In “The Big University” Bobo gurgles that many universities founded as religious institutions have needlessly dropped a key original goal: educating students’ emotional, spiritual and moral sides. In the comments “allseriousnessaside” from Washington, DC had this to say: “Sweeping generalizations based on no data, a premise that is entirely manufactured and a series of absurd and contradictory statements.” In other words, the standard Bobo offering. Mr. Nocera, in “The Case for Compromise,” says a chemical-safety bill in the Senate shows the wisdom of “good, old-fashioned legislating.” Here’s Bobo:
Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.
Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.
Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.
Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.
But things are changing. On almost every campus faculty members and administrators are trying to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement. Institutes are popping up — with interdisciplinary humanities programs and even meditation centers — designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.
Technology is also forcing change. Online courses make the transmission of information a commodity. If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity. That includes moral and spiritual development. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.
In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.
The trick is to find a way to talk about moral and spiritual things while respecting diversity. Universities might do that by taking responsibility for four important tasks.
First, reveal moral options. We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions. There’s the Greek tradition emphasizing honor, glory and courage, the Jewish tradition emphasizing justice and law, the Christian tradition emphasizing surrender and grace, the scientific tradition emphasizing reason and logic, and so on.
Colleges can insist that students at least become familiar with these different moral ecologies. Then it’s up to the students to figure out which one or which combination is best to live by.
Second, foster transcendent experiences. If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty — with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain — there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.
Third, investigate current loves and teach new things to love. On her great blog, Brain Pickings, Maria Popova quotes a passage from Nietzsche on how to find your identity: “Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ ” Line up these revered objects in a row, Nietzsche says, and they will reveal your fundamental self.
To lead a full future life, meanwhile, students have to find new things to love: a field of interest, an activity, a spouse, community, philosophy or faith. College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.
Fourth, apply the humanities. The social sciences are not shy about applying their disciplines to real life. But literary critics, philosophers and art historians are shy about applying their knowledge to real life because it might seem too Oprahesque or self-helpy. They are afraid of being prescriptive because they idolize individual choice.
But the great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living, like how to escape the chains of public opinion, how to cope with grief or how to build loving friendships. Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation.
It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.
Lordy, but he’s tiresome. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
In March, Moms Clean Air Force, a grass-roots environmental group co-founded by Dominique Browning, was tossed out of a coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. Its heresy was supporting a Senate bill that would constitute the first serious revision in nearly 40 years of the woefully outdated Toxic Substances Control Act.
You see, the bill — officially the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act — is the result of (shudder!) compromise. Those compromises were originally hammered out by Lautenberg, a liberal Democratic senator, and David Vitter, a right-wing Republican senator allied with the chemical industry. The two men co-sponsored a bill in May 2013. Then Lautenberg died.
Senator Tom Udall, another Democrat, picked up where Lautenberg left off, and over the next two-plus years, he and Vitter continued to improve the bill while also making compromises to gain additional Senate support. In just the last week, the bipartisan bill, which the Senate is expected to vote on soon, has gained enough co-sponsors to be filibuster-proof.
In this era of polarized politics, it is something of a miracle: “an example of good, old-fashioned legislating,” Udall told me.
Browning, an old friend of mine, describes herself as an environmental pragmatist. She concluded that whatever the flaws in the bill, it was a vast improvement over the status quo — a status quo in which the Environmental Protection Agency can’t even regulate formaldehyde. She and her brain trust decided that their 570,000-member group would work to improve the bill instead of oppose it. This is also the position taken by the ever-pragmatic Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, with which Moms Clean Air Force is affiliated.
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, however, which includes such major environmental groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, opposed the Senate bill. In a blog post, Andy Igrejas, who heads the coalition, listed provisions that he described, essentially, as gifts to the chemical industry. His coalition had thrown out E.D.F., a founding member, over the issue in 2013; now it was Moms Clean Air Force’s turn.
“They were supporting a Senate bill everyone else opposed,” Igrejas said when I asked him why. “You couldn’t do that and stay in the coalition.” He added, “At every point along the way, Fred [Krupp] would say, ‘You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Blah, blah, blah.’”
Igrejas believes that the bill, which his coalition still opposes, despite the many improvements, is better only because he and others came out so strongly against it. (I should note that the coalition supports a much narrower House bill.) The E.D.F.-Moms Clean Air Force view is that the bill got better because they were willing to roll up their sleeves and make common cause with conservative senators like Vitter and chemical industry lobbyists.
“We have always been clear that the way to get this done is to work in a bipartisan manner to support both Democrats and Republicans who were trying to solve the problem of the old law not working,” said Richard Denison, E.D.F.’s point person on the chemical bill. “And while lending our support, we also asked for improvements.” Which they got.
The bill doesn’t give environmentalists everything they want. There are thousands of unregulated chemicals, yet the bill calls for the E.P.A. to look at only 25 during the first five years after the bill becomes law. But it hardly gives the industry everything it wants, either: Chemicals that were once unregulated would now face the prospect of serious restrictions on their use.
The biggest issue is around something called “pre-emption” — meaning that states will not be able to write laws about certain chemicals if the E.P.A. starts a formal review of that chemical. Because some states, like California, are much tougher on chemicals than the federal government has been, many environmentalists don’t want any federal pre-emption. But the chemical industry, tired of dealing with different state standards, insisted on it.
The Senate bill offers a reasonable compromise that says that if the E.P.A. doesn’t act within a certain time frame, states can act on their own. This provision, notes Denison, is “an important backstop” that would prevent companies from seeking to delay E.P.A. action as long as possible.
“I could sit in my office and write a perfect bill, but it wouldn’t be one that could become law in the United States,” said Krupp. “The question isn’t whether it is perfect. The question is whether it is a really good bill. We think it is.”
Browning had another point: “If you live in California, then of course you don’t want pre-emption. But what about the rest of us poor moms who aren’t protected by serious state laws?” For them, the Senate bill’s compromises would improve their lives.
Proving, I think, that the perfect really is the enemy of the good.
Blah, blah blah notwithstanding.