March 30, 2005

Besting ourselves

Once again, today's news has raised to public awareness this University of Minnesota plan to be among the top three. Here are a couple of general arguments about that:

(1) There are some very large, rather old people in the world, with their own research establishments. These people like to take walks with each other. Suppose Albert Einstein invited you for a walk. You'd go. Suppose he said, "Talking to you is so clarifying. Could we meet every Sunday?" You'd clear your schedule to make time. A person in Boston or New York could drive down to Princeton to see Albert, on a Sunday. But a person in Minneapolis could not. There is no cluster of research universities around the University of Minnesota. People at a certain level of sophistication need people of their own kind. And Minnesota surely doesn't have the resources to attract a whole herd of gray haired giants.

(2) Young hot-shots follow money and perks and equipment. But they are also able to move. So there is a competitive market for such people. What reason does anybody have to think that the University of Minnesota is well positioned to win a bidding war? Do we have more donors, or richer donors, or a more open-handed legislature?

(3) Progress at the growing edge of intellectual disciplines depends on the climate of ideas and thinking in the general culture. Feynman happened partly because his father was a good amateur scientist and science teacher, and that happened because science was sexy, in the general world they both lived in. I don't hear about University efforts to raise public consciousness or public excitement about the life of the mind. Instead, the University grows more distant, more elite.

I don't think these arguments lead to despair, because I don't much trust this ambition to be in the top three. I think that any institutional planning that results in a goal that is simply a number -- and a number the meaning of which is controlled by somebody else -- has failed to do its job.

My grandma used to say to my cousin, who was out screaming "Roll over" at the collie, to no effect, "You know, Bob, to teach a dog a trick, you have to be smarter than the dog." My ultimate pessimism about this new vision for the U is somewhere in that territory.

Posted by shea0017 at 2:21 PM

March 23, 2005


Years ago, my church did a seder around Easter. It was as authentic as people could manage, though still a cultural blend. We stopped, partly because it was too hard and partly because of worries about appropriating other people's stuff. I think that was a bad call. The Christian Easter liturgy and the Passover celebration are two different journeys, two different educational and emotional technologies, and to see them together clarifies both, in part by helping people understand the point and structure of ritual journeys. It is as odd to have access to one major liturgy as to to only look at one painting.

In the same way, I think exactly the same way, it is helpful to ride the subway while still remembering what it is like to drive the freeway. These are our familiar ritual journeys, and they carry a load of attitudes and expectations and natural thoughts.

It seems important that great traditions have grown up in environments in which their adherents had to constantly explain how they differed from the observances right next door: the Jews in exile, the Christians as a minority group within the religion-rich Roman Empire.

When school prayer was a big issue, years ago, I wanted to propose a constitutional amendment protecting prayer and sacrifice in the public schools. As the Hmong population in the cities grew, I learned that this was no joke: when a child was hurt in school, the parents sometimes asked to do a chicken sacrifice on the site of the injury. I'll bet the kids who witnessed those sacrifices will remember them after they have forgotten their fourth grade teacher's name.

Religion makes us think and feel and remember in organized and directed ways. The developed technologies for doing this are very powerful. And a public culture has this strange dual task: to free people from such technologies and for such technologies.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:44 AM

March 22, 2005

Easter Week

The liturgy of Lent and Easter is an astonishing piece of educational technology, an achievement to rival the pyramids, but with a better point than the pyramids. The story is about how a new idea and a new hope are introduced into a world stuck fast in old ideas and customary despair -- a world like our own. Lots goes wrong. People understand, then fall back into their old ways. The authorities behave ruthlessly. The inner circle keeps getting the emphasis wrong. The crowds alternate between dangerous enthusiasm and dangerous hostility. All sorts of temptations pop up, to simplify the message, to reach compromises that would reinstate business as usual. And a few people persevere through to the end in a way that makes it possible for this movement to endure.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people walk through this story, slowly, thinking about every stage. Everyone is encouraged to have new hopes and new ideas. And everyone gets a very careful lesson in the problems of introducing those hopes and ideas into community life. This is in a way the opposite of traditional education, the opposite of conservatism. This is mass education for radical action, for continuous revitalization of human life.

Sometimes, one wonders whether the endurance of the human race is a good thing. The longer our cultures endure, the more destructive power they accumulate. But they also gradually make huge and reliable artifacts for the transformation of consciousness.

Happy Easter.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:42 AM

March 12, 2005

When honor dies

The New York Times reports today that soldiers of the United States kicked two Aghani prisoners on their legs and groin for several days, until they died. In another section, it reports that two New York police detectives are accused of carrying out eight hits for the Mafia. Uniforms and badges make that kind of thing easier.

In Vienna, there is special crime on the books, Kappenbeamtenbeleidigung, "insulting an official who wears a cap." The idea is that people in uniforms deserve some special respect. The Catholics have long claimed this sort of dignity for their priests and nuns. They live dedicated lives.

There's a story about Mircea Eliade and a priest. Eliade insisted upon addressing him as "Father." The priest preferred a more informal mode of address. Eliade noted in his journal: his being a priest was the interesting thing about him.

I am not sure a society can function without uniforms meaning something: where in common understanding the judge is just a thug in a robe, and the policeman is just a thug with a gun, and the soldier is just a thug with a big gun, and the priest is a lurking menace.

Systems of authority run on trust, and the debasement of one such system prefigures the debasement of the others.

Jesus says, "If salt loses its savor, with what shall it be salted?"

Posted by shea0017 at 12:42 PM

March 8, 2005

The thing we're spozed to be

I am on the board of a small newsletter that has provided good information services to its subscribers for many years. It is cheap and trustworthy and solvent. Recently, some board members have worried that the newsletter lacks an identity, a mission, a vision. I am caught in a strange bind on this question. I realize that there are several new good and valuable things we could be doing. I am also reluctant to give up the comfort of doing a simple job competently. I am reluctant to buy into the idea that a vision needs to be anything grander than: producing a competent newsletter, on time, for cheap.

So many institutions in our society have frustration built into them: their natural mission is conflicted and huge, and they will always fall short in some dimension. Colleges are like that, and families, and marriages, and charitable organzations. It seems as if the human pattern is to produce glorious enterprises that make us feel guilty and stressed.

But my colleagues on the board would say, with some justice, that the natural and admirable human quality is for people and their organizations to stretch themselves, to grow, to learn, to make things better.

I'm confused -- but this isn't the first time for that.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:23 AM

March 1, 2005

Joan of Arcadia,Wonderfalls and the American nightmare

I fall in love with light-touch religious and metaphysical shows like Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls. I like it slightly better when the messages from the ALL come from a smushed plastic lion than when they come from God in a janitor suit, but anything is better than the traditional thunderer in the clouds. I like very much the minimalization of the religious intuition: the world makes more sense than it should, is better than one would expect, in particular seems more personal than it has any right to be. There is some sort of odd fit between my life and what seems to be needed out there. It is almost as if something is talking to me -- god as a cosmic mouse in the woodwork.

When one tries to follow up on that intuition, one finds one's options limited, mostly, to detailed views of what it all means -- God's purpose for your life -- that go way beyond the intuition. I don't like being put in front of the choice: give up the intuition about the cosmic mouse, or buy into Left Behind or Baltimore Catechism. It isn't lost on me that Bush is sort of acting out episode one of the end times, with a lot of midwestern kids and mideastern civilians as extras.

But I don't want to give up the cosmic mouse, either.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:34 AM