I’m blessed to have the opportunity to teach my class on ancient and medieval political philosophy this semester. Right now, we’re reading and discussing Aristophanes’ Clouds , which (for those who haven’t read it) is a comedic presentation of a “pre-Socratic” Socrates who is much less responsible than the figure we see portrayed by Plato and Xenophon.
At the center of the comedy is a contest between the Just and Unjust Speeches for the allegiance of Pheidippides, a young man compelled by his father to study at the “Thinkery” so as to be able to argue his way out of the debts his father has incurred on his behalf. The Just Speech paints a picture of a traditionally modest education that, it says, produced the generation that fought and won at Marathon. When a very sharp student asked me why the Just Speech didn’t make more of that argument, I was compelled to think on my feet about how we (or at least I) go about educating the young (for my sense is that for Pheidippides an appeal to the example of Athens’s “greatest generation” wouldn’t go very far).
Most of my students are typical, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-two, or thereabouts. They are in the early stages of being responsible for themselves, and most have (as yet) given little or no thought to being seriously responsible to or for others. Their default intellectual position is some form or another of libertarianism. There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when I could have been somewhat confident that I could help lay the intellectual foundations for a life of thoughtful responsibility when, as seemed almost inevitable, the usual vehicle for social commitment and responsibility—marriage and child-rearing—came up in their lives.
Having had the experience of my own prolonged, relatively irresponsible, semi-libertarian adolescence (being a student from sixteen to twenty-eight, and then an unmarried professor until thirty-five), I think I know the difference between what moves an unattached young person and what appeals to someone whose roots in the community are formed in large measure by family life. My students might resist some of my arguments now, I’ve regularly told myself, but once they get married and have kids they’ll give me my due, recognizing where I was right.
But I’m now less confident that I will as frequently have the last laugh, so to speak. Or, to state it somewhat differently, I have to revisit and rethink the ways in which I talk about community with my students. If fewer of them are bound to have families, then that (once typical) path to community will be less common.
I know that the military has long specialized in developing a kind of solidarity out of the young men and women called to the banner. I note a difference between the kind of preliminary appeal of many recruitment messages (learn a skill, see the world, make money for college) and the substance of the training that follows. This is not a case of cynical bait-and-switch; rather, it takes people where they individualistically are and leads them to the unit cohesion where they need to be. I know that the Marines take quite a different approach (where is Joe Carter when I need him?) and that some (like my son, who feels called to service) don’t need to be reached preliminarily in this way. But the fact remains that military service is a serious alternative path to a life of civic and communal responsibility, one that can be transformative for those who (for whatever reason) embark upon it.
Of course, the subset of those who neither join the military nor get married is growing as the others are shrinking. Reaching and teaching them is the challenge. Both Athens and Jerusalem teach us that human beings are made for community, that they are fulfilled by their engagement with others, but we live at a time when our language and modes of thinking are highly individualistic and our technologically-enabled ways of living offer both false independence and false community.
I’m left in my collegiate setting with two sorts of considerations. The first is the classroom, where common inquiry (the pursuit of knowledge) can form the basis of a community. I know it when I see it, and wish I experienced it more than I do. But in the small classes with eager and thoughtful students where I experience it, it is quite wonderful, and certainly provides them with a taste of what genuine community can be like. The second is campus life itself , a potentially Tocquevillean setting where students are invited and encouraged to join together to address the issues and problems they have in common. We learn the pleasures and pains of community by being offered the opportunity to engage in it. (Just don’t get me started on the threats to collegial learning and living.)