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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

December 2, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 36

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

The real mark of greatness is in question

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Carl Bernstein, reporter and social analyst, observed in an interview with the London newspaper The Guardian: "We are in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot sub-culture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal."

That's a sobering thought. More than sobering, it may be threatening our very existence. One thing for sure, it is threatening our greatness.

Years ago, when I earned an honest living teaching history to high school students, there were certain historical principles every teacher took for granted. For instance, students learned as a matter of course that there were factors in American culture that accounted for both its rapid growth and its greatness.

Some of the elements of greatness were social ones. Colonization by a group of adventurous, energetic people fleeing religious or political oppression, seeking freedom from indebtedness and driven by a great desire for wealth provided a population with immense energy.

Some of the elements were economic. Cheap land and the ready occupations it required provided the material means for development.

But two other elements were key, we taught: The first factor, scholars agreed, was that the United States developed steam power, electricity and an industrial system that compensated for the relative smallness of the population.

The second major factor in the development of the United States, however, was an educational system that kept abreast of the times.

And the times were changing rapidly. Fulton's steamboat made its first trip from New York City to Albany in 1807, barely 18 years after the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1789. The United States of America rapidly become a technological nation, using machines to make up for its lack of laborers.

By the middle of the 19th century, the final spike had been driven to complete the Transcontinental Railroad and tie East and West into one huge nation.

After that, technology became king: the light bulb, the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile were all transcontinental by 1915 and the assembly line had become a way of life. With those tools in place, computers, nuclear submarines and supersonic jet aircraft were only a few short steps away.

Our generation raced the world to the moon. And won. Our generation created military bases in over 60 countries around the world, as well as 48 military training centers and 425 military installations in the United States itself. And expects to win its military engagements whatever the cost. Our world knows only one superpower now: us. And, as a result, the rest of the world is no longer sure that the cry of the human soul can possibly prevail over the consumption of power on the planet by the technological few.

The accomplishments are awesome. The responsibility is even greater.

Obviously the social, economic and technological forces that brought us to this point are in prime condition.

The question is whether or not our educational system is still up to the task. The American educational system has clearly kept up with technology. Whether or not it has also kept up with the human soul is another question entirely.

The Greek philosopher Plato argued for education in "the liberal arts." Education's function, he explained, was to teach a student to communicate effectively, to read and understand profound writings, and to think critically. A good education, he believed, should develop the student not only intellectually, but also socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

A liberal education -- an education in the arts, literature, music, philosophy, theology, natural science and the social sciences -- was expected to enable a student to evaluate the world around her and to make moral decisions based on the wisdom of the ages. "One ought, every day at least," Goethe wrote, "to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

The liberal arts were the keepers of culture in a world given over again and again to barbarism. " Culture," Mathew Arnold wrote, means "acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit." It is a worthy enterprise, this nourishment of the soul. It is also a disappearing one.

In a document put out by the American Association of Higher Education more than a decade ago, David W. Brenneman warned of the trend toward the loss of the liberal arts. Of 540 colleges previously defined as liberal arts colleges, only 212 survived academic scrutiny. The problem, Brenneman said, lay in the fact that the curriculums of liberal arts colleges "did not cater to students' concerns with the job market." Jobs in the sciences had clearly become more important than the pursuit of ideas. Liberal arts colleges, Brenneman pointed out, were in financial crisis. Students had apparently lost interest in them.

And why not? Every time we balance the budget in a technological United States, it's the arts, poetry and literature, social science, music, world religion and philosophy we cut from educational budgets to make up the deficit. Or we condense them into short sessions, call them "elective" and by those very designations diminish their value. Where will the children of this generation find out what Bernstein, Goethe, and Arnold said about anything?

If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that a country cannot maintain its greatness when it cuts its productivity off from the genres of the soul.

From where I stand, with the times so perilous and our power so great, with our souls so parched and the study of liberal arts so meager, the question we must confront is whether or not our educational system is still keeping up with the times. Once we added technology to the arts. Now we need to add the liberal arts to our technology lest using it without benefit of the wisdom of the ages, we abandon our children's souls -- and perhaps their very lives -- to the ravenous power of their parents' technology and "an idiot culture."

"Th' abuse of greatness," Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "is when it disjoins remorse from power." History has long known the truth of it. When we separate feeling and force we may well be standing on the brink of decline, however developed our technology.

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