Earlier this month, Robert George offered a bit of advice to young scholars. That advice, in a nutshell, is to be very wary of applause. "In the end," he says, "what matters is not winning approval or gaining celebrity. Your mission and vocation is to seek the truth and to speak the truth as God gives you to grasp it." His advice to young scholars wishing to guard against that temptation is to "constantly tend to the garden of one's interior life," and he particularly recommends prayers as the primary gardening tool. It's good advice.
So too is Alan Jacobs' call to extend this advice beyond the individual. It's worth quoting at length:
I think moral maturity for all of us involves learning what our temptations are. Do we (falsely) think we can go it alone? Are we tempted to go along to get along? Do we even understand what groups we want to belong to—whose applause we desire—and why? I can't imagine anybody to whom these questions are not relevant, but they have a particular importance for scholars, because scholarship is something that we learn within really powerful socializing institutions. (I don't know of any institution that socializes more thoroughly than graduate school.) Simply to give in to these forces is unwise; to be completely independent of them is impossible. This is why I have always insisted on the importance for Christian scholars of serious commitment to a church community: by participating in a different body, with different priorities and participants, you are better able to put the demands of the scholarly world into proper perspective. You don't escape them or ignore them or rise triumphantly above them; but you can learn to give them the conditional and limited allegiance they deserve.
And he's right to note that some vocations are more prone to the drug of applause—of the desire to be in the inner ring—than others. Lawyers, doctors, economists, and journalists (and politicians, but that's a topic for another blog) are created within very strong socializing institutions. The B.C. law society's vote to keep legal education free from practiced religion is but one example of what some communities are willing to do to maintain that "inner ring." Indeed, it's hard to imagine how a call to be part of a community—let alone a church community—which has "different priorities and participants" would be received.
But it surely can't be the case that only religious people are concerned about the potentially destructive nature of "inner rings." Everyone, religious or not, is at least able to see the potential dangers of being socialized by one particular type of institution. Which causes me to ask: what type of advice would someone like Jacobs or George offer to those who doesn't share their faith commitments, and by extension, don't participate in a religious community like church? I realize that these are not their primary audience, but what "different body, with different priorities and participants" would people without explicit faith commitments turn to if they shared Jacobs' and George's concerns about the perils of the "inner ring"?
I can see many instances where journalists, lawyers, or economists are placed into other circles where humility is forced upon them—think of politicians being lambasted in the media, or of Citigroup executives in front of the U.S. congress, think of economists mocking scholars for the uselessness of the humanities. But in many ways, these acts of public humiliation are ways of maintaining the inner ring and do little to "tend the garden" of the interior life of anyone, or even of a profession as a whole. What types of secular institutions relativize the importance of some of these inner circles? You might point to the family, or the neighbourhood. But given the decline of neighbourhood involvement, and the increasingly open nature of like marrying like, it's not clear that these are as robust as they might once have been.
But whether they're healthy or not, there is something vital about communities that resist, limit, and enhance the circles in which most people spend their times. If these communities are too moribund or troubled to act as a source of alternative allegiance, perhaps what we need to do is start small. Take the advice of my colleague: join a fantasy football league. Drop by a knitting circle. A revived, healthy civil society might start with something as simple as banal as a taxidermist's club.