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Going Dark

Jeff Bilbro
Jeff Bilbro
Jeff Bilbro is an associate professor of English and the editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic. His research interests focus on theology and environmental ethics in American literature, and he’s written several books, including Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (co-written with Jack Baker), and Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms. He writes on a wide range of topics. For more information, visit www.jeffbilbro.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_bilbro.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

—Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”

It was a normal July evening in the summer of COVID. I was sitting on the back porch reading while our five-year-old daughter read to herself in the hammock. My good friend and the chair of my English department texted to ask if he could stop by, and a few minutes later he pulled up in our driveway and sat down. I wondered if he’d received word from our administration about the fate of our colleague, the only member of our department who didn’t yet have tenure. Jack told me that yes, our colleague would be cut in January, and that on top of this, my own position would end in May. Then he began crying. I sat there in disbelief. My daughter came over and began asking “Mr. Jack” what he had been doing. She prattled on about her day—overjoyed to have someone other than her family to talk to after months when such opportunities were scarce. The squirrels continued to scold each other in the trees. Jack responded kindly to my daughter. And I just sat there, not knowing what to say.

As the news sunk in, a knot of fear and anger and anxiety settled in my chest. I knew that millions of people had lost their jobs in the last months, most, like me, through no fault of their own. I knew I had time to look for gainful employment, unlike many who got two weeks’ notice. I knew my chance of landing on my feet somewhere was fairly good. But none of that knowledge helped much. And the sense that higher education itself was imploding intensified my sense of vertigo.

I have been disabused of any pretensions to clarity about the future. COVID’s apocalyptic gesture—its unveiling of complacence and injustice and decadence—has had this effect on many of us. But institutions of higher education have been famously stable (or infamously stuck in their ways), and as a professor with several books and the respect of my colleagues and students, I thought I was largely immune from the pandemic’s immediate effects. I knew the next five to ten years would be difficult ones for my university, but I thought I knew roughly what the future held for me career-wise. I thought my next steps were fairly well illuminated. I had built my house upon academia’s rock: I had tenure.

I had built my house upon academia’s rock: I had tenure.

In the days that followed, I began to grow acclimated to the dark. The knot of tension dissipated. I slept well again. And I gained a new appreciation for the wisdom in Wendell Berry’s poem “To Know the Dark.” When we go into the dark with a light, we don’t actually learn what the dark is and what mysteries it holds. We remain insulated in our bubble of light. For me, the light that shone along my professional path has been extinguished. I am now going dark. And as Berry testifies, I have found that the dark too blooms and sings. As the news slowly spread, colleagues at my institution and from around the country wrote kind and encouraging notes. People I had never met wrote to say they appreciated and valued what I’ve written. Former and current students wrote long emails and letters of gratitude. I felt like Tom Sawyer walking into his own funeral.

There is a grace too in having the extrinsic motivations for scholarship and learning stripped away. I had recently finished reading Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, and now I was newly struck by her celebration of people who pursued knowledge in adverse circumstances. As she concludes, “Failure is perhaps the best-trod route to inwardness,” to pursuing wisdom for its own sake. Having the extrinsic goods associated with learning radically pruned back can be profoundly clarifying. 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”?

Hitz draws on a distinction that Augustine makes between curiositas and studiosus—which she defines, in turn, as a love of spectacle or a dedication to seriousness. If our desire for knowledge is motivated by a love of spectacle and entertainment and external rewards, then we will cease to learn when the cord is pulled and the lights go out. Yet the studious soul is, at root, an amateur, someone who learns from love. Even in the dark, even when lost, the amateur follows beauty’s faint murmurs, its dim glimmers, along the “way of ignorance” toward truth. As T.S. Eliot 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.

Even those of us who have—or who had—the privilege of earning a paycheck for learning and teaching have always done our real work for love, not money. In being dispossessed of external rewards, I have been reminded that, as Hitz demonstrates, “contemplation in the form of learning” is a human good open to all, not just professional professors.

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.

—T.S. Eliot

Yet the darkness in which I now find myself is not merely personal. It is also a darkness regarding the future of my institution and the broader landscape of educational institutions, particularly those historically dedicated to the liberal arts. When my friend Eric Miller wrote to offer me encouragement, he said that “being in Christian higher ed (and I’m sure it feels like this everywhere that isn’t draped in Ivy) these past ten years is like being in a shrinking universe, with coordinates that have gone suddenly missing, as if the cosmos itself is vanishing. It’s eerie.” And now there is also a plague.

My sense of the surreal was heightened when, just three days after the Zoom call with HR officially informing me that my position was being cut, I received word that a collaborative grant I had helped lead had been accepted. Our group would receive $30,000 to convene conversations about the future of the liberal arts in higher education. In our proposal, we expressed hope that the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing summer of protests might be a positive inflection point: “Higher education has been in crisis for decades now, and perhaps this moment will be apocalyptic—unveiling its disorders and laying the groundwork for a renewed commitment to the liberal arts.” This possibility seems less likely to me now than it did just a few weeks ago. The future looks bleak for a genuine commitment to the liberal arts at the institution I have served for eight years. Many of the faculty members who were dismissed taught in our core curriculum: two from English, three from Theology, one from Art. And these cuts came in addition to ones just eighteen months ago that targeted English, Art, and Drama. But perhaps in this season of darkness and uncertainty institutions will be forced to ask hard questions about their purpose and mission. My university will no longer be the lead institution on this grant, but these conversations will go forward, and my hope remains.

 

The night I found out my position had been eliminated, I was hosting one of a series of Zoom seminars I’d arranged for the summer. I’d asked several colleagues to lead a discussion on how their discipline might respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. That evening, the brilliant art historian Jonathan Rinck—who had also found out hours before that his position had been cut—led a wide-ranging survey through what he called “apocalyptic art,” art created during times of plague and war. He spent some time reflecting on Picasso’s famous Guernica, which was painted in response to the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Near the center of the painting, a bare light bulb appears as the pupil of an eye. It seems that some forms of light provide a false sense of clarity, a kind of apparent clarity that is, in fact, deadly.

The round of layoffs and closures sweeping higher education is not at all equivalent to the literal deaths and dismemberment justified by the pursuit of wartime objectives. But both acts may be guided by the same enlightened logic. All too often the logic of spreadsheets and metrics leads administrators to believe that they must destroy a university in order to save it. Yet perhaps if some institutions close and others drift away from their missions, new institutions, perhaps new forms of institution, might rise to carry on anew the enduring work of wisdom. Zena Hitz, for instance, is launching The Catherine Project to foster discussions of great texts, and there is an increasingly robust network of online magazines that seek to guide their readers in the pursuit of truth—Breaking Ground and its sponsoring institutions are certainly in this category. During this season of sifting, those of us who find ourselves institutionless may indeed uncover new aspects of our proper work.

Indeed, while apocalypse refers to an unveiling, it may be that some forms of unveiling entail shuttering—closing institutions, turning off the lights, going dark. In such darkness, we are forced to stop, take stock, and then learn to go ahead without sight.

Indeed, while apocalypse refers to an unveiling, it may be that some forms of unveiling entail shuttering—closing institutions, turning off the lights, going dark. In such darkness, we are forced to stop, take stock, and then learn to go ahead without sight. As Berry writes in an essay, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” I am still in the dark. I have no answers about what the future might hold for institutions of higher education. I have no answers about where my family and I will be living in a year and what work I might be doing. And yet by going dark, I am coming to know the dark and to know that it too blooms and sings. And I am learning to hope with Berry that the darkness might make not only fear, but also grace, more palpable.