I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of spirituality in professional life, and especially in the life of an administrator. Because I work at a faith-based institution, it might seem natural to assume that we talk a lot about the spiritual aspects of what it means to be an organizational leader, a department chair or dean, or that we are regularly conducting conversations about the role faith plays in how we organize our lives together. In fact, like any other organization or institution of higher education it is extremely easy to be caught up in the grinding day to day, to be focused on how I’m going to get the next e-mail (or 100 e-mails, no lie) answered, or fret about how late I am to the next meeting or whether I have too many priorities for my school or too few and whether they are the right ones and whether I have any budget to have any priorities at all.
While we expect our faculty to be able to understand and articulate a cognitive relationship between faith and their disciplines, and while we have learning objectives for students that are related to character and Christian life, and while I think our educational program does a pretty good job or reaching these expectations, we don’t often pause to think about what role spirituality might have in the mundane business of meeting or cutting budgets, organizing and running meetings, setting policy, formulating workloads, and the like. In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.
I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.
But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job. Beyond this, some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others. Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.” My caps :-). This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.
I think this must have meant many different things to every person in the room at the MLE. For it to have any useful meaning to the diversity of religious and spiritual experience represented in the room and in higher education generally, Bolman’s understanding of spirituality was capacious enough to cover about everything from those of use who were Christians in a traditional sense of embracing the Apostle’s Creed to a more generic and Tillichian sense of having an Ultimate Concern that centers one’s being and sense of self in the world, however secular or divine that Ultimate Concern might be.
Regardless, it focused me in a new way that I had and have some kind of spiritual responsibility for the health of my institution and the people in it, and that I needed to be sure my own spiritual house was in some state of repair. Moreover, it meant to me that I have to figure out ways that spirituality is something that imbues what I do as an administrator and how I understand the issues that I and others in my school or facing, and to encourage a spiritual sense in our life together, rather than assuming we should mostly draw our spiritual life from elsewhere and deplete it during the days (and too many nights) of administrative and educational labor.
I’m still, to be frank, not exactly sure what this looks like. One small step I’ve taken is that I’ve renewed my practice of the Daily Office for Individuals and Families found in the Book of Common Prayer, my home tradition now being among that ragtag group, the Episcopalians. The Daily Office happens throughout the day and requires only a few minutes of prayer, meditation, and reading, leaving me almost guilt-free about the time I am taking away from the latest policy memo or the letter of evaluation I should be writing.
It’s a small thing, but the pause that it entails refocused my mind and heart, and reminds me simultaneously that email is a small thing, but that even the small things we do need to be of God. A Buddhist colleague at another institution once told me that Buddhists believed attentive states of awareness could and should be achieved in the most mundane of settings, even in the produce aisle of the grocery store. If that’s true, it may be possible, strange as it seems to say it, to experience and live out one’s sense of spiritual vitality in the midst of a department meeting or in the reading of a policy memo.
I am not sure, right now, where else to go with this. To be sure, I think this kind of spiritual attentiveness is not something an administrator could mandate in others, however much it could be encouraged. That, in itself, could become destructive and oppressive. However, I’m increasingly convinced that in the crises that are facing higher education, and that so many of us are feeling in our workaday lives, that we actually need more of this kind of thing and not less.
Along these lines, I concluded our school meeting with a meditation on Psalm 81, the evening Psalm in today’s lectionary, a privilege afforded me in my location at a faith-based institution:
Sing aloud to God our strength
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.
I found this passage unusually helpful today. The people of Israel in this poem of are told to worship, not because they felt good, not because their budgets were flush, and not because they had everything that they wanted. Indeed, quite the opposite, they are told to worship as they leave the land of Egypt….and set out in to the wilderness for forty years as the story goes, subsisting on manna, beset by enemies, and lost to uncertainty, until most of them had died in the desert. (I also especially like this passage because although my reading of the daily office has waxed and waned over the years, and more often waned than waxed, my spiritual life has been sustained by singing and my very deep conviction with St. Francis that he who sings prays twice.) Although the commandment to worship in the midst of difficulty seems perverse, it rings true to my sense that in the midst of difficulty, we are sustained and healed when we understand those difficulties in relation to and connection with a reality larger than ourselves. In pausing to remember that there is no thing beyond the care of the Creator, we are sustained in the effort to care for one another.
As I say, I think we may need more of this in higher education and not less, whatever the framework of our own spirituality may be. Along with our depleted budgets, we need to be wary of our depleted spirits, since the greatest policies and the most well-conceived programs will only live as fully as the people who live in to them.
History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become. One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.
Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,
[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry. They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.
We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well. The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”. It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty. In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.
Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts. It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts. Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.
However, I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied. We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on. We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction. As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.
The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us. And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have. And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.
A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education. You can listen to it here as you have interest: Convocation Address: Education for Praise
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That quesions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:
Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.
This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading. First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else. The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another. When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature; he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it. Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.
Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.
That having been said. Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.
I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes. He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value. Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.
Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.
WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.
As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.
The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s. Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se. The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power. Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products. So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.
On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something. It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification. The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets. The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense. Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties. It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well. Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions. Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces. Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.
Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.
In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.
In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.
Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found. I think there’s good reason. Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible. Our religious institutions are floundering. Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture. Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible. I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.
One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping. I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market. As for art, writing, and literature. Well, who knows? Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became so. I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet. There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it. This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.
I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?