As COVID continues to work its way through our lives and institutions, I find myself yearning for normalcy. I want to socialize with friends and family. I would like to rid myself of my mask while at school. I would like for the college to be open and unfettered. I feel as if I am in a holding pattern, like an airplane circling the runway waiting for permission to land, wanting to get my feet back on the ground. But it is not to be. Not yet.

I am sure I am not alone. Students and teachers at all of the large universities and colleges are holding classes online. The University of Oregon campus is closed to everyone without a current UO ID, and their students spend their days in their rooms in front of computers. Having experienced the “online” life last spring, I am incredibly grateful that our small size allows us to have in-person classes. There is no way to measure the significance of that personal contact and relational aspect to our lives. We are not islands.

Reflecting on our experience of last spring when we were online and this fall with in-person classes, I am more than ever convinced of the importance of living our lives face-to-face, where we can learn, grow, be friends, fail, and forgive. Intimate face-to-face education makes it possible to care for people in a way that has lasting impact.

As I was musing on these things, I happened to find a lecture given at Fuller Theological Seminary by David Brooks (a political and cultural commentator who writes for The New York Times) and his wife, Anne Snyder (a widely published author and the editor-in-chief of Comment magazine). The lecture, titled “How Our Culture Recovers: Tales from the Front,” outlined their perspective on how to bring about a renewal of culture through character building. They argued that we need better institutions and laid out sixteen key aspects of institutions that produce the kind of people who care, give, and sacrifice for others.

  1. Telos: There is a common institutional purpose which is embraced by all of the members.
  2. Rituals: There are patterns and covenants affirmed by all members that play a part in daily life.
  3. Engagement: All members are fully engaged regardless of their position.
  4. Particularity: The institution has a fixed set of norms that give a distinctive flavor.
  5. Whole person: There is a shared conception of the whole person—head, heart, and body.
  6. Relationships: The relational health of the community is a priority. Members and leaders exhibit an ease in social interactions.
  7. Careful about technology: The institution embraces technologies that build relationships and rejects those that alienate or impede relationships.
  8. Pluralism: Opportunities are built in for members to relate to people from other perspectives. The institution encourages deep listening and civility amid differences.
  9. Growth: Opportunities for struggle and growth and tests of character are built into the organizational process.
  10. Vulnerability and accountability: People feel safe and free to be honest and are held accountable.
  11. Reflection: The daily processes and structures encourage members to reflect deeply.
  12. Role Models: There are attentive and conscientious authority figures to serve as role models and mentors.
  13. Agency and initiative: The members empower and encourage each other to be active, responsible, moral agents, not to self-pleasure.
  14. Joy: The organization is full of joy, hospitality, and a welcoming attitude.
  15. Transformation: There are testimonies of whole life change and transformation.
  16. Lifelong impact: After leaving the institution, members cultivate similar cultures. The institution imparts a set of ideals that members want to live by.

I would add a seventeenth critical commitment that underlies all of these: a love of truth and wisdom.

COVID has made the sort of institution they describe far more difficult to achieve because of the separation and alienation. And what is perhaps more concerning is the long-term drift it may produce toward greater individualistic living. In higher education, the trends are clear: impersonal, individualized certification through technology, spearheaded by huge universities and tech organizations. I just read that Google now offers individualized six-week credentials.

Whatever happens, I am glad we are meeting again in person at Gutenberg so that we might be the kind of institution Brooks and Snyder uphold.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.