Cathedral thinking and pandemic thinking

By Kamil Kunikowski

Piotrkowska Street, the center of Łódź, is a gallery of architectural awe. At Piotrkowska 265, there is the St. Stanisław Kostka Archcathedral. This majestic Roman Catholic parish church, built during the years 1901-1912, is the tallest building in Łódź (104.5 metres high) and one of the tallest churches in Poland. In 1895, a construction committee was established, which included some of the city’s largest manufacturers at the time: Juliusz Teodor Heinzel, Edward Herbst, Juliusz Kunitzer, Józef Richter and Adolf Hoffrichter. A design competition was announced in 1898. The winner: architect Emil Zillmann. The interior was designed by Viennese architect Zygfryd Stern.

But what actually is that cathedral besides being a bunch of bricks put in some order, which we inherited from past generations? Does that legacy have some wider conception?  We call it heritage, a part of who we are, which is a product of selection by society, and that makes it differ from legacy, but what, in fact, do we mean?

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has an eye for: tangible cultural heritage (such as buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, works of art, and artifacts), the intangible (folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and natural heritage (culturally significant landscapes and biodiversity). So, at first, it seems that a building can be a heritage site just because of the very fact that it is a building and because the society said it is worth holding onto, a part of our heritage. But, if we think deeper, it seems that tangible heritage has its meaning because it represents and resembles certain ideas, which are closely related to a particular culture.

Okay, we’ve got that – that cathedral is cool because it represents Christian values in Christian society. What’s the big deal? you might ask. Our culture is based on ancient Greek heritage, which is mainly rational perception of the world, a craving to put everything in order, to comprehend everything surrounding us, this world in our mind. One of the important phenomena that makes religion timeless, in some sense, is the psychological aspect. If we examine biblical stories in that manner, it seems that we haven’t gone much further in literature. Even Harry Potter consists of many biblical themes. To start with the most obvious one: battle between good and evil. And one of the reasons why author J.K.Rowling is so successful with her storytelling is that she got certain archetypes right. These stories are still vivid even in our time, because, in a metaphoric way, they are concerned with challenges that we all face on a regular basis. Over time, the chaotic bunch of stories that people tell one another got selected so only those grasping these vivid aspects in the best manner got remembered. Whatever you’re going through, surely you can find your equivalent in literature, and, by analysing that, you’ll see that people have faced the same, or similar, metaphysical doubts, even a thousand years ago.

In observing repetitive tendencies, we’ve naturally come to a point where there was some model presented, a model which, being readjusted over time, began to put all the defragmented aspects into order, an order for which craving is in the roots of our civilisation. First, there is that unfortunate apple, dichotomy of good and evil, better and worse, putting everything in one of the boxes, and constant labelling that often leads us to not be able to just enjoy life, but also to analysis – is it good or bad? is it more of this or more of that? – analysis which gave rise to any kind of systematisation, which led to development. But there is banishment from paradise. Well… since everything needs an understanding, evaluation, there is no way we could just be always content with life. There comes a time where we’re no longer innocent kids and the paradise ends – we have to make our own decisions, to evaluate what they will lead to, etc., and, with time, to take full responsibility for our lives. Since then, everything is in constant movement; we crave some meaning, some order, that would help us comprehend all that is around.

Order.

That is the thing that prevents us from going crazy, that is the very value that puts everything together. Let’s say you want a degree. There is an order introduced: first, you have to qualify to get into the university, and there are strict rules how you do it, then you submit your credits from a certain institution to another (that is, your chosen university), and you’re evaluated, according to those strict rules. If you’re good enough, you’re a student. And there is also a certain system of getting knowledge through lectures, tutorials, labs, and testing, if you got smart enough to continue. And so on. Basically, you know what to expect and how it works, even before you decide. Now imagine no rules, academics giving marks based on their mood or liking of a particular student, lectures which will maybe take place sometime, then maybe not. Chaos. Basically, every area of social life demands some order. In that sense, a university doesn’t differ much from a church – in church, there are certain procedures to be followed, such as making the sign of the cross when you enter, rules of taking part in communal prayer, etc.

Once, when I studied IT at the Technical University of Łódź, I came across a book called Linux Kernel Development. It’s basically a guide to programming an operating system, particularly Linux, the computer operating system. One of the things that got me thinking was why there is an ancient temple on that book’s cover? There surely are many answers – probably the best and most accurate one being, Why not? But, for me, it was about order. Kernel is made up of tons of code that describes every possible procedure that operating system is capable of, defining every case, and, what follows every input, every result. There is process management that is divided into describing and managing the process status, manipulating the current state of the process, defining process context, the process tree, methods of creating a new one, etc. Everything is defined in code lines, everything. Thus, why is there an ancient temple on the cover of what is clearly a modern, non-historic publication? My answer is – systematization. Just as with Kernel, religion or culture is a systematization of tendencies, pragmatic procedures; it is a complete model that provides any possible input with well-defined actions. One of the things which are worth taking a minute to think about is also an approach to what is possibly the most general definition, which means dividing the problem into the fewest possible cases, and then dividing every case into the fewest possible sub-cases, and so on. That gives the clearest way from the top of the tree to the roots, because it starts with the most general distinctions. and slowly goes towards the most precise.

The systematization, as I’ve already claimed, is in my opinion a fundamental value of our culture, a thing that prevents chaos, and, as a consequence, the thing of the most value in our civilization, the thing that provides us with the most important psychological need – the need of feeling safe. I believe there is no need to elaborate on how incompetent our government often is in their actions (to start with, the health minister who once said that protective masks are useless, and once said they are mandatory to wear, or decisions to close parks and forests because of the pandemic, and to open them when the number of infected is many many times higher). Which brings me to note certain institutions such us our university, SAN.

Sure, higher education is in a dire situation everywhere right now. But some decent coordination and communication could go a long way. Students at SAN are often obliged to use the PAO web platform for our education, according to an email the university administration sent out. The platform doesn’t work properly; in some cases, not at all. Not all the instructors are provided with school email addresses, not all the instructors use the platform, and some prefer simple email and Zoom during this emergency online learning approach. Students were informed via email that the university is now operating “differently,” but to explain clear ways of “how it’s going to be” was seemingly too much. There is actually no model of evaluating student work, because tests are pointless if we do them at home using our notes and the Internet. But to blame a particular instructor seems stupid. Instructors are just university workers, and it’s the university management’s role to provide all of us with a certain model. And that model should clearly define how students are about to get knowledge; how they are going to be provided with materials; how the classes will take place; what to do; who to contact if someone has problems with the Internet and cannot participate in the classes, or for some reason cannot download materials from the university website; how office hours are supposed to be carried out; among other things. There should be a clear picture, clear procedures.

It may sound harsh what I’m writing, but, put simply, I face many problems with the PAO platform myself. In fact, I am really afraid for my studies. There were already three classes I couldn’t really participate in because they are based 100 percent on materials which I couldn’t gain access to. And there I am, unprepared, without homework, without a clue of what is going on, trying to guess the right answer to questions asked by the teacher. And if the situation doesn’t change, I honestly don’t really know how I’ll manage to pass all the final exams. And it’s not due to laziness of any kind. That’s from a recent email, when I had to vent on the subject.

Back to churches, a grand scheme of things. There is a cathedral in Barcelona, Spain – Sagrada Familia. Since 1882, it has been under construction, for 138 years. Architect Antoni Gaudí created a masterpiece with his project, not only in terms of aesthetics, but, even more importantly, in terms of planning, deep thinking, organization. Generations come and go, but there is a clear plan followed; there is this timeless jigsaw puzzle with a clear solution, and the cathedral is closer and closer to being finished. Think about the level of ingenuity and deep planning it takes to envision the work over a hundread years into the future, to plan it in such a manner that one day it will all come together, resulting in beautiful fruition, a dream come true.

But to be successful at the planning and the realization of not only such big projects, but often more prosaic ones, we obviously need to communicate with each other. Nobody’s perfect; we all make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes we need someone to maybe propose an idea, pay attention to something, or even make us realize that we’ve done something terribly wrong, bad, dysfunctional, or just insufficient. It’s truly rare that the first draft is perfect; we always need to make critical analysis, debate.

It has astonished me when I compared public debates that take place on BBC with those in the Polish media. First, my immediate observation was: politicians here don’t have a dialogue, whatsoever. It’s all emotional talk, putting blame on others, empty words; there is no debate, no analysing the plan of how to cope with a certain problem, what could be done better. No dialogue at all! Just empty words: “We’re doing great.” And the Opposition saying: “It’s not true.” And the ruling party responding: “Yes it is, and it was worse during your time.” And so on. There is a concept known as “cathedral thinking.” So, how can we undertake anything that might come close to what may be called cathedral thinking when we’re not even able to come to some mutual agreements, when we cannot even communicate? We say that humans are social creatures, but can we truly even talk? Or, uncritically, should we just take every government position as the only genuinely revealed truth, like the hens on the chicken farm, and not ask questions? Can we even ask them?

And where’s the cathedral thinking in our education? We could start by admiring that piece of architectural wonder, and the planning that went into it, on Piotrkowska Street.


Kamil Kunikowski is a student at Społeczna Akademia Nauk.