Up on the Mountainside

These themes have been kicking around in my head for years, but recently two wholly unrelated events conspired to push them to the top of my “to-think-about” list. First, while volunteering at the Ojibweg Winter Games in Lac du Flambeau, WI last weekend, I listened to Wayne Valliere (an Ojibweg artist, canoe-builder, and community leader) recount how an elder once told him to respect other religions, because there are multiple ways up but we’re all climbing the same mountain. This is precisely the metaphor that occured to me, half a decade ago, when considering religious faith in a pluralistic world; I am gratified to learn that my thought is in fact hardly original at all. It suggests, I think, that the faith-mountain metaphor is so obvious/instinctive/rational that it’s readily available for all to discover, either independently as I did or culturally as Wayne did.

Second, I was listening to a podcast episode this morning of Slate’s Political Gabfest (first aired February 13, 2015) and was struck by how one of the discussants, John Dickerson, spoke about forgiveness and restraint. The discussion was prompted by the recent revelations concerning Brian William’s enhanced reporting techniques, but his observations—paraphrased below—were considerably broader than that. To whit:

I think it depends on… As Al Gore would say, “It depends on your faith tradition.” The first thing that I think about is Matthew, you know, “Don’t judge lest ye be judged.” Which is not to say you can’t be critical of other people, but just to be really cautious and humble about human failings….

He goes on to discuss restraint, in both public and private spheres, and suggests that the lack of simply pausing (“to let flow in a little bit more perspective and context) before reacting is “corrosive.” Despite his reference to the New Testament, his opinion is measured and otherwise wholly secular, and I think that most Americans would agree with him.

But the fact that he does default to a New Testament reference right off the bat is instructive, I think. I do not believe that religiosity of any description is a necessary basis for morality, but I think that wise, discerning adults still need mental maps to help them navigate the tricky business of being alive and adult and human all at the same time. This is the mountain, or one enormous slope of it, and whether your map is rooted in the Upanishads or Ojibweg tradition or Darwinism we’re still trying to get to the same peak.

My map is—perhaps very loosely—rooted in what I understand, via my Quaker upbringing and adult considerations, in what I understand are the fundamental messages and promises of Jesus Christ: to forgive, to feel gratitude and humility, to cherish; to understand divinity as a force that nudges us ever so gently towards progress in the sense of becoming existentially better. This, of course, is also the mountain, and I find most of it impossible. But for me that’s the real root of my Christianity, that the gentle current of godliness insists on performing inhuman acts of love, forgiveness, and humility. And I suppose I should admit to a strain of mysticism in my faith as well—because I think everyone has to find his own path up the mountain, with whatever guides he finds.

As a different and differently spiritual Wayne put it:

I’m on a motion mission, wishin’ kids would listen, knowing
That the temple’s merely guarded by a stern condition:
Namely, that the whole thing is an intuition.
You can’t get it as a secondhand transmission.

See you on the mountainside.

On the Wisconsin Idea and the Crisis in the Humanities

This week there was a large kerfuffle in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker tried to strike, or after one of his staffers made a drafting error (whichever narrative you choose to believe), the “Wisconsin Idea” from the mission of the UW system. The paragraph in question:

36.01 (2) The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

There has been a lot of liberal outrage over these changes—even more, I think, than there’s been outrage over his proposed budget cuts (which just goes to show how protective people are of their collective identies, informed by myth)—and for good reasons outlined by many other people.

However: I think the university in general, and the non-STEM pieces of it in particular, need to recognize the beam in their eye in addition to the mote in Walker’s.

Specifically, we should do a better job of extending knowledge and its application, illustrating how and why liberal arts education enhances, to use Walker’s words, “humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose” among all citizens of the state. By coincidence, at the end of this week of defensive posturing on behalf of the Wisconsin Idea, my own humanities/social science department had our monthly meeting, in which a few faculty members professed themselves alarmed and befuddled by rapidly declining enrollments, even in classes that satisfy writing credits required of all undergraduates.

It’s not enough to bemoan the general malaise afflicting the humanities, or to blame the sentiment behind Walker’s words that the best path to personal economic success and international dominance is unrelenting emphasis on STEM. Students don’t sign up for compositional writing classes not just because the university doesn’t announce them clearly or because they’re all trying to become engineers out of parental, societal, or economic pressure (though surely these are factors as well). Students don’t sign up for classes like ours because we don’t do a very good job of advocating for their qualitative utility. All kinds of scientific studies have emerged recently suggesting what humanities fields have known for some time, things like narratives matter and there’s a relationship between developing empathy and reading fiction. I welcome studies like these: anything that can help us make our argument palatable is good news. But we have to actually make the argument, inside the university and out.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive, let’s start putting the Wisconsin Idea into action, both inside the university and out.