Dubuque, IA. Steubenville is an old coal and steel town on the Ohio River, just west of Pittsburgh. It’s the kind of place you might visit if you were making a poignant documentary about the Rust Belt or writing an article for the Atlantic about Trump voters. Dean Martin grew up in Steubenville. If you’re not a Rat Pack fan, you might know it better as the setting for a 2012 rape case, which got national attention because the crime was recorded and posted on social media. Ten years ago, such things were novelties.
I passed through Steubenville on my way to the FPR conference in Grove City, PA. A few weeks earlier I’d read an article about something called the College of St. Joseph the Worker, which will welcome its first students next year. I hadn’t stopped thinking about it. Innovation is standard fare, even (especially) in the ivory tower. We’re all bored to death by “innovation.” But St. Joseph sounded like the opposite of a novelty: it sounded like something new, in large part because it aimed to reclaim something old. I wanted to hear about it from the horse’s mouth, so I asked if I could stop by.
I met two of the four horsemen behind the project. Andrew Jones and Marc Barnes took the time to show me around the old printer’s shop they’re renovating, where students will become carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, or HVAC technicians. In one of the back rooms, a carpenter was reading the grain on a piece of wood. At the front there were boxes of the latest issue of New Polity, a new “journal of postliberal thought” that Andrew and Marc and their cronies publish four times a year.
St. Joseph combines a trade school with what many would call a liberal arts program, although Andrew and Marc would reject that term as too vague. While they learn their trade, St. Joseph students will also earn a bachelor’s degree in Catholic Studies. What’s more – now listen to this, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden with student loans – they will graduate debt-free.
This recombination of “the head” with “the hand,” and this determination to offer a very practical response to the very spiritual problem of debt, is what I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about.
In the film Look & See, Wendell Berry says:
We all come from divorce. This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.
I thought about these words while talking with Andrew and Marc over coffee at Leonardo’s, which is also new to Steubenville (Leonardo, as in Da Vinci, as in “Renaissance”). Because they’re doing exactly what Berry says we should. The head and the hand have long been divorced, by our institutions and in our imaginations, for the enrichment of a few and the impoverishment of many. St. Joseph is arranging a marriage between a few heads and a few pairs of hands.
There is much to say about the widening effects of that divorce, and the promise of a reunion. Matthew Crawford has said much of it. Shopcraft is soulcraft: without some kind of craft, some contact with a material world that resists our wills while inviting our imaginations, we may fail to develop souls and live instead inside our heads. We end up with the political order we have, puffed up with authorized facts and validated feelings, legitimated by abstractions and fantasies, an order of paperwork and of “doing the work,” of bureaucrats and therapists managing infants.
It’s a big problem at the root of many big problems. Consider the anxiety and depression and confusion and rage and despair stoked for profit by Silicon Valley, along with the insistence on branding it all as a “mental health crisis” to be solved by more bureaucrats and more therapists. Most people would feel better if they just had something to work on, some material to work with; if they could know they weren’t just the raw material for other people’s dreams; and if by doing real work (as opposed to “the work”), they could escape all the hobbling fantasies of autonomy and secure the real independence of a job that not only pays well but means something. Any effort to bring the head back together with the hand is an effort to kill a lot of these birds with one smooth stone.
If you want more details about how St. Joseph will work, you can listen to Andrew and Marc talk through it with their colleagues, Jacob Imam and Mike Sullivan. Here, I want to reflect more on this idea of putting things back together. Because it seems to me that St. Joseph is tackling more than one of the separations that marks our age of divorce, and that we can learn from their example even if we are not starting a school.
Besides uniting the head and the hand, St. Joseph also bridges the divide between “culture” and “economics.” That distinction has always been more rhetorical than real, and the rhetoric has mainly served those who conquer by dividing their opponents along such lines. If you are a “conservative,” you are permitted to think that values matter, that there are better and worse ways of life, but only if you pretend that material circumstances have no effect on moral practice, and that your own values imply no limits on the market. Or, if you are a “liberal,” you are allowed to believe that material circumstances matter very much, not because they make it more or less possible for people to be good, but because they make it harder or easier for people to satisfy their desires, which ought not be limited by any notions about “good.”
It is refreshing to see this distinction collapsing, and with it the increasingly useless language of “left” and “right.” Partly this is a result of the accelerating merger of the corporations with the state (what Mark Mitchell calls “plutocratic socialism”), a development which makes it difficult to defend one against the other. Partly it is the result of persuasive counter-rhetoric, of the sort found here at FPR (and in Marc and Andrew’s journal, which I recommend to FPR readers for its bold arguments, though not all will jive with its unapologetically Catholic vibe). But old frames are hard to break, no matter how brittle they get. Visible breakdown and incisive critique are never enough. People can see the bad effects of literal divorce, and they can be convinced that marriage is good; but if they have no models of good marriage, they will struggle to avoid what they know is bad and to do what they believe is good. Berry makes this point in “Caught in the Middle,” his essay on gay marriage. As he puts it: “Heterosexual marriage does not need defending. It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.”
It is the same with these metaphorical divorces. St. Joseph is not an argument; it is an alternative. Marc and Andrew have concerns that are recognizably “cultural” and convictions that might make them “culture warriors.” But they are not waging twitter wars. They are building an institution that makes it possible to live the good life, by making it possible for people to live a good life. More of this is what we need now.
A project like St. Joseph the Worker also narrows the growing gap between institutions and practices. This gap was the theme of the talk I gave in Grove City, and there’s not enough space here to revisit everything I said there. The basic idea, drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre, is that the distinction between institutions and practices is vital, and their separation is deadly. In this age of divorce, we learn to conflate them in our imaginations, while separating them in our organizations.
A practice – whether it is a manual art or a liberal one, masonry or philosophy – is oriented toward internal goods: the well-laid brick, the well-formed thought. We pursue these goods for their own sake, because they are good. We pursue them together, with others. Practices are always social practices in which we acquire the virtues required for the pursuit.
An institution, whether it is a school or a hospital or a business or a government, is a set of incentives arranged to enable the practice it serves. As an institution, it is oriented toward external goods. Money is the clearest example of an external good. Money has nothing to do with masonry itself: you can’t build a wall with dollar bills. The practice of masonry produces the house you can live in, while the institution makes sure the masons make a living. Ideally the mason works for the sake of building the house, not for the sake of bringing home the dough. But of course he needs the dough if he’s going to build the house.
We create institutions to support practices. But when we allow institutions to colonize practices, people lose the support they need to develop the virtues they need to flourish. To conflate a practice with an institution is to replace in our minds the end for which we work with a set of means to that end. We lose the ability to imagine that we are doing anything for its own sake, and we become in truth what the behaviorists say we are: rats in a maze, sniffing for cheese. Without a practice we are easily institutionalized, and the question of common life is reduced to the question of how to set up a maze that keeps the cheese-sniffing rats happy with their jobs, which is making more cheese for the Big Cheese who sets up the maze. “Buy this car, to drive to work. Drive to work, to pay for this car.” Et cetera ad nauseum. That’s what it feels like to have the institution without the practice.
St. Joseph is an institution. It will have to do all the things institutions do: establish procedures, rules, incentives. There will be paperwork. Marc and Andrew and their colleagues have to spend a lot of time thinking about money, along with other boring and distasteful things like accreditation. But St. Joseph is an institution in the service of a practice–practices of the hand, practices of the head, and a practice of common life that brings them together, against the cultural grain. And the best evidence that this is so in reality, not just in rhetoric, is that simple fact that its students will graduate without debt—just as the wider student debt crisis is some of the best evidence that the practice of education has been almost completely divorced from educational institutions. What you see here is the difference between an institution that enables a practice and one that disables it, and disguises the disability by inviting us to confuse the schooling we get with the learning we forgo.
Jeff Polet’s talk at Grove City touched on several of these themes. He described how hard it had gotten to look prospective students in the eye and encourage them to attend the college where he had been teaching, knowing what he did about the simultaneously cultural and economic absurdities they would get caught up in by enrolling. I’ve felt this way many times, and found myself wishing my students had alternatives. But alternatives must be created by people willing to live in the weeds, to sweat the details. And that’s what I saw in Steubenville. Behold, somebody is trying something.
Jeff also talked about institutions and about Yuval Levin’s hopeful insistence that it is “a time to build.” Indeed it is. It’s a time to build institutions that support the practices that make and keep us human, instead of extracting profit and power from their dwindling remains, and wearing their skins like sheep’s clothing. And I believe there is still room in some institutions, including mine, for rebuilding. There is a great need not only for new ventures like St. Joseph, but for thoughtful reforms that shun the gimmicks of innovation and keep the internal goods of the relevant practice firmly in mind.
Porchers are the type of people who notice institutionalization and despise it. It’s easy for us to get so romantic about practices and so cynical about institutions that we shun the work of building and maintaining them. This is a serious mistake, one I’ve made for too long. It leaves the institution-building work to miseducated administrators who live so far inside their heads that they wouldn’t know an “internal good” if it hit them in the face.
I came away from Steubenville, as I came away later from Grove City, with the startling idea that things are possible. Small things; local things; putting two things together, not all things but two things. Not novelties, but necessary combinations. Maybe it’s precisely what’s necessary that turns out to be what’s possible. And maybe the more obvious the necessities become, the more possibilities will emerge. I think that growing obviousness is our general situation. We all live in Steubenville, one way or another. Strange as it may seem, that’s a hopeful thought.