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Commons & Commonwealth

As students across North America head back to class, Convivium contributor Doug Sikkema considers the common ground between education, ecology and our common home

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Commons & Commonwealth August 1, 2015  |  By Doug Sikkema
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As legend has it, the spark of Christianity was brought to the Northern British Isles around 597 by a group of monks that included a tall, gangly fellow by the name of Paulinus (now Saint Paulinus). At the time, King Edwin of Northumbria wanted to marry Princess Ethelburga of Kent — what a name; I'm sure her landholdings were more than fair compensation — but couldn't since she was a Christian and wasn't taking offers from pagans. Yes, that old chestnut.

But King Edwin was persistent and conceded, although not entirely. He promised to give his new Kentish Queen the freedom to worship this Christ and even promised to consider converting to the new religious sect after they were wed. So they got hitched, and soon after hitched their wagons for the journey north, bringing Paulinus with them to be a chaplain for the princess and apologist for the new faith.

As the Venerable Bede records the tale, once home, King Edwin invited Paulinus to explain this new religion to him and his pagan high priest Coifu, along with some of his other thegns (warriors). After hearing the account, one of Edwin's more convicted councillors told a short fable of life as a means of persuading his King to adopt this new religion. The story, as Bede narrates, goes as follows:

"When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst, there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it."

I've always loved this story. It's basically the Pascalian wager translated into the earthy, mead-hall language of the ancient Anglo-Saxons: If this Jewish renegade who claimed to be God promises life after death, the limit of our knowledge, what have we got to lose by converting?

This short parable is also a beautiful encapsulation of our life as we experience it in the brevity of the here and now. It's a story that reminds us that our flitting through the warmth and conviviality of the great hall of our common life is brief. There's only so much time we are given in which to act.

We'll have to fast forward a few centuries or so from King Edwin and his rugged council room before the descendants of these Northumbrians become part of the imperial commonwealth upon which the sun never set. Of course, the term commonwealth had already briefly sprung up on the English soil in 1649 after poor King Charles I had his monarchy and head removed by the English populace. The interregnum saw a new government rise up, one that stressed the need for a common flourishing of all to supplant the tyrannies of the king and the aristocracy. This brief republic was called the Commonwealth. Yet this commonwealth that sprang up quickly faded, as monarchy was restored only a few years later in 1660. And it wouldn't be until 1884 that a certain Lord Rosebery would resurrect the term, but this time in reference to the English imperial powerhouse and it's satellite colonies. This great colonial expansion was creating an untold wealth that would greatly improve the lives of the common Englishman. (Of course, who was included and excluded from this "commons" is worthy of the large amounts of critique it's been given in the past decades.)

Although the British Empire has collapsed and decolonization has left new tracings all over our world maps, Canadians still operate as part of a commonwealth of nations. The term, with its long and winding past, still functions in our collective imaginations: We are a people defined — or supposedly defined — by acting in ways that must be measured against the impact we have on others. We are, more crassly, never to be as ruggedly individualistic as our "rebellious" neighbours below us. We act in ways that support a common good, or so our status as a commonwealth nation might suggest.

But it seems that the idea behind commonwealth, much like the word itself, is becoming arcane; it is starting to deteriorate. If you read the tales of social disintegration in books such as Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone or follow some of the work being done by Cardus's Milton Friesen regarding social capital in urban spaces, it seems that the notions of the commonwealth, the civil society concerned for the common good, is much like that Anglo-Saxon sparrow flitting out of the world of warmth and light and into the cold, wintry night.

Of course, this is not reason to despair. It's time to double down, gird our loins like a thegn of old, and attempt to revive the importance of the commons in our language and behaviour today. And I think we can do this in two seemingly disparate yet connected realms: the school and the wild.

The University and the Common Room

First the school, that "garden of the mind." Another season of university is upon us. And if you're a student who's been recently overwhelmed by course outlines promising a world of pain, I have a word of advice: Get to the commons. Go quickly. While these Canadian temperatures remain moderate enough to keep you from isolating yourself in that dingy student apartment with nothing but coffee, mildew and a tome from Marx, get to the commons. More than anywhere else, I'd hazard, it's where you'll learn how to learn.

Sometimes the university commons looks (or feels) like a shopping mall food plaza littered with coffee shops, delis and other fast-food restaurants; but more traditionally, the commons is the grassy pitch or courtyard enclosed within the school's diverse range of classrooms. There are tables and benches, walkways and gardens where groups of students can get together, hash out ideas, argue, joke, talk and enter into the push and pull of a civil apprenticeship. In fact, it's where there is a truly embodied unity in diversity. It's what university is — or should be — all about.

Remind you of King Edwin's great hall? It should. Could you imagine the audacity of Paulinus, surrounded by pagan warriors, bringing Christ to the table and effectively changing the course of conversation in this Northern Kingdom for centuries?

This is the world of education you've entered into, but you won't truly enter into it if you become an island unto yourself or believe, as John Adams once quipped, that scholars are made "alone, and sober."

The university is about learning how best you can live, think, create, work, play and worship in a world teeming with diversity. And I'm not saying this as a call to some bland, passive acceptance of "multiple perspectives." You'll get enough of that in the classroom. Rather, the commons is the battleground, the microcosm for the larger society outside the ivory womb preparing you for the dialectical, dialogical push and pull of real life. And if the stories of trigger warnings and political correctness that are overtaking "free thought" on campuses are true, then the commons might be the last refuge of a good education you'll find in our universities today.

The great American social critic, Kenneth Burke, used another analogy to get at this; he talked of a parlour where we (like that sparrow) enter for just a short time:

"Imagine that you enter a parlour. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defence; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."

—The Philosophy of Literary Form:
Studies in Symbolic Action

Who knows who will pick up the conversation you started? Who knows whose ideas, attitudes and behaviours were, albeit slightly, bent in a direction because of you? Or whose ideas you wittingly or unwittingly adopted and used, ideas you were given from someone you never knew? Which is why, as you begin this school year, think of yourself not just as a container being filled with information but as the steward of a tradition that defends the commons as a place of dialogue, exchange and heated debate. Think of yourself as someone who is being formed as much as you are working to form others. You've entered a place where we offend and forgive, and get back to work. For the brief time you're in school, see this as the ground in which you're being nurtured so that you might grow and flourish, wherever you are transplanted.

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The Wild and Common World

Which leads me to the second area in which we might work to preserve the commonwealth, which is in preserving our common, wild world. What I mean here is not simply the area untouched by human hands but the natural world from which all our cultural creations come and upon which all of them depend. The common human, social good we debate over in the universities and seek to practise in civil society cannot be divorced from a consideration of the non-human world that depends on our care as much as we depend on its life. The commonwealth is a deeply ecological concept. The world is not the scene of our action, but a character engaged with the plot.

As I write this, the much-touted encyclical on the environment from Pope Francis has just been published. In this sprawling letter addressed to "all humans," Pope Francis is drawing upon his namesake from Assissi's legacy of bringing Brother Sun and Sister Moon back into serious consideration for Christians today.

While many are getting caught up in the role a religious leader has in making political, public policy statements, what strikes me at this point is the important title Pope Francis has given his encyclical: "Laudato Sii: Sulla cura della casa commune," which translates as "Praise Be: On the care of the common home." Whatever your take on global warming — and full disclosure, I'm not completely sold on it myself, let alone convinced bureaucratically enforced carbon tax policies are the best way to solve the problem, should there be one — the focus is rightly centred on the mutual dependence of our common good and the health of this world, our common home.

In an older, now largely defunct context, the commons was traditionally land owned by a community and used within the parameters of the community's shared needs. It existed as a "commonwealth," neither private nor public property. It was communally owned and operated, justified as an economic good, but also an ecological good since the land was conserved and cared for out of its status as shared property upon which many had to rely. The commons, in this sense, is just a microcosm of our world as our common home.

Again, as we think on the brevity of our life through the commons, we must work with a view to those who live downstream from us both in time and place. The way we act has repercussions for people worlds away, and likely our children and great grandchildren.

Again, we are not islands and when it comes to stewarding this world, we can't act as if we are. Today, Wendell Berry argues, "we hold the land under a doctrine of private property that in practice acknowledges no commonwealth." And we do this, he continues, because we've forgotten how to ask the right questions: "How should we live? How should we keep house? How should we provide ourselves with food, clothing, shelter, heat, light, learning, amusement, rest? How, in short, ought we to use the world?"

These questions are, to go back to my earlier point, perhaps the ones you might ask in the common rooms of your universities this year. Of course, asking the questions is only the start, hashing out responses and then finding ways in which the common good can be defined, worked toward and lived out is the real difficult, sometimes joyful, sometimes frustrating work we have in this brief span between the crossbeams of life's mead hall.

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