flores et radices
A Commonplace Blog
The medieval word "florilegium" comes from "flores," flowers, and "legere," which means both "to gather" and "to read." Florilegia gathered short extracts from longer works in a handy format for use in writing and preaching. In later centuries, readers often kept "commonplace books," recording ideas and passages as they read. This is a commonplace blog—a highly personalized account of what happened to catch my fancy—but I'm keeping the older name, because I love the image of quotations and citations as a bouquet of flowers.
The English word "radical" comes from the Latin "radix," or root. We often think of the radical as brand-new, a rupture in history, rejecting all that has come before. I believe, in contrast, that the best way forward is usually back, returning to the first origins and natures of things and recovering wisdom refined by long tradition. As a Christian scholar, I'm seeking ways of thinking and living that are radical in both senses—extremely countercultural and deeply faithful to the roots of reality.
Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.
So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West — all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse of participation in church life.
What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis.
Alan Jacobs, https://blog.ayjay.org/dare-to-make-a-daniel/
I don't have anything smart to say here. This is THE problem, my job is to help solve it (specifically in the academic context), and my experience in graduate school has given me only a terrifying sense of the strength of secular formation, not good ideas about how to construct counter-catechesis. CCS sometimes feels like not much more than a hope that if we gather Christian academics together, they can encourage and advise each other and maybe generate some strategies for academic counter-catechesis for us to implement.
My experience in graduate school did allow me to learn something real about the effectiveness and insidiousness of disciplinary formation, but even that knowledge seems useless because I can't convey it. Every time I talk with a young person considering graduate school or in the early years of graduate school, I try to warn that person: "The present-day university runs on the exploitation of labor through an affective structure of cruel optimism. It will teach you that there is only one way to live the good life and that all other outcomes are failures in order to manipulate you for its own ends." "In graduate school, you will find your values, norms, and goals changing against your will and without your conscious awareness, even if you are warned about this danger and intend to resist it." "Graduate school systematically generates and exacerbates mental illness." "Academic success is an idol that will eat you alive." I feel like Cassandra raving; they can understand what I'm saying, but it doesn't seem real to them. All those who go into the gambling hall think they will be the lucky ones who beat the house and profit from a system designed to exploit them. All those who go to graduate school think that they are the smart ones (why not? they've always been the smart ones before) who can work the system for their own ends without being transformed by it.
This problem really drives home the inadequacy of critique. Even the most clear-sighted, accurate, and explanatorily powerful critique of an oppressive system will not change the system or give participants power to effectively resist it from within. Critique is at most a diagnosis that prompts us to act: to leave the corrupt system (secede, abstain) in search of alternative institutions, or to engage in radical reform and active resistance through practices and institutions of counter-formation. If critique is perceived as useful and worthy in its own right, it can be detrimental to its cause. Just as social media pseudo-actions like liking a tweet or changing a profile picture may sap the will for in-person activism, critique allows people to believe that they are doing important work through a form of intellectual engagement that is relatively easy and free of risk, compared to making new culture or advancing constructive proposals that others will critique in turn.
A Warning to Academics
"But I aspire to teach others," you say. Yours is not to teach but to weep. If, however, you desire to be the learned teacher, hear what you shall do. The inexpensiveness of your dress and the simplicity expressed in your countenance, the innocence of your life and the holiness of your behavior ought to teach men. You teach better by fleeing the world than by following after it. But perhaps you persist, saying, "Well, what then? If I want to, may I not learn, at least?" I have told you above: "Study, but do not be preoccupied with it." Study can be a practice for you; it is not your objective.
Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon 5.8; found in Jerome Taylor, Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 131.