Ritual & the Modern Student

Discussing Dvorak, a friend (Scotus) googled and sent me this link. And it brought to mind the importance of ritual and traditions to all of us, to the closure of a funeral, and, especially, the need in a warrior culture. A member of the Sunday school class I�ve been attending died a few months ago and the members seemed quite sad he wished for no funeral, no memorial service. The services are for the bereaved rather than the person laying in state at the front, not just for the intimately bereaved but the community as well.

Tradition is important here. A new apartment complex is called �Traditions, the Dorm.� This obsession is also a bit incongruous when applied to ads for homes in an upscale development on the �Traditions� golf course, mixing nostalgia for old army with Rotary Club boosterism.

An officemate, decades ago, declared that our students couldn�t appreciate �real� tradition � would laugh at the sherry & robes of Cambridge & Oxford. Not surprisingly he was a medievalist. And, well, yes, our students did tend toward the provincial. But, not understanding how important these traditions were to these students, he, too, saw with limitations. He was a great guy and a first class scholar; he was, however, not all that easy to place in, say, Fussell�s hierarchy. He played washtub bass in an old timey band, cleared his Saturdays (and didn�t answer the phone) for PBS Saturday operas; he was married to a woman whom I respected in many ways but who was at once a strident member of the ACLU, complaining of local racism on television, and who, after a few beers, was likely to not only use the �n� word but demonstrate a casual racism I’d never heard before nor since. We are all a combination of contrasts and contradictions. We are also all heirs to a variety of traditions. Some of them are ones we should probably jettison and some we should honor. I suspect in the years since both he and his wife (long divorced) have chosen the appropriate ones to respect & appropriate ones to jettison. I also suspect that the people who were our students then have done similar proportioning.

But in thirty years local academics have not always become more, well, sensitive (or perceptive). Not so long ago, another colleague, a Brit, looked at me with some pity for my blindness when I complained of the divide between students & teachers. Of course the tradition is fascist, she replied, Ginny, look at the boots. Well, yes, the boots symbolize the seniors and there is a strong hierarchy within the corps. Some hazing that reinforces that hierarchy is quite unattractive. But hierarchies are characteristic of armies; being a soldier is not, indeed, being a fascist. And I sharply replied, you were damn happy when those boots were attached to the bodies of those landing at Normandy. They were led by General Rudder, who lost 50% of his men there, and who came back to lead the college into the co-ed era.

But the contrast is understandable. The liberal arts emphasize a contemplative tradition. We think of Matthew Arnold & T. S. Eliot, writing with irony & yet also great respect for the tradition to which both so fully belonged. From such perspectives, action seems to cheapen & make mundane their heritage. Certainly, it is hard to take a traditions golf course, for instance, very seriously. But this school emphasizes the least contemplative, the least ironic, the least scholastic of disciplines: ag, engineering, military. Such active application of the self requires a kind of skepticism, one that questions current solutions; these require an active creativity, an appreciation of beauty & complexity in the mundane. I remember one late night on a mental hospital ward when another aide, an older guy finishing up in engineering, called to me over � �Here,� he said, �is beauty.� He pointed to the arch he had drawn to illustrate a bridge system he was designing as part of a project. �There, you�ve seen beauty,� he said, �you can return to your ward.� Ironic, joking, but he clearly meant it. And, of course, he was right. Those who love the great arc of that drawing are interested in a pragmatic & material tradition, an acting I rather than a contemplative one.

Those developers of �traditions to rent� may be sentimental, even cynical, but they understand their audience. Nor is this a reaching for status, a desire to have a faux history, a faux resonance. At a military school, tradition is in deadly earnest. Such a sense of tradition, while expressed in new ways, transformed the deaths of those lost in the Bonfire a few years ago. When someone who came from quite different traditions argued the money would be better spent on scholarships or some other worthy goal, he was ignoring the real worth of memorials, of rituals. And he was devaluing tradition. This was an example of a ritual & tradition that are quite new � quite different from those of medieval scholasticism. But no less important to the participants. Dvorak didn�t compose his work all that long ago in the scheme of things; certainly the ritual of the film clip is not ancient. But it formalizes, ritualizes, and, therefore, gives solace.

Mastering the self, learning restraint is central to training leaders. Disciplined, ritualized responses are important. Traditions arise in a warrior culture; sacrifice is given meaning and rituals embody that meaning as well as defining boundaries; no matter how unlimited the warrior�s power, internalizing these values keeps him from entertaining the thought that �everything is permitted.�

Sure power and the impulses violence releases remain powerful temptations. And traditions may prove a dead weight, may suffocate. But another temptation is cynicism, which arises from disillusioned, disproportionate idealism; it is the Red Knight�s band of marauding thugs. Traditions save civilization by also saving the warrior, ennobling his choices, giving them resonance, restraining them. Such traditions arose for many reasons, but one of the primary ones was to discourage men from using their greater power against the weak. This is not something we should underestimate nor scoff at.

A Chicagoboyz aside: Quite a few months ago, we had a minor discussion on this blog about the difference between what evil man is tempted to commit when �everything is permitted� and the transcendence that comes when �nothing is permitted.� The article Lex suggested dealt with a profoundly moving account of how man triumphs even when life is so limited that the only choices are spiritual.

4 thoughts on “Ritual & the Modern Student”

  1. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath
  2. And it was and remains tradition that allows so many Americans to0 continue to believe that there is a man in the sky, looking like Walt Whitman, who will take care of your soul when you die, and that wicked peopled–those that do not believe in what the Good People belive–go to Hell and burn endlessly.

    As for colleges: the academic robes, the convocations, the school song, and banners and class length and rankings of faculty so on.
    It is true that we have and make fake traditons: homes etc–in order to sell things. But then marketplace importance and ads are the American Tradition after all.

    In sum: embrace that which comforts and works; dismiss that which annoys. Do you send and get Xmas cards still? why?

  3. Mark Olson does a nice job of noting both some characteristics of modern education that underlie the outsider’s take on a military school & helpfully places all in a broader context.

  4. Andreas, such is Ginny’s belief in the tradition of the free marketplace of ideas that she choose not to delete your angry ravings. Relying on my rights under that tradition, I label your very “traditional” village atheist claptrap the drivel it is.

Comments are closed.