A Study Break
My RCA tells me I have a second career ahead of me as “inciter of crowds.”
The Wilson College Council is about the give away a few hundred dollars worth of Wendy’s food for a study break. The food is late. The Council is also sponsoring a humble community service project in Trenton the next day, and few people have signed up. I jump on the large table in Wilson Commons and prophesy to the few hundred restless, hungry students: “Before you partake of your FREE food from the Wilson College Council I must ask, who will serve tomorrow?” No one raises a hand. Abrahamically I continue “Can I find ten good people in all of Wilson College? Five? One?” One good soul, a preceptee of mine from Practical Ethics, volunteers. To the rest I cry “Shame! Shame on your apathetic souls! Yes, eat your free Wendy’s, be satiated!” The crowd laughs, since I rant feigning preacherly piety, but they miss the seriousness behind my satire. So I dutifully hand out Wendy’s food, and say to more laughs, “this is the opposite of Christianity: we are giving out bread and fishes to the satiated, the privileged, and the apathetic.” Another successful un-humanitarian mission. A freshman reports to me that he did “that community service” in High School. No doubt to secure his place at the Table of the elite and satisfied.
Wilson is not quite Sodom, but the number of inconsiderate, non-recycling, beer-drinking, baseball hat-wearing vandals is disturbing. Some students see the cafeteria workers and cleaning staff as “the help”. Several tripped over an administrator’s wife while she was gardening around Wilcox and kept on walking. “Savages in this town,” said the Clerks.
Religion 316: Public Anti-Intellectuals
Sometime last semester a whole bunch of baseball hatted white dudes were searching through the course catalog looking for a spring class to take. They came upon one description and exclaimed in chorus, “Why, it’s a class on Erasmus, David Hume, Matthew Arnold, and Edward Said! I always wanted to read in ‘In Praise of Folly’ and ‘Culture and Anarchy!’ And even better, it’s being taught by the charismatic professor Cornel West! What a treat!”
West’s no-notes lectures are name-dropping academic poetry. He makes connections and insights at high speeds and breathes life into the dead white guys he has us read. I learn something new and enduring every time I listen to him; his appreciation of the Western tradition is infectious, the best Princeton can offer the life of young minds. So what exactly do all these folks learn in West’s class anyway? Have they wrestled with existential questions? Have they looked into their own souls and wondered if they indeed are showing the suitable courage required of their class in these dark times? Will the next time they encounter a Jonathan Swift novel, or a collection of stories by Lucian will they read it? Has West moved them, or do they just perceive him as a Negro dancing a jig? Let’s see what they say once their grades are turned in. The gifts of academic heaven’s highest circle are endemically squandered on mental no-shows. I’m glad the university is clamping down on grade inflation; may the gut class vanish with my idealism.
For your Ivy League gamete you can get a few thousand dollars, I hear. I don’t understand why some couple will mortgage their house for a fertilized Princeton fetus that has a good chance of being predisposed to cultural illiteracy and academic delinquency. Save your money folks; students at my public alma mater, Ohio U., displayed the requisite curiosity and respect for learning without a crew team.
Manna from Heaven?
Manna Christian Fellowship was passing out free Jesus books today. All I could think about was all that energy going to waste on books and Bible studies when young, powerful Princeton Christians could be raising money for Oxfam, addressing AIDS in Africa, and using their powers as a Community of Witness to change the material world. The Jewish philosopher Levinas: “My neighbor’s material needs are my spiritual needs.” Would that the suburban Christians at Princeton would take this seriously, rather than the salvational metaphysics keeping them behind their gated communities of the soul.
In recent months, Christians have complained about feeling persecuted and besieged on campus. Gibson’s mystical anti-Semitism and superhero Jesus is not the Christ of Agape. Yet who said that being Christian was easy? Shouldn’t being Christian mean moving out of your comfort zone? Hats off to the Christians who take the suffering of strangers seriously; they are the saving remnant.
The convert Simone Weil wrote in her indispensable “Gravity and Grace” that doing good is hard; sin is easy. It’s easier to wait in line for bread (or concert tickets) then it is to wait in line to save a life. “Base motives have in them more energy than noble ones,” the Christian mystic writes. I agree: Being base is easy. The grace of attentiveness is harder. This is true of relationships, of local ethics, and of global morality.
A Slave to my Schedule
Slavery still endures to this day, though I doubt many Blacks, Christians, or Jews—three communities that have a historic interest in slavery—on Princeton’s campus have given it any thought.
At the Wilson School, I saw a presentation by Kevin Bales, director of Free the Slaves, about contemporary slavery. Unsurprisingly, in attendance were a few undergraduates, several grad students, and lots of crumbly townspeople-types. There are still 27 million slaves in the world, some linked to sugar production, sex trafficking, or domestic servitude. We saw a film clip of several women from Cameroon who were enslaved by domestics in Washington D.C. to employees of the World Bank! Next up: the one billion folks on the planet subsisting on less than a dollar a day, the several dozen thousand that die of starvation or preventable disease every day. Millions toil in sweatshops, working seven days a week, 15 or 20 hours a day for pennies an hour.
The Peter Principle
We’ve learned in Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics class that the debate is not about how responsible we are for the needs of strangers down the street, across the border, in the future, but about the nature of our responsibilities, the management of our obligations, and the practical distribution of our time and resources. Levinas says obligation is never exhausted, only managed. We are all bound to fail, but we are nonetheless committed to act, preferably in concert, to make a dent in the wall of evil that we in the West are positively responsible for. The least we can do is be attentive to the suffering of strangers, to know and to cultivate the virtues required to balance our local lives with our global obligations.
Here at Princeton, a parade of notables and knowledgeables marches past us everyday. This secret knowledge is free at Princeton, and almost nobody takes advantage of it. Being attentive to suffering does exact certain costs—it can overwhelm one with horror, short-circuit our practical judgment, and lead us to cynicism and despair—but it doesn’t cost anything, especially when you can read about it on the internet and meet people working on the issues. Here at Princeton, the relatively inactive left is matched by a relatively inactive right.
Service projects, unvolunteered for. Good classes, not taken seriously. A religious tradition demanding difficult material action, squandered on empty spiritual gestures. Free lectures about the problems of the world and their solutions, left unattended. Not all Organizational Kids are created equal; some super schedules are better than others. What should our choices of actions be in our island of privileged, in a sea of human need? Perhaps we should ask, What Would Peter Singer Do?…