the new dark ages

The Vision, by Steve Brodner (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked scholars and illustrators to answer the question “What will be the big idea of the next decade, and why?”

First off, Jaron Lanier from Microsoft says it will be the end of human specialness. A “nerd” religion is evolving that believes technology is developing a “global brain” which will replace humanity. But he says a post-Facebook generation is emerging that will challenge this trend. There is hope. But that’s for the next decade.

Pete Singer, however, says the internet will set us free, making education and information available to the poorest people in the poorest countries. “We will continue to be surprised at how relatively simple changes in technology bring about fundamental changes in the way we live,” he says.

The ideas are many and varied. One says we will abandon disciplines in the academy, in order to cure cancer or understand religious experience. Another that the dizzying amount of data will require new ways to find it and analyze it.

Camille Paglia claims that elite education will collapse under its own weight, and the need for jobs will cause us to “revalorize” the trades. She is probably right, since books and articles about the collapse of our expensive and monolithic higher education system seems to show up in books and articles everywhere these days.

Mary Beard, who teaches classics at Cambridge believes we face a new “Dark Ages” where economic realities drown our interest in the humanities themselves, as we focus more and more on urgent social and cultural issues.

Personally I’ve never read Homer or Dante in the original languages as she suggests, although I could once read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin (high school) and both Beowulf and Canterbury Tales in Old and Middle English (graduate school).

But Beard may be missing the point. I don’t think the dark ages come from our inability to read Latin, but from our unwillingness to hear each other. In the end it is always the darkness in our hearts.

Parker Palmer explores this theme in a way, citing Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart” as a way to restore our capacity for civic community. Palmer says students today need humility and chutzpah, the abilities to listen carefully with respect and to speak clearly with conviction.

I’ve written of such civic discourse before. But listening and speaking is not enough. It’s respect and conviction students lack, or at least the respect that others are made in the image of God and the conviction that anything really matters.

Instead, they respect the opinions of others, especially their peers, with the confidence that every idea is equally valid. Even in Christian schools students often don’t respect the work or the word of God, which gives real value to others while providing a way to evaluate their opinions.

The need to speak the truth with such boldness and love is not an idea that shows up in the Chronicle as shaping the university in the next decade. But it will shape the work of the church, until the Lord comes.

And it will shape any university that still respects the work and the word of God.

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