The culture of a real community like that of college isn’t simply a matter of texts and discussions of ideas, but of live emotion and thought, real presence to each other, a continuous awareness and exchange that locates each person in the larger community.

Yesterday afternoon, during one of our regular meetings with the freshman class to discuss how things are going, I had a kind of “eureka moment” about the education that we offer at Wyoming Catholic College. We were discussing various issues with the technology policy, and Dean Kyle Washut mentioned an example of the distrust of technology from Plato’s Phaedrus, where the technology in question is writing. Writing? Most of us would not even consider it technology at all, but that is simply because we have forgotten the nature of the innovation. The objection to writing in the Phaedrus centers on the effect of written documents on the memory. Instead of being an aid to recollection, writing will gradually replace memory, prophesies the Egyptian god Thamus. He warns that people will not trust the living faculty but instead resort to the written record.

Plato’s whole discussion has an extraordinary pertinence, of course, given our increasing capacity to digitize everything and to assume that we do not need to remember things that we can easily find with a quick search on the internet. Technology, as Dean Washut pointed out, serves us and also shapes us. But the eureka moment came when I saw recognition and comprehension register in the faces of the freshmen at the mention of writing in the Phaedrus. What exactly was happening there? They were remembering Plato’s dialogue, to be sure, but more to the point, they were remembering the conversation that took place in class — maybe not specific points, but the interchange when they were thinking about this particular idea. They remembered talking about the relation between writing and memory, refining descriptions of memory, and maybe thinking about what it might mean to memorize a poem from hearing it (as all of them do) instead of having to look at a text.

It was a quick allusion, but what it revealed for that instant was the presence in the freshmen of a live “field” of shared reference. The metaphor is surely influenced by Carlo Rovelli’s description of an electromagnetic field in Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, which I just read: “This field is a real entity that, diffused everywhere, carries radio waves, fills space, can vibrate and isolate like the surface of the lake, and ‘transports’ the electrical force.” Something akin to such a field exists in a community like ours, and it was already palpably present in the freshman class midway through their second semester. The field transports the force of the allusion. The original passage in the Phaedrus now shifts into a different context and subtly changes for each individual. This may all sound like nonsense — in fact, it may be nonsense — but I’m trying to describe the existence of a communal field of reference, opaque to those who have not read the works, who have not participated in the liturgies, climbed the mountains, ridden the horses or experienced the conversations. This field of reference is vitally alive and formative for those who are within it. Such a field, it seems to me, is what a “culture” is.

At Wyoming Catholic College, our technology policy is central to our culture. The fact that we ban cell phones attracts the attention of visitors to the college, most recently Dr. Jeremy Tate, CEO of the Classical Learning Test. After Dr. Tate’s visit last month, I talked to several freshmen about their experiences of giving up their cell phones, and they were uniformly positive. One freshman woman, a self-described “cell phone addict” in high school, said that she found the absence of them “really refreshing” and explained that constant recourse to them pulls someone “out of reality.” Another said that it was “very freeing” not to have to be checking her cell phone all the time. Another said that the presence of a community of friends meant that she could not “fine-tune” her image on social media, where it was easy to tailor. Instead, people saw who she was and how she was feeling on a given day, which brought her more fully into the reality of situations. One of the men explained that when he missed his cell phone, it was mostly for practical reasons. He described cell phone exchanges as “masked” — a description that might be a little too close to home these days.

What is clear, however, is that the culture of a real community like ours isn’t simply a matter of texts and discussions of ideas, but of live emotion and thought, real presence to each other, a continuous awareness and exchange that locates each person in the larger community. Because of what we study and discuss, we also enter the “field” of tradition itself, which T.S. Eliot famously described in terms of literature: “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.” It is particularly heartening to me that the “contemporaneity” of our students is in live conversation with Plato. Great things will come of it.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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