Wednesday, December 25, 2013

For the Season

“People are at their best when they are able to use their talents and abilities — the traits and behaviors at which they naturally excel. Empowering your people to discover and develop their strengths will position them to do what they do best every day.” — Gallup Strengths Center

I want to continue my seasonal rumination with a point made earlier: that what we might be giving up in the quest for a “utilitarian’s paradise” are those things found in the critiques of modernity made by Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis, i.e. (quoting Ross Douthat) that “the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth” is missing or being ripped from our lives. In a recent post I brought this missing dimension closer to home while reviewing current academic employment opportunities in archives and special collections:

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

One of my friends on a far coast, having read my post, picked out these sentences and offered a comment: “This has been going on in academia for a long time now. Schools are places for intellectual workers (as Josef Pieper called them), rather than scholars.” Her comment included a link to Pieper’s book, Leisure—The Basis of Culture, which I quickly checked out from the library and read this week.

Pieper’s book is very accessible, even to someone like me who is not accustomed to reading philosophical texts on a daily basis. In his essay on “The Philosophical Act” I was taken by the following passage:

Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found—both historically and actually—the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything!); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university…. (emphasis mine)

Now, lest you think this is just a bit of philosophically charged hot air, consider recent accounts in the news (or evident on campuses across the country) of charges against higher education: that it is expensive and increasingly irrelevant to jobs or corporate interests (or, from the business perspective—that they cannot find enough “educated” candidates for currently open and available jobs); that it suffers from “administrative bloat”; that student debt is reaching untenable levels; (A colleague told me this week of reading a scholarship application from a graduate student who carried a current debt load of $120,000!); or that athletics (at the Division 1 level, at least) is an “arms race.” Purdue’s new president, Mitch Daniels, offered his own list of criticisms. Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal had more to say on bloat; my own institution was in their journalistic crosshairs. A search through the Internet will turn up more articles and essays on the current state of higher education. The critiques have even spawned a new area of study within (and without) the university: “critical university studies.”

I do not doubt that American public and private higher education—I have no sense of what’s going on in other places of the world—is in the midst of “a period of profound and possibly traumatic change” (quoting the article from “Inside Higher Ed”). I would lean a bit to the traumatic side in this characterization. What we may be witnessing is a struggle (dare I say war) for the “soul” of higher education. It is a question of whether or not the victor in this struggle will accommodate—or attempt to obliterate—the vertical dimension in human life. (For another perspective, one that touches on some of the vertical aspects, read the recent commentary piece by Ali Mohammad Al-Hussein Ali Al-Adeeb, Iraq's minister of higher education and scientific research.)

With these observations as preface, I find myself in a curious (and ironic/comic?) spot. My university, also known as my employer—stung by the comments about bloat (and hiring outside consultants to study the matter)—seems very interested in putting a lot of its staff through “StrengthsFinder©” training. The purpose of this training is clearly stated in the workbook I received at my session this last Tuesday: to increase employee engagement. As engaged employees (so we were told), we are loyal, productive, and less likely to have accidents or to steal. The Gallup folks (owners of StrengthsFinder©) claim that “research in business and industry showed a Strengths focus increased engagement, which lead to increased productivity, retention, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction” (quoting from the workbook, emphasis theirs). I find it interesting (and perhaps emblematic/symptomatic) that these findings in business and industry are wheedling their way into higher education. I might argue that I find my engagement through those vertical dimensions of my work. I’m not sure the Gallup folks would understand. The training (and its justification) smacks a bit of Pieper’s “intellectual workers” characterization.

What is comedic or ironic is that StrengthsFinder© —regardless of how it is employed in my work—may have accurately pegged me. One of my strengths—my “signature themes”—identified by the Gallup assessment was “Connectedness.” Descriptive phrases for this theme include a sense of being “part of something larger…Sensitive to the invisible hand, you can give others comfort that there is a purpose beyond our humdrum lives.” Another “signature theme” was “Intellection,” describing me, in part, as “the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective…This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives…Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.” Other strengths (or talents) identified by this assessment included “Learner,” “Context,” and “Deliberative,” but I’ll save you from a description of those themes.

Pieper, in concluding his thoughts on “the philosophical act,” makes these comments:

This is the path along which the self-destruction of philosophy has traveled: through the destruction of its theoretical character, a destruction which in turn rests upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense [i.e. the purely receptive stance toward reality, undisturbed by any interruption by the will]. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis…maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work. This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is—the whole of what is. (emphasis his) Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul—a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”

The understanding of “what is—the whole of what is”—this is the vertical dimension, the wonder, that I seek in my work and my life, an echo of something said long ago in the Magnificat.

Some may not identify with the Magnificat; it is not a part of their faith—if they have a faith—or what defines them. So be it. Questions of faith or being may be far, far away from what concerns us in our work. I would argue that they are integral to our work. Whatever the case might be for you, at this time of year, I hope it might still be fitting and proper to point to something beyond ourselves: to wish for peace on Earth, goodwill to all. Or, as my Dickensian namesake would say: “God bless us, everyone!”

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