On rites of passage and walkabouts

I met Peter Barnett, an Australian in his 50s, through Paul Monk, a former intelligence officer in Australia and presently a consultant and polymath, to whom I had, some months back, sent a note of praise about one of his papers on cognitive biases, to which he had replied with thanks, and because of which we had had a conversation over Skype which had led, in turn, to his mentioning offhandedly that his brother-in-law Peter, who at this point would be on his way back from visiting his son who would be finishing up school in California in the spring, would be in town. Care to meet Peter? I said sure.

Yesterday morning, Peter and I walked about Central Park and talked, would you believe it?, about walking about. For many years, Peter has been leading “rites of passage” outdoor educational programs for at risk children then passing into adolescence. He sees all the disenchanted youth, especially the indigenous youth who have turned to drugs, and he wants to guide them away from going under. I spoke of the trellis as the sort of structure that urges the vine toward good growth, as a framework that is neither too constricting (read: old fashioned discipline) nor too hands off (read: laissez-faire education), and as a lattice-work that supports a plant’s coming to full fruition. Peter liked the image so much that he told me a story that one of the elders once told him. He stopped where he was; I stopped where I was; he held up his hands and told me this:

The elder is a teenager, undergoing a rite of passage. He is brought by his elders into the wild and must live by his wits, his skills, and his intelligence. He thinks that he is all alone but he is not, for the elders, all unseen, are always in the background.

When he gets too good at killing animals and becomes hubristic, they pull aside the animals and he is humbled. When he grows despondent and melancholy, they let in small animals that he can hold onto and be held by. For however long the young man can endure without going under, they change the conditions in the hope of strengthening his attributes and cultivating his talents. Some young men will last only a few weeks; others will last for months.  The elder telling the story lasted for 6 months and, in later years, became the elder of his tribe.

The lesson of the story is that wise educators are those who ensure that the one who is on his own is never all alone.

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)

Whither moral education?


“In “Whither Moral Education?,” (World and I, November 2011), I argue that American education has for far too long set aside the questions of the good and the meaningful–or, what is the same thing, the moral and intellectual virtues. First I attempt to identify what factors gave rise to this phenomenon and then in the final pages to explore how the situation might be improved. The essay ultimately seeks to provide a good justification for the role of the humanities in the “spiritual” lives of Americans and this at a time when the humanities seem to have lost their way.

Opening Paragraph

Even the most cursory glance at the first-person columns published regularly at The Chronicle of Higher Education –those sentimental epistolary novels about the ups and downs and ins and outs of academics working in higher education–will make plain how very little erudition teaches one about the art of living.

During the month of November, the essay will be available to non-subscribers on the World and I website.

Back Story

I can remember writing this piece in March or April of 2009. I had deposited the dissertation in January and the economy, NPR said, was then in free fall. And while I was not in free fall, I was not doing so well. I had finished the Ph.D., had rent to pay for 6 months, had no financial support and no “life skills” transferable to the business world, had scrawled my first general interest essay in January for God knows what reason, was becoming more and more alienated from academic life, and wasn’t sure–I think I was 30 then, yes, 30 and a few months–what to do with my life, let alone what to do with the morrow. Or the morrow after the morrow.

How could I be sure that I wasn’t wasting my life?

Oh, I could relate tales of Craigslist woes, of schlepping, of drudging and mucking and fledging. I could speak of a quiet despair. I could write of the iciness of that Madison winter or of the woman who, at the bus stop, told me about her cancer. But I won’t.

Clipped and abridged as this back story is, it nonetheless reveals something already seeded in the essay, something about the education that I’d never gotten, that others in the academy were not getting, and that we must long for just as we long for love and virtue and wisdom. The last sentence of the essay, I now see, led me to where I am today, though it was far from where I’d imagined I’d end up. For this, I’m grateful.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Biography”

New universities for these unsettled times?

Unsettled Times

We are living through unsettled times. Old ideas of education are no longer working; new ideas have yet to take hold. In the interregnum, we must think seriously in hopes of building new institutions aimed at fulfilling our basic needs and our higher ends.

Weekend Events

Later today, I’m heading to The Mycelium School’s “Growing the Web Event.” Meanwhile, my friends in London are taking part in a 3-day conversation about “Universities: Past and Present.”


Matthew Abrams, founder and CEO of The Mycelium School, speaks about social enterprise and good leadership.

Dougald Hine, co-founder of The University Project, writes about his long odyssey (wonderful, tortuous biography) in life and education. He also explores 5 reasons why the university may now be in transition.

Overviews of the Modern University

Robert Anderson, “The ‘Idea of the University’ Today,” History and Policy.

The Philosopher’s Beard, “A Critique of the Modern University – Part 1: Education.”

Wendell Berry on the proper education for young people

The following is an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” Orion Magazine (Autumn 2001). The article was published shortly after September 11, 2001. As far as I can make it, we have made little progress on devising a “proper education [that] enables young people to put their lives in order.” My friends and I are working on it.

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.