The modern world offers great challenges, and great opportunities, for Humanistic thought
Members of the Saybrook community:
There’s no question that the period of my Saybrook presidency was marked by a number of changes. It was a period of transition.
There was a time when that was unusual. In the 21st century, that’s business as usual. While many of the changes we made together were deliberate and, I believe, wise, there’s no question that organizations like ours are now constantly changing because we live in a constantly changing world.
For this, my last missive to you as Saybrook’s president, I would like to offer a few thoughts about what this means for our intellectual tradition and our mission as an educational institution.
When the world moved more slowly it was easy to think of the Humanistic tradition – from Plato through Montaigne up until Maslow and our own faculty – as being fixed points in the intellectual firmament: an unchanging and constant source of wisdom and insight that we could read in order to navigate our lives by.
They are, in a real sense, that very thing. But motion is relative, and as the lives we live move faster and faster it is difficult to have any fixed point of reference. The Humanistic tradition has as much to offer as it ever did, but our approach to it can no longer be rooted in 19th or even 20th century notions of scholarship.
Rigorous scholarship must, without a doubt, remain the backbone of what we do, and the papers and journals we produce are of inestimable value. But the broader culture now takes its cues from other, more transient, sources just as the challenges we face become more global, more systemic, and more sustained.
If Humanistic thought cannot be compelling online, it cannot reach the people most in need of it today. If it cannot find ways to thrive in a rich media environment where text messages contain screen shots of videos from vine, then it cannot offer solutions to the people looking for them as best they know how. It matters little that we are absolutely right about the irreducibility of people into components if the wider culture believes every claim made by the apostles of big data and the reductionists of pharmacology.
As humanists we know, better than anyone, that our sense of meaning in the world matters. The way our culture thinks about what it means to be human, about what it means to be conscious, about what it means to be moral, ethical, and creative, matters a great deal because most of us will live up or down to that vision. We must take the wisdom of Rogers and May and Husserl into the broader culture with the same energy and rigor that we apply to our formal scholarship. Now is not the time to be timid: now is the time to find new ways to communicate timeless wisdom to new audiences. This not a culture war, but it is a struggle for the soul of our common humanity.
I am leaving Saybrook to take a position at TCS ES that I believe will allow me to help find new ways for our fellow affiliate schools – and for the system as a whole – to join us in this struggle. We are not alone. We have allies, and we are aligned with the hopes and dreams of billions of people around the world who want to live more authentic lives, and support each other’s potential for meaningful growth. But Saybrook cannot rest on its laurels. We must find new ways of reach out, and we must engage, and we must be compelling to a world that Aristotle and Voltaire and Jung could not have imagined, but that needs their wisdom as much as it ever did. To be their interpreters in the 21st century requires new ways of thinking about what we have proven to be true.
It is a challenge I believe we are up to, and that I will join hands with you in my new position. It has been an honor and a privilege to help carry our banner forward for the last four years. Let us continue to move forward.