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Educating For Woke Spectatorship

The death of learning and the urgent need for a 'parallel polis'
Educating For Woke Spectatorship

A college professor friend e-mailed the following, and gave me permission to post it after I promised to take out identifying details:

I watched the Antifa video you posted today, and was struck by something that I think ties together aspects of themes you keep discussing. Notice that, once the fracas starts, the majority of persons in the audience respond by taking out their cell phones and videoing what’s happening around them. It’s a really curious reaction: they neither join in the demonstration nor resist it. They assume the role of spectators. Crawford and others, most seriously Heidegger, have discussed the ways in which technology is more than just an interposition between us and the world: it becomes the way in which the world appears, “world” itself. We don’t have direct access to Being anymore, but only through technology. And we do this willingly, if not unwittingly. It’s striking how often people look at the world through the filter of their phone; not the world as it is, but the world as it is on and in their technology.

It matters in instances like this because what is happening on campuses is best understood as performance, and that in two ways: first, as a way of demonstrating your virtue, that you are “on the right side of history,”; and, second, as a mode of self-fashioning. The self is performative, there is no solidity or substance, and as a result the self needs both stage and audience to validate its own existence. The politics are, in a certain sense, irrelevant except as they find a supportive and accepting crowd in front of which the self can “strut and fret its hour upon the stage.” It is indeed a tale told by idiots, and in some ways in the most literal sense of that term. Notice in a video such as the one you posted the complete absence of any solidarity: even the protestors are anonymized through masks and veils.

One might argue that such anonymizing negates my earlier claim, but I think it supports the claim in that they are actors taking on a persona. There are no solid or substantive selves engaged in reality or with other selves. They are mere players whose play is reinforced by others videoing them in ever redounding series of performative acts. It would be interesting to talk to one of these protestors and get to the core of what motivates them.

One way to think about this is that the central problem on college campuses today is not that there is too much individualism, but that there is no proper individualism at all, at least in the sense of stable and substantive selves. The core of the politics of authenticity is that the selves involved are so fragile that they need recognition in order to buttress themselves, and the withholding of such recognition is therefore an act of violence (a process Taylor has rightly diagnosed). What colleges don’t do is exactly what Augustine suggested: that enduring selves can only be so if they are in contact with That which endures. They can only have being if they are in relationship with He who is Being itself. And that’s precisely what we deny them.

I teach at a Christian college, and we don’t get that. We pour more and more institutional resources into “global learning and citizenship” and into identity politics, both of which are guaranteed to make these young persons less anchored and therefore more weightless. You may recall the time I told the story of a very smart and serious Christian student I care for very much who told me “Adderall to get my work done, pot to bring me down, and alcohol to socialize.” Believe me when I tell you she saw this as tragedy and wants something more.

How to respond? I’ve begun to describe my role at the college — and I can’t emphasize this enough, I am at a Christian college! — as creating an internal Benedict Option. We have become so overwhelmed with administrative bloat, me-tooism, and soft-core leftism that our curriculum has been largely eviscerated. I have students who really want to learn and, God bless them, demand their inheritance. They’re great kids. So people like me have had to carve out areas within the structure of the college to give students the education they are entitled to — and all of this as both supplement and alternative to what happens campus-wide. I have a reading group I’ve created that, among other things, spent a weekend discussing ideas at [a retreat site]. I had four professors there last December who gave fantastic lectures and told me they couldn’t have been more impressed with my students. The kids put their phones away, dressed in their Sunday best, and sat and listened all day to lectures about “the Permanent things” — and this right before finals. All the speakers commented on how blown away they were by these students.

After we went back to our residence, I was up until 1:30 in the morning with the students talking about truth and beauty. I finally went to bed, but was told they stayed up until 4 doing more of the same. I had 20 students staying up until all hours of the night discussing Prufrock as the crisis of modernity, the relationship between the artist and art and art and beauty. They wanted to know how where they were from shaped who they were and how they searched for truth. All this inspired by the lecturers.

The human condition is a constant. You often quote thinkers who grew up in communist countries about how they see parallels between totalitarian societies and what’s going on in our own, and rightly so, but those parallels cut both ways. The desire for truth gets crystallized in these circumstances. It is incumbent upon serious faculty to keep such learning alive in these dark times on campuses. The tragedy is that we do so in spite of the administration; the beauty is that we are able to do so.

Ron Srigley, in his recent article in the LA Review of Books, captured well the ways in which instruction and learning have become ancillary in college and university life. More’s the pity. But the experiment in consumerist leftism (and here you’d have to look at the larger cultural phenomenon of how corporations have capitulated to progressivism) can’t be sustained. My school is already seeing the profound effects in enrollment. Schools will be closing their doors, and not only because of demographics. Once schools no longer see themselves as a link between generations and as guardians of truth, they are done for. But despair is a mortal sin, so we keep plugging away. As Russell Kirk was fond of quoting Dr. Johnson: cheerfulness keeps breaking in. It is incumbent upon those of us seeking to keep civilization alive, above all, to keep being cheerful. I can assure you that many young persons would rather spend their time with cheerful purveyors of truth than dour and bitter ideologues. Cheerfulness will win in the end.

I received the following e-mail from a different reader:

Born in 1980, I myself am right on the edge between Gen X and the Millennials (I will always claim X generically, though I do like the “Oregon Trail” moniker I have seen elsewhere).  I was never of any sort of leftist bent, but I did consider myself a budding academic, and I long harbored a dream of returning to graduate school and becoming a professor (of Classics for what it’s worth).  Indeed, part of what I felt as the call was simply to be an alternative voice, one lonely person standing up and saying that Western Civilization was good, that the liberal arts matter.  I took Harvey C. Mansfield and others of his ilk as inspiration.

That dream is dead.  The tumult in academia over the previous half-decade or so has done more than enough to dissuade me from ever pursuing a return to the university environment, at least for any sort of liberal arts graduate study.  When even leftist professors live in terror of what the screaming mob will do to them, what hope could a traditionalist ever have?

This is one for the culture war crimes tribunal. Damn it! These cretins are disinheriting the young. The late Czech dissident Vaclav Benda, creator of the idea of the “parallel polis,” really is a St. Benedict for our troubled educational times. (Read more about Benda in this interview I did with Prof. Flagg Taylor, editor of a newly published collection of Benda’s essays.) The “parallel polis” is a community existing alongside the mainstream — not entirely separate, but one constituted by different aims. From The Benedict Option:

For Benda, [Vaclav] Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community. Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.

[Benda:] I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime — partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature — has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.

From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders” — formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture — but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility. ”

In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.

“If you didn’t like how university education was going, help students find an underground seminar taught by one of these brilliant professors kicked out of university by the government,” [political scientist Flagg] Taylor says, explaining Benda’s principles. “Print good novels by samizdat and get them into the hands of the people, and let them see what they’re missing. Support theological education in one of the underground seminaries. When people see [that] resistance is connected to something that’s really meaningful to them, and that is possible only if there are a certain number people committed to preserving it in the face of the state’s opposition, they will act.”

Whether you call it “antipolitical politics ” or a “parallel polis,” what might the Czech dissidents’ vision look like in our circumstances? Havel gives a number of examples. Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools. Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them. These people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option.

A lot of people think that the Benedict Option is about surrender. They should read Benda. He was extremely courageous in facing down communism — and he realized that the most effective way to fight it was indirectly. He wrote that in a totalitarian state, the government has the power to shut down most things, but it can’t possibly get everything. The parallel polis must keep expanding, bringing light to the darkness. That is how you fight. The Benedict Option is not so much about running away as it is relocating to a place where you can breathe clean air and think clearly — and then defending that place with all you’ve got.

Babylon breeds consumers and spectators. The parallel polis must make citizens and men (and women) with chests.

After the fall of communism, Benda regretted that the greatest failure of the parallel polis was to be unable to establish an education system independent of the government. More from The Benedict Option:

We traditional Christians in America can learn from both Eastern European examples. We face nothing so terrible as the Czechs did under Soviet domination, of course, but the more insidious forces of secular liberalism are steadily achieving the same aim: robbing us and future generations of our religious beliefs, moral values, and cultural memory, and making us pawns of forces beyond our control.

This is why we have to focus tightly and without hesitation on education. We have far more freedom than Benda and his colleagues did, and our people, though under strain, are far less demoralized than the Czechs were.

“Education has to be at the core of Christian survival — as it always was, ” says Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at Washington’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute. “The point of monasticism was not simply to retreat from a corrupt world to survive, though in various iterations that might have been a dimension of it,” he continues. “But at the heart of it was a quest for God. It was that quest that mandated the preservation of classical learning and the pagan tradition by the monks, because they loved what was true and what was beautiful wherever they found it.”

My younger son is a middle schooler at a classical Christian school, one that runs on an extremely lean budget. They don’t have posters in the hallway promoting Gay-Straight Alliances, or anything else. But my son and his classmates have already read The Iliad and The Odyssey. My son doesn’t like reading much — he’s much more into music and drawing — but he told me, “Those are my favorite books ever.” And you know, he’s the kind of kid who, if protesters tried to no-platform speakers, would not pull his phone out (he doesn’t have a phone), but would rush forward to protect the innocent.

We need to build a parallel polis, and we need it right now. That young man whose dream of being a classics scholar died — he should have a place to teach, and he should have students who want to learn. He is a bearer of our cultural memory, and if there are no places for men and women like him in higher education, something vitally important will perish. We can only have these colleges and schools if parents want them. We cannot expect that mainstream colleges will provide them. Look:


Of course I lament this, but is it really such a bad thing when in so many places, the liberal arts have been deeply corrupted by cultural politics? We are fast getting to a place where traditional Christian colleges will be the primary place where a traditional liberal arts education is possible. These colleges will be like early medieval monasteries: strongholds of learning and cultural memory. Strengthen those that stand, and start new ones out of the ruins! The kind of students that the professor in the first comment on this post mention, they exist, and they are desperate for truth, goodness, and beauty. Why would we give our young people stones when they’re crying out for bread? Why would we be content to raise children who grow up to be the kind of people — dead souls — who reach for their phones to record trouble instead of jumping in to fight for the good?

Meanwhile, this is the way the world is going. Another reader writes to say that his university was barely woke when he attended:

Since that time the university has axed a number of departments thanks to budget cuts, but they’ve added a new division with a large staff:

You can’t get a Ph.D. in philosophy anymore but, hey, at least you’ll be ‘woke’ when you’re done.

Let me close with this quote from the professor whose long email started this post:

As Russell Kirk was fond of quoting Dr. Johnson: cheerfulness keeps breaking in. It is incumbent upon those of us seeking to keep civilization alive, above all, to keep being cheerful. I can assure you that many young persons would rather spend their time with cheerful purveyors of truth than dour and bitter ideologues. Cheerfulness will win in the end.

Below, the founder of the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, and the most cheerful man I know: Marco Sermarini. Read more here.



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