Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.
According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.
The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.
It has recently occurred to me, and to Kristor and Alan Roebuck, that the term ecology might be aptly applied beyond the discussion of nature as a system. For example, ecology seems to apply rather nicely to the discussion of knowledge, what knowledge is, how it functions, and how it arranges for its own preservation in a community against the ravages of time. In a few, casual discussions the phrase epistemological ecology offered itself. Epistemological ecology is, however, a bit pretentious in piling up too many Greek polysyllables. The alternative phrase, ecology of knowledge, resolves the problem mainly if not entirely. It nestles a humble Saxonism with the high-class Hellenism. What is meant by the ecology of knowledge?
The phrase, in its original form, arose during an exchange between parties concerning one of the latest (among many) academic trends: A rising animosity against the age-old convention of the college lecture-course, whose critics, appearing on the scene with the usual sudden vehemence, condemn the custom of the lecture as ripe for abolition. These critics assert, for example, that lecturing is too much teacher-centered and by implication idiosyncratic, egocentric, and hierarchical, to accommodate itself to equality and democracy. Students, these critics assert, bring “their own knowledge” to the classroom; they need to meld that knowledge with new knowledge on their own, in which endeavor the instructor should renounce his authority as someone who uniquely, in the classroom, knows a subject, and he should be content “to facilitate” (that is invariably the word) the students in their miraculous unmediated acquisition of knowledge. This summary neither exaggerates nor distorts the argument; neither does it mitigate the argument’s inherent animus against the lecturer.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed a lecture and learned something from it will experience an instinctive revulsion against the complaint that there is something high-handed or invidious in the custom of giving an organized oratorical exposition. This reaction will take into account the rationale of the lecture, which is so easy to understand that one wonders why the critics fail to understand it. The good lecturer is someone who has studied his subject for many years, has a deep and wide understanding of it, has lived with it and made it his knowledge for a lifetime. Recalling his own progress in knowledge, he has come to see with enviable clarity what is essential to it and what inessential; he has discovered, for his own purposes, what the clearest explanations are of the fundamental concepts of the subject, and can reproduce them for an audience, with an abundance of appropriate examples.
An audience with an interest in, but only a little prior and inadequate knowledge of, a subject thus stands to benefit from attending closely to a lecturer, whose thorough grounding and succinct exposition is for each audience-member a real short-cut to basic comprehension. The lecturer has spent his life doing the grunt-work, setting up the paradigms in his mind, sorting out the details, the views, and the assessments; and rigorously extracting and codifying the starting-point of understanding in respect to it. In delivering the lecture, the lecturer offers to dispense with everything that, in his experience, is a side-bar. More importantly, the lecturer proposes to spare the attentive audience the ordeal of passing from the degree-zero of comprehension to a working picture of the discipline more or less in a single bound. The lecture is, in this sense, a charitable event, which the lecturer magnanimously arranges at no great cost to the audience – whose sole job is to pay attention.
A portion of a single paragraph from Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (1925; revised 1957) will give a sense of what I mean. In an early chapter, Barfield is discussing the origins of the many Greek words that Modern English has long-since naturalized to the point that many people use them unaware of their foreign and ancient origin. Barfield writes:
It was in Attica, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. that the Hellenic culture reached its finest flower. We use the word Attic to describe a peculiarly finished work of art or an exquisite literary style… Consequently the names of many things which we regard as the hallmark of a cultured society can be traced back to the Attic dialect of this period. Academy, school, history, logic, grammar, poetry, rhythm, harmony, melody, music, are all from Greek words which were in common use in Athens, and the lasting influence of [that city’s] sublime dramatic tradition is indicated by the great words, chorus, comedy, drama, theatre, and tragedy, and the lesser catastrophe, episode, prologue, and protagonist, all of which draw their meanings from the inspiration of the great Athenian dramatists.
I have selected the paragraph almost at random because almost any other paragraph from any of the other chapters of Barfield’s extremely useful little book would serve as well. One of the lovely qualities of History in English words is that Barfield’s prose has the feel of spoken – sophisticated, but nevertheless spoken – language, that is, the language of a good lecture. I recently taught History in English Words in the context of a college course on “The Origins and Development English.” The students in the course had no knowledge whatever of “The Origins and Development of English,” the language in which they have been habituated since childhood, but which typically they have taken entirely for granted, as though it had fallen out of the sky in the moments of their births.
A number of things happen when Barfield introduces naïve readers to the historical aspect of their native tongue. For many, this will have been the first time that the concepts of language and history have appeared together in an exposition. Possibly the words Greek and Latin hover vaguely in the naïve awareness, but the encounter with Barfield’s History will have been the first time when the vague notions became explicit, acquiring a chronology and a bevy of specific examples. Barfield’s gesture of italicizing his specimen-words is the equivalent on the printed page of isolating and stressing such terms forensically during a live performance. That such a humble vocabulary-item as school is Greek comes as a surprise to many students, all the more when, in a subsequent paragraph, Barfield explains the word’s original meaning, of leisure-time. The equation of school with leisure confounds their perception requiring a readjustment of their notions.
Barfield enjoyed a rigorous education in the British system. The original version of History in English Words is a summary of the ideas that he formed in the 1920s not so many years after finishing his baccalaureate and while studying law. American college students in a mid-tier state college have been through twelve years of a largely content-less and thoroughly non-rigorous curriculum that leaves them noticeably deficient in what E. D. Hirsch in a popular book (1987) referred to as cultural literacy. It goes without saying that students in my course have never heard of Owen Barfield, but that for various reasons I have. Thus the students’ knowledge-deficit can be mitigated somewhat, if not made good entirely, by my mediation for them of Barfield’s summary of his own arduously obtained knowledge about the transmigration of foreign and ancient vocabularies into English, and of the changes in meanings of words across the centuries.
It is necessary to remark that without someone’s intervention, the students would never have come to Barfield by themselves because nothing in their shallow knowledge-environment would have led them to him. They would have gone on through their lives in the same condition of naivety about their daily language that characterized their low level of awareness when they began the semester. Probably most of the enrollment consists of English majors for whom “The Origins and Development of English” is a requirement. How long this will remain the case is unknown because the trend in colleges and universities is, as it has been for a long time, to abolish traditional requirements – some of which are replaced by mandatory, topical courses linked to the reigning political regime and some others of which simply disappear into oblivion, the collective wisdom having decided that they are useless or irrelevant.
Students passing out of “The Origins and Development of English” thus benefit from a demand. I would say that, like “knowledge-environments,” demands play a role in the efficient mediation of lore. I will return to these notions.
The formal lecture seems to me to be a grand development of an earlier social-linguistic convention or institution – the proverb or old saying. We are decreasingly familiar with the proverbs and old sayings although most modern people can still cite a few.
Blood is thicker than water.
A new broom sweeps clean but an old broom knows the corners.
A fish rots from the head down.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
A stitch in time saves nine.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
You have to take the bitter with the sweet.
An old saying is a verbal distillation of multi-generational experience articulated so as to be as memorable as possible. Old sayings belong to oral traditions, predating the era of literacy. Walter J. Ong, who spent his lifetime studying the relation between spoken language and written language, remarks about the oral culture that accompanies oral language that, in it, “you know what you can recall” (Orality and Literacy, 1981). This restriction in what can be known (that is, recalled) is difficult for literate people to grasp because they take the graphic externalization of language (that is, text) so much for granted. Nevertheless, as Ong writes, “In an oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression, but thought processes.” Without the scaffold of writing, which converts evanescent sounds to permanent visible marks, spoken language never achieves what literates would recognize as discourse. In an oral culture, as Ong writes, “to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.”
The old sayings in the preceding list exemplify such “mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.” They conform to the pattern of being “short and sweet.” To paraphrase Ong, they exhibit the characteristics of pronounced rhythm, symmetrical construction, repetition, antithesis, assonance, and rhyme; they place the figure in a familiar ground – the household, the village, the close countryside; and they are formulaic. They belong, to borrow a term from phenomenology, to the “Lifeworld.” As Ong explains, “Heavy patterning and communal fixed formulas in oral cultures serves some of the purposes of writing in chirographic cultures, but in doing so they of course determine the kind of thinking that can be done, the way experience is intellectually organized.”
Other characteristics of spoken language, according to Ong, are that it is “additive rather than subordinative”; “aggregative rather than analytic”; “redundant or ‘copious’”; “conservative or traditionalist”; and “agonistically toned.” It is not quite my purpose to write an introduction to Ong although I would like to do so. I cite him rather because his treatment of “orality” underscores the necessity of organizing knowledge for spontaneous apposite reproduction in emergent situations. This necessity is conjoint with the fact that in functioning culture knowledge is not optional but mandatory. If natural ecology were a non-sentient self-regulating system, the ecology of knowledge would be, from its beginning, a conscious, therefore intentional, and deliberately maintained system. It would be vulnerable to the range of all-too-human lapses, such as forgetfulness, but also to conscious sabotage. It might have enemies.
I wrote that the lecture strikes me as a grand development of the proverb. As the parallelism might not be as obvious to others as it is to me, I offer an explanation. The lecturer resembles a distiller. His sack of potatoes is his own arduously obtained learning, his encompassment of his subject. His still is the essentializing faculty in his own mind, which he activates when he decides to frame for a non-specialist audience the irreducible idea of his subject. Let us say that the lecturer’s subject is Fifth Century BC Greece. In his studious lifetime the lecturer will have read, first, the entire corpus of Fifth-Century BC Greek texts and the later texts (histories, by Hellenistic and Roman writers) that look back on the Fifth Century; he will have read, next, hundreds of scholarly books and articles pertaining to the study of the primary material. We will presume that he has traveled in the Greek world, participating in archeology, so that his knowledge of the physical conditions against which the events of the time-period occurred is first-hand and not second-hand. Obviously, the lecturer could “write a book” – and perhaps he has. In his sixty-minute lecture at the public library, however, he must discard everything but what he judges to be the gist. He must formulate his lore so that his audience can remember it easily. From his sack of potatoes he must make and offer only the purest vodka.
The context of the lecture is literate society. The lecturer’s delivery will be decisively informed by his literacy, but, somewhat paradoxically, and although the lecture is a modern phenomenon inextricable from chirographic and typographic acculturation, it is an oral performance. The context of the aphorism is uninterrupted orality. In an early-human context, the codification of experience as recallable sayings had an existential implication. More was at stake for our ancestors than a veneer of high-culture, which is what the audience expects to gain from attending the lecture at the public library. Life was at stake. This is perhaps why, as Ong remarks, while oral cultures know such things as riddles and rhymes, they know no jokes. Existential meanings can easily be teased out of the sayings in the list above. I invite readers to do so.
The many sayings that constitute the anthology-like second half of Hesiod’s Works and Days provide their own particularly clear instance of the old saying as survival-knowledge. Here is a suite of them:
Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed.
Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: She is after your barn.
If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work.
Mark, when you hear the voice of the crane, who cries year by year from the clouds above, for she [gives] the signal for ploughing and shows the season of rainy winter.
Do not get a name either, as lavish or as churlish; as a friend of rogues or as a slanderer of good men.
Never dare to taunt a man with deadly poverty which eats out the heart; it is sent by the deathless gods.
Do not be boorish at a common feast where there are many guests; the pleasure is greatest and the expense is least.
Never pour a libation of sparkling wine to Zeus after dawn with unwashen hands, nor to others of the deathless gods; else they hear [not] your prayers but spit them back.
Hesiod’s short pithy sayings differ slightly from their generic counterparts, the Anglo-Saxon saws. The English words of wisdom although chronologically later than Hesiod’s sentences stand closer to the degree-zero of orality than the prescriptions of Works and Days. Hesiod is working at the end of a longstanding oral tradition when the elements of that tradition were being recast as textuality. Hesiod’s sayings are already sentential, articulating themselves in clauses, but they stem from a repertory of shorter and undoubtedly older phrases, which the poet elaborates. Assuming that the translator (Evelyn-White) has done his best to reproduce the qualities of the Greek original, we find most of the characteristics noted by Ong. “Friend” and “fixed” are in assonance, as are “coax” and “cozen.” The saying beginning with “do not get a name” has a nifty parallel construction with repetition. The phrase to spit back in the “libation” aphorism belongs vividly to the “Lifeworld.”
More importantly by far, however, is the manner in which Hesiod’s sayings imply a conscious anthropology. In the “wage” aphorism, for example, we see a nascent science of psychology and a theory of envy and resentment, as well as the invocation of an institution, the contract or “promise,” intended to circumvent a breakdown in human relations. Feminists will have an invidious field-day with the “flaunting woman” aphorism, but all rock-stars know its truth. The “work upon work” aphorism describes the order of existence, which, after all, had to be discovered before it could be articulated. The “voice of the crane” aphorism combines millennia of celestial and meteorological observations and codifies them as an easily remembered almanac for the farmer. (Works and Days inaugurates the poetic genre known as georgics – advice to farmers, or “workers in the earth.”) The “never taunt” aphorism addresses a propensity to Schadenfreude that over the ages must have provoked numerous homicides leading, once again, to numerous bloody breakdowns in human relations. Boorishness can lead to homicide. Homicide invites revenge. Revenge annihilates the community. It is existential. Finally, Hesiod reminds us in the “sparkling wine” aphorism that cleanliness is next to godliness.
The environment of orality is altered by the advent of literacy, especially, where the West is concerned, by the advent of alphabetic literacy, but literacy never annihilates orality. Much of life is still conducted orally, in familial and friendly environments and even, as I have suggested, in the university-custom of the formal lecture. Literacy opens up new domains of the ecology of knowledge, but it does not fundamentally alter the underlying motive. Knowledge is for the survival of the community, as well as of the individual. When in the 1980s Hirsch began to write about cultural literacy, it was because he saw a radical contraction in general knowledge. This retraction had been brought about inadvertently by radio, television, commercial music, and the movies. It had also been brought about deliberately by people whose agenda was “to change,” that is, to annihilate, traditional culture and society by obliterating prevailing general knowledge that defines traditional culture and society. Neil Postman and Alan Bloom saw the same descent into idiocy and sought to draw attention to it. As it had Hirsch, the Ministry of Resentment rewarded Postman and Bloom with contempt.
There is a mentality that resents every demand with petulant fury. Where there is a demand to learn a body of lore, there will be a reaction against it. This reaction is one of the forces that disrupts and can ultimately destroy the ecology of knowledge in a community.
For the remainder of my exposition, I would like to switch my approach. For one thing, the topic is proving wider and deeper than I anticipated when beginning; for another, my presentation is drifting away into abstractions that I would like to bring back closer to the “Lifeworld.” I wish to exploit autobiography by speculating on how I have come to know the knowledge that I especially value. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the subtleties of the ecology of knowledge – as well as the vulnerabilities thereof to emergent developments.
Of course, I attended school. I must have learned something, but the truth is that consciously I have little or no memory of learning things in school. I remember being bored in the classroom but rather happy in the library. I am speaking of my elementary schooling – the tokens of which are basic grammar, some school-book vocabulary, the multiplication tables, and a smattering of geography. Junior high school is equally blank although its years were the years when I defined myself as an inveterate and voracious reader of non-school-related books. High school stands out as a more memorable experience but only because of two or three exceptionally quirky teachers who ignored the formal curriculum and tried to interest the pupils in what interested them.
The most exceptional – really quite eccentric – one was the English teacher whom I shall call Mr. Kingston. In his own story, the truth of which eluded verification, Kingston studied musical composition in the graduate program at USC where he was fulfilling the requirements for an MFA. Possibly it was so. He knew and loved real music – this came at the zenith of the late-1960s wave of rock and roll – and sought to afford us glimpses of things he loved. He taught a six-week summer course on “Hero Tales.” When I took it with him in 1971, the syllabus included The Odyssey, Beowulf, portions of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and portions of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the Furtwängler/La Scala recording of which had just been reissued by Angel Records on its budget Seraphim label. We heard whole acts of The Ring on Johnston’s portable stereo set-up, as well as Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and Symphony No. 1, “Der Titan” by Gustav Mahler. The music fell on me like a breaking tsunami.
I would not have sought out any of those operas and symphonies myself because I had never heard of any of them, but having heard them, I wanted to hear them again and once I had, I sought out similar scores, haphazardly I imagine, but over the years with greater system. In other classes Kingston introduced his students to Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Camus. These became starting-points of real literary and philosophical interest. These events were mediations. Much of learning is mimetic. We learn to like – even to be passionate about – what other people like and are passionate about. To encounter a person who likes and is passionate about something above the enforced low level of commercial culture is therefore akin to Grace.
An objective observer might have condemned Kingston as a mountebank. Under another name he edited pornographic anthologies for a fly-by-night Hollywood publisher (Brandon Books) associated with Ed Wood. When last known he had morphed into a prevaricating huckster of herbal cures on the Internet. He is probably dead. None of it mattered. Homer, Nietzsche, Jung, Hesse, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler were real. They mattered. Curiosity having been provoked, curiosity could satisfy itself because of a peculiarity of the environment. The Santa Monica School District stretched from its home base in the cliff-top town overlooking the immense beach all the way (almost thirty miles) to Pt. Dume in Malibu, near Zuma Beach, where my father had settled his family in 1966, and beyond. In the early morning five days a week the school buses collected us from remote places like Decker Canyon and Pt. Dume to transport us to Santa Monica High School in that fair city – and back again in the late afternoon.
Santa Monica is now Beverly Hills South just as Pt. Dume is Beverly Hills West, crammed with millionaire condominiums and pricey boutiques, but in 1969 Santa Monica was much as it had been in the 1930s and 40s, a quiet small seaside city with a frowsy downtown and a pedestrian mall that had once been its Third Street. (Pt. Dume was, by contrast, the frontier – twenty miles from the nearest supermarket, with five-digit telephone numbers, and an antique central telephone exchange for calling out of the area.) The Third Street Mall boasted plenty of burger joints and pizza parlors, to which students from the high school often resorted during lunchtime, beneficiaries as they were of Principal Drake’s “open campus” policy. Among the small businesses on or around the mall were half a dozen second-hand bookstores, run by grumpy old men who lived in the retirement hotels on Second Street. No institution better exemplifies the idea of the ecology of knowledge than the now-vanished low-rent used-book emporium run by a pensioner in order to eke out his living. George Katz, the three Cunningham brothers, and I would visit these musty shops during our lunch-forays or our extended hooky-playing walkabouts to see what was what in the world.
At first the old copies of Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Galaxy, science-fiction magazines, mostly attracted us, largely due to their lurid covers, but it proved natural and easy to move from the nickel back-issues of the “mags” to the shelves full of paperbacks. Once the quirky teachers – not just Kingston – initiated us into real literature and philosophy, we began to browse more generally and more intently. I acquired, for example, the one-volume edition of James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, the two-volumes of H. G. Wells’ Outline of History, several volumes of Carl G. Jung in the uniform edition, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson, whose bibliography then spurred additional book-ferreting and reading. It will be useful to consider what conditions must have been in place for Santa Monica’s second-hand booksellers to have existed.
There must have been hundreds of serious readers in the area, assembling libraries over their lifetimes. Many of the books that I bought had been published in the 1920s or 30s and still bore the mark of the upscale bookstore, Martindale’s, that had originally sold them. Possibly when an older relative died the survivors would sell off the library to one of the dealers. There must have been a ready clientele of people with little money, who were nevertheless keenly literate and cultivated, to support the second-hand dealers – and they must have bought steadily over the decades. There must, in other words, have been a long-lived reading culture in Santa Monica in the middle of the last century, into which adolescents could still be drawn. There had to be a few teachers, or a few adults, who belonged to this reading culture, in meaningful contact with young people, to steer the novices toward worthy titles. The adolescents needed to have a little spending money, which I earned from mowing lawns and that kind of job in the neighborhood and which the Cunningham brothers earned by working in their parents’ music store. The novices needed actively to egg each other on to collecting and reading. We had many serious conversations about the books that found their way to us. At times, collecting and reading became competitive. George would eventually assemble a display-case of every Ace double-novel ever published.
I might invoke Grace again, or what Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “the Angel of the library.” This “Angel” is the inscrutable agency that sends the right person to the right book at the right moment. That is part of the ecology of knowledge, too.
By the time I went off to college, most of the seedy little establishments had shut up shop. The proprietors, crusty bachelors without issue, had died. No similar businesses came along to replace them. There were still bookstores. Between 1980 and 2000, there was indeed something like a bookstore boom in the United States – but now most of those places, like the franchises of the Borders chain, have vanished. The Internet, which is supposed to have replaced many such enterprises, is rather unlike the downtown of a small city. One can randomly follow up links on the Internet, but this is not at all like strolling past the book window on the way to the burger joint and again on the way back to classes. Nor, as my job of presiding over college classrooms tells me, are there many high-school teachers of the Kingston-type who willingly and perhaps daringly depart from teaching-to-the-test to provide their pupils with glimpses into genuine culture and serious thinking. The ecology of knowledge that made me knowledgeable in the ways that I am has mostly ceased to exist.
I might add that in the 1970s there were three or four small record-stores in Santa Monica, one of which specialized in classical music. These were another boon. The “Wherehouse” had a monthly sale during which the eager record-collector could buy Nonesuch and Vox LPs for “the insane low price of 88 cents” and so increase his ken of symphonies, operas, and string quartets. The extensive notes on the reverse side of the classical-music record-jackets belong to the ecology of knowledge.
Where something like that ecology persists, in not so many places, it must cling tenaciously to its niche or vanish in a puff of smoke.
During my Michigan decade of the 1990s, I enjoyed the immense privilege to be associated with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in remote Mecosta, Michigan, twenty miles west of Mt. Pleasant, the nondescript, cultureless place where my wife and I lived. (It is nowadays a restaurant and hotel concession for a gigantic and vulgar Indian Casino.) The story of the Kirk Center also bears appositely on the topic of the ecology of knowledge. Russell Kirk made the discovery in the early 1950s that the colossal state universities were not only no longer participating in the sustenance of the ecology of knowledge, but rather were active agencies in the destruction of the ecology of knowledge. “A fish rots from the head down,” as the old saying would have it. With amazing courage Kirk resigned his professorship at Michigan State in East Lansing, purchased his old family home in Mecosta, and set himself up as an independent scholar. Gradually the home became the center of a heterodox scholarly community, to which Kirk’s many admirers made a kind of pilgrimage.
I met Dr. Kirk, as everyone calls him, only once, when he chaired Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 Republican Primary campaign in Michigan, and succeeded in booking Buchanan to give a speech at Central Michigan University, where I was teaching, in the big auditorium. After the publication of my study of Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities in 1996, under the sponsorship of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, however, the good fortune befell me to meet Dr. Kirk’s widow Annette Kirk and to get to know her. By this time, after Dr. Kirk’s death in 1994, she had established the Center. Through Mrs. Kirk’s generous friendship and by association with the Center, I met many people who had known Dr. Kirk. People who came into contact with the man felt profoundly influenced by him, as swiftly became clear, and experienced a sense of spiritual and intellectual indebtedness.
Guests always occupied the spare rooms of the main house and the other buildings belonging to the Center; this continuous occupancy meant that a face-to-face community was always present to itself. The library, down the unpaved street from the main house, saw a constant stream of working scholars making use of its resources. The library often gave its stage, so to speak, to visiting lecturers. The context of the lecture was invariably an extended evening, complete with a formal dinner, beginning with an invocation, and including aperitifs and wines. Dare I assert that a persistent spiritual presence like Dr. Kirk’s and a generous sense of hospitality like Mrs. Kirk’s also belong inextricably to the ecology of knowledge? I assert it. So, however, does the conviviality of food and drink. And I assert that too. I recur to an earlier observation concerning the lecture, which seems relevant here: That a lecture is an oral performance in a literate context. The Center is an impressively cultured and literate place, complete with its own library, but the spirit of Dr. Kirk is in many ways the spirit of a charismatic raconteur and conversationalist. It is not merely the thousands of well-chosen books in the library; it is the strength of that charisma, of conversations remembered, that helps to make the place what it is. A distant whisper haunts the halls and grounds, benignly. I offer a sub-thesis: Charisma belongs to the ecology of knowledge.
As I have mentioned the relation of vinous spirits to the ecology of knowledge, I should like to say why I think that the public house is almost as important to that ecology as second-hand bookstores and independent intellectual institutions like the Kirk Center. I write “public house” instead of tavern, saloon, or bar. The old British-English word for a public house is pub. My own experience of the last couple of decades is confined to a single pub, Larry Klotzko’s Old City Hall on Water Street in Oswego, on Lake Ontario, in Upstate New York. I have taught at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. Although I have friends and acquaintances “on campus,” I regrettably cannot report that the campus supports a lively conversational tradition. The talk at the lunch table tends to confine itself to a narrow range of conformist topics and to administrative gossip. Academic knowledge is alarmingly overspecialized and “expert” and subject to fads, which, however, despite a changing vocabulary, tend to repeat the same basic notions endlessly. I would venture to say that there is a deficit in such conversation of Hirsch’s cultural literacy – but then this is what Dr. Kirk discovered nearly sixty years ago.
At Old City Hall, on the other hand, I have come to know a raft of characters, none of whom belongs to academia, but all of whom display autodidact knowledge elevating them above the run of academic specialists. Not that there are no other professors present on a Sunday afternoon – there is the dissident member of the Philosophy faculty, Richard Cocks, and the member of the Chemistry faculty who, having grown up in the Soviet Union, continues to loathe it. There is also a retired city worker and erstwhile on-again-off-again college-student who has been a lifelong voracious reader. He is Dick Fader, whom I think of as the Sir Roger De Coverley of Oswego. I first spoke with him while sitting at the bar with the dissident philosopher. The dissident philosopher and I were talking books, but I could not remember the author of Seven Days in May, a 1960s political thriller. Fader, who happened to be sitting to my left, said, “Fletcher Knebbel and Charles W. Bailey.” Bingo! Fader is a man with hobbies. He first subscribed to Sky and Telescope when he was a sixteen-year-old in 1964, and follows astronomy and space exploration in detail. He can recite Omar’s Rubaiyat in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation verbatim from memory. He knows history and politics well.
The publican, Larry, is also a lifelong reader – something of a conspiracy theorist – who has a noticeable thirst for knowledge and lore. He possesses a good deal of lore, himself, and he enjoys doling it out. Who doesn’t? We enjoy listening to him. The mixing of people in the pub forces the conversation into the channels of reality. The professors, for example, face rebuke when they stray too far into abstraction. The professors, by the way, are all rootless people – from exotic places like New Zealand, Lithuania, and Southern California; but Larry and Fader are locals. From them I have learned to know and to love the region around Oswego, to which, after all, I am a stranger, despite having married an Oswego girl when I was in graduate school at UCLA in the 1980s. Thanks to Larry and Fader I have been all over Upstate New York – including such odd excursions as the one to a goat farm near Ithaca, to scout out a new source of fresh feta cheese for Larry’s kitchen. “The Lively Run” is a “natural goat-farm” operated by its lady-proprietor according to ecological principles. Goats turn out to be intelligent and friendly creatures.
A byword of the phony “conversation,” in which the regime wants everyone to participate all the time, is “diversity.” The thing about the “diverse” speakers who receive hefty fees to crowd the college’s speaker-calendar is that they all say exactly the same thing – and they only know what they say. They bring no lore. They traffic in slogans. Sidling up to the bar at Old City Hall, the postulant confronts the necessity of adapting to convergent, richly experienced, well-educated but non-formally-educated merging complementary perspectives. This too – the phenomenon of merging complementary perspectives, which can sometimes be slightly contentious – belongs to the ecology of knowledge, most especially when one party is already half-drunk and the other is stubbornly half-sober. The exchange benefits from the massive literacy of the participants, but it is, once again, a case of the living voice. The view helps – the river, the harbor, the lake. The old architecture of the premises (corner stone set in place in 1832) also has a lesson to teach. The building itself contributes its charisma to the proceedings.
As I had no idea when I began where the pursuit of the topic would lead, this will have been a true essay.