Possibility Junkies: Or Stop and Think
Ideas, we are frequently told, have consequences. We are less often encouraged to reflect on the equally significant if more elusive relationship of ideas to their antecedents. Ideas come from somewhere, and they are able to take up residence in our lives because they find friendly surroundings. So if bad ideas are plaguing our society (and having bad consequences), we ought to ask about their origins. And we need to ask what it is about the shape of our lives that make bad ideas seem plausible.
Ideas and cultural moods or sensibilities often live together in a kind of harmony. Sometimes ideas evoke cultural moods (think, for example, of the quality of music written during the Enlightenment), but surely the influence can flow in the other direction as well. Cultural moods, established by nothing more than changing conditions in the quality of everyday life, can render certain beliefs more plausible. C. S. Lewis once observed that the increasing presence of machines in the lives of nineteenth-century Europeans, and the rapid rate of change introduced by those machines, encouraged the rise of a positive attitude toward novelty. Belief in the inevitability of progress in all things may have been a consequence of relatively mundane improvements in things mechanical.
University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a keen eye for cultural ecosystems. He has written perceptively about how changes in the texture of the everyday lives of his students affects the orientation of their souls. In a 1997 article in Harper's, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education," he described how the conditioning of his students by consumer/entertainment culture (and their desire to be cool) made it hard for them to acquire a passion for learning. He followed this up in 2000 with a wry, sly article in The Hedgehog Review called "A Word to the New Humanities Professor." ("Students should be assured continually that by virtue of living later in time than the author, they naturally know a great deal more than she possibly could. . . . The professor should continually make self-mocking references to her authority and her stock of learning. . . . But, of course, answers are not really the point. The point is learning to work together and to get along.")
Now Mark Edmundson has again taken stock of the mood of his students in an article called "Dwelling in Possibilities," published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, he portrays his students as energetic anti-slackers, eager "to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they've ever known. . . . They live to multiply possibilities. They're enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to."Edmundson believes that this voracious omnitasking makes the lives of his students both highly promising and radically vulnerable to living lives that leave no room for reflection and self-knowledge. "Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They're always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising." In Edmundson's view, the tyrants most responsible for this condition are not rigorous professors or even parents with unrealistic expectations. The tyranny is exercised in a mood of possibility enabled by web browsers and cell phones. These technologies are less about communication and more about enlarging desire. "Skate fast over the surfaces of life and cover all the extended space you can, says the new ethos," which is why the drugs of choice on campuses are increasingly ADD pharmaceuticals, which are "on sale in every dorm at prices that rise exponentially as the week of final exams approaches."
Edmundson's article explores the ways in which this pattern of velocity is evident in sports, music, and sexual habits of students. Underlying the entire essay is Edmundson's conviction that "life is more than spontaneity and whim," and that a college classroom is one of the best places to learn how to stop, think, and reflect on the task of living deliberately.
If Edmundson's diagnosis of the ethos of our culture is accurate, there are at least two avenues of response available to parents, teachers, clergy, and others in positions of Church and cultural leadership. One is to try to figure out how to go with the flow (although "flow" may not be the best word, what about "rampage" or "tsunami"?). But if the absence of thickness, depth, and commitment encouraged by fast skating is really not in keeping with the shape of human flourishing, if there is something truly unnatural about this mentality, something in it that is not consistent with our nature, then we need to attend to the maintenance of counter-cultural institutions and practices. Reading and re-reading books, slowly, keeping personal and private journals (not public blogs) which invite true introspection without the distraction of self-presentation, face-to-face conversations that linger and dwell, conversations that achieve some contrapuntal pleasure, attentive listening to musical works that require us to slow down and perceive subtle resonances and formal nuance: these are monotasking practices of closure, commitment, and contemplation. Their loss is one of the ways our contemporaries are becoming figurative widows and orphans (see James 1:27). The pursuit of actuality rather than infinite possibility will not come easily, and will require repudiation of the ways of life that characterize our moment. Those Christian leaders who discourage such repudiation in the name of "cultural engagement" need to be able to explain to people like Mark Edmundson why the Church is indifferent to the plight of students who cannot stop and think.Posted by Ken Myers on 3/17/08