John Milton, the morning after.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016: 7:30 a.m.

I have a lot of thoughts but for now, as a college professor, will confine myself to this:

What happens now to education, in a country where everyone claims to value it but our new president-elect, and those who voted for him, have just rejected its actual results? I’m talking about the idea of being qualified. I’m talking about the idea of expertise, learned and practiced through experiences in a field over time.  I’m talking about what happens in the heart and mind of a person who submits herself to learn – really learn – something she does not already know. Most of all I’m talking about a certain practical, humble stance on reality, driven by a deep knowledge that me and my single perspective are not all there is to the world, past, present, or future: the mental and emotional ecosystem of the educated person’s mind and heart.  Which, like any other endangered ecosystem – great forests, the underground layers of the Bakken shale, state universities now endangered in Wisconsin and North Carolina and elsewhere – unfolds and builds itself over time and needs attentiveness to understand but only a few years of reckless arrogance to destroy beyond redemption. And all these ecosystems are threatened in a society that insists that nothing really matters beyond money, beyond greed, beyond what we see on TV, beyond fear.

Yesterday afternoon, my seminar students and I read a passage in Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), the classic defense of free and open ideas in a democracy.  Here, Milton, warrior and intellectual, dreams of the fruits of reform and of peace:

Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with [God’s] protection. The shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defense of beleaguered Truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.

A lump came to all our throats, and I felt the presence of a great unacknowledged hope:  this can still be the dream of our country, of eager minds submitting themselves to learn of reality in conversation with each other and with the dead, speaking in writing and in the legacies we leave to those yet unborn.  Learning and growing from what you learn, opening yourself to wonder at the thing that is not yourself, brings out the best in humans as a species and as individuals.  This is the faith around which I have built my life.

What happens to those million firefly lights now – so reminiscent of a library at night?

What happens to that dream?

For me – and I am clinging to this as hard as I can, for so very many reasons – the answer lies elsewhere in Areopagitica:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.  Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.

This is the star by which I now steer. My writing in the last few years has focused, and will, on how we can protect and save that which we love – places, ideas, ecologies, planets.  As the great Roxane Gay wrote at 2 am – and as I read, sleeplessly refreshing and refreshing my computer screen, the radio blaring from the kitchen – now is not the time to give up.  Now is the time to keep fighting, or, in the peaceful metaphor I strive in my heart to prefer, to keep working.  Trial is by what is contrary.  Time for me, for all of us, to step up, stand up, work together.  It is not, cannot, be too late to save the world we love, and to build the world we need: the million lights of a million minds, eager in their pursuit of truth.

by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

John Milton (1608-1674) by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

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