Cultivating Our Souls
David Brooks does it again. Brooks has written another essay that I find fascinating to think about and figure out how to implement in my own work. The essay is given the intriguing title, “The Big University.” In effect he looks at contemporary higher education in our country and offers a critique in what it is doing very well and what shortcomings he sees. Clearly, life at the university is much different than when I was a student. Of course, there are still similar classes like English and Biology. But in the case of the sciences, especially, the content is massively different.
In many cases the delivery of knowledge is also different. It is hard to describe to current students what it was like in the period before computers---before 1980s or earlier. Visual aids consisted of overheads! Writing on a real chalkboard was the routine. “White board” would have been a term no one understood. People actually went to the library and read books. And people actually talked to each other as they crossed campus!
I am not lobbying for the good old days---far from it. Even though I am a slow adopter when it comes to technology, I like the fact that I write this on a computer. I appreciate it will appear as a blog and will go out over Twitter. Some day, I know, people will laugh at these terms, but right now they are the media for people to share information. People whom I may never meet will read this and, hopefully, be helped in their spiritual journey.
What intrigues me about Brooks’ essay is what he sees lacking in contemporary university education. These easily fall into the category of spirituality. Hence I would like to focus on those and let his ponderings assist us in our desire to live a richer, fuller life. The basis of much of what Brooks says presupposes the shift so many universities have experienced in their history.
He acknowledges many colleges and universities in our country were founded as religious colleges. Throughout the 20th century so many of them moved from being spiritual to secular. Religion and philosophy and things related either dropped out of the picture or were marginalized. In my words many universities became secularly successful and lost their souls.
Simply speaking, Brooks calls for a return to what I would call soul making---soul work, if you will. He is interested in how these bastions of higher education attend to our moral and spiritual development. I share his concern that if these aspects of education are left out or marginalized, society becomes endangered.
At that point he offers an important recognition. He says, “Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.” I like his language that describes our soul work as cultivation. Being an old farm boy, I know first-hand that cultivation is a key ingredient in successful growth. Why would it not be so for cultivation of our souls? I think churches, synagogues and mosques do this kind of work. But we all know fewer people go there for their soul work.
Brooks says universities do well the secular work of teaching. But the cultivating work of the souls of college students is missing. He offers a number of insights. I would like to lift up two of them. While he has the university in mind, I would suggest that there probably are many things we can individually do to help others with this spiritual growth.
In the first place he says to younger people we can “reveal moral options.” He continues to say, “We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions.” He details the Jewish, Christian and others to demonstrate there a different ways to engage moral thinking and moral living. The key is to learn to do it. The hope is we can continue to be a society of moral beings. We all know the chaos and anarchy that will happen if we don’t.
Certainly to be spiritual is to be moral. I think it is compelling that all of us who claim to be spiritual have to find a way to help our neighborhoods and communities have a moral sensitivity. It won’t “just happen.” It requires cultivating the souls of the youth and adults alike. It is our work. It is our ministry.
Secondly, Brooks calls for us to “foster transcendent experiences.” I love the way he comments on this. “If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty---with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral…waking up with loving friends on a mountain---there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.” To experience the transcendent is to become spiritual. Beauty adds depth and color to our lives.
I appreciate the challenge Brooks gives us. I imagine the challenge to be this: be smart and be spiritual. Spirituality has many aspects, but surely being moral and experiencing the transcendent is a good way to begin. To do that is to cultivate our souls.