Reflections on the past 2 years of post-academic life

It had been almost two years since I’d re-read my paper, “Whither Moral Education?,” and what struck me only yesterday was the tone. The style of the piece caught my ear like a thief in the night. I could hear, as I hadn’t been able to before, a tinny shrillness, a crankiness, a forlornness.

What explains that shrill and distant tone was my sense of alienation from the modern university from whence I’d come but to which I didn’t belong. The project, as it is laid out in this paper, was to rethink the curricular shape of the humanities yet without addressing the traditions and histories embedded within the university. Implicit in the claim that the humanities must reclaim the good and meaningful as the starting points of full-blooded rational inquiry was the idea that the institution could be left otherwise intact. (My God: In an institution filled with specialists and experts, who was to ask questions of the soul? And how was the grand research apparatus to be put on hold?) As someone who was then committed to educational reform and who then saw himself working on the outskirts of university life, it must have made sense to think solely in terms of reorientation and to bracket the question of institutional development.

I now see that the assumption is flawed and that, in that social setting, the vision is impossible. If humanist inquiry is ever to get under way, if education is to be self-transformational (ascesis, metanoia, etc.) as opposed to “vocational,” “careerist,” “overly scholastic,” or “research-driven,” then it must begin on fresh ground in new soil with good seeds and warm hands.

Nonetheless, the paper, if shrill and cranky, also intimates a beatific vision.  The language, the argument, the ideas are already cutting diagonally–like a cicatrice but also like an adventure–across the stale discourses of the left and the right. I can already hear questions of good authority and good institutions ululate like a child’s running chant.

On Tuesday evening, I had a delightful, rollicking conversation with Pete Sims of Kaos Pilot. Afterward, a short note:

Very nice talking with you last night. And now the cool New York autumn only matched by the cold Dane evening.

Kaos Pilot, an alternative educational project that’s been alive and well for 20 years, seeks–in Pete’s latest formulation–to “increase agency” or to “increase relative agency.” We intend to work together and see whether we put some conceptual handles and hooks into the curriculum.

Two years ago once more. Then Alasdair MacIntyre seems to be throwing in the towel. Once a card-carrying Marxist, he is arguing, around 1980 (!), that the dual rejection of the state and free markets should re-focus our attention on reinvigorating small communities that are rooted in the moral and intellectual virtues and that aim at the common good. A sign of intellectual maturity: Where I am today, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Here’s an excerpt from MacIntyre’s essay, “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good,” MacIntyre Reader that speaks to my second thoughts:

When have then identified two sets of characteristics that must be possessed by any society in which there is a possibility of rational political justification, and with it of rational politics: first, it must have a large degree of shared understanding of goods, virutes, and rules, and secondly, it must be a relatively small-scale society whose relationshisps are not deformed by compartmentalization. But there is also a third set of conditions to be satisfied. The deliberative and other social relationships of such a society are systemically violated by some of the most notable effects of large-scale so-called free market economies…. Such economies are misnamed ‘free markets’. They in fact ruthlessly impose market conditions that forcibly deprive many workers of productive work, that condemn parts of the labor force in metropolitan countries and whole seocieties in less developed areas to irremediable economic deprivation, that enlarge inequalities and divisions of wealth and income, so organizing societies into competing and antagonistic interest. And under such conditions inequality of wealth ensures inequality in access to the sources of both economic and political power.

Genuinely free markets are always local and small-scale markets in whose exchanges producers can choose to participate or not. And societies with genuinely free markets will be societies of small producers–the family farm is very much at home in such socieities–in which no one is denied the possibility of the kind of productive work without which they cannot take their place in those relationships through which the common good is realized. (249-50)