August 9th, 2010

Indy Says Study History

Personal/Theological Notebook: Conversations in New Orleans; Jefferson Reading and Thoughts

Late night. In the last two days, I've fallen into my usual late-night pattern again, which is going to hit me painfully as I shift over to the more daylight schedule of the retreat with the guys in the Ozarks. That nearly fell through at the last minute, as the guy running the place started to get some sort of "bad feeling" about us, upon what basis I have no idea. Not only would I have been outraged to have the reservation reneged on us at the last minute, I would have missed the experience of the place itself. Winterwood Lakeside Cottage has been starting to look more and more attractive in my imagination, and I'd hate to lose out on that part of the experience if we had had to regroup at Kevin's place in Tulsa at the last minute, which was our emergency backup plan.

So along with the unpacking and reassembling that I've been doing on and off since the delivery of my stuff on Thursday, I've had a pretty enjoyable week. Last Sunday I had gone on an evening walk around Audubon Park with Kelly, an area artist and art teacher down here who had been at NIU at some of the same time as me. Along with just get-to-know-one-another-better kind of conversation, she also graciously treated me to my first encounter with a New Orleans phenomenon I had been told I had to experience by some of the Dean's Office staff: a New Orleans Snowball. Far outclassing the vulgar northern snowcone (as I was assured by the Dean's staff), the snowball features a number of cream-oriented additions that gives the ice-and-syrup combo a greater depth. So we sat on a picnic bench eating our treats, looking out at the people walking, running, biking and playing around the ring that circles the park through the huge live oaks ringing the space. Good casual time.

The relative social isolation of having little work I could do (since most of my stuff was hostage to the movers) and knowing few people down here has made it advantageous to have some longer catch-up phone calls. Over the course of the week, I talked with my brother Joe, hearing more about the adventures of nephew Nate (who currently dislikes being corrected and told that there are numbers called "three" and "four") and about Joe's new position at work, with Mark out in Pittsburgh, mostly about music, and with Erik, hearing about his increasing tendency toward going full-time at BC and veering away from clinical practice as his work in studying Catholic education continues to be in high demand. Dad called today while I was on my way to Mass at Holy Name of Jesus (where I'll probably become a member of the parish), and so I talked with him until I got on the streetcar, which was pretty disruptive, and I talked with him some more as I took the 1.7 mile loop around Audubon Park again. I was supposed to talk with Dan the other night, but he's in the midst of his quick east coast trip, driving Amy's Mom back to New Jersey after her two-week visit and then up to meet his new nephew in Rhode Island, if I recall correctly. And I'm itching to hear the news from the nieces, who are now having their first cruise adventure with Jim and Leslie on board a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, heading from Florida to Grand Cayman to Mexico. I'm hoping they're eating that up.

And I finally finished American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis, continuing to downgrade my respect for Jefferson (a process happening for some years as I've read this early U.S. history for fun), and this time a bit baffled by some of Ellis's descriptive choices. His explicit disavowal of language like "hypocrite" for Jefferson in favour of describing him as having a multi-tracked mind, or an ability to hide things from himself, or to live with contradiction, began after a while to sound like the logical fallacy of "special pleading," although I can understand the desire to avoid conclusive language like calling Jefferson a hypocrite. That would have perhaps cemented Ellis into the kid of explicitly partisan historical writing that he was clearly interested in disassociating himself from, although he makes no bones about the extent of Jefferson's ability to "live with contradiction." Given that I was reading a first edition from 1997, it was interesting to go online and read Ellis's retractions regarding his doubt of a union between Jefferson and Sally Hemings after the results of the genetic tests of the Hemings descendants became available in 1998. I don't know if he's done a thorough revision of American Sphinx (I imagine that already winning a National Book Award for the text might in itself disincline you from making such revisions), but aside from just the specific details of the Hemings question, I wonder how that new detail might have affected the whole system of Ellis's character reconstruction of Jefferson based on the evidence available to historians.

And, of course, given my own professional interests in theological education, I couldn't help but roll my eyes to see in Jefferson one of the oldest versions of the sort of contemporary Secularist takes on theology and education, that at the University of Virginia, the study of theology would be forbidden entirely, as a way of breaking with that evil and "monkish" Catholic past where the Church at times censored what could be read or taught, and thus with all the liberation that the Enlightenment could promise, such backward censoriousness over a free and liberal education would be done away with. It took a long time for that Jeffersonian idea of "neutrality" toward religion being in fact an utter restriction of religion in education to become mainstream, as I would say it is today in popular American thinking, but you could certainly see the germ of it in his plans for the University of Virgina. Like Jefferson himself, the idea is much more French Revolution than what the mainstream of American Revolution thinking was, where an actual constitutional neutrality toward religion was embraced rather than the Jeffersonian idea of a "wall of separation between church and state" which in our time has become more a wall between religion and culture, where the religious voice is at least threatened with disenfranchisement because it hasn't embraced "neutrality" itself, not as a political artifice in service of equality between diverse groups, but as the Only Allowable Ideology itself, which is a really problematic development, and about as illiberal as can be, no matter how widely embraced by many on the political Left at this time. (Other types of Jeffersonian hokum are embraced by the political Right in America, like the rhetorical "small government" or anti-government thrust you hear at election time.) So that bit of reading in educational history and ideology dovetailed with my going online and reading all the current news stories and commentary available (as well as the original sources) on the minor debacle of the firing of Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois for accurately teaching what Catholicism teaches in his class on Catholicism. The student letter of protest that started the whole affair found it a violation of diversity that Catholicism seemed to think its own beliefs actually reflected reality. That this was shocking to a student is probably really more interesting....