MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois will be closing down after 174 years. The news came today (as I write this on March 28, 2020). It had been anticipated. The board of the college cited declining enrollment, lack of rising competitive costs, and lack of sufficient endowment as the causes for there being “no viable financial path forward.” This semester, ending in May, will be the last. The 400+ students and 100+ faculty and staff will have to find other places to study and work.
MacMurray was founded by the Methodist Church as a college for women. It accepted men in 1955, and became fully co-ed in 1969. Its prominent programs were education, music, and a wide range of liberal arts and sciences. At one point Mac was thriving, with 1700 students. Its American Colonial architecture was excellently rendered. The center of the campus was its administration building for a hundred years, and then the Annie Merner Chapel with its grand Aeolian Skinner pipe organ became the college’s icon and gathering place for important services and concerts.
It is tempting to become nostalgic. MacMurray has an important place in our family’s history as my mother’s and cousin’s alma-mater, as the place I typed my doctoral thesis in Jacksonville’s first computer lab, and the place our 1958 high school graduating class had its Junior and Senior prom, and baccalaureate service. I was on stage in the music hall at the age of 5 and doing a piano recital or two ten years later.
Yes, well, everyone in town has memories of Mac.
Jacksonville was known as the Athens of the West for a few decades because it was (among other credits) the place where there were 2 colleges, 2 academies, the state’s first public high school, a school for the blind, a school for the deaf, and at least 2 commercial colleges. No town in Illinois, I contend, matched Jacksonville’s educational record until the big cities and state universities began to evolve. MacMurray was a major contributor to the town’s high regard.
Now MacMurray joins the growing list of degree-granting institutions of higher education going out of business in the USA at the rate of more than 100 a year. In addition to the reasons for closing that the Mac board mentioned in its public announcement is the fact that the type of education small liberal arts colleges provide is going out of fashion. That, rather than costs, is what I’d like to discuss now.
Liberal arts education was developed over 150 years to educate community leaders. Bachelor’s degrees were thought to be foundational, preparing graduates for professional education to follow. Only a few courses, mostly added in the middle half of the twentieth century, were to prepare graduates for jobs. But college life was also very much about leadership training. With a college education followed by a professional education, a physician or lawyer, for example, was also a valuable community leader ready to augment those who rose due to their family influence or in public esteem to offices such as sheriff, mayor, fire chief, or president of the bank.
Leadership nurture is a tedious, labor-intensive undertaking. It’s easier when the trainee has leadership talent and intuition to begin with. But even for those so endowed the process of discovering one’s most effective style of leadership can be difficult. That is why college life for a small liberal-arts college can be both challenging and rewarding. Being small, college functions can involve about everybody as a leader somewhere along the way. There’s no better leadership education than experience. In colleges, students are on their own to run student organizations such as campus newspapers, intra-mural teams, sororities and fraternities, and sometimes even choirs and dramas.
Leadership skills are acquired both inside and outside of classrooms. They include arts of persuasion, political organization, project management, social infrastructure, and personality discernment. Big institutions give a few students chances at leadership, but small campuses pull just about every willing volunteer into a quick learning curve. What’s more, big institutions expect high results which involve narrow focus. If you’re a football player in a big university even academic work takes second place. On a small campus, in one year, a student can be on a sport’s team, foreign language club, religious organization, and also have a campus job.
I lament the passing of each and every small college. I’m sorry for the community traditions that will be displaced, for the level of esteem that a college brings to a town, and for the students who tend to bring a town to life. Most of all I am sorry for the shifts in educational focus away from character development.
We can see the debilitating effect of having people promoted into positions of power who do not have character to match.
So, on this unhappy occasion, let’s give thanks to the United Methodist Church for giving us MacMurray College for 174 years, with 170 graduating classes of women and men who can ride horses as well as sing and preside at council meetings, who know how to calculate equations and enunciate quotes of Euripides, who have read widely and critically, and who have made the world a better place.
THAT WE DON’T ALL HAVE THE “WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER” SPIRIT
“Party On!” A TV network interviewed party goers in Florida a few days ago. They swore they were not going to pay any attention to social distancing or abstaining from going to all the parties they want to. One fellow was enraged at the idea that Coronavirus was a threat. There were many agreeing on the Facebook comment thread that contained this video clip.
Hmmm. Reminds me of 1984.
On the other hand, numerous sources urge us to exercise social responsibility to help flatten the curve on the spread of this still unpreventable disease.
“All Aboard!” Social media reported today (as I type this) that 5 members of a Thai elite military guard who have tested positive for COVID 2019 boarded a commercial airliner in Munich bound for Bangkok, in contravention of posted airline and government rules.
Some people are “exceptions” to laws and regulations even in times of a pandemic.
On the other hand, royals of many countries are using their high-profile status to set examples of responsible behavior and social concern.
“Ammo Panic!” A nephew in the USA reported that even before their guns and ammunition store opened there were customers lined up around the parking lot. “It’s getting weird.” Another friend said ammo was being limited to two boxes per customer.
Since this is the end of the hunting season, I wonder what the ammo is for. Target practice, yes.
On the other hand, the number of mass shootings in the USA for Jan-Feb is lower than the past few years. A little girl, reported today to have exclaimed joyfully about her school closing, “We don’t have to worry about getting shot at school for three whole weeks!”
“Cheers!” Here’s a news quote from yesterday: “The Governor of Phitsanuloak chaired a meeting of local businesses. They concluded that to be on the safe side, all establishments in the province e.g. hotel, resort, concert, temple, boxing and other sport gathering etc., must be closed to prevent further spreading of the disease … except pubs and bars.”
Well, uh, outbreaks in Thailand have been traced directly to gatherings in bars.
On the other hand, it seems that other governors and municipalities are taking a more aggressive approach. Pubs and bars are included in closings ordered today in 5 provinces surrounding Bangkok, as they have been in the city. Patrons, however, are scarce across the country. The Chiang Mai government ordered everything but essential businesses and food and medicine suppliers to be closed from Monday, March 23 until April 13 at least. Airport Plaza, the busiest mall closed already. [The picture above is of Chiang Mai’s busiest intersection right in front of the Tapae Gate during what is normally the busiest time of the evening.]
“Hell, no!” Thai social media went wild with a video clip taken by a security camera inside an elevator. A young adult male, alone in the lift, went around licking his fingers and swiping the control buttons and walls. Then he swiped his hand inside his pants and made a second round. Media assumed he was either making a statement (saying what, no one was sure except “f*** you”, or he was spreading THE VIRUS.
This follows two other passive-aggressive attacks by persons who knew they were infected with COVID 2019 who deliberately breathed, coughed, or spit on persons nearby.
Rage is contagious.
“Masks on!” The Thai Minister of Health was recently widely reported to have twice ranted that farangs [white foreigners] should be deported for refusing to wear face masks (and smelling bad). I took an unofficial poll at the immigration check-in station here in Chiang Mai on Friday, and the number of presumed foreigners wearing masks was about 50%, which was equal to the number of immigration officials wearing masks.
Actually, the masks available to the public are not helpful to prevent becoming infected, but can help those who are infected from spreading the disease. The World Health Organization does not insist on mask wearing.
On the other hand, masks are never entirely about sanitation. They are, especially here in Asia, normally about social responsibility and compliance with community expectations. A mask says something about the wearer. “I am not as dangerous as you may think. I am concerned about your concerns. I’m on your side.” Things like that.
The “We’re All in This Together” spirit is not to be taken for granted. It is clearly the responsible thing to maintain a safe distance between oneself and others during times like these when a dangerous disease is being transmitted. It is prudent and compassionate to limit large crowds and tight confinement. But we will usually wait until some edict requires us to comply.
Until governors begin to announce closings most of us might suspect “no need to panic,” and a few will insist, “It’s a conspiracy [by some agent we already detest].” Then, when the crisis becomes undeniable, we will begin to hear still more livid rumors, “They are going to institute martial law.” These are excuses to resist, to defy, and to refuse to be part of the community.
But community is not actually optional. None of us can entirely opt out of community life. (Hermits and sociopaths are special cases.) For just about everybody community-living is not only standard, we accept the fact that actions of individuals affect the whole community. Nevertheless, shifting from “this isn’t about me,” to “I need to think about others now,” takes effort, particularly for a me-generation.
Transitional times, like the one we are going through, are fraught with irony.
This week the Oberammergau Passion Play, presented once a decade to celebrate the deliverance of the village of Oberammergau in Bavaria from the Black Plague of 1633, was postponed for two years because of the COVID plague in 2020. How ironic. It is part of the larger irony that it is precisely during this time of enforced separation and “sheltering in place” that we begin to think of such socially responsible things as informing our heirs where to find our important documents, figuring out how to get invalid relatives cared for, and what to do to help the suddenly unemployed survive.
Good will come from this. We can see good breaking out just as the daffodils are pushing the dirt aside, paying little attention to late snow. [Thanks to Krisana for the picture she posted between snow falls.] Here are examples to give us perspective:
Schools are closing. What are working parents to do? Suddenly children are home without supervision or care. We’ve heard of people helping out by taking in a couple of kids, turning their family room into a play-classroom. Some take turns being hosts. This sort of neighborly cooperation has almost disappeared, but now a whole new generation is rediscovering it.
Restaurants and bars are closing. (In Illinois it’s to be statewide. In San Francisco the whole city is on “lock down” with only people performing essential services allowed out of their houses). What are food service workers to do? What about hungry people, for that matter? They have to adapt. Some restaurants are providing curb service, although not quite in the manner we got from A&W Root Beer stands or Stake and Shake. I don’t think bars can do that. Cloth-napkin restaurants may have to scale down. We are just beginning to see a return to food distribution as it used to be. Some of us may actually learn to cook a thing or two.
Universities are closing. Very large Bangkok University today announced two weeks suspension of classes after a student was found to possibly have COVID 2019. Assumption and Mahidol universities are also partially closed. Officials have hinted that all schools and colleges in the country might be closed as early as next week. What now? The immediate response we’ve heard about is to re-design instruction to be provided on-line at a distance. This is nudging traditional colleges to “get modern” and for regulatory agencies to reform. There are many ways of providing high quality education. This crisis will get some of those ways unstuck.
Travel options are shut down. This is going to upset lots of plans, but what are people away from their home countries going to do? What about international students? I can imagine students who would otherwise have slipped into their institutions, into their enclaves inside, and into their degrees and trips back home, without ever having really seen American family life. Now, behold, they might be invited into guest rooms and family experiences they never expected. Those families might discover their first international “family members.” It’s about time.
My point is opportunities for good are emerging. Every hour brings new accounts of this cooperation and adaptation taking place as a result of good-will confronting sheer necessity. Whole new categories of good things are being suggested, explored, and undertaken. Some of those avenues might lead to breakthroughs into alternative political, economic, and environmental constructs. It sometimes takes a crisis right in our face to crack us open to tough change.
If Chiang Mai were to be put on a San Francisco type of lock-down, I can’t imagine how we’d get through two or three weeks, but we’d be better off than hundreds confined to condominiums. We live in a village. Small communities are hothouses for cultivating creative care and kindness.
Northern Thai Buddhism (along with every other authentic religious system) contains a paradox. In this case it has to do with the accommodation of two antithetical principles.
In principle Buddhism’s central premise is that suffering comes from ignorance which can be overcome by a cognitive breakthrough to enlightenment leading to the end of cycles of karmic-driven reincarnation. It is essential that this search for enlightenment be undertaken by each person individually. It is agreed that only monks can accomplish this, so those who wish to follow this quest for enlightened extinguishing of the flame of existence need to separate themselves from society through ordination. Then they live in a disciplined environment where the interference of society can be limited. They practice disciplines that shut out social noise and distractions, and hopefully discover the liberating truth of non-existence. The ideal environment for this is in a forest in solitude.
On the other hand, society exists through the participation and contribution of everyone. This unity is essential. Disruption of it is unfortunate. Social continuity and events that potentially enhance society (e.g. marriages, births, promotions) are celebrated.
At the same time, there are two social disruptions that must be ritually and thoroughly handled: deaths and ordinations. In both of these events society is being deprived of a valuable member – which is a threat to social welfare. In principle, as the logical conclusion, a death as well as an ordination portends the extinction of society.
Yet, ordination in Thai Buddhism is understood as having surpassing value. In fact, ordination is so meritorious that not only the individual acquires merit to offset demeritorious karma, but the community does as well. Basically, becoming a monk is not only a doorway to self-improvement and the remote possibility of enlightenment (which helps the monk more than anyone), a monk also signifies and expounds the Dharma (in Thai Tham or thamma) which helps the community toward understanding. It is a social benefit. So the community of monks residing in a village temple helps the village by providing essential education, often in the form of sermons and ritual enactments, and also assisting the people of the village by giving them opportunities to make merit by supporting the temple and its monks.
The people in a village who benefit most from the ordination of one of its boys or men would be the family of the ordinand. They make a significant sacrifice when they relinquish the social support those males would otherwise provide. As if to compensate for this loss, there is a ritual transfer of merit incorporated in the ordination ceremony by which the person being ordained reassigns the merit he is acquiring to his parents, especially his mother who is prevented by her sex from being ordained. [This misogynistic concept may be breaking down as women, too, are being ordained.] As the whole village, in a way, participates in the ordination, the whole village makes merit.
Making merit is a good thing. It is easy to accumulate demerit through daily living. It behooves one to make as much merit as possible. The economy of merit is a vague and suspicious subject, but some actions are clear. Killing is frightfully demeritorious. Becoming a monk is supremely meritorious. To avoid a disadvantageous rebirth, and a probably transition through hell beforehand, it is important to acquire merit.
However, acquiring merit for oneself presumably ends with death. Death is the other common disruption of salubrious life functions. As paradoxical as it appears, there is universal acceptance throughout North Thailand (and elsewhere) that merit can be transferred not only to the living (such as to mothers) but to the dead (including ancestors). A funeral service is basically a complex merit-making and merit-transferral ceremony. In fact, there is probably no frequent opportunity in a village for more people to make more merit in more ways than at a funeral.
In a funeral that I attended a couple of days ago merit was made and transferred in a score of ways, including especially: (1) sponsors/patrons who provided funds for aspects of the 3 days of funeral ceremonies, (2) the family members who provided the catafalque (meru) to hold the coffin, (3) the village housewives association who cooked half a dozen large meals, (4) the men and women who put up and took down awnings and tables, (5) the monks who came to chant and preach, (6) the 5 boys who were ordained for a day to make merit for their grandmother, (7) all of us who bought sets of robes to be ceremoniously presented to the monks on the cremation grounds, (8) those who attended the chanting services and then poured libations of water to transfer the merit to the deceased.
To return to the matter of the paradox inherent in all this, there are three ways of handling the matter. The paradox can be resolved, embraced or ignored. Every religion tries to resolve or embrace the paradox of suffering in the context of human existence, but usually fails in the short run.
If the religion supposes the existence of a creative divinity the question must be handled about why the divinity created beings with the need to experience suffering and loss. Either the divinity is imperfect in its creative capacity or it is malign and creation is a malicious farce. No major religion, however, draws this conclusion.
Some insist the fault is not with the creator but with us who transgress and introduce chaos into pristine creation. We need to be sorted out if creation is to be fixed.
Other religions agree that we are flawed, but it has to do with our perceptions and understanding. (A) We just think we are suffering. We are actually fabricating these thoughts because we are confused. Given the right perspective we would agree that this suffering is illusionary. (B) Our suffering is real enough, but it is beneficial. We are being improved by this experience and we will emerge from it far better persons. We should delight in our suffering. Given the right perspective we should agree that the paradox is illusionary.
On the whole, as with village Thai Buddhism, the paradox is ignored. Certainly, the objective is to acquire the insight necessary to transform our perception of the world and our condition in it. This is a quest that potentially removes us, and everyone else, from society. We would cease being either cause or effect. Suffering would be resolved by having no one left to suffer. Nevertheless, meanwhile, society is a practical necessity, and a serene, well-functioning society is to be desired. We would like to have our monks helpful and not far removed from home. They serve to keep our social circumstances centered and tending toward practical elimination of suffering as far as can be done. We can ignore the philosophical issue of how to resolve such things as the nature of society when the wisest among us quest for non-existence, or how to mitigate the post-mortem suffering of our ancestors or how to join them in paradise. Merit making and merit transfer may be inconsistent with one aspect of the quest, but concern about that inconsistency dissolves in the satisfaction of going on with getting along.
[Thanks to Charles F. Keyes for his explication of this complex and controversial issue in “Merit Transference in the Kammic Theory of Popular Theravada Buddhism” published in Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry, ed. by Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)]
They start out as aggravations, these disruptions that come from anticipating the virus.
Within the first 3 days of March the disruptions that have come to my attention are increasing here in Chiang Mai:
· Metro Technical College postponed its commencement exercises indefinitely, so our celebration of nephew Wave’s graduation with an Associate’s Degree in Automotive Mechanics won’t happen on Saturday. Across town much larger Mae Jo University also postponed their commencement. A score of announcements appeared about events being cancelled “until the end of March.”
· A private grade school in town suspended classes for two weeks. A whole lot of schools are expected to rush the end of the school year which would normally be in a week or two anyway.
· Most hospitals are complaining about shortages of face masks. But more ominously they are also beginning to worry about shortages of pharmaceuticals, many of which are from China, even those with American and British brand names.
· Women at the bank told me that they are disappointed they will not be able to go to Japan “to see the snow” as was planned by the bank. Flights around this part of Asia are hugely disrupted. There has been a 42% drop in passengers through CNX (Chiang Mai International Airport) compared to last year. All flights to and from China by several airlines have been cancelled, with only a handful remaining from next door Kunming, but incoming passengers are quarantined to some extent. Flights to South Korea and Japan are on a day to day basis.
· An “expo” was cancelled. A promotional fair might as well have been since the only people who wandered through the aisles of food were other exhibitors and sales personnel.
· Supply chains are beginning to be disrupted. That includes fruit which we have ready to send to China that will now probably rot instead.
The next phase of disruptions will be upon us when cases of the coronavirus 2019 begin to show up unexpectedly and randomly. It will no longer be cases of “better safe than sorry” and will begin to be handled as “preparing for the emergency.” As a matter of fact, the Thai public health system, which has made remarkable progress over the past 20 years, is not able to get ready for an epidemic of highly communicable flu-like cases. There simply are not facilities or equipment to handle more than a case or two entering primary care facilities or the transportation infrastructure needed to get cases to major medical centers. Those 29 centers (almost half of which are in Bangkok) would be overwhelmed if the number of cases were to climb to 100. COVID 2019 cases cannot be stacked in hallways. Medical supplies for these kinds of cases will run out.
We are pretty fortunate here in Chiang Mai. The atmospheric conditions are the worst in the world for the third day in a row with particulates into high danger zones. That exacerbates any respiratory conditions. It’d put anyone exposed to COVID 2019 into the very high risk group. But we don’t have crowded refugee camps here or people in massive numbers fleeing from war, so we can hang onto our confidence that the danger won’t wipe us out. We have space between us that we can try to maintain, and options if needed.
But how will we handle escalating disruptions of our way of life? What happens if the disruptions expand beyond simple inconvenience?
Yesterday I attended a community funeral. It was typical of village funerals. I looked around and reminisced on the myriad ways we were breaking all … ALL … the safety rules. Food was being prepared under trees in the orchard out back, with equipment washed from hoses. Nobody wore face masks that actually did any good. One woman had an expensive mask which she wore under her chin. Hundreds were half-listening to chanting while chatting leaning close together. They were drinking from shared glasses as always. We ate sticky rice with our fingers from bowls shared by 3 or 4 people. At least we didn’t shake hands. (Of course, around here nobody ever shakes hands, except sometimes with me.) The closest family members were packed into the front room of the house of the deceased woman. The room was small and the family was big. And what did she die from? A respiratory disease. COVID 2019? Probably not. Nobody did tests. She’d been sick with it for months.
In fact, we could not have a village funeral without a large community meal and chanting. Many things might be postponed or skipped, but what about funerals? The consequences of skipping or skimping on a funeral are unthinkable.
[The picture above is from the funeral mentioned. The son of the deceased is presenting a set of robes to the village monks.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.