Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s not every Saturday morning that you wander into Sharples and hear a live-stream of Swarthmore’s president paraphrasing Edmund Burke, the English father of modern conservatism. President Chopp led off last weekend’s TEDx talks with a lecture entitled “Moral Imagination.” To be fair, the phrase “moral imagination” has seeped into non-conservative dialogue over the years, and I highly doubt Chopp is a self-declared Burkian. But the words are indeed Burke’s, originally appearing in Reflections on the Revolution in France. In short, Burke was a rather pompous but brilliant Tory who stoutly objected to the French Revolution (although he sided with the American colonists’ uprising against George III).
For Burke, the mob outside Versailles had found its voice but lost its splendor. Chivalry, he lamented, was at last dead. With the Revolution’s disregard for tradition and manners, Burke saw:
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raised to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Russell Kirk, a key player in the history of American conservatism, reinvigorated Burkianism with his Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot in 1953.
Okay, what do these stuffy old Anglo-Saxons have to do with the TEDx talks, you ask? While Chopp wasn’t exactly paying tribute to Marie Antoinette, her recollection of JFK’s assassination struck a similar chord of a society political crisis. Chopp, like Russell Kirk, turns to the liberal arts as both an answer and retreat for discovering beauty and meaning beyond our own station in time. She discussed watching the sun rise over her college campus as a moment of aesthetic allure, reflection, and hopefulness. Furthermore, a liberal arts education entails a dual-purpose: learning and responsibility. It’s not just the TEDx talks that pose, “What Makes a Good Society?” Plato and his readers have been begging that question since antiquity.
Burke is likely guilty of the “bombast and sentimentality” actor Stephen Lang ‘73 warned against, yet Burke champions the same honor and bravery Lang so brilliantly captured in his segments from the 2004 performance Beyond Glory. Faced with the moral dilemma of supporting the troops but opposing the Iraq War, Lang composed a series of war-inspired monologues as a tribute to American Medal of Honor recipients. I don’t know if Lang would agree with me, but his 20 minutes on stage highlighted the raw and noble–dare I say masculine–courage that often gets underplayed because of its association with violence and bloodshed. Lang avoided staging the vicious art of war and, instead, painted a rugged, more nuanced art of patriotism.
As for Professor Donna Jo Napoli, her talk on children’s literature and why even darker children books ought to remain on the shelves reminded me again of Russell Kirk and the quest for texts that last. Kirk writes, “[W]e have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature….the ‘Dick and Jane’ and ‘run spot, run’ school of letters does not stir the imagination..” Napoli’s example of the connection she fostered with Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was particularly poignant for me, not only because it was a personal fifth grade favorite but because it combines a compelling tale of the American Dream with a realist’s eye for the very real situation of poverty and pain. Censorship has been a age-old temptation, particularly when it comes to sheltering children, but Professor Napoli rightly articulated that hard stories can serve as a kind of personal salvation, for the suffering and privileged reader alike.
The final TEDx talk I attended featured Carinna Lather ‘88, who spoke of the need for human-centered technology. That is, technology in and of itself creeps ever-closer to the dystopian land of science fiction. Meaningful machinery, on the other hand, like the equipment Lather has engineered to assist children with cerebral palsy and autism, places the person–and not the electrical circuit–at the focal point. Being one of those conservatives who’s often yapping about the ever-looming dangers of 1984, I heartily nodded along to Lather’s lecture and her capacity to aid families.
From my more traditionalist, strangely Burkian lens, the TEDx talks attempted to sew that “essential drapery” back into the fabric of our civilization: What does it mean to be a reader? A man? A student? Sure, not every TEDx talk was steeped in my style of conservatism. At one point, Professor Napoli, underscoring our responsibility to one another, proclaimed, “This is why we pay taxes,” when I would have prefered she say this is why we give to charity, attend religious services, teach our children, and volunteer. But overall these are not just relevant political questions, but beautiful and poetic inquiries, pertinent to an English aristocrat, American frontiersmen, children’s writer, perceptive actor, humanistic entrepreneur, or Birkenstock-wearing Swattie.
Correction: The article originally stated that Beyond Glory premiered in 2003. It premiered in 2004.