The following is an assignment for my third year writing cIass. I thought it was also an important conversation for my “Imagine Paradise” readers. We are daily arguing with ourselves for a reason to follow hard after a deeper communion with the divine. Here we talk about why this desire is actually a key characteristic of a liberally educated individual, if not the core characteristic. Enjoy. -Levi
I am afraid Cronon has made a remarkable oversight. As many of you, I have invested several hours now in consideration of the ten characteristics of a liberally educated person as laid out by Cronon’s essay Only Connect. It’s difficult to disagree with Cronon’s assessment. Listening to hear, reading to understand, effective communication, problem solving, self-criticism, empowering and connecting with others; these are all ideal attributes any liberally educated individual would be well served to cultivate. However, I wonder if Cronon overlooked a most essential quality.
In Beyond The University, Why Liberal Education Matters by Michael S. Ross, we learn that Ralph Waldo Emerson introduces the concept of consciousness into the world of academia. In Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature, he says, “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty.” If key figures in our academic history were giving significance to transcendentalist ideas, how is it that the measure of a liberally educated man lies solely in his external interactions with the world without regard to his inner reality? Why does Cronon place no emphasis on spiritual discipline as a key quality of a liberally educated individual?
Prior to Emerson, there was much debate whether religion should be the cornerstone of university curriculum. Notable figures in our nation’s history considered the spiritual health of an individual to be most essential to a man’s overall development. Save religious based institutions, universities today do not teach religion with the intention of cultivating a daily spiritual practice that enhances one’s self. We are more inclined to find a general overview of various world religions with emphasis on how these ideas shaped our history and are intrinsic to various cultural identities. This is by no means negative. I have always seen a working knowledge of world religions as providing the same kind of well roundedness akin to world travel. When we see first hand the myriad of ways the world expresses their relationship with a higher power, we sharpen our ability to see the commonalities between all faiths, and there are many. Furthermore, it often assists in the deeper defining of a students own personal beliefs when pressed up against ideas that do not prove to be compatible with his or her overall philosophies.
Yet we have wandered even further from the convictions of our academic fathers. When classroom conversations perpetuate relativism, the inclusion of all ideas without encouraging the personal cultivation of one, the student is left incomplete. Relative morality has become a hallmark of a liberal education. Yet the founding fathers of our universities emphasized the importance of man as a spiritual being and expected students to exhibit a commitment to their spiritual health, whatever one’s chosen ideology. When our universities fail to provide a student with a path towards discovering and cultivating an inner discipline as a key characteristic of their liberal education, a core function of the overall human experience is neglected.
It could be argued that the relative approach to spirituality perpetuated and sustained by modern academia has created an American citizenship void of core convictions and estranged from their internal guidance system. The majority of us have grown incapable of navigating our way through typical life stuff without nearly having a useless meltdown. We were never taught to curate our own storehouse of absolutes that structure our behavior and guarantee our resilience.
Liberally educated people worldwide are responding to this spiritual anemia with urgency, making the genre of self-help one of the most enduring and successful markets in literature today. In an Arts and Letters Daily Newsletter article entitled The Necessity of Self-Help Lit by Joseph E. Davis, Davis argues for the viability of the genre, yet points out the danger of it breeding yet more spiritual deprivation by encouraging the same spiritual relativity that happens in our classrooms. He brings forward a few authors that challenge the “self-absorption” that is the hallmark of today’s modern spiritual movement and introduces the necessity for a more action-oriented interpretation of spiritual development. I have no argument with this man.
Most authors today exploit one of four concepts of self according to Sandra Dolby in her 2005 study Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them; “…the detached self, as in books influenced by Eastern philosophy; the wounded self, which is common in books of popular psychology; the social self, which is often encountered in books on work in the corporate world, with some emphasis on ‘giving back’; and the obligated self, presupposed in books about spiritual growth and enrichment that tend to emphasize an individual religious duty to seek self-improvement.” While these authors no doubt provide healthy ideas and workable solutions, they stay safely within the cultural norms of today’s readers. I would like to see more authors explore what I call “the principled self”, encouraging the construction of an internal system of spiritual absolutes that are then proactively applied as the foundation upon which life is executed.
Yes, I am arguing for the individuals freedom to cultivate their own spiritual absolutes. I understand that the word “absolute” is distasteful to the progressive liberally educated individual as top of mind is the fear of falling prey to exclusionary behavior. I argue that there is no greater display of equality than fully defined men standing next to each other in solidarity and without fear of speaking their opposing truths. A man must have the freedom to specify and deepen his loyalties to a well defined spiritual ideology without automatically assuming the disenfranchisement of his fellow man. (Has it ever occurred to you that to assume the disenfranchisement of your fellow man by simply expressing your convictions is to assume his inherent weakness and inferiority? Do you see the inherent seed of discrimination here cloaked as political correctness?) A defined spirituality is not only a freedom, it is a human necessity and the cornerstone of academia as defined by the very history of education. Yet it is this modern cultural relativism that is to blame for our spiritually desolate society, creating loyal consumers that are now habitually help-seeking through the self-help sections of our local bookstores. The absence of core convictions and daily spiritual disciplines in this genre are breeding a new wave of authors more reminiscent of spiritual activist than the self absorption and passivity which is hallmark to today’s mainstream spiritual movement. Davis points this out in his aforementioned article.
We could be an exceptional example of the ten characteristics Cronon refers to, yet without a defined and disciplined spiritual life, we are not a wholistic contribution to society. Without it, we cannot be the advocate for the freedom of humanity that the founders of academia envisioned us to be. I will use my own exploration of these ideas for a moment in the interest of tangible application of these ideas.
I have chosen to identify as a metaphysical Christian. From birth, my culture provided me with an exceptional knowledge of the Bible, Christianity, and the life of Christ. My liberal education provided me with an exceptional knowledge of metaphysics and the science that explains the effectiveness of prayer. I have chosen to combine these two disciplines and extract from them a set of personal absolutes to passionately follow – core beliefs I can honestly say I believe in. I use my liberal education to apply an empathy and understanding of various ideologies while simultaneously remaining steadfast and unmovable in my own personal absolutes for the sake of my own quality of life.
This structure of personal absolutes provides me with certain principles with which I can use as deductive reasoning when evaluating a life challenge, for our response to life is always predicated on our beliefs about life.
Here’s a tangible example.
I believe that the universe is inherently harmonious and orderly. Nature even teaches us that there is an Intelligence within all of life that is constantly re-qualifying itself to a state of wholeness at all times. Even seeming chaos is always a recalibration to a state of harmony. Life only knows order and will always prefer it. Life’s natural tendency is harmony.
If this belief is at the core of my spirituality, focusing the lens through which I see whatever drama any particular day may bring, how is it that I could ever be worried that things aren’t working for my good? Am I not made of the same stuff as all of nature? Is not the same pattern of perfection also working within me and all of my affairs? This is a core principle I choose to invest in. It’s one of a few core principles that define my reaction to life and inspire a daily spiritual practice of meditation which allows this reality to be more clearly present in my day-to-day awareness. Consequently, I am less distracted by self-constructed dramas and more available to the needs of others. The end result here could not be more in line with Cronon’s overall argument of what is the character of the liberally educated man. But it calls for defined core values and pro-active participation in their cultivation and application.
I imagine that if I sat down with Cronon and had this discussion, he might very well agree with me. The original vision for universities has evolved dramatically over the decades. Sadly, spiritual development is no longer a part of the elite world of academia nor considered welcome in it’s curriculum. Our liberally educated men and women who still seek for a spiritual component to their personhood will always find a quick fix in the world of self-help. Still, deep calls to deep. Our soul will always long for a connection to something greater than ourselves just as our body’s long for food and our minds long for learning. There is no getting around the fact that we are spiritual beings. As liberally educated individuals, it is required of us to invest in this aspect of our lives with the same discipline we apply to other subjects of academia. I believe defined, core values and a daily spiritual discipline is the most important characteristic of a liberally educated man.
Cronon, William. Only Connect…Madison, Wisconsin: The America Scholar, Volume 67, No. 4, Autumn 1998, Print
Roth, Michael S. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven: Yale U Press, 2014. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Robert Ernest Spiller, Alfred R. Ferguson, Joseph Slater, and Jean Ferguson Carr. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971. Print.
Dolby, Sandra K. Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.
Davis, Joseph E. The Necessity of Self-Help Lit. Charlottesville, Virginia: The Hedgehog Review, Volume 18, No. 3, Fall 2016. Print