Author and professor Jeffrey Bilbro published a poignant piece on Breaking Ground this week, reflecting on the surreal experience of “going dark” as one whose job as a tenured English professor at a small liberal arts college was cut this summer. Like so many individuals and institutions life-rafting through this pandemic year, Bilbro has been rudely shoved into a bog of uncertainty, all the earned supports and structured feedback mechanisms gone.
“Having the extrinsic goods associated with learning radically pruned back can be profoundly clarifying,” he writes. “Whether my loss of these goods is temporary or permanent, this pruning forces me to ask why I want to seek understanding, why I am motivated to read and write and teach and question. Do I engage in these activities to earn the respect of my peers, the admiration of my students, or a salary increase from my institution? Or do I pursue them because I have taken Solomon’s advice to heart and genuinely believe that ‘wisdom is the principal thing’?”
His essay reads as a lament—for his livelihood, for his sector—but also as a descent into deeper wisdom. Quoting T.S. Eliot, he writes:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
When I reflect on this way as I’ve observed it in memoir and biography, friends’ lives and my own, I’m struck by the simultaneous play of demand and disorientation. Whether the dispossession comes through loss, trauma, or encountering the injustices of this world up close, each shock can reveal another brick on the path to holiness, though bruising and disorientation flood the felt reality. For the Christian this is the mystery of Holy Saturday. For our world, it should be an invitation to radical creativity.
This coming Monday evening, October 5, at 7:00 p.m., Breaking Ground will host a virtual roundtable assessing this particularly precarious juncture for the liberal arts in higher education. Bilbro himself will be conversing with humanities scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson, mathematician Francis Su, and David Henreckson of Valparaiso’s Institute of Leadership and Service. For each one deeply invested in—and thus vulnerable to—the future of one of the more integrated pathways of inquiry into truth and our human experience, this moment is an opportunity to take stultified assumptions down to their studs and ask, What if? We hope you’ll join us in asking these questions.