A few weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of visiting the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I offer some brief thoughts about why I find the Institute so extraordinarily compelling in case some readers here at the USIH blog might also find it–and more broadly the kind of effort it represents–to be of interest.
The occasion for my visit was the annual advisory board meeting held simultaneously with a conference on “The Present Challenges and Believable Futures of Liberal Democracy.” Skeptics might attribute some of the euphoria I felt throughout the conference to the fact that I was coming from upstate New York, where we had just experienced a run of grey days that seemed determined to last forever, and in late March in Charlottesville I was actually able to see the sun. But even allowing for the role of the pleasant weather, I found myself in nothing short of an altered state of consciousness deriving from the enormous difference between what has been the prevailing tenor of too many experiences over the course of my career in academia and what I was experiencing at this conference.
The Institute, whose guiding spirit and Executive Director is UVA’s LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory James Davison Hunter, of Culture Wars (NY: Basic Books, 1992) fame, is located in an elegant renovated house atop a small hill carpeted with green on a quiet residential street. Founded fifteen years ago, it has accomplished great things over the course of its short life. For one thing it is home of the stunning Hedgehog Review (co-edited by UVA professors Joseph E. Davis and Jennifer L. Geddes), which last year won an award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals for Best Public Intellectual Special Issue 2012 (for “The Roots of the Arab Spring”). The Institute’s publications are penetrating and its surveys great potential sources for cultural and intellectual historians of the recent U.S. and anyone else interested in understanding what Americans were thinking about a variety of matters, such as civic life and democracy. It has begun a fellows program, sponsored conferences and talks, run work groups, and much more. Its website offers a helpful window onto its activities and, in addition, a remarkable Media Archive of previous talks, interviews, and the like. I look forward to the enjoyment of continuing to make my way through these gems.
All of this could be considered something that any good center or institute would by nature be up to. But what makes IASC stand out so much for me, what makes it so distinctive, is its conscious guarding against much of what have been the dominant trends of modern academe as well as the larger intellectual climate of our times. To allude to just a few, these trends have included a kind of cv-oriented careerism, an unquestioned assumption that what academic life is about at its root is individual advancement and success conceived of in the narrowest possible terms of the present age, a partitioning of the pursuit of learning into separate fiefdoms with their own small-minded gatekeepers, an emphasis on quantity over quality, the abandonment of the humanistic and democratic aims of education for upscale vocational training for the privileged classes, stultifying bureaucratization and overweening administration, carelessness about style and form, forgetfulness about the public trust, the replacement of the contemplative and the search for meaning and excellence with the functional imperative and profit-seeking, posturing and back-biting in pursuit of personal status rather than collective engagement toward shared purposes, the bracketing of ethical or so-called “normative” concerns–once considered at the very heart of scholarship, teaching, and learning.
Evident in the way the Institute approaches just about everything is a wholly different philosophy of, well, just that–everything. Here’s just a taste, from its research “Overview”
The common thread of concern within the Institute is the problem of the ‘good’ or of ‘human flourishing.’ Why? Implicit assumptions of ‘the good’ define the terms of meaning and moral order; tacit conceptions of ‘human flourishing’ form the deep structures of culture. Given this, our core concern is to provide better accounts of human flourishing under the conditions of late Western modernity: how it has been and is being undermined, on the one hand, and how it has been and is being sustained and enhanced, on the other.
Inquiry into the deep structures of contemporary culture requires an approach that transcends conventional disciplinary theories, methods, and practices, and an open space where such inquiry can go forward. Therefore, our intellectual labor is divided not along disciplinary lines or according to institutional spheres but around three areas in which questions of the good are most critical: the person, the community, and the constitutive elements of meaning itself.
When these kinds of ideals are successfully put into practice, as they are by Hunter and others at the Institute, and the remarkable international group of scholars it draws, it can be not just refreshing but indescribably rewarding. And I swear it wasn’t just the sun.