For once, practice actually lags behind theory. In their very interesting post on “Reconceiving the secular and the practice of the liberal arts,” Kahn, MacDonald, Oliver, and Speers find that the concerted academic revaluation of secularization and secularism has not trickled down to relatively elite private liberal arts colleges. In their account, these institutions remain committed, both explicitly and implicitly, to some version of a distinction between the secular and the religious: religious belief is fine, but it has no place in the classroom. This distinction, of course, is designed to protect the kinds of things that academic institutions hold dear: critical thought, intellectual freedom, tolerance, diversity. But, the authors wonder, might “uncritical assumptions about the secular” actually make these things harder, by “stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identities—in particular, their religious identities”?

The question matters because historically liberal arts colleges have liked to think of themselves as places where students can ask the big questions (hereafter BQs): “What is the meaning of my life?” “How do I understand death?” “Does evil exist?” “What are my obligations to my neighbor, my country, my world?” And finally, “How might my education—in whatever field I study—help me assimilate these questions?” The authors were struck, they report, by how discussions of the secular re-invigorated these BQs, and one in particular: what is an education for, anyway?

Kahn and his co-investigators come out in favor of a sensible distinction between secular and secularist. To be a secularist is to want to rid a pedagogical space of religious commitments; to be secular is, to quote Jeffrey Stout, to recognize a condition in which participants cannot “take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are.” This is the condition that Charles Taylor refers to as “fragilization,” and it is quite close to his general account, in A Secular Age, of the secular as our often implicit knowledge that, under the shared conditions of modernity, we often bump into people whom we respect and yet who do not share our own deepest commitments. (Whether there was ever a time when we could assume that our interlocutors were making the “same religious assumptions” we were is of course another question.)

If “the secular” in this sense is indeed the condition of our intellectual life together, what should we do about it? How can we thin the ranks of narrowly ideological secularists and develop more epistemically-generous “seculars”? Here is the beginning of an answer: “When the authority of knowledge is less important than the things that can be done with knowledge,” the authors write, “the secular becomes a discussion between religious and non-religious citizens who are acutely aware that the demands of secularized democratic life require an extraordinary balance between cherishing one’s own convictions and holding to the awareness that these same cherished convictions are contestable and that they may at times act as a bludgeon against other democratic citizens.”

Call me naive, but this just looks like good pedagogy to me. Most of us who teach for a living lay down a few ground rules—basically: talk, but also listen, and don’t be an asshole—and then try to model for our students the reflexivity that we all internalized somewhere along the way in our own educations. We try to get them to articulate not just what they think, but why they think it. What does their knowledge reveal, and what does it obscure? Are there other possibilities? If there are, do they matter? If the other fellow is right, or even just different and interesting, then what? Teaching students to take these questions to heart is our job. Does anybody really subscribe to the notion that teaching should “arrogat[e] authoritative forms of knowledge”? I doubt it. Of course, if the topic is quantum mechanics, then there are right answers and wrong answers, and it’s important to be able to spot the difference. If the topic is the history of science, by contrast, then the wrong answers might be as interesting as the right ones. In practice, this is not a very difficult distinction to keep track of.  So Kahn et. al.’s category of “secularist” here, like its supposed corollary “enlightenment reason,” seems something of a straw person.

In any case, Kahn and his colleagues discover a more subtle and interesting problem: “What appeared glaringly conspicuous to us is the lack, across academic fields, of adequate models and examples of constructive exchange between conflicting deep commitments.” Here, the theory/practice problem reasserts itself. Kahn and his colleagues channel William Connolly’s accounts of deep contestability, but it is easier to say that we should simultaneously cherish our convictions and acknowledge their contestability than it is to actually do it.

I think this is also what James K. A. Smith is after when he writes, over at his blog, that Kahn’s “model still refuses to think about education as formation. It’s willing to make room for a variety of “views” and “perspectives” to help students ask ‘the big questions’—giving them lots of options to consider.” But this is still quite different from the task of forming a person, a “thick task … that constitutes inculcation in a tradition, habituation to a particular vision of the good.”

Wittgensteinian “form of life” arguments of this sort have gotten a certain amount of traction in recent years, and for good reason. Smith, in a nice little twist, is in fact suggesting that his own unabashedly sectarian approach is truer to the secular ideal proffered by Connolly, Kahn, and Stout than is their own pluralism. Just asking the BQs, or even exploring them historically and culturally, isn’t enough: it still tends to flatten out into liberal tolerance. I think that Smith wants his students to be able to say: “well, yes, we understand that our view on this BQ is ‘contestable’ and we can even imagine how our view might look from somewhere else, but we’re arguing from a comprehensive vision of the good that, for a whole host of reasons, we’re pretty sure is right. That’s how we do things around here.”

Smith is picking up on one weakness of Connolly’s account in Why I Am Not a Secularist: it’s long on recommendations, but it doesn’t really provide a robust-enough account of the subjectivity required for putting those recommendations into practice. (For an account of Connolly’s shortcomings on this point, see my essay “After the Secular: The Subject of Romanticism.”) We could put the disagreement like this: Does multidimensional pluralism derive from a comprehensive vision of the good (Smith’s position)? Or can multidimensional pluralism itself be a comprehensive vision of the good (Connolly’s position)? And if it’s the latter, could the account of how we foster multidimensional pluralism be thickened enough to avoid the charge that it is reducible finally to some version of tolerance and anodyne respect for “difference”?

This matters for two reasons. First, most of us don’t teach at sectarian institutions, so we need an account that builds in competing definitions of the good at the ground level. And second, most of us also don’t teach at elite secular liberal arts colleges, so we need an account that “pluralizes” Kahn and his colleague’s somewhat rarified sense of what happens in the classroom. I want to address both of these needs by describing two pedagogies that derive from the romantic-era writers. (As I’ve suggested elsewhere on this site, the romantics offer remarkable resources for thinking through the problematics of the secular.) One I’ll call “Soul-Making,” and the other, “Careless Steps.”


The phrase comes from a famous passage in John Keats’s letters, this one written in 1819 to his brother and sister-in-law. It’s a long and rambling (and grammatically irregular) passage, but here is the gist:

Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” Then you will find out the use of the world … Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. . . . how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? . . . I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive—and yet I think I perceive it—that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible—I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! . . . —As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their souls. . . .

Note, first, that this is a deliberately post-Christian vision: Keats calls the idea that “we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven” a “little circumscribe[d] straightened notion!” And note, second, that it assays something like a multidimensional pluralism: identities or souls “possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence.” But note, third, that Keats is also trying to figure out how that pluralism comes into existence. Multidimensional pluralism is not a fact of life, nor is difference to be celebrated simply for itself; Keats thinks that we begin merely as “intelligences,” sparks of potential. As such, we are not that interesting, and not really worth taking seriously. The whole point of the world is to take those intelligences and turn them into something; the world is a classroom, and its pedagogical method is to make us “feel and suffer” until we have become the souls that we would not otherwise be. There’s a bit of stoicism in there, but there’s also a commitment to transformation that draws its energy from (post-) Christianity. As a result, it cuts considerably deeper than, for example, Stout’s rather obvious acknowledgement that we cannot take for granted that our interlocutors share our religious presuppositions; at the same time, it begins to address, from a non-sectarian perspective, Smith’s focus on character formation. Soul-making is character formation, but uncoupled from the comprehensive theory of the good to which Smith wants to wed it.

Careless steps

At the good but underfunded and underappreciated state university where I teach, Kahn and his colleagues’ description of the undergraduate classroom as a place that “promote[s] education as a way for students to consider larger questions of meaning and value” seems an almost unattainable goal. My brightest students are, I am sure, as bright as theirs are. But, almost to a person, they are also out of time. Far too many of them work virtually full-time jobs, and they often take an overload of classes so that they can graduate in 3 years. Many live at home to save on expenses or to help care for younger siblings; commuting to campus in the New Jersey traffic, and squeezing their classes in between everything else they have to do, too often they arrive late, frazzled, happy just to get there and have most of the reading done. Larger questions of meaning and value? Sorry: they don’t have time for that stuff.

Really great teaching can overcome some of this general harriedness, some of the time. And like many, I have my moments. But it also seems to me that I’m combating forces over which I have little control: the obsessive marketing and branding of the academy, the casualization of academic labor, what Randy Martin calls the “financialization” of everyday life, and the juggernaut of economic neoliberalism: all these are pressures that transcend the classroom and the university, and they combine to make the BQs luxuries rather than necessities, the kind of thing that only a few students, on a few leafy campuses, have the privilege of debating. The rest of the world careens down a path increasingly dominated by outcomes and assessments: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. (For my own further thoughts along these lines, see my essay “The Demands of the Day.”)

So while I wholeheartedly endorse Kahn et. al.’s call to put the BQs back at the center, this requires more than drawing a careful distinction between secularism and the secular.  Lately I’ve been thinking that my main job in the classroom is to create a space in which something unexpected can happen. I’m inspired by a project of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who in 1794 planned to leave England and start a radically egalitarian experiment in communal living in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. For this crazy scheme Coleridge coined the word “Pantisocracy,” or “all-governing society.” In a letter to his friend Robert Southey about his efforts to drum up support for the plan, Coleridge writes that he “preached Pantisocracy . . . with so much success that two great huge Fellows, of Butcher like appearance, danced about the room in enthusiastic agitations.” Coleridge linked Pantisocracy to bodily movement again in a modest poem written the same summer, in which America appears as a place

Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray,

And dancing to the moonlight Roundelay

The Wizard Passions weave a holy Spell.

Both passages used verbal invention to link a political project with unscripted movement. The “careless steps” in the poem are, among other things, a reference to practices of land management in eighteenth-century England, whose picturesque enclosures, ditches, and hedges make it impossible to move freely across a landscape. Coleridge’s sense of Pantisocracy as a rhetorical exercise with radical possibilities, something to be preached, poeticized, and invented, makes it a pedagogical exercise that rewards straying, stepping out of line, moving in enchantment and agitation. Those “great huge fellows” dancing around the room are figures for the kind of political subjectivity that might, under the right conditions, come into being simply through the power of words.

What does this have to do with secularism? If Talal Asad is right and secularity is about many things other than “religion”—a point that Kahn and his colleagues don’t seem quite to have grasped—then branding, casualization, financialization, and neoliberalism are all ways in which secularism reshapes our experience of time and of embodiment. The “empty, homogenous” time of modernity that Benjamin described has now been filled to the brim: in a world of metrics and measures, no one ever has enough time; we are all too burdened with what Coleridge calls “care.” If we really want the BQs to come back in all their richness, then we may have to recapture a different, non-secular relationship to temporality. Coleridge’s pantisocracy project suggests that we begin by considering the possibilities of carelessness. And if a secular body is in some sense an inexperienced body unable to dance with “Wizard passions” because it can no longer hear the music, then a non-secular body might be one that has been re-tuned to such sensory possibilities. Who among us wouldn’t want our students to dance?