I’ve been thinking a lot about intellectual community.
When people talk to me about their experience of the Swearer Center when I was directing the place, the conversation often comes back to the vibrancy of the conversations they encountered there. Inevitably there is some regret, too, as people lament the fact that they’ve not been able to subsequently find places with a similar commitment to intellectual community. This is gratifying to hear, but also unnerving. It is sad that we yearn for intellectual community, and that we’re not more committed to building it. It’s doubly sad when I confront my own yearning for (and sense that I’ve lost) my intellectual community.
I have no illusions that the intellectual vibrancy of the Swearer Center was somehow my doing. At the very best, I can claim to have catalyzed an ideal. Indeed, the Center’s energy (and sense of meaning) came from the willingness of those who gathered there – students, colleagues, community partners, et al — to bring the best, and most vulnerable, parts of themselves into conversation with experience and ideas. It came from our ability to hold a tension of opposites, and to allow, as much as humanly possible, disagreement to occur within the realm of ideas – enabling those with differing views to come and go from conversation with their dignity intact. However, today I think it mostly came from a shared value about the potency of discovery. My colleagues and I shared students’ passion for discovering new ways to understand and engage with pressing human problems. The vibrancy and power of the community came from our fidelity to learning, and from learning in the context of a community.
This is what I’m missing in my life. I am able to commit myself to learning, but I have yet to find a new community in which that learning can happen vibrantly and in the context of a communal passion for discovery. Self-directed and isolated experiences of learning and thinking (and, to bring this more explicitly into the arena of the arts, creating) are wearing me down. I’m looking to be part of a community that has a commitment to a common intellectual/creative project, and which understands that intellectual friction can be generative. I am not looking for more opportunities to witness people digging their heels into ideological terrain or more pissing matches focused on giving time to shallow dogma.
And I know I won’t simply find it. I need to put energy into making it.