST!” to many. I have been encouraged as a child, adolescent, and adult to be more outgoing, to be friendlier, to be easier to get to know. And it hasn’t worked. Why? Because I don’t want to. It’s not that I enjoy being a snob, aloof, or having a superiority complex. It’s that I enjoy my introversion, which regularly sets me up to be misunderstood.

h5C1D6E42[1]I found the range of Facebook comments concerning the confluence of snobbiness in my life to be amusing, primarily because there was no agreement amongst the commenters as to whether snobbiness was a good or a bad thing. One person gets hot and bothered because her beloved Bostonians won the bronze medal in snootiness, while another person is annoyed because obviously superior and patrician Philadelphia and New Orleans lost out to a bunch of obviously bland and plebian Minnesotans. One person says “don’t worry, I’m sure you’re not a snob,” while another congratulates me on having a long history of snobbery. Bottom line, I think, is that all of us look for ways to separate ourselves from the crowd; it’s just that not everyone does it overtly. But under the surface, lines of division and hierarchy are always being drawn.

Which leads me to one final observation about snobby cities. You may have noted that there are no Southern cities in the top nine on the list, but there should be. I have lived in a number of cities in my life. The snobbiest was a large Southern city (which shall remain nameless).memphis1[1]This city, on its surface, oozed the fabled Southern charm, friendliness and hospitality. Living in this city for three years as a Northern fish out of water, however, revealed that this charm is only a few molecules deep and evaporates as soon as one seeks to get beyond “How y’all doin’ today?” Navigating the lay of the land required knowledge of and respect for iron-clad economic, social, and racial divides that were not to be crossed, especially by those who, to use Jeanne’s description, were “from the deep North.”  I admit it—I’m an introverted, overly educated, bibliophilic, solitude-loving, liberal Northeastern snob. But stop pretending that you aren’t a snob of a different description as well. Let’s all embrace our inner snob (you know he or she is in there) and enjoy knowing that the vast majority of human beings are inferior! You know they are! ;-)

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How to Herd a Hedgehog (or a Fox)

Classes begin soon and I am coming slowly to the conclusion that my summer reading needs to shift from the Scandinavian-authored mysteries I have been immersed in since late May (thirteen down and counting) slowly toward books related to upcoming courses. In the spring I will be team-teaching a colloquium with a colleague from the history department entitled “Markets and Morality.” Keynes HayekAs is always the case when teaching with someone from another discipline, I have a ton of books to read for the first time (as does she—just not the same ones). I have started with Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Economics is not only not my strong suit but is also high on my list of boring things, so it has taken several dozen pages to sort out what’s at stake in the early twentieth century debate between the theories of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek. Then I read this morning that “while Keynes, who was not without a large ego himself, was so confident he often changed his mind and admitted his faults, Hayek’s stance was based on absolute certainty that he was right in every particular.” “Aha!” I thought, “Keynes was a fox and Hayek was a hedgehog. That explains a lot.” This revelation will also be helpful going forward because I have learned that one of the most important things to find out about an academic is whether s/he is a hedgehog or a fox.

H and fI wrote a bit over a year ago in this blog about the hedgehog/fox distinction and how it can be a useful tool in both self-knowledge and understanding where others are coming from.

Hedgehogs and Foxes: A Primer

PlatoWhen orienting students for the first time to the important differences between Plato, who is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, and his star pupil Aristotle (who gets my own “best ever” vote), I introduce the hedgehog/fox distinction first for orientation purposes. Plato is the quintessential hedgehog, an eloquent constructor of large metaphysical frameworks and scaffolding within which the details of human experience are to be sorted. The FormsAs all hedgehogs, Plato is a “top-down” thinker, obsessed with certainty and Truth with a capital “T”. His realm of the Forms, silent and unchanging in their pristine and solemn beauty, provides a home for the equally beautiful human soul as well as a framework within which the mutable, ever-changing and not-so-beautiful (for Plato, at least) details of our daily experience are to be understood and situated. These details point toward the Forms, just as “truths” point toward the “Truth”—it’s a powerfully attractive model of reality. For hedgehogs, at least.

Aristotle metaphysicsIn his Metaphysics, Aristotle spends the first several chapters providing, in a shot-gun manner, all of the reasons he can think of why Plato’s Theory of Forms is the stupidest theory any one has ever come up with and why no one should believe it. Why? Because Aristotle is a fox, as dedicated to foxiness as Plato is dedicated to hedgehogery, and foxes have little patience for the detached-from-reality otherworldly musings of hedgehogs. Foxes build their understanding of the world from the bottom up; obsessed with details, foxes cobble together frameworks and structures of understanding only after spending a great deal of time collecting experiential data. Theories serve the details for foxes, just as details and facts bow to theoretical constructs for hedgehogs. A simple comparative example might help.

RepublicIn ancient Greek philosophy, the study of how individual human beings should behave (ethics) and the science of how to best form and administrate human communities (politics) were the same activity—both Plato and Aristotle contributed brilliant insights to these foundational investigations. In the Republic, arguably Plato’s greatest work, we encounter Socrates (usually the main character in Plato’s dialogues) and several of his friends and followers discussing “justice” at length. The angle they take on the question “What is justice?” is to consider “What would a just polis look like?” Polis refers to the small Greek city/states of Plato’s world—from this word we get terms like “politics,” “politician,” etc. The strategy is to discuss matters from broad questions such as virtue to detailed ones such what will the class structure of the imaginary perfectly just polis be theoretically without reference to communities that actually exist. When toward the end of the Republic someone asks Socrates “Do you think such a polis will ever exist in reality?” he answers “Probably not. But that’s okay—the model we have created is a valuable touchstone.”

When Aristotle begins investigating similar issues a few decades later, his approach is radically different. The first several chapters of his Politics are a detailed and wide-ranging account of the various ways in which a number of city-states scattered across the Greek peninsula are actually organized politically. PoliticsIn other words, Aristotle starts by gathering facts and making observations rather than with the constructing of organizational frameworks. Academics will recognize Aristotle’s plan immediately—he has sent dozens of grad students from his educational institution “The Lyceum” out into the world to gather relevant data, data that they will bring back to Athens and help Aristotle collate into a comprehensive report on the state of political structures in the Greek polis—a report in which they might get mentioned in a footnote. And it is this report that will be the jumping off point for Aristotle’s informed thinking about how a polis should be organized. Let theory be informed by reality, says the fox, rather than reality shaped by theory as the hedgehogs prefer.

Which strategy is better—the hedgehog’s or the fox’s? It is probably clear from this discussion, and has become crystal clear over the two years of this blog’s existence, to any reader that I am a dedicated fox. But in truth, neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other; rather, they are fundamentally different strategies that human beings use as we try to understand the world and our place in it. And each of us has either a dominant hedgehog or fox lurking inside, often making it difficult to get on the same page with colleagues who have a different animal than mine hanging around.DWc I have found this distinction to be very useful over the past few years. The coming academic year is my last as director of the interdisciplinary program that I have been in charge of since summer 2011; over the past three years, as faculty rotate in and out of the program, I have tried to lead, cajole, seduce and force over one hundred faculty through the early stages of the transition from an old version of the program into a new and quite different version. I’ve found that herding hedgehogs is quite different from herding foxes.

grade distributionTake any issue—grade distribution, for instance. In any given semester, there are 18-20 different teams of three faculty teaching 100 or more students in each section; the program I inherited had no policies (formal or informal) related to grade distribution. In other words, as in other areas of the program, the foxes had been running unsupervised in the den for a long time. As a result the average grades from team to team at the end of each semester varied wildly, giving rise to warranted cries of “UNJUST” from students in the “tough” sections, lack of respect for this core program from faculty and other constituencies on campus, and a general feeling of suspicion and finger-pointing among those teaching in the program trenches. What to do?

The hedgehogs insisted “we need firm and enforceable policies to get the outliers in line!” The foxes countered “any attempt to force grading policies from the top down will be a violation of our academic freedom!”academic freedom As a dedicated fox who has to summon my few hedgehog abilities when trying to get people to do something, I knew that some sort of policies were needed—so how do policies get established without imposition? And the game was on—over several semesters of debate, crabbiness, subcommittees, drafts, and angst, we came tentatively to a document that was successfully sold to the faculty as an “informal guideline” for people to refer to going forward (if they chose). “This needs to be a policy that everyone has to follow!” yelled the hedgehogs. “This violates my academic freedom and desire to do whatever I want without recourse!” shouted the foxes. And so it goes.

Hedgehogs and foxes can learn to live in harmony—but only when they recognize that the world would be a vastly different place without both structure and freedom, both Truth and the little truths we encounter every day. Hedgehogs and foxes can even survive in long-term relationships with each other, but the offspring are a problem. Who knows what you’ll get from a foxhog?foxhog

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

The never-ending violence in the Middle East has taken on new dimensions in the past weeks and months. I wrote the essay below exactly a year ago, but the point is even more relevant now than it was then.

Icblog_d216e4f627-thumbc[1]’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first became aware of the book, as many people did, by being alerted on Facebook to a horrendous interview—“Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done??”—that Aslan was subjected to by Fox.com. The interviewer was unable to get past the apparently incomprehensible notion that a Muslim would be interested in or be qualified to write a book about Jesus. Despite Aslan’s excellent academic credentials as a comparative religions scholar, the Fox interviewer continually revealed her total inability to grasp what a comparative religion scholar does, as well as her regular confusion of facts with a severely limited world view and her general ignorance disguised as investigative journalism.

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

The interview went viral, and Dr. Aslan’s book shot to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, which it still sits. I, of course, am one of the reasons why his book shot to the top of the list, since I ordered it on Amazon as soon as I listened to his cringe-worthy interview on Fox. I even mentioned briefly on Facebook that I wish someone from Fox would interview me concerning “freelance Christianity,” so my blog could go through the stratosphere. ku-medium[1]One person commented that liberals might start standing in line to get interviewed by Fox, just to help their current project gain momentum among reasonable people.

Zealot is a thoroughly researched academic investigation of what current scholarship can tell us about Jesus, not as the Redeemer of the world, as Christians believe, nor as one of the greatest prophets of God, as Muslims believe, but as the first-century CE Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine. Aslan is an engaging and clear writer—something many academics are incapable of beingimagesCAEYQIP4—and has written a fascinating book that provides, even for those of us who think we know something about it, an illuminating perspective on not just Jesus the man, but on the turbulent political and religious times in which he lived and died. Not once in the entire book would I have been able to detect whether Aslan was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or something else. He makes his own personal religious pedigree clear in the five-page “Author’s Note” with which the book begins, pages that the Fox.com interviewer obviously never bothered to read.

It has been a very long time since the historical details of what the man Jesus was and was not have had any direct impact on my own faith commitments. I have evolved into believing that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts of a story, a manner of belief that has a far longer pedigree in human experience than the relatively recent idea, a product of the Scientific Revolution, that only verifiable facts can be considered as true. Accordingly, Aslan’s book is neither a confirmation of nor a challenge to my Christian faith. Actually, of far more interest to me than the book is the author’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of weeks before the Fox.com debacle.

Reza Aslan NPR interview

The book tells me that Aslan is a fellow academic, and the interview tells me that he is a brother in faith. that begin Zealot. Born in Iran into a nominally Muslim family, Aslan came to the United States at the age of twelve when his family fled Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. Three years later, he “found Jesus.” Following his sophomore year in high school, Aslan spent the summer at an evangelical imagesCAO1SD62Christian youth camp and heard “a remarkable story that would change my life forever . . . the greatest story ever told.” Not surprisingly, Aslan returned home from that summer with the same proselytizing energy that I remember also having when returning from such summer camps in my youth. His mother converted to Christianity, as did many of his friends. Problems arose in college, however, when as a religious studies major Aslan began to find that there is a huge gap between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history, between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, he discovered that in his estimation Jesus of Nazareth was a lot more interesting than the Jesus his religion had told him about. In the midst of cognitive dissonance, drifting away from the religious framework that had changed his life just a few years earlier, imagesCA25BMC1Aslan found himself full of doubt and anger.

Interestingly, it was two of his Jesuit professors at Santa Clara University, recognizing both Aslan’s scholarly promise and his deepening crisis of faith, who suggested that he reconsider Islam, the religion of his forefathers that he had never been seriously taught in his formative years. Aslan converted back to Islam, finding that it spoke to many of his deepest spiritual needs while avoiding a number of the conflicts with reason so central to Christianity. In response to the interviewer’s asking for examples of just what it was about Christianity he found so problematic, Aslan answered that

imagesCAU0LBPVThe problem with Christianity, what would ultimately push me away from it, is the notion of the Trinity, the notion of the Incarnation, the idea of Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God . . . It never made sense to me.

“Well no kidding!” I thought as I listened to the interview. If the Trinity and the Incarnation are the only parts of Christianity that didn’t make sense to you, you weren’t trying! What about the Virgin birth and Resurrection (just for starters)? One of my favorite exercises in class is at an appropriate point in the semester to ask students to brainstorm and create a list of those aspects of Christian belief that make no rational sense. It doesn’t take very long—the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin birth and Resurrection are just the beginning. I’ve heard and read all of this before, particularly from academics; some version of “I was a Christian (or fill in the blank) in my youth, but when I became an adult and realized that it didn’t make reasonable sense, I stopped believing.” In a case such as Aslan’s, it would have been perfectly reasonable to become an atheist or an agnostic. Neither one of those choices would present the slightest obstacle to being a fine scholar of religious studies.

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

imagesCAO2E9CLThe God that I intimately and deeply desired in my heart was a being of divine unity, a being that encompassed all of creation. And that’s how Islam talked about God . . . in the Sufi tradition, God is all of creation, His very substance is existence . . . everything that exists exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God . . .  without separation between Creator and creation.

Of course, it could be argued that many Christians and Jews also believe exactly this. But in my estimation it doesn’t matter. Aslan is my brother in faith despite having rejected Christianity for Islam, because deep down he continues to share with me a foundational desire and belief, one that is far more important than which religion one espouses. Toward the end of the NPR interview, Aslan expresses this desire.

TitleHeader[1]If you believe our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it is only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. This is the ineffable experience of faith.

Each of has to make a decision concerning what to do about the big questions when reason and objective facts run out. And this decision always involves a leap of faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Some choose to deny the existence of anything transcendent, but even this requires faith. imagesCA139MTRAs a character in a novel I read earlier this summer says “atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.” For others, religions provide an arena within which to develop languages and practices that speak of the human encounter with the divine. Happy leaping!