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Pillar: Education & Culture

Education & Culture

The fourth pillar, education and culture, is built upon the recognition of two essential realities. First, the Western intellectual tradition requires a dedication to and desire for truth. Second, education takes place not only within colleges and universities but within our broader culture, whose institutions and practices form us as whole persons.

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How to Build Your Own Renaissance

The historical parallels between fourteenth-century Europe and our own times can be useful in our current civilizational crisis. Petrarch aimed to create a new synthesis between classical and Christian civilization, to use the resources of antiquity to heal the spiritual diseases of his own time. What he and his followers created over the next century and a half is known to historians as the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity. It followed a formula that can still work today.

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How NOT to Read: Learning from A Confederacy of Dunces

The trick of John Kennedy Toole’s novel is that it draws you into the story with its comedy without requiring you to consciously assess the disjointedness of the protagonist’s way of reading the world. Even without stepping back and intellectualizing the problem, you learn how not to read by experiencing Reilly’s inept ways of reading and living.

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The Art of the Question

A seminar should lead students into exploring a great work, rather than presuming to master it. This may reawaken the intention of contemplation. In the end, happiness is species of contemplation, and—as Aristotle shockingly reveals—everyone wants to be happy.

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The Bookshelf: Summer Experiments and Attempts

Summer—a time of lounging in a shaded hammock between two trees, or under a beach umbrella—is a great time for bite-sized nonfiction. With Public Discourse taking a publishing hiatus for the week following Independence Day, now is a perfect time to stretch out with some small provocation of thought.

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Rejecting the Culture of Authenticity

Unless and until the excesses of authenticity culture are able to be moderated, we can expect the widespread relational fragmentation, loneliness, and loss that flows from it to continue unabated. Nevertheless, authenticity should not be discarded as an ideal. Instead, we must articulate a more constructive and reasonable conception of authenticity that can be passed on to the next generation.

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The Death of Gratitude in the American Classroom

Encouraging people to be gracious, and to recognize what others have provided them through no merit of their own, is not about “guilt tripping” them. It is to encourage a particular way of existing in the world. Gratitude acknowledges the plenitude of goodness that surrounds us every moment of every day in millions of small acts of people we do not know.

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Taking Literature Personally

Truth is not something “out there,” but a relationship between person and thing. Good literature arises out of that relationship, telling truths in a personal way, making the world it reflects more personal.

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Irony That Gives a Damn

The question is not whether we will wrestle with the morality of art, but how artful our wrestling will be. Irony is not an essence or an end: irony is a means toward other aims. By nature, it appeals to our moral sensibilities, even if at its most mature it does so indirectly.

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“He Knows What He Is About”: Living a Life That Matters

How does each and every one of us live a life that matters, that makes a difference, that has meaning, purpose, and value—and that ultimately will be a happy life in the rich sense of the term, that will be blessed? This essay is adapted from a commencement address delivered at The Mount School, a high school operated by the Bruderhof Community in New York, on June 4, 2021.

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Of Cults and Cultures

When things are falling apart, anything that stays together starts to look strange. Vows, habits of self-discipline, manners of dress and address—all the essential elements of cultural formation—can come to seem like the arcane demands of a cult. To rebuild our common life, we will have to learn to distinguish between mindless cults and mindful cultures.

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To Find Your Life’s Mission, Follow Your Questions

What are the small and humble questions that should animate all human lives, that work to reveal to us little by little our unique mission? Questions like these: “Who or what am I responsible for today? How can I use my time well? What ought I do in this situation? How do I treat this person with the love and dignity she deserves?” We find our life’s mission not by seeking after some “castle in the air,” but by fulfilling the very concrete duty of each moment, one moment at a time.

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Coming out of Our Burrows: Anti-Fundamentalism, Free Speech, and the Academy

A new book pushing back against fundamentalism and advocating open conversation should make readers rethink their positions. What is the proper relationship between abstract reason and personal knowledge in the academic arena? Perhaps it is a sign of admirable intellectual resilience rather than feebleness to have traits of both the hedgehog and the fox.

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Storm-Born: What God Revealed at Sinai

Lightning strikes only a single time from the dawn of life until the last line of the Five Books of Moses. Perhaps it does so to teach us all that God’s gift is not an escape from crises but the means to overcome them.

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Intellectual Diversity Is Not All Academia Needs

The contemporary academy betrays its vocation precisely insofar as it seeks to usurp the wonder of the world and to transpose that wonder onto its own ingenuity. “Look,” says the contemporary scholar, “let me show you how this-or-that is really just an exercise of power. I alone have had the vision to see it.”

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Learning in Love: Authentic Friendships and Liberal Learning

I’m not only trying to show younger people the futility of a life based on achievement, but to show that there are ways of thinking about achievement that are better for your soul. One of them is to see your desire to achieve as being inspired by a vision of the good. Ultimately, in the highest things, you end up not thinking about yourself. Once you become excellent at something, whether that’s teaching or writing or being a tax attorney or being a doctor, you’re actually looking for the good of other people. It’s about how you make the lives of others better and encourage them in their pursuits.

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Freshman Orientation: An Introduction to Monolithic Higher Education

My snapshot of freshman orientation highlights some of the failures of higher education. Too many universities today no longer teach students how to think but what to think. Instead of a marketplace of ideas, campus has become an echo chamber of ideas. But outspoken students (and faculty) can save the university by thoughtfully and deliberately making their voices heard.

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The Princess and the Stranger

Stories of encounters between strangers and princesses were common in ancient cultures. The two most famous, about Moses and Odysseus, seem to present a choice between passivity and activity, peace and violence. But the question becomes both more complicated and more interesting when we turn to the princess-and-stranger narrative to end all others.

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