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Demographic Reductionism

Brooklyn Museum via wikimedia common's user Cm300883A recent article in the New York Times examines a controversy at a New York art museum.

The article by Maya Salam describes criticism the Brooklyn Museum is receiving for hiring Kristen Windmuller-Lund as the curator of the African art.  Windmuller-Lund appears highly qualified on paper.  The story notes that she “has Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Princeton, and a bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y.”  She is also white.

Critics of the decision “on social media and from an anti-gentrification activist group…argue the selection perpetuated ‘ongoing legacies of oppression.’ ”  Another activist group wrote that the museum’s choice was ” ‘tone-deaf’ and said that ‘no matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age.’ ”

The Brooklyn Museum is pushing back against the criticism, releasing a statement praising Windmuller-Luna and including a reaction from Okwui Enwezor, the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar and arts leader, who called Dr. Windmuller-Luna,

“…formerly a brilliant student of mine.  The criticism around her appointment can be described as
arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said. “There is no place in the field
of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which
qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being
white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better.”

The story caught my eye because of its potential implications for higher education.  There are at least two major concerns with a world view that suggests subjects, disciplines or topics should be limited to certain individuals or groups.

1. Educational breadth.  A broad-based liberal arts education is the foundation of most of the finest universities in the United States and is part of every institution that has general education requirements.  The underlying philosophy is that every student benefits from studying things that are outside their experiences in order to stretch and challenge them.  Such study makes students better able to understand the experiences of others and more empathetic.  It might even introduce them to a topic that could become their academic major and even a lifelong passion.  Faculty do not discourage certain students from studying topics based on their background, gender, economics, religion or any other demographic characteristics.  In fact, on the contrary, students are often encouraged to try subjects that are distant from their previous experiences.  This may well be how Windmuller-Lund got interested in African art.

2. Demographic constraints on professors.  Beyond the limitations this narrow world view would impose on students’ educational choices, consider how the logic of the Brooklyn Museum’s critics could play out when taken to its logical extreme.  Only white men teach Shakespeare?  Christians only research Christianity?  Women only teach Middlemarch and Virginia Woolf?  Latin American or Asian or European historians must have appropriate genetic/family roots?  Jews only explore the meaning of the Holocaust?

To reduce individuals to the collection of demographic characteristics they might check off on a census form is deeply reductionist.  It suggests that an individual is simply a collection of traits rather than a person capable of synthesizing their many attributes into a complex irreducible human being.

If a liberal arts education teaches anything, it is that we are all capable of transcending mere genetics and history.  Ideally we can discover and live out a shared humanity in which we have much more in common with each other than the differences that are sometimes given too much weight.

Saint John’s: A Thin Place

The sense of place at Saint John’s is what drew many of us here.  I have had dozens of alumni tell me that they got on campus and just knew this was the right place for them to live and study.

We still consider a campus visit an essential part of recruiting Johnnies (and no small number of Bennies).  Alumni and parents come back to campus often simply to re-visit the beauty and experience the reinvigorating ethos of this place.

It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors to campus, especially those who have not visited before.  Invariably they comment on the beauty of the place—both natural and manmade—and how well-maintained the grounds and buildings are.

As someone lucky enough to live and work here, I thought I had a very good sense of Saint John’s and its beauty, but this summer a guest to campus offered an insight that made me look at this place with new eyes.

Dennis Turner, Wikimedia Commons

A non-alum friend of one of the monks was here for an event in June.  He told the monk how much he always enjoyed visiting because he considered Saint John’s to be “a thin place.”  The monk was not immediately familiar with the reference.  His friend said the term came from Celtic spirituality and “described a place where heaven and earth are very close, where the veil between here and above is thin.”  The Celts used it to describe, among other places, the western Scottish isle of Iona, where St. Columba brought Christianity from his native Ireland.

I liked the description and did a little more searching and found the following description of a thin place:

In the Celtic tradition, a “thin pace” is the place where the veil that separates heaven and
earth is nearly transparent. It is a place where we experience a deep sense of God’s presence
in our everyday world. A thin place is where, for a moment, the spiritual world and the natural
world intersect.

I trust for many alumni and friends of Saint John’s, this is one of their thin places.

Courtesy: An Oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, June 2016

By |August 3rd, 2017|Categories: Alumni, History|0 Comments

Sustainability at Saint John’s*

July 11, 2017

The Feast of Saint Benedict, which we are celebrating today, provides a good opportunity to reflect on Saint John’s Abbey and University’s deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability, particularly in light of the ongoing discussions of climate policy in the United States and abroad.

Benedictine communities, of course, have been emphasizing self-sufficiency and sustainability for over 1500 years, though the situation for 21st century communities in an industrial era is rather different than that faced by the original monasteries in a pre-industrial world.

In 2007, Saint John’s President Dietrich Reinhart signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).  Saint John’s was a charter signatory, and we committed to a goal of becoming carbon neutral, meaning zero net emissions of carbon dioxide, by 2035. Two intermediate goals were set at the time to ensure continued progress: reduce emissions 15% by 2015 and 50% by 2030.  We also set up a process to measure our progress toward these goals.

The ACUPCC calls for a significantly more ambitious commitment to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions than anything envisioned in the Paris Climate Accord or any other international agreement.**  We have already made significant progress toward reducing our emissions, and we continue to stand by that commitment regardless of what is happening internationally.

The most recent Green House Gas Inventory was completed in 2014.  As of October 2014 Saint John’s had reduced carbon emissions by 57.76% compared to 2008 emission levels. This reduction is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,363 average American households.

We were able to accomplish this level of reduction through a number of major projects. The first occurred in October 2013 with a shift from burning coal in the Powerhouse, which is the primary source of heat on campus, to burning natural gas.  This reduced emissions at the Powerhouse by nearly 60%.

The second major project has been occurring over the last eight years with a significant investment by Saint John’s in solar energy. In 2009 Saint John’s Abbey and University partnered with Westwood Renewables, a Minnesota based solar company, to create the four-acre Abbey Solar Field which, at the time, was the largest ground mounted solar array in Minnesota.  This solar field produced 3.77% of annual electricity needs at Saint John’s. With the success of this first solar array, two additional installations were constructed in 2014 and 2017, for a total solar installation of over 27 acres.  At present, Saint John’s receives 18.75% of its annual electrical needs from solar energy.  This renewable energy source has reduced greenhouse gas emissions even further since 2014, though the exact reduction will not be calculated until our next Green House Gas Inventory, planned for later this year.

Smaller projects such as LED light upgrades, induction lights in the pool area, new temperature controls on the campus and general conservation efforts have also contributed to a reduced carbon footprint. Through these and multiple other efforts we are many years ahead of the ambitious goals set when Br. Dietrich signed the ACUPCC.

Rooted in Benedictine Tradition, Saint John’s Abbey and University have always had a focus on the good stewardship of resources.  Regardless of the political and policy storms that may be raging in the world beyond Collegeville, members of our community can be proud of our commitment and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  Our actions communicate our commitment to protect and sustain both Saint John’s and our natural world for future generations.

Happy Feast of Saint Benedict!

Sincerely,
Michael Hemesath
SJU President

** The Paris Accord, for example, allowed each country to determine its own climate-action plan.  The United States’ plan set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025.

Below are links for those who would like more information about sustainability at Saint John’s, including waste reduction, local sourcing of food and the Sustainable Revolving Loan Fund:

*  This letter was sent to the SJU/CSB community on 11 July 2017, the Feast of Saint Benedict.

By |July 19th, 2017|Categories: Economics, History|0 Comments