Review: Marilynne Robinson, The Givennness of Things

The Givenness of Things: EssaysThe Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Marilynne Robinson recently appeared on Reading Religion. The opening…

A friend once complained to me that he thought Marilynne Robinson’s novels were “slow.” Slightly aghast, my response was that glaciers are slow, but they dig deep. They gather force patiently through time, and their full effects are seen only as they recede. They rewrite continents.

This comparison is apt for Robinson’s collection, The Givenness of Things. The pieces vary by occasion. They are written for disparate audiences, sometimes as commencement speeches, sometimes as invited lectures on a chosen or assigned topic. Necessarily, then, the reader does not quickly arrive at a neatly formulated thesis. However, over time, a sustained argument comes into view. Points of emphasis build through repetition; interesting asides are picked up and elaborated. Robinson’s thinking gathers force less by the secure scaffolding of an academic essay than by the gathered observations of human beings thinking and acting in these early hectic years of the 21st century.

Or failing to think. Robinson is convinced that we Americans have become a forgetful people. The list of things that we have forgotten is long: we have forgotten the legacy of the Reformation; we have forgotten the value of the common good manifested in things like publicly funded libraries and schools; we have forgotten the principles of the Civil Rights Movement; we have forgotten the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual capacities of the common person; and we have forgotten that our minds are more than our brains. Fundamentally, we have forgotten ourselves. In the process, Robinson says, we have forgotten God.

You can read the full review here: http://readingreligion.org/books/give….

View all my reviews

Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

View all my reviews

Exclusion and Embrace–Miroslav Volf

51CPp63bTcL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some years ago my wife, Shannon, occasionally wrote reviews of classic books for a publication for
gifted high school students. Although I don’t think there is an official genre know as the re-review, I think there probably ought to be. In a day and age when most people fail to read even one book a year, much less a relatively challenging and completely serious and comprehensive work of theology, perhaps we readers ought to take it as part of our role to reintroduce books from decades past to readers for whom they will be new, if not unheard of. It’s in that spirit that I take a few minutes to write out some thoughts on Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, a book first published in 1996. Still in print and available 22 years later from Abingdon Press, I felt Volf’s wrestling with questions of identity and the possibility of embrace spoke to our own period, if only because in the age of Trump we seem to be wrestling more starkly, and perhaps more helplessly, with the questions that drive Volf’s reflections. Can we all just get along, much less embrace, in the face of random police shootings in the name of civil order, family separations in the name of national security, lethal white unity rallies with good people on all sides on all sides, and the general belief that we are so hopelessly separated by our different identities that empathy is beside the point and, in the words of Roxane Gay, we should all just stay in our lanes?

I would like to think a work of theology could solve all this; indeed, Volf indicates that it is the real work of theologians to be about the business of helping to form subjects who could bring about the world of embrace that he imagines. There is a generosity of vision in Volf’s book that I find admirable, even compelling. His central concept of embrace is not a campfire Kumbaya version of hugging it out, but a compelling narrative of what it means, or at least ought to mean, to be a fully realized human being. For Volf, the notion of embrace is inherent in the mutual and overspilling love of the Trinity, as well as the fundamental character of God’s engagement with human beings; the incarnation is a metaphysical embrace of humanness, and the cross is an appeal to be embraced in return. Human beings are only fully realized as human beings when we actually seek to give up our separateness and embrace others as we find them. As he puts it:

the most basic thought that it [the metaphor of embrace] seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil”

It is unfortunate, of course, that we often experience our religion most fundamentally as an act of exclusion, whether in the practice of shunning, hellfire and brimstone preachers, or the simple and more mundane acts of making sure our church services and gatherings for fellowship feel comfortable for the already comfortable, and uncomfortable for the already discomfited or destitute. And so Volf’s work is surely a challenge to the good and the just and the true among us. He notes with approval Nietzsche’s reminder that the crucifixion was an act of the righteous:

Nietzsche underscored the connection between the self-perceived “goodness” of Jesus’ enemeies and their pursuit of his death; crucifixion was a deed of “the good and just,” not of the wicked, as we might have thought. “The good and just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good (61)

At the same time, Volf’s prescriptions sit only uncomfortably with current conceptions of justice and empowerment, not least because the proper goal of a world formed by the concept and practice of embrace is not freedom or self-realization, at least not as these terms have been typically thought of in both our modern and post-modern socialities. Volf’s work asks us to imagine the ideal of embrace not as the coming together of two fundamentally separate individuals “hugging it out” when it comes to their differences, but rather as a complex dance in which we realize that we cannot be what we ought to be until we learn to genuinely love those that we have despised, and even more that we find it in in ourselves to love those who have despised us. As he puts it:

At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the “sons and daughters of hell.” (85).

This kind of call sounds strange to our age of tribalism, though perhaps no stranger than any age where we find it easy to love those like us, less easy to love those unlike us, and not possible at all to love those who do not love us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so different from the famous proclamation from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Volf has a complicated, and I think useful, description of embrace as a fourfold process:

The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace, and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression and, paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement. (141)

This structure seems to me to both recognize and respect the integrity of others in their freedom. Embrace cannot be forced; nor is embrace limitless. Nevertheless, in Volf’s understanding, embrace is necessary to our full humanity, to forgiveness, and ultimately to justice and the task of creating the kind of society in which we might hope to live and flourish as human beings.

As I said at the outset, I think Volf’s book is worth reading since it is eerily contemporary in its impulses and in its wrestling. We can learn from him even where we disagree. I do think that if the book were written now, he might have to ask harder questions about the relationship between justice and love, between embrace and power. It’s very clear in Volf’s work that he subordinates justice to love, saying that embrace has to shape the definition of justice, that embrace is “about love shaping the very content of justice.” This is well and good, but it remains unclear that embrace is possible outside the possibility or at least the horizon of justice. From my own position situated within the matrices of power as a white male American middle class human being–all affording me pleasures and potentialities and possibilities that others do not possess in an unjust world–what does it mean for me to offer embrace in the absence of justice. Is it possible to expect embrace outside the quest or journey toward justice. Volf’s book reflects on repentance as a part of this process, but I think he could use even more thinking here in the particular ways that repentance is properly not simply a turn from the self and toward the other (ultimately God), but is also and must be a turning away from injustice–and my participation in it–toward justice, away from a life in which embrace might be colored with the expectation of inevitable betrayal and toward a life of mutuality that in some ways must accompany embrace. Although I think we would do well to wonder whether subordinating justice is any more appropriate as a Christian ethic than would be the subordinating of one person of the Trinity to another, I do think the Volf’s wrestling is worth our reckoning with. It is surely the case that 20 years later we are no closer to the beloved community that embrace would supposedly make possible than we were when Volf wrote this very good and important book. View all my reviews

Jen Pollock Michel: Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home

Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of HomeKeeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sometimes think that Goodreads ought to give me two ways to rate a book: what the book wants to be on its own terms, and whether I think the book is really something someone should spend time reading. On its own terms, and trying to apply John Updike’s dictum that we shouldn’t blame a book for not achieving what it didn’t set out to achieve, I think Michel’s book is OK; probably even good. Thinking of it as a series of meditations on the nature of home, the book embodies a vision of the dignity and even sacrality of home life, home work, and house keeping–understood as making a place for ourselves and those we love, perhaps even those we don’t, in the world. In it, home becomes a metaphor for the work of the Church. And more than a metaphor. For Michel, “Christian men and women, praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, work to make it possible for all human beings to flourish–now and into eternity, Housekeeping, as an important dimension of the home story, insists that an in-between life must never be an idle one. To be blessed is to be sent.” At its furthest reach, home is the be all and end all of our existence as Christian people; indeed as human beings:

As James K. A. Smith describes, we are “‘narrative animals’: we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in” Home is that story.
And we are its witnesses.

This last statement reveals the deeper subterranean ambitions of this book, what it really wants to be despite it’s fairly modest statement that it is merely a series of “reflections.” It is a statement that the “home” is what the Christian life is about, that “HOME” write large is the Christian story.

This is a large, I would say grandiose, claim, and the book suffers for it. On the one hand, in terms of the book’s composition, it is an overextended metaphor leading the author to make claims about the centrality of home in biblical narrative and ecclesiastical life that are finally strained beyond the breaking point of belief. Moreover there is all too little critical force attached to these reflections to make the kind of theological claim that she really wants to make plausible. There is all too little mention of all the ways that the biblical narrative disrupts and unsettles the idea of home and home making. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, as he admonishes his followers to remember. If we take the words of Jesus seriously that all those gathered around him, at times by the hundreds or thousands, are his mother, brothers, and sisters, this makes the boundaries of home so permeable as to be dispersed into the solution of humanity in a way that the metaphor of home strains to accommodate. The people of Israel most often stumbled when they preferred the comforts of home to the arduousness of obedience. In the end the book is the apotheosis of home, but I find myself suspicious of every human metaphor made into a divine thing.

I read this book in the midst of a cranky mood about the world we’re living in, and were it only for that fact I would do well to heed Updike’s advice and not review the book at all; give the book it’s two stars and move on. Nevertheless, as I write thousands of immigrants have left their homes and travelled on foot or hopping trains through unimaginable danger and deprivation to seek some degree of safety in a place called the United States–a place we call, perhaps ironically, the home of the brave. These mothers, fathers, and children come only to be imprisoned and separated at the hands of an agency we officially call Homeland Security. This disharmonious irony ought to call to mind the fact of how many evils in our world are done in the name of home and family, even of family values, whether their protection or their preservation. From the evils of Jim Crow segregation to the imperialism of Manifest Destiny, the primacy and protection of the (white) home and the (white) homeland–present or utopian–played a large, even a predominant part. Moreover, we have just lived through the wretched vision of the Baptist church struggling with whether and how to discipline a male leader who told women to stay in abusive homes for the greater glory of God. He is hardly the only one. The poet Warsan Shire reminds us home is not only the place that we long for, but the place we flee from, for our own lives and the lives of those we love:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

I do not mean to imply by this statement or my mood, that the author or her more sympathetic readers are somehow in sympathy with the evils that have been wrought by white supremacy or by misogyny. Indeed, one of the best things about the book is the ways that it dignifies what is often, almost always, taken to be “women’s work” in the making of home. I appreciated Michel’s note that this was a fairly recent phenomenon in many ways, the responsibility of men for life at home being a theme to be found in earlier eras of human culture. (Even if, I would hasten to add, those cultures were usually no better at exhibiting the mutuality that Michel seems to long for, but never fully articulates). The book is earnest; there are scores of anecdotes and tidbits of practical advice that will help those that struggle with the difficulties of home life, and it will remind those who can hear it that all acts, great and small, are or can be acts of holiness that sanctify the world. Perhaps more importantly they are acts that aid us in the pursuit of holiness ourselves.

Nevertheless, I wonder what kind of faith it would take for us to stand on the Southern border and stretching out our arms, say, “These are my mother, brothers, and sisters.” I am quite sure I do not yet have that faith, though I am shamed to say it. I do not think a theology that divinizes our middle class American notion of home, and seeks at all costs to protect and glorify it, is going to get us there.

View all my reviews

Christine Perrin’s Bright Mirror

Bright MirrorBright Mirror by Christine Perrin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed reading my colleague Christine Perrin’s book, Bright Mirror over the past several days, and was only sorry that I had not made time for it before now. Like many folks, I am less confident of my reviewing of poetry than I am of prose, but as I read the sense of this being an observant poetry kept coming to my mind. A lot of poetry, of course, is observation, seeing us and the world in new ways, and thus helping us to see the world and ourselves in new ways as well, an act that both gives us a truer picture of the world and also an act that paradoxically changes that world through the act of vision. Christine’s poems have that quality in abundance, whether in seeing her children, her church, her nature, or herself in new ways.

But I think by “observant” I also mean that it is a poetry of the act of being observant, in multiple ways, a poetry of ritual but also a poetry of attending, of tending to the world that she sees. Some parts are about ritual as she meditates on various rites of the church. So I think I might speak of this being an “observant” poetry in the ways that one is an observant Catholic, or an observant Jew, or, in Christine’s case, the observant Orthodox–those who attend the ritual of the church or synagogue, and thereby tend to the work of the church, which is ultimately about enacting God’s work on earth. But I felt this quality in many of the lyric poems about nature, and even more so in the poems about her family, her children and about motherhood, my personal favorites of the collection. Motherhood seems less in these poems about “raising” children than about tending them, and attending to them, much as one might tend a garden in others of the poems in this collection. Tending is less an action designed to force the crop, than one that seeks to make what is already hidden there come to light, to fruition, to flourishing.

These are not tragic poems, but running through them is a sense that this flourishing is etched with the fact of impermanence, the presence of failure, the inevitability of death. Indeed, I was vaguely reminded of Wallace Steven’s sense that Death is the mother of beauty, that our experience of beauty is somehow only made possible through the fact of its, and our, impermanence. For Christine, this beauty, somewhat like the Inklings that she references throughout the collection, is a foretaste of resurrection, something that points toward an enduring love even though the flower wilts, the friend or father dies, the children grow older and in their own ways are bruised or broken agains the rocks of their own lives. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Christine is speaking with a friend in Italy whose wife has died in childbirth:

But Luca, her husband, wants to travel
to Jerusalem, to the foot of the cross.

He wants to touch its ruined wood,
get splinters in his fingers, his lips.
That must be the way it feels

to lose a young wife. Holy Sepulchre
some call it and others,
Church of the Resurrection

I suppose it depends on the day.
When I told the guide it was hard to believe
that Golgotha and the empty tomb could be held

under one roof, he tipped his head back
and laughed at me, saying my name–
Christine–as if that was my answer

Holding Golgotha and the empty tomb together under one roof, is, of course, the work of the church, the liturgy or work of the people as we observe the rites of death and resurrection each Sunday, each day, in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is after all, the celebration of both a death and a life. This, too, is the work of poetry, and I am thankful that Christine has undertaken it.

View all my reviews

Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My friend and colleague, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, warned me that he broke down weeping on a Chicago subway as he finished the book, to the consternation of his fellow passengers. I found it easier to weep discretely in a Barnes and Nobles cafe. As one might guess with a book that opens with the discovery of a young and hopeful and brilliant doctor at the beginning of his career that he has what by all accounts is an incurable cancer, death awaits. And awaits relentlessly. But the knowledge that the book ends in our common human destiny does little to steel the reader for the way the heart breaks against the stony shores of that certainty. We are not given the witness of his death; no autobiography could do that. But we are given the witness of his dying and are included in that process, one that is by turns, noble and wretched and then, in some sense, ennobling of the author, of those around him, and perhaps even of us as readers.

While focused on death, the book is not morbid. If it ends in tears, it is not even really depressing in any meaningful sense of that word. What we are given is the striving after understanding, and the effort to make meaning out of experience with the only tools we have been given to do it, through our language. The book is fascinating for its testimony to the difficulties of the life of the mind and the body, to the agonies of both surgery and uncertainty. Kalanithi began as a devotee of language and discusses his turn away from the study of literature and what might loosely be described as “the mind” and towards the study of the brain and the body in the attempt to understand more completely the physical mechanism by which, after all, we come to speak and conceive of ourselves as having something called a soul or a mind. Kalanithi does not go deeply enough into this transition away from literature and language for my personal taste, though he offers the throwaway line that he thought the study of literature had become too embroiled in the study of politics and was not leading him into the study of meaning. However, he also seems to think that the study of literature is too divorced from the world of action, of doing something in the world that makes a difference, a difference he thought he could make in the healing professions. Kalanithi’s book is not about a theory of literature, but if it were I would want to argue with him more forcefully here. There is, after all, nothing more thoroughly politicized in our day and age than the practice of medicine, though his book does not seem to take up the question of who gets to be there to have a chance at healing at a first rate medical center and why that might be. I might want to argue as well, as I have at other times, that the embrace of literature in particular, and of the humanities more broadly–indeed, education per se–is actually one part of the world’s healing, though we fail too often to recognize it as such. As Milton suggested, the purpose of education is to repair the ruin of our first parents (and perhaps the ruin of our own parents, and of ourselves, I might add).

But these are not the main points of Kalanithi’s book. He manages to make the beauty and power of the study of science, and especially the study of medicine real and persuasive. More broadly he shows convincingly that a life of intense study is a life worth living, that the life of the mind matters, even if that point is made more poignant by the fact that that life is cut off by a disease of the body that cannot be studied away and that as of yet remains beyond the realm of human comprehension and control. It is interesting to me that, in the end, Kalanithi returns to literature to make meaning of the death that he cannot, that none of us can, avoid. He makes mention of the fact, of his return to stories about living and dying, stories that tried to make sense of the fact of death. Some of his final memories are of sitting with his infant daughter on his lap, reading to her the words of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, a fact that might be comical were it not for the fact that it rings true for a father given over to the power of language to give meaning where meaning seems tenuous at best, were it not for the fact that I and other fathers I know in the English major set do or have done precisely the same thing.

Of course, he made his own story in the end. A story, to be sure, that could not have been written without his unimaginably deep engagement with science and medicine. But finally his story lives for us, tells us something about what it means to be human, because it lives for us in words.

View all my reviews

David Livermore: Leading with Cultural Intelligence

Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to SuccessLeading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success by David Livermore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to tell students that whether they “liked” a book or were “interested” in a topic was utterly beside the point. The point of an education is to learn how to invest yourself, to find your way in, to practice the imaginative leaps that would be necessary to take interest and even to come to like or love something that you were unable to like at the beginning. Generally speaking, I think education is training in how to be a soul more open to possibilities, to increase both the range and depth of your pleasures and thereby to increase your motivation to understanding of things that were previously indifferent or mysterious.

Well, I’ll be up front and say Livermore’s book, Leading With Cultural Intelligence, isn’t pitched to the meaty part of my imaginative or intellectual strike zone. I have enjoyed books on leadership in higher education where I pick up tips here and there on how to do a better job. I do find, however, that books on leadership are often long on examples that state the obvious, too repetitive of the insights others have already well-established, short on deeper reflection on human meaning and purpose, and almost totally absent of graceful writing. Too many feel like the insights of a good Harvard Business Review essay stretched over and extra hundred and fifty pages to make the best seller list.

That having been said, I came to Livermore’s book with a little trepidation, but also determined to demand of myself what I demanded of my students–to make a leap of the imagination that would help me find my way in to it. It came recommended from Todd Allen, a trusted colleague who leads our institutional efforts in inclusive excellence, and I have some long personal and intellectual investment in understanding how to make some difference in the world relative to issues of cultural and racial division and animosity. Finally, I firmly believe that if institutions of higher education are going to fully grapple with the questions of inclusive excellence, leadership has to come from the middle from people like department chairs who help make and implement decision about curriculum, hiring, faculty development and other academic programming. So I am considering the book as a source text for a chair retreat next fall.

By and large this motivation paid dividends. Cultural Intelligence has the faults I list above. It won’t be remembered for its contributions to American prose, and the second half of the book starts sounding repetitive even though Livermore is supposedly introducing new concepts. Nevertheless, I ended up glad I read the book. I ended with some new insights into my own way of being in the world and it helped me think about how that way of being might be contributing positively or negatively to efforts in inclusive excellence in my own domain.

The notion of cultural intelligence has been around for a little while, and is somewhat akin to the notions like emotional intelligence. Livermore makes this analogy explicit, in fact. Roughly speaking the book is about the dimension of cultural intelligence, the skills you need to effectively exercise cultural intelligence, and the means by which you can enhance your cultural intelligence. Livermore breaks cultural intelligence down in to four domains: knowledge, motivation, strategy, and action. What kinds of knowledge do you need to be culturally intelligent? What kind of motivation do you have to practice cultural intelligence? What strategies do you use to engage in situations of cultural difference? What kinds of actions do you pursue to reach specific ends in ways that respect the cultures with which you are engaging?

None of this is rocket science exactly, but because Livermore is making most of his references to leading in multinational corporations, I was constantly having to think by analogy to how things might apply to the world of higher education. Among other things, as a Dean of the Humanities, it struck me that we probably think of cultural intelligence almost entirely in the realm of knowledge–what do you know about other cultures and inter cultural situations being the driving question. This is unsurprising given the cognitive bias of most of us who choose to go in to higher ed. But in Livermore’s conception this is only one small part of what it would mean to function in a culturally intelligent way. It’s not enough to know about other cultures, it’s also important to know how your own culture leads you to privilege certain things and value certain kinds of behavior. Moreover, knowledge alone may not lead to strategy and action. Livermore makes the case that introverts tend to be very strong on cultural knowledge and strategizing, but weaker on action and motivation. This rang true, though of course it isn’t universally true. But intellectuals like to reflect, like to strategize, and sometimes we don’t really like to act. Thinking is what we do best, and a strategy is a means of perfecting castles in the air as yet unmarred by the difficulty of implementation. This is not to denigrate reflection of strategizing since Livermore makes clear that all are important; it’s just to point out that Livermore provides a framework for thinking where your own strengths and weaknesses may lie and how you can work on other areas.

Finally, even though Livermore’s book is primarily about intercultural intelligence in global companies, it also struck me that it is very applicable to academic cultures on most college campuses. Academic institutions, even very small ones, are usually made up of multiple cultures that don’t understand each other’s values, don’t understand the way one another talk, and often have a miserable time trying to work together. The faculty does not understand the culture of the administration or operations, and vice versa. The culture of the administration can fall into the trap of denigrating the culture of the faculty, or at least being mystified by it (and vice versa). Neither faculty or administration easily understand the rapidly changing cultures of the student body. And within and across all these cultures are the larger cultural matrices of the society as a whole–international students and faculty from multiple areas of the world, students and faculty from multiple domestic ethnic backgrounds, different age groups, urban and rural often thrust together, hip and jowl. This cultural cacophony is one reason cultural politics on campus is so fraught and difficult to manage. But it is also our glory. Where else in American life do we ask such a range of people to come together for common purpose, for the common good? If we can do it well, we can be a model for others. I don’t imagine Livermore’s book will get us there, but it has some helpful ideas for steps along the way.

View all my reviews on Goodreads