Culture, Conversation, and Community
The French philosophe and encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was recently the subject of a book review in which he was described as, among other things, “an ardent conversationalist.” In reflecting on Ridgeview’s mission and philosophy, it is apparent that its curriculum is peculiar in its aim to cultivate able and educated conversationalists. As a school, we create and sustain a particular kind of culture and community by prompting important conversations. There are a multitude of ways in which these prompts are provided, and the curriculum itself stands as among the most obvious. Others include faculty seminars, colloquia, senior thesis presentations, podcasts, informal conversations around campfires, and the weekly Principal’s Perspective.
There is some question as to whether the principal writes out of an egotistical wish to be read or in attendance to his duties. According to those documents that define the role of the principal, he is tasked with being the “intellectual academic leader of the school,” and is directed to “make final decisions with regards to curriculum.” The principal is “responsible for the moral culture of the school,” which includes “implementing the mission and philosophy” and “facilitating an understanding of classical education among BOD, faculty, staff, parents, and students,” as well as “articulating the ideals of classical education to the school and larger community.” The Principal’s Perspectives are among the most explicit ways in which a principal carries out these duties. His success depends upon not only a regular and attentive readership, but an erudite discussion of the ideas and sentiments these essays contain.
Conversation is at the center of what gives our community its shape. Ridgeview is a community in the sense that it is “a body of people sharing a common cultural…identity.” The society that we enjoy with one another aspires to a particular kind of culture and is a ‘contracted partnership’ in which all involved have agreed to uphold the character pillars and share similar ideas about the ends of education.
The first prerequisite for the culture to which we aspire is attested to by T.S. Eliot in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Herein, Eliot writes, “We know that good manners, without education, intellect, or sensibility to the arts, tend towards mere automatism; that learning without good manners or sensibility is pedantry; that intellectual ability without the more humane attributes is admirable only in the same way as the brilliance of a child chess prodigy; and that the arts without intellectual context are vanity.” Manners having been established, we are wise to discern between two types of culture: high culture as described by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said,” and popular culture as the “identity-forming products of social interaction.” It is the principal’s responsibility to continually draw the community’s attention back to this high culture and the permanent things to which it addresses itself.
To this end, the school must not participate in conversation as spectacle, but with something like the spirit in which Thomas Aquinas pursued philosophy. Aquinas wrote that the “study of philosophy is not the study of what men have opined, but of what is the truth.” Unfortunately, the “nature of…discourse is changing as the demarcation line between what is show business and what is not becomes harder to see with each passing day.” Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death wrote that, “Our priests and presidents, our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship.” Pitifully, not even our universities are exempt. As philosophy professor Peter Boghossian wrote recently: “…something has gone wrong in the university – especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship is based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances.”
With regards to discourse as spectacle, Postman regarded Aldous Huxley as something of a prophet in that society appeared to be tending towards a consensual rather than a coercive dystopia. In this, Huxley shared more in common with Ray Bradbury than with George Orwell or Arthur Koestler. “The whole culture’s shot through,” wrote Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Faber continues his monologue: “The skeleton needs melting and reshaping. Good God, it isn’t as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord...Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than ‘Mr. Gimmick’ and the parlor ‘families’? If you can, you’ll win your way, Montag. In any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.” ‘Fun’ in Bradbury’s usage means an “act of fraud or deception; a trick played on a person.” Popular culture is full of fun, but painfully short of the sort of self-reflection that comes about as a result of conversation. Popular culture seeks to entertain; high culture to edify.
Whether in conversation with others or with ourselves, conversation should grapple with the weightiest issues – what the Russians regarded as the ‘accursed questions’. These were not limited to the Slavic people’s place in a European world, but to any question that defied being finally and conclusively answered, and yet held meaning and significance for every individual conscious enough to entertain the paradoxes and conundrums of his own existence. Certainly these were questions taken up by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Akhmatova, but they are taken up anew by each generation. A very real question is whether in the digital age in which we all live, the sort of quiet can be found in which to reflect on these questions. Here, quiet does not mean simply freedom from audible noise, but freedom from the constant static that interrupts our solitude. This is same solitude sought by the theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper, and one more recently addressed by the psychologist Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle writes that, “One of the rewards of solitude is an increased capacity for self-reflection – the conversations we have with ourselves in the hope of greater insight about who we are and want to be…In self-reflection, we come to understand ourselves better and we nurture our capacity for relationship.” In our contemporary moment, carving out the space for conversation is as important as what we converse about.
What we converse about at Ridgeview is in some sense directed by what we purport an education to be for. The nineteenth-century Eton master and poet William Johnson Cory elaborated upon what a classical education strives for, and some students will be familiar with the words that follow because this quotation from Cory hangs in one of the classrooms.
You go to school at the age of twelve or thirteen; and for the next four or five years you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits;
For the habit of attention,
For the art of expression,
For the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture,
For the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts,
For the habit of submitting to censure or refutation,
For the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms,
For the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy,
For the habit of working out what is possible in a given time,
For mental courage and mental soberness,
Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.
Similar to what Turkle had written, Cory made the claim that an education did not consist wholly in knowledge; rather, it culminated in self-knowledge. Given the weight accorded to participation by Ridgeview, the importance it places on conversation, its deliberate attempts to create discussion, discourse, and community, the place and intent of the Principal’s Perspective becomes clearer.
Each essay endeavors to satisfy five criteria. First, the essays should address themselves to each constituency within the community (i.e. parents, students, faculty and staff, board members, prospective families, and the broader, external community). Second, the essays should be timely in the sense that they take “into account the contingencies of a given time and place.” Third, they should bear some relevance to the larger project of culture building and maintenance at Ridgeview as discussed above. Fourth, they should edify their readers. Both in terms of vocabulary and the ideas discussed, as well as by the conversation they spur, the reader should emerge enriched. Finally, how will they be viewed five, ten, or fifty years hence? They should have some regard for posterity.
If they meet these criteria, it is hoped that they will create and foster a self-reflective and contemplative disposition in their readers. They are for the drive home and for the dinner table as much as they are for the classroom. They are for encouraging talk among our families, between close friends and for drawing distant strangers nearer. They are for speaking together about matters of consequence and with a regard for truth
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture
Faber and Faber, 1948
William Johnson Cory
George Allen, 1891