I just wanted to write to say thank you for “The Future of the Life of the Mind,” and for your references to the Sertillanges book in other blog posts. Encouragement in the “traditional” intellectual life is rare.
I’m also encouraged by your observation that intellectual organizations these days are "all an experiment and adventure.” Currently I am in an MSIS program (that’s Master of Science in Information Sciences), and we hear the same thing about the careers we’re going into in libraries and archives and who knows what else. It can be too easy to assume that everything is decaying, the culture is collapsing, etc. etc., and voices like yours are invaluable to remind us that no, it’s not all horrible.
Relatedly, could you give a few examples of those "few beautiful successes” that you refer to? Or advice on how to organize communities of serious thought?
I can’t tell you how to organize them, because I don’t have an organizational gene. (There is another notch on my chromosome where the sports gene ought to be, but that’s another story). Still, I think can tell you a little more about their varieties.
Probably very few communities of serious thought develop because someone says, “Say, let’s develop a community of serious thought.” At present, most such communities organize in the hope of doing some part of the work that universities ought to be doing but aren’t.
Consider for example Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, California, which aims at providing a unified liberal arts education. Students have very few electives, but they acquire the intellectual virtues; they are taught how to think. By contrast, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, in Arlington, Virginia, aims at providing graduate-level professional training in a single discipline, the healing of the mind, but from a consistently Catholic understanding of the nature of the human person. Considering the depth of the Catholic philosophical tradition, you might think that this would be one of the perspectives on display in a public university, but you would be wrong.
A third example is the religious orders which practice scholarship in the service of their spiritual vocations. Included here are those lay members called tertiaries, who live in the world. Although religious orders may seem very unlike the former two examples, they are alike in that their work too is part of a broader work. In the case of the Dominicans, for instance, that broader work is preaching, teaching, and using the intellect to combat deadly moral, intellectual, and spiritual fallacies.
You may think I shouldn’t include religious orders in this list of “new” forms of community, since they have been around for many centuries. But there are always new orders with new charisms, as well as old ones whose charisms are renewed. I think many of the orders that practice scholarship may be doing things differently as universities continue to forget what universities once tried to be.
For now, perhaps the most important dimension of variation among the new communities of scholars is just what relationship they have to establishment universities.
Some come into being to compete with them. This task is challenging for many reasons, not least of them the fact that accreditation organizations are often dominated by persons who are hostile to their aims.
Others exist as parts of establishment universities, for example as Western Civilization honors programs, right in the belly of the beast. A few organize in the ambitious hope of encouraging the renewal of their host institutions, but most begin with the more modest goal of providing enclaves of sanity.
Surprisingly, officials in the host institutions sometimes welcome such organizations, if only for a while, just to placate donors and other parties who are looking over their shoulders. On the other hand, since such organizations cannot be truly independent of their hosts, they risk what is called “capture” by hostile forces in the host institutions, and then their mission is corrupted.
Still other scholarly communities exist alongside establishment universities, offering resources, encouragement, and comradeship for the dwindling number of sane scholars who continue to work in those schools. The more successful of such para-university organizations cultivate collaboration between scholars in the university and in the para-university, while maintaining financial and organizational independence. But they cannot exist in isolation from the surrounding community. Because they need to disseminate what they learn, and also because they need to attract donors, their success depends largely on community outreach.
Too much success can be dangerous, because it makes such organizations targets for another kind of “capture”; over time they may drift from their missions in the same way most institutions do. The smartest ones try to set up safeguards, if not to prevent drift – that may be impossible – then at least to slow it down.
The last sort of scholarly community lives more or less apart from universities. Such forms of association are neither competitors with universities, parts of them, nor deliberately crafted to exist alongside them. I say “more or less” because at least for now, it would be virtually impossible for them to live just as though universities did not exist.
For example, scholars who are members of religious orders may have been recruited as university students, and may have received their scholarly training in universities. For obvious reasons, though, as the universities continue to go crazy, such patterns become problematic. If change is not already under discussion, I expect that it will be.
In the meantime, big and little tremors are taking place in scholarly and professional associations, as the old ones succumb to institutional sclerosis, ideological mania, or both, and as new kinds of networks are emerging. Thank God, frivolities like Twitter are not the only results of the new technologies. Scholars can now communicate, associate, and even publish in all sorts of new ways. Here too, not all new developments are good. But some of them are very good, and some may become better than they are.
Despite the rigidity of the establishment universities, the world of scholarship is increasingly fluid. Twenty years from now, much of what I have just written will have to be revised.
In the meantime, don’t assume that if you don’t see anything, then nothing is happening. That is like thinking that the mother isn’t pregnant, just because you can’t see the baby in the womb. The first movements may be like the fluttering of a moth, but in time you can feel the child kick.