Tag Archives: St. John’s College

The Rule of the Best

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill

I had a fascinating conversation on Facebook the other day (imagine that!). You may have noticed that we are in the middle of a very polarized political campaign—a Facebook acquaintance posted some data identifying the demographic that is most favorable to Donald Trump and most problematic for Hillary Clinton—white men with no degree. At the time the article was published, Hillary and white malesHillary was doing 14% worse with this group of voters than President Obama did four years ago.

Hillary Clinton and white men without a degree

My Facebook acquaintance and I have never met in person, but we share a couple of important characteristics. Both of us are college professors, and both of us earned our bachelor’s degree from the Great Book curriculum at St. John’s College. We have “liked” each other’s posts before—this time, I took the opportunity to throw something out there that I have frequently taught in the classroom and written about—voting should be considered as a privilege that one earns rather than a right that one is entitled to.St. John's

  • Me: The elitist in me thinks that the white men no degree problem could be solved by voting being considered as a privilege rather than a right. Everyone should be required to get at least a 70% on the written civics test given to those seeking citizenship in order to earn the privilege of voting.
  • Facebook Acquaintance (FA): As an educator, I sadly do not have faith that a civics test would be voting.

Where did I get this ridiculous idea that voting should be an earned privilege rather than a right? It is rooted in the thought of perhaps the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, as I explained to FA.

  • Me: As an educator as well, I get your point. My problem is there is a part of me that thinks Plato is on to something in the Republic. His critique of democracy is that it pretends that everyone is equal—but we know this isn’t true. Very un-American, I know. And I wouldn’t say that only the elite would be voting. Rather, those who have bothered to earn the privilege of voting would be voting. I know many “educated” people who would not pass the test.

plato-the-republicPlato was of the opinion that the proper education qualified a person to participate in government, implying that many people are not capable of successfully completing such an education. FA thought that the problem might lie elsewhere.

  • FA: I am not sure that many people would care to earn the privilege. Sadly. It is easier to complain and watch the reality TV Trump show. Have you seen the movie “Idiocracy”?
  • Me: I haven’t, but can guess from the title what it’s about. I agree that not many people would care to earn the privilege. Which might mean that Plato is right again. Aristocracy in its true meaning—the rule of the best—is the best form of government.

FA’s suggestion that many people might lack the drive or interest to take my proposed voting test illustrates—intentionally or not—one of Plato’s most important points in the Republic. Human beings are not created equal. Some are worthy of being educated to be full participating citizens and some are not. Whether because of lack of intelligence, drive, character, or a combination of these, some people are not capable of being full citizens. Plato and aristocracyThis is Plato’s fundamental critique of democracy—it is rooted in the ludicrously false assumption that all human beings are equal in all relevant ways. They aren’t.

So what does Plato advocate as the best form of government? Aristocracy, understood not as the passing on of power through blood lines as we think of when we hear “aristocracy,” but understood in its original and pure form. Aristocracy simply means “the rule of the best (aristos).” One of the major thrusts of the Republic is a meticulous construction of the perfect community, a community in which each person performs the tasks for which she or he is most naturally suited and which is ruled by the best people in the community. The rulers are identified early in their lives as potential leaders and educated with a view to actualizing the excellence that is latent in them. aristosThe potentials of others are similarly identified early in their lives; accordingly, each person is trained to be the person she or he is most naturally fit to be.

FA was not having it.

  • FA: I don’t think Plato is right. I think people don’t care to earn the privilege because they don’t believe the system will work for them, and because they are so poorly educated because they are poor. It is not a matter of individual failings, but of people being shaped by the system.

There’s a lot in this response. Suffice it to say that FA could be completely right without Plato being wrong. Our current system that has clearly produced millions of disaffected and disillusioned voters is a product of the democratic system, a system that Plato rejects. FA’s insight is that the “system” (society, if you will) shapes the individual—Plato would entirely agree. Our problem is that we have the wrong “system.”

Thirty seconds later FA sent an additional comment that changed the whole discussion.medea

  • FA: As a counterargument to Plato’s Republic, I give you Euripides’ Medea. She definitely would have wanted a vote.
  • Me: Good point.

Touché. That’s what I get for getting into this sort of conversation with someone who knows the ancient classics. The title character in Euripides’ Medea is brilliant, powerful, insightful, and effective—exactly what one would want in an informed electorate. She is also vindictive, manipulative, and murders three people (including her two sons) in the play. She’s a bad person, in other words. FA’s point is that what we need is not a test for how informed one is about current events and how government works. In an aristocracy, what is needed is a test to determine who is aristos. And before that, someone to define what aristos even means. Who do we trust to do that and to create the test? I have suggested to my students that I would be willing to do it, but they didn’t seem strongly supportive of my offer.

winstonWinston Churchill famously said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Context is important here. After courageously leading Great Britain as Prime Minister through the dark days of World War II, voters rewarded Winston by voting him out of office in 1947. The famous comment was made in Parliament several months later. Democracy is the messiest imaginable way to run things—it might even facilitate the election of Donald Trump as President in November. But every time I work with students to try and devise a better way of doing things, we always come back to the same conclusion. Democracy is a mess, but it is our mess. What are you going to do?

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.


Spiritual Punctuation

In my life-long spiritual journey, the decade of my twenties was the charismatic decade. No, that was not when I began to develop my current charismatic personality—that’s when I first encountered the Christian charismatic movementpentecostal[1]. For the uninitiated, the charismatic movement was (and is) marked positively by an infusion of divine energy into churches and denominations that had for too long lived out the negative side of Paul’s observation that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” For those whose whole experience of the Christian faith has been defined by rote repetition of stale and worn out practices and observances, the exuberant and often unpredictable energy of charismatic worship can be both exhilarating and frightening.

hmp2860a[1]My Baptist minister father, who for better and worse was my most important spiritual influence growing up, always considered himself a “maverick” in the McCain and Palin tradition, part of the Christian denomination into which he was born and then ordained, but also an outlier pressing against the envelope from inside. This regularly caused problems for him with both the faculty of and the monetary contributors to the small Bible school he had founded and of which he was President. The Bible Institute of New England was barely keeping its head above water in the summer of 1974 when my father and I drove 2300 miles from Vermont to New Mexico as he delivered me to my first semester at vt18_450[1]St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He frequently fretted about the financial instability of his Bible school, wondering how much longer it would last.

After leaving me at school, he stayed within a couple hundred miles of Santa Fe for a few days in case I got homesick and didn’t want to stay. During a hike in a Colorado meadow one of those days, he asked God for guidance and peace—in response, as he described it, he received a vivid vision and began ecstatically speaking in a language he did not understand. In charismatic language, he had received the gift of tongues—a powerful sign of the infusion of the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, the faculty and financial supporters of the Bible Institute of New England were not ready to get on board with an already-maverick-turned-charismatic President. BINE soon closed its doors and morphed into a retreat/conference center slash place for spiritual misfits to hang out called Winterhill.

I experienced Winterhill for the first time a year later when I returned to Vermont for summer vacation. The get-togethers at Winterhill looked like a tiny version of Woodstock, with hippie-ish twenty and thirty-somethings sitting in a large circle, strumming guitars, banging on drums, shaking tambourines, singing music offensive to my classically trained ear, eyes closed and hands raised, regularly violating the Apostle Paul’s directive that worship should be done “decently and in order.”P7180794-580x435[1] Worship was interrupted regularly by words of prophecy, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands for all manner of prayer and healing—all benevolently overseen by my father and a few other leaders.  It looked just like a sixties love-in, without the drugs and sex (I think).

Winterhill lasted for only a couple of years, but my fringe relationship with the charismatic movement continued for years, from time spent at a large charismatic church in Florida where my father was one of the “elders” to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, where I experienced for the first time the dynamic but volatile relationship between charismatic spiritual energies and traditional Episcopal liturgies. Top it off with being introduced by my parents to a Jeanne singingbeautiful red-haired force of nature whose dynamic spirituality was shaped by the Catholic charismatic movement in the seventies, and the tension between charismatic life and my own introverted personality and love for traditional liturgy and worship was here to stay. Jeanne is a daily reminder of the power and beauty of charisma at its best, while I carry within me a lived history containing many examples of how the charismatic movement can injure and go wrong.

The charismatic movement takes its name from the Greek word meaning “gift” or “favor,” referring to the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned on several occasions in Paul’s letters, including the passage from First Corinthians read at church this morning. Depending on where one looks, there are as many as nine of them, ranging from prophecy and healings to tongues and their interpretation.GIFTS%20OF%20THE%20SPIRIT[1]In my experience, as soon as people start talking about the gifts of the Spirit, they start ranking them in importance (although Paul does not) and accordingly create a pecking order, seeking as humans often do to harness power by containing it. I have been witness to many arguments between people trying to make sense of what Paul says—churches and denominations have split over this.Tthe problem is that Paul was writing letters, not theological treatises. He’s not always consistent, and much of what he writes is crafted specifically for the people to whom he is writing.

After more than thirty years of struggling with charisma and the life of faith, I’ve come to think that the greatest value in thinking and talking about the gifts of the Spirit is psychological rather than doctrinal. Paul always mentions the gifts in the context of the larger community, making clear that no one has all of the gifts, that an individual should not be judged for lacking any of them, but that just as a healthy body needs the active contribution of many parts, so a healthy community of believers requires the active infusion of all of the talents and abilities referenced as “gifts.” Each person’s abilities and talents are uniquely theirs, a part of their spiritual personality.  The important question for each of us to ask is: What do I have to offer?

punctuation-marks[1]Because I spend most of my life, at work and outside, with words, I’ve started thinking about spiritual gifts and abilities in terms of how we organize and structure our language–punctuation marks.  Each punctuation mark plays an important and unique role in the structuring of the written and spoken word. In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark offers this quick and snappy reminder of the roles played by the major players:writing-tools[1]

If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump, the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a “rolling stop”; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.

I leave it to you to decide where the question mark [ ? ] ellipsis [ . . . ] and exclamation point [ ! ] fit in this driving analogy.

Now think about yourself: your personality, your strengths, your weaknesses, what you are the “go to” person for, the things that you know you need help with. If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be? Which punctuation mark best captures your special contributions to the whole? Think about yourself alone, at work, with your friends, your family, your faith community if you have one. Just as the variety of punctuation marks serves a vast panoply of words and meaning, the vast range of personal strengths and weaknesses, talents and foibles, contribute to the beauty of the human whole. What is your special contribution? Which punctuation mark best captures you?

P.S.: I am a semicolon.semicolon[1]