The Second Benedict Option

St. Benedict is trending.  Kind of hard to believe that in our 140-character social media world a 6th century monk would be of much interest. But, maybe if you survive 1600 years, you inevitably come back into fashion, and now seems to be one of those moments for St. Benedict.

My first clue was back on Valentine’s Day when New York Times columnist David Brooks made a reference to St. Benedict.  In a column entitled “How Should One Resist the Trump Administration?” Brooks wrote:

It could be that the primary threat [from the Trump Administration] is stagnation and corruption. In this scenario, the Trump administration doesn’t create an authoritarian regime, but national politics turns into a vicious muck of tweet and countertweet, scandal and pseudoscandal, partisan attack and counterattack.

If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.

If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.  Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.

I found Brooks’ reference a little surprising.  Among the New York Times readers, I suspect that knowledge of Catholicism, even among its many Catholic readers, doesn’t typically extend to 6th century Italian saints or Benedictine monastic communities.  Despite being less than 500 years old, the Jesuits tend to get better press and draw the attention of Hollywood.

But Benedict is hot, in part due to new book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation that came out this month.  I have not read the book, but Brooks, a friend of Dreher, offers a mini-review and commentary in an eponymous column, “The Benedict Option.”  Brooks calls the book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher offers a critique of the modern Western culture and his proposed response, primarily but not exclusively for Christians.  Brooks describes Dreher’s thesis as follows:

Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.

The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.

Brooks’ initial “Benedictine possibility” was made in response to our polarized political life, while Dreher’s Benedict Option focuses more broadly on our cultural life.  Both suggest that St. Benedict would encourage those who are disaffected to retreat from political life or the cultural world into small, self-sustaining communities.

I do think this may be a possible Benedictine moment in our culture, but not for the reasons Brooks and Dreher hypothesize.

The Benedictine option can be critiqued from a variety of perspectives.  First, and probably most obvious, few people can or want to set themselves apart from their society, culture, families and homes. Even the monks that are my heroes are not interested in that.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey are among the most worldly men I know and have been deeply immersed in the world throughout their long history, even as they have chosen to live in community in central Minnesota.  I wonder if Benedict himself, with his emphasis on work in addition to prayer, would encourage such segregation in the modern, post-agricultural era.

Second, setting a community apart for the sake of some utopian dream has a long and failed history.  From New Lanark in Scotland to Brook Farm in Massachusetts to New Harmony in Indiana, history is filled with communities brought down by the all-too-human frailties of their residents.  Even my favorite Benedictine monks would acknowledge that every human weakness is found within monastic walls. Escaping human society is well-nigh impossible unless you are the fictional Robinson Crusoe.

These brief critiques and others, however, should not suggest that St. Benedict does not have much to offer modern society, both in response to Brooks’ political concerns or Dreher’s cultural ones.  Over its 1600 year history, Benedictine teachings have been adapted to changing times and applied more widely than to monastic life, a point that does not seem to be acknowledged by Brooks or Dreher.

I would suggest that there is a Second Benedictine option that might be a more practical and powerful response to the challenges we face.  The Second Benedictine option is simply (or not so simply) to live a Benedictine life within the many communities – personal, professional, religious, geographic – we all occupy.

The Rule of St. Benedict does not offer a definitive description of a Benedictine life but offers guidance for how to live well within any community.  Benedictine Values are described on the website of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, with textual references to The Rule:

Benedictine Values

Awareness of God

To look for God not in the abstract but in the ordinary events of every day.
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.” R. B. 19

Community Living

To become who we are by our relationships with others.
“Let all things be common to all.” R. B. 33

Dignity of Work

To appreciate the dignity of work in God’s creation.
“…they live by the labor of their hands.” R. B. 48

Hospitality

To offer warmth, acceptance, and joy in welcoming others.
“Let all…be received as Christ.” R. B. 53

Justice

To work toward a just order in our immediate environment and in the larger society.
“…that in all things God may be glorified” R. B. 57

Listening

To hear keenly and sensitively the voices of persons and all created beings.
“Listen … with the ear of your heart.” R. B. Prologue

Moderation

To be content with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer, and leisure.
“All things are to be done with moderation.” R. B. 48

Peace

To strive for peace on all levels: with self, others, and God. R. B. Prologue

Respect for Persons

To respect each person regardless of class, background, or professional skill.
“No one is to pursue what is judged best for oneself, but instead, what is better for someone else.” R. B. 72

Stability

To cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission.
“To stand firm in one’s promises.” R. B. 58

Stewardship

To appreciate and to care lovingly for all the goods of this place.
“Regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” R. B. 31

Community living, hospitality, listening and respect for others seem particularly germane to the challenges raised by Brooks and Dreher, and all these values can be lived out in virtually any community.  The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University offer one example of how Benedictine values can shape a community, both during a four-year undergraduate experience and for a lifetime afterwards.

While our community is certainly not free from the foibles, weaknesses and sins inherent in any human endeavor, we do offer a realistic, lived example of Benedictine wisdom.  I’d welcome David Brooks or Rod Dreher to come visit us (I’ll cover the hospitality costs) to see how a Second Benedictine Option might provide the practical basis for a more civil political and cultural life for all of us.

By |March 21st, 2017|Categories: History||0 Comments

“Free” College Tuition Doesn’t Add Up*

Students in physics class

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had significant success in attracting young people to his campaign in no small part due to his proposal to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Hillary Clinton responded to the Sanders proposal with a means-tested program of free tuition for families with incomes under $125,000. Donald Trump did not offer his own free tuition plan, but the end of the campaign season did not bring about an end to this proposal. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a free tuition plan for his state similar to the Clinton plan.

The goals of these programs are certainly admirable. It has become well understood that a college education has become increasingly important, maybe even essential, for entry into the middle and upper-middle class.

The goals of free tuition are to increase educational attainment and better prepare students for the job market, especially those for whom costs might be insurmountable. Some proponents argue that for many future students a college degree will become what a high school diploma is today.

These policy proposals have been met with mixed reviews for three important reasons.

The first concern focuses on costs. In tight budget times, it is not clear Congress nor states would be interested in a program that costs $75 billion a year, according to The Wall Street Journal and Sanders’ estimates.  It is a basic question of opportunity cost. If we, as a society, can find $75 billion in additional tax revenue or if we are willing to borrow it, is free tuition the best way to spend that money?

A second concern is equity. A free tuition program is not, of course, “free.” Federal and state taxpayers would pay for tuition costs, and here the analogy with high school education breaks down.

The equity implications of funding the two educational models are different in important ways. Most public high schools are funded with property taxes in the district where the schools are located. The recipients of the education are, by and large, the children of the taxpayers. Revenues are collected in a means-tested fashion where wealthier homeowners pay more and, therefore, the costs of education are generally means-tested too, as wealthier families are paying more for their children’s education than less well-off families. (There are, of course, further equity concerns as richer districts can choose to offer a different quality education than poorer ones.)

Students in classroom discussion

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Under any free tuition plan, the link between the taxpayer and consumers of education is much less clear, potentially raising equity concerns.

Many taxpayers who would fund free tuition will never have children who pursue public college education. Weakening the link between those paying for a program and its beneficiaries likely weakens political support.

More importantly, the means testing of the student recipients is much weaker. With tuition at zero, the free tuition plan is basically a transfer from taxpayers to students, regardless of the individual student’s economic circumstances. Data from the College Board reveals that because of financial aid programs, the primary beneficiaries of free tuition are upper-middle-class students who pay the most tuition at public institutions.

Even if this transfer from taxpayers to upper-middle-class families was defensible, most economists would argue that if transferring income to students for their education is the goal, then it should be done directly — such as Pell Grants at the federal level or the Minnesota State Grant program at the state level. Such a grant could be means-tested and targeted if taxpayers felt low-income students should be the primary beneficiaries.

The third concern is the way free tuition would distort educational choices. By making the price of state colleges and universities zero, a free tuition program would significantly increase the price differential between public colleges and private institutions. This change could have a significant impact on enrollments between different types of four-year schools and be detrimental to some students.

Private and public schools offer a range of different experiences, as those of us in Central Minnesota are well aware — from small schools like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to mid-sized, public, comprehensive schools like St. Cloud State University to large research institutions like the University of Minnesota.

Most high school students have the option of choosing from among different kinds of four-year schools. Price is a consideration. But with financial aid, most students can consider public and private options. With a free tuition model, the playing field is tilted dramatically in favor of public options, and the strongest students will likely take the majority of free places, leaving the less academically prepared students with fewer options.

The 2,200-plus four-year options for post-secondary education in the United States serve students well by letting them select the best fit for their talents, interests and previous educational experience. Any public policy that narrows the range of choices, in this case by distorting prices, potentially leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off.
These policy debates are likely moot given the Republican administration and Republican Congress in Washington, but given the increasing importance and costs of higher education, the free tuition debate will be back.

*This column originally appeared in The St. Cloud Times on February 25, 2017.

Education, Free Speech and Benedictine Values

The Constitution of the United States, U.S. Archives

Education in general and higher education in particular are based on the belief in academic freedom.  Students, faculty and researchers must be free to ask questions and pursue inquiries where their curiosities and imaginations take them.  They must be able to question the received wisdom and current understandings within their disciplines and to create new disciplines.  Without this freedom, the sun would still revolve around the Earth, Darwin would be unknown, philosophy might well be purely Aristotelian and whole disciplines, like Gender Studies, would not exist.

New knowledge and understandings do not come without pain.  Sacred cows are gored, strongly-held beliefs are challenged and whole world views are upended.  If colleges and universities do their jobs well, every student will experience some of this intellectual vertigo.  They will feel unsettled as their beliefs are stretched, tested, challenged and sometimes found wanting.  Education should be uncomfortable or it does not deserve the name.

But at the same time academic freedom is causing discomfort, it is moving forward the boundaries of human knowledge within disciplines and for societies, and it is preparing students for a lifetime of learning in an ever-changing world.

The game is worth the candle.

Freedom of speech is the other side of the academic freedom coin.  The ability to express ideas, thoughts and opinions obviously extends to settings well beyond the academy and our Founding Fathers felt the exercise of free speech to be important enough to put it into the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ability to bring new or unpopular ideas into the national conversation without fear of government intervention (or worse) has had a salutary effect on political and policy discourse throughout our history.  Free speech played an important role in ending slavery, bringing about the revolution in women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights, among other policy changes that have moved us toward a more just society.

Classroom chairsYet free speech brings even more challenges in its exercise than academic freedom.  The protocols of the academy, including but not limited to the scientific method, provide some generally accepted guidelines for the exercise of academic freedom.

The exercise of free speech is much less circumscribed.  The Supreme Court has, appropriately, been very hesitant to limit the exercise of free speech.  As soon as one starts drawing lines, the philosophy and purpose of free speech start to erode.  Who gets to draw the lines?  Those in power?  How does that affect the functioning of the marketplace of ideas?  How do the politically or socially marginalized get to influence society’s political and social choices?

But with few legal limitations on speech, those expressing their views can be extreme, personal and even hateful.  (There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.)  One simply has to look at political discourse today to see these extremes in print and electronic media.  Social media has exacerbated these issues as anyone with an internet connection can join the public conversation, often with the cover of anonymity.

Yet again, many (not all, surely) would argue the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech outweigh the costs.  As Voltaire may or may not have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So, what are we at educational institutions to make of all this as we pursue our missions? Interestingly, the responses are potentially different at public and private institutions.  What the First Amendment provides is protection from government imposed restrictions on speech: Congress shall make no law…  So the University of Minnesota, as a public institution is bound by the First Amendment.  As the ACLU website notes:

Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.

The legal constraints that pertain to free speech for private institutions like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict are less binding, as we are not publicly funded.  We have the ability to restrict the speech of members of our private community, but the ACLU is very clear on its recommendation for private institutions:

The ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: “There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.”

This advice can be hard for some to accept.  It requires one to listen to not only speech we disagree with but speech that might be hateful and hurtful.  It can require Holocaust survivors to listen to speech from neo-Nazis, as occurred in a famous 1979 case in Skokie, Illinois, but as the ACLU argues:

Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.

As private institutions, Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have options that can balance free speech with civility in ways that other private and public institutions may not.  We have our 1500-year-old Benedictine Catholic tradition to turn to for guidance.  We can both strongly support academic freedom and its public counterpart, freedom of speech, by encouraging our community to exercise speech rights in ways that are consistent with our Benedictine values.

Even if the First Amendment allows for extremes in the exercise of this constitutionally protected right, our Benedictine values remind us that respect for individuals, moderation and our commitments to the community call us to the harder work of civil and respectful free speech.

I’d suggest that there are three commitments we might make to each other in this Benedictine educational community as we strive to balance the important goals of encouraging the open and vigorous exchange of ideas at the same time we seek to build a respectful, civil community:

  1. Personal reflection: Ideally, we would all commit to thinking through our own opinions and beliefs thoroughly and carefully.  We wouldn’t espouse unexamined ideas, or simply repeat what we hear from others or speak when we are not capable of being coherent.  We should know what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe it.  This goal is consistent with living an examined life, which Socrates so eloquently encouraged.
  2. Respect your audience: To be persuasive in making any argument, we need to understand our audience.  Do they want to hear what we have to say?  How will they hear what we are saying?  Might they misinterpret our meaning?  How will their perspective or life experiences affect what they hear us saying?  How can we clearly make our points in the politest and most civil fashion?
  3. “Listen with the ear of your heart” (Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict): For true engagement with others, we must be just as willing to listen as we are to speak.  We must commit to working hard to understand where other are coming from and to understand why they have a different perspective than we do.  Finally, we must listen with generosity and be willing to accept that good and thoughtful people might reasonably disagree on matters of importance.

We are communities made up of imperfect individuals, sinners not angels.  But we can be committed to each other and to our communities and can strive to make them better places to live and learn—even as we know and want that learning to be uncomfortable at times.

While I am not certain that Bennies and Johnnies can change the way the rest of the world engages in discourse, I do believe our Benedictine values can guide us toward deep and meaningful interactions where we respectfully learn from each other and are better prepared to interact in the world.  If we can achieve this on our campuses, Bennies and Johnnies might serve as models of civil discourse that the world seems to so desperately need.

By |February 17th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments