Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989, translated into 30 languages in over 27 million copies, and adapted into an acclaimed miniseries. It begins and ends with a somber line: “The small boys came early to the hanging.” The first hanging, in 1123 A.D., is of an innocent commoner, a penniless minstrel accused of theft. The second hanging, a half-century later, is of guilty aristocrat, a sadistic nobleman involved in Thomas Beckett’s murder. Between the two deaths, Follett limns the lines of a soaring cathedral while he explores the foundations—the pillars of the earth—on which life, longing, and love are built.
His story unfolds around a medieval cathedral. It rises from a ruinous fire’s ashes, first taking Romanesque shape, and later given heaven-piercing Gothic form. Kingsbridge, a sleepy priory village, concomitantly grows into a major commercial center. The city’s prominence grows initially through work on the cathedral, and then through rising trade. The novel suggests that people live and die, but feats of human ingenuity like cathedrals and cities last forever.
Follet writes of a world improved through know-how. Cathedrals are more beautiful and safer when architects think imaginatively, test designs, and learn from mistakes. Trade becomes profitable when markets are open, rationally designed, and lawfully operated. Urban life is better when benevolently ruled; when roads and bridges are planned and underwritten by fairly collected taxes; and when expertise guides public decisions. Fewer people die when the sick are isolated from the healthy, hygiene practiced, and records kept.
Yet the book repeatedly reminds us of life’s tragic fragility. The innocent die, the guilty die; the young die, the old die; mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends—all suffer loss and die. No amount of technological mastery, public administration, or skillful medicine forever forestalls the riddle of suffering and death. If we like Pillars’ spirit of progress, we must also acknowledge its tragedy. It calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s defiantly bleak vision of humankind, for which:
it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; . . . to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; . . . proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and . . . the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.
University marketing offices do not put in glossy admissions brochures what Lord Russell writes. They celebrate contributions to science, technology, engineering, medicine, public service, and economic growth; they ignore existential angst and life’s tragic dimensions. They thereby facilitate false narratives that suppress the two-fold truth that nothing we make lasts forever and none of us gets out of life alive. Apart from the whole truth, education falls short.
We do better at Baylor. For many years, our main HC student recruitment event was entitled Is This Sickness Unto Death? Evil, Suffering, and Death. For the last two years, we’ve taken on another fraught topic—love, longing, and happiness. We invite prospective students into a four-year education that is animated by attention to what matters most. After all, education may help us design lovelier spaces, enjoy healthier and safer lives, and labor more efficiently. But unless education also enables us to ask and answer the “Then what?” question, it cannot possibly address the deepest, insistent questions that sooner or later press upon us all.
In other items of interest within the life of the Honors College, please take note:
- Tenure-track faculty searches are getting underway in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (committee chair, Sarah Walden), and the Great Texts Program (committee chair, Barry Harvey). Chairs can share approved position announcements as they become available. I encourage everyone’s help in spreading the word about tremendous opportunities to join in our work. Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest University’s president emeritus, once wrote: “Attracting . . . faculty is our single most important job, the one responsibility that should elicit our greatest creativity. . . . [E]ach appointment in a college or university becomes a finite embodiment of what that institution will be for the next generation. It is an effort that should never become routine and one for which we should gladly go the second mile.” Indeed.
- Many of you have mentioned hearing Derek Smith, host of Baylor Connections, give recent attention to the Honors College. Broadcast on Waco’s public radio and NPR affiliate 103.3 KWBU, Baylor Connections is also podcast-friendly. If you like, listen here as I share why the Honors College is leading the world’s largest Dante reading group and take listeners inside the Honors College’s approach to transformative education.
- 100 Days of Dante officially launched last week! With over 13,000 subscribers, plus thousands more visiting the project website, we’re putting a positive foot forward with a large public audience. Special thanks to project director Matthew Anderson, assistant research professor of ethics and theology in the Institute for Studies of Religion; project administrator Hilary Yancey, a recent graduate of our philosophy department; and senior University Scholar Beth Butler, who is running social media. On a related note, I wrote a short piece appearing in America over the weekend spotlighting Dante: “Pope Francis challenged Catholics to read Dante this year. Let’s do it together." Joy Pullman penned this fine piece for The Federalist. James Panero at New Criterion gave us a shout out. Matt Moser writes about the project for Mere Orthodoxy here. As people around the world join in, I’ll say it again: let’s read together!
- Re-envisioning the Humanities: Predicament, Perspective, Practice, a year-long faculty formation initiative funded by the Lilly Fellows Program, kicked off last week. It provides opportunity for focused discussion of the humanities within its national and our own institutional contexts. Honors College faculty members Candi Cann, Elizabeth Corey, Eric Martin, Sparky Matthews, Charles McDaniel, William Weaver, and Matthew Whelan are joined by eight other colleagues from departments around the University for this important series of conversations.
- I applaud faculty and staff diligence in seeking vaccination against COVID-19. Across the HC, our faculty vaccination rate is 98% (amazing!) and our staff vaccination rate is 74%. If you are among the handful of faculty and staff who have not completed vaccination, twice-weekly testing remains required as outlined here. Thanks to all for doing your part to support the health and safety of our University community.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689