Recovering an Institutional Imagination
Recovering an Institutional Imagination

Recovering an Institutional Imagination

Institutions do not simply emerge or persist. You and I create and sustain them, and we imagine their future.
September 1 st 2013
Appears in Fall 2013

The Need for Institutional Imagination

When you grow up in a small town having never moved farther than half a mile down the road, as I did, imagining that a school could be different from the ones in which you and your sisters were formed is not an easy task. I know this because when I was fifteen a very clever teacher gave me a creative assignment: to imagine the perfect school. This teacher was not asking me simply to imagine the school building or my ideal teachers, though it included these aspects, but the whole institution: the schedule, rules, and ethos as well. I was asked to think about each component of education and how they fit together to be more than the sum of their parts.

I've come to appreciate that the task my teacher gave me was more rare and striking than I could understand at the time, and perhaps than even she knew. The assignment not only challenged me to mature beyond what we all experience as children—taking the formative institutions in our life for granted—but it also challenged me to reject the temptations of scapegoating or reifying the institution of education. I was asked not to dismiss or defend the institution but to understand it as in need of good form, such that through it good ideas and leadership could accomplish what they imagine.

The institutions that we inhabit all of the time—family, school, neighbourhood, church, and so on—comprise a social architecture that is the context in which we pursue our own good and the good of our neighbours. The ubiquity of these institutions gives the illusion of invisibility, so we tend to take them for granted. But we shouldn't. Indeed, we do so to our detriment. By taking them for granted we can forget that their current form—the good and the bad—was imagined and instituted at a particular moment, by sinful people like you and me. We are the ones who are responsible for imagining how these institutions will serve our neighbours and children into the future.

A Case Study: Alcuin of York

Take an example that will be familiar to all of us: our educations. Perhaps without realizing it, most of us have been effectively educated into the liberal arts tradition from elementary school on up. But "the liberal arts" was not established as the core curriculum for Western civilization until the eighth century by Alcuin of York, a scholar at the court of Charles the Great. Of course he was, quite self-consciously, building on the resources of the past, but as he identified and promoted the trivium and quadrivium, a new vision of the institution of education came into being. We can look back to Alcuin as a model of someone exercising "institutional imagination."

In 781, Alcuin was invited to Charles's court at Aachen to oversee the education of the royal family—men, women, and children— as well as to lead the Palace School. Over the next fifteen years, Alcuin worked alongside Charles, also known as Charlemagne, on the architecture of the Carolingian Renaissance, a season of substantial growth and consolidated knowledge in education, music, ecclesiology, and politics. Charles later became the first Holy Roman Emperor, spreading much of the work that was imagined by Alcuin throughout Western Europe. Among Charles's decrees was the institutionalization of education among all levels of priests and monks. He also instituted a form of universal elementary education that required priests to provide the basic building blocks of humanist learning to all reaches of the empire.

Alcuin's gifts were not that of a great thinker, but of a great educator: assembling and synthesizing the Western academic tradition that preceded him and organizing it into a tradition that could be disseminated in his own time and into the future. Before arriving in Aachen, he spent forty years at the Cathedral School at York, expanding its curriculum and its library. With Charles, he instituted the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), defining what it meant to receive a proper education. Alcuin was also an educator of the church. His Missal was used first throughout Germany and then Europe, unifying the churches with a single liturgy for the Mass. He also instituted the Carolingian minuscule, the typeface upon which modern Roman scripts are based, as an efficient way for his students to transcribe and disseminate important works of scholarship.

In all these things, Alcuin embodied two crucial elements of an institutional imagination: he took responsibility for where he was, humbly and wisely using the gifts he was given to serve his neighbours, and he was faithful to take into consideration the impact of his decisions on the future. That is, he incorporated future generations into his understanding of the common good.

The impact that his work had, while extensive, was not foremost in Alcuin's mind. He had a reputation for humility and diligence. Though he was an admirer of Charles, he did not petition Charles to participate in the work underway at Aachen. It was Charles who invited Alcuin to his court. Further, he was probably a layman, which meant that though his teachers were the previous two Archbishops of York, Alcuin couldn't have been after this prestigious position. Finally, after just fifteen years at Charles's court, he requested a quiet retirement at Tours. Alcuin, it seems, had a realistic view of himself: his gifts and what he could accomplish. While taking responsibility for expanding the institutions of education in the most comprehensive way that he could imagine, even to the edges of Western Europe, Alcuin was consistently faithful to the actual institutions in which he played a role, first in York, then in Aachen, and then in Tours.

For Alcuin, whose work in the realm of education took the impact of institutions seriously, the results were imperfect, no doubt plagued by limited understanding, interpersonal conflict, and the exclusions based on class, sex, and race that formed the anthropological framework of his time. But though he must have known that his contribution would be limited and faulty, Alcuin's institutional imagination helped to ensure that the ideas which emerged in the first eight hundred years of the church's history are available to us today. Remember, Alcuin inherited a culture that had lost touch with much of the great scholarship of its past. This is why he was so keen to travel around Europe collecting the remaining manuscripts from the early Church and Greek philosophy for the library at York. He understood that institutions have the capacity to outlive individuals, carrying ideas into the future. Having felt the dearth of this inheritance from his own predecessors, Alcuin was faithful to try to leave the best of his culture for future generations. This was surely an act of service to the common good.

Institutional Realism and the Common Good

We need to have a realistic understanding of institutions. They do not simply emerge or persist. People like Alcuin and you and I create and sustain them, and we imagine their future. In order to recover and then cultivate an institutional imagination, we need to understand the power of institutions and their relationship to individuals and ideas. Institutions are a given part of our social nature, the main contributing factor to our formation, and detrimental when organized around anything other than the common good. The question is not whether or not we need institutions; the question is which ideas will shape them, who will take responsibility for them, and whom they will serve.

Whether we refer to the social architecture as "estates," following Luther, or "spheres," as the Kuyperians do, or in the context of subsidiarity as described in Catholic social thought, institutional realism can be found across theological traditions. It offers two crucial insights into a biblical understanding of our social nature: First, according to the creation narrative, God meant for us to thrive in organized social life, where our personal good and the common good are mutually reinforced by a social architecture oriented toward this end. Second, because of sin, the social architecture within which God meant for us to experience this conformity—such as in the family and neighbourly economy—is graciously preserved in penultimate form in the various institutions of daily life that we actually experience— state, church, school, and so on. While the institutions that we participate in and are responsible for are fallen, they remain the structures within which we experience common life and the context in which our work can be oriented toward the common good.

The ideal of the common good is an insight into human nature: we share common goods with our neighbours, and, as we do, we order our common lives in a principled way toward these shared ends. This is one of Augustine's great insights in The City of God (Book 19): "A people . . . is a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love." We cannot pursue our own good except as we care about the common good; we thrive when our neighbourhoods and communities are thriving. And the common good takes shape in the social architecture of our culture—that is by the actual institutions in which our neighbours (and we) are formed and pursue a good life.

This realism includes both an appreciation for ordered common life and a healthy scepticism about the actual institutions that we have. Institutional scepticism is a virtue when it is a response to the tragic fact that the institutions we actually experience and are formed by are not instantiations of the ideal but rather fractious derivatives. Institutions embed ideas into structures that persist into the future; they are not neutral in regards to the good. When they embed bad ideas, they take the structures that were meant to facilitate neighbourly care and instead perpetuate injustices. As Augustine reminds us: "the better the things, the better the people; the worse the things, the worse their agreement to share them." Slavery and Nazism were both institutionally sophisticated. Institutions are only as good as the individuals and ideas to which they provide structure. Everything hangs on what is held in common. Having an institutional imagination will mean creating and sustaining institutions that remember their frailty even while responsibly exercising their purpose to pursue the common good.

Cultivating an Institutional Imagination

Having a realistic understanding of institutions, and then committing ourselves to the social architecture that we share with our neighbours, will compel us to cultivate an institutional imagination. But first, we need to understand that teaching and encouraging institutional realism has not been a strength of the contemporary church.

On the one hand, though we have been good at appreciating the contributions of ideas and individuals to the shape of our common life, we have been less able to see the social architecture itself as necessary for the common good. Sometimes this weakness has simply been an oversight as we have been engaged fruitfully in defending the ideas that, under certain conditions, do in fact change the world. At other times, it has been the result of our participation in an unhealthy individualism, which has included looking for great actors in history instead of the networks in which they thrived. But at other moments, the neglect of institutions has actually taken the form of anti-institutionalism, sometimes even disregard of the church itself.

On the other hand, when Christians have paid attention to institutions, we have often privileged a few while ignoring others. For example, we have sometimes put undue trust and hope in the state, which is but one of the institutions that needs to be oriented toward the common good. Institutional realism reminds us that the institutions we have are fractured and partial, and no institution can independently address the full context for human flourishing. But the church is made up of many members with different gifts, and while we cannot each cultivate an institutional imagination for every sphere, together we can commit ourselves to the common good by sending one another into all areas of our common life.

The actual institutions that we share with our neighbours are institutions embedded in history. Because they participate in the fall, we cannot simply assume that they are on the right track. What should we do with these broken remnants of the structures that were meant to organize our common lives around the goods that lead to human flourishing? We need to take responsibility for them the way that Alcuin did in his time, through our individual work in the world and through a commitment to creating and sustaining institutions that are oriented toward the common good. Though we cannot know the future, we should try to imagine the good life for our children and theirs, and, though flawed and imperfect as the attempts will be, try to leave, in the institutions and ideas that will outlive us, our best hope for their flourishing. This is the context in which we pursue our individual work in the world: service to our neighbours and their children.

Cultivating an institutional imagination will be a process of seeking wisdom. Formed and rooted in the culture that we have received, we will each find ourselves with particular work with particular neighbours as the context in which to take responsibility for the common good. An institutional imagination gets traction in our vocations— the actual places where God has called us to be faithful. Whether you are superintendent of a school system or teacher in a classroom, the authority that you have been given can and should be exercised imaginatively to create the context for the flourishing of all those touched by your work. Seeking to use our gifts wisely for the good of our neighbours will require that we reject false modesty while at the same time recognizing our limitations and that our results will be mixed at best.

Practically speaking, sometimes thinking institutionally for the common good may mean protecting inherited institutions. The traditional family may fall into this category right now, in which case thinking institutionally will begin in each of our individual households. Sometimes it will mean taking responsibility for faltering institutions instead of starting parallel institutions. Here I am thinking of our troubled public education system, which, even in the midst of its brokenness, still provides education to our poorest neighbours. And sometimes, it will mean innovating new institutions. Surely there is a financier somewhere who can imagine a venture capital arrangement that has neighbourly care at its core. In all of these things, offering institutional protection to the weak, the sick, the poor, and the young are always ways in which institutions can serve the common good.

The twenty-first century is not an easy time in which to identify the common good with a clear conscience. We live in a global world that shows no signs of shrinking. The scale of our gifts and responsibility won't all be global. Sometimes we will wisely discern that the common good is best served at the local level. But we need to deliberately go into all areas of culture, serving all the institutions that touch our neighbours and ourselves, and for some of us this will mean national or global imaginations. We need to ask ourselves quite seriously: who is thinking on the scale of Alcuin and Charlemagne for the twenty-first century? Perhaps Google is the best candidate. Is Google committed to the common good and the social architecture necessary for human flourishing? Honestly, I don't know. But we should all care.

An institutional imagination well-suited to the twenty-first century will take seriously institutional complexity and plurality. It will be attentive to our current neighbours but aware that the institutions we leave for our children directly impact their ability to experience human flourishing, even in its penultimate form. All of us should be aware of the responsibility we bear for the institutions we touch and take seriously the promotion of the common good. When we lack a clear conscience on the best way to act, we must be committed to seeking wisdom, because if we can't figure out how the common good can be pursued in our own vocational spheres, then no one can. And, in all these things, we act with a humble confidence that is characteristic of people who trust that God has created us and he graciously preserves us still as we drive hard toward our home with him, with no mile-marker in sight.

Emily Rose Gum
Emily Rose Gum

Emily Rose Gum is a graduate student in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her work focuses on the institutions responsible for moral formation, especially the intersection of the family and the church. Prior to returning to school, Emily spent five years as Managing Editor of The Hedgehog Review.


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