All of us learn at some point in high school or college that our English word agony can be traced back to the ancient Greek agon, a wrestling match. The fact sinks deeply into many students’ minds because of its built-in poetry. Not only does it summarize the relentless competitiveness of Hellenic culture, but it also suggests that as a species we are inclined to be rather tough on ourselves, a tendency we confirm each time we proclaim the agony it causes us that the bank branch won’t be opening for another 10 minutes.
So I feel a little less shy when I suggest to you that being an academician is a way of life that comes with some side-effects, one of which is a propensity for the activity known as agonizing. There are professions, after all, whose practitioners see agony as something supplied from the outside, by bosses or supervisors or other authority figures. That isn’t the academic norm. Within the walls of the academy, eruptions of agony are periodic from inside the crania of the academicians themselves!
It starts during the undergraduate years, when good student is synonym for takes pains. Pains! While his or her fellow students are wallowing in sloth, he or she is getting the brain down to business, plowing and replowing the fertile pastures of knowledge and preparing to reap the reward known as a prosperous and fulfilling life. From there to actually becoming a faculty member or an administrator at a school of higher education is, you might say, a hop, a skip and a modest jump.
Soon you find yourself belonging to a profession that wonders whether or not it is completely doomed. Is the march of ideas leaving it definitively behind? Has our society discovered a better way of educating its adolescents and young adults?
And have we fully considered the possibility that we academicians have been doomed by our own sinfulness? Weren’t we warned as early as the 1960s that when power is universally shared then function becomes a noun in the past tense?
What all of the above adds up to is what academicians agonize about on a collective and therefore shared level. It is only after we get through with that range of agony that we can start experiencing such other academic side effects as envy, that powerfully academic malaise, and the hypnotic addiction to words as magic tokens of potency.
Once you encourage people to quantify their accomplishments – a procedure always recommended when tenure and promotion roll around – envy lurks right around the corner. That the other guy or gal just had a book prestigiously published leaves you feeling poorer because you didn’t beat him or her to it!
At that point, come to think of it, your mind resembles that of an ancient Greek. Which isn’t altogether a compliment. It was no accident, as we say today, that the Greeks cherished near the heart of their civilization an epic poem about a struggle to the death.
What we all need to encourage today’s American society to understand, therefore, is that the worst critics of higher education are the people who work in higher education. Some of them, indeed, need actually therapy before they become capable of seeing the bright side.
And that’s another side-effect – a beneficent one – of being an academician today: by the time you get through beating yourself around the ears for falling short of perfection again, your normal everyday functioning starts to look pretty good. I mean, you’re actually responsible for convincing your students that – in our highly competitive world – there is something you are doing for them.
That’s more than most people know about the adequacy of their labors. What I hear all around me in the world we actually inhabit is folks who agonize about their lack of professional certainty or about the arbitrary injustices committed by those one step higher in the table of organization. To actually hear from your own students that you are doing OK sounds to me, therefore, like something out of Seventh Heaven.
Amid all their agonizing, the Greeks created these habitual masterpieces whose precise form and shape would haunt all of the human species forever. That’s a level to which we academicians have only begun to aspire. But it’s not a level that’s definitively beyond our reach. (Since the reader is probably an academic of some kind, let me assure him or her that the previous sentence is not intended as a joke.)
I think of Plato’s own (and first) academy, for example, and the sentence allegedly carved in gold above its entryway: No entry without mathematics. As a philosopher and a Greek of his time, Plato marries the issue of quantity with the issue of spirit, and thereby produced a love of truth that has kept his name fresh in our ears for well over two millennia. And whether that sentence was actually carved there, it still carries a valuable message for today’s practitioners of higher education: that we are supported by our society because of the balance represented by our total accomplishment. We goad our students to graduate from their earlier selves even while empathizing with their efforts to be reborn. We engage in an activity as competitive as research while keeping an eye relentlessly peered for its social, economic and global impacts. We adore our campuses, yet manage to pay attention to those who proclaim our campuses obsolete. That, it seems to me, is balance of an admirable kind.
On the whole, therefore, our country is better off as a result of our existence. As an old-style Marxist might have observed, we are objectively patriotic. And to feel patriotic while pursuing one’s personal intellectual pleasures surely qualifies as yet another gift from Seventh Heaven!
Which brings me to our addiction to words. Its consequences are so momentous, because we are always at risk of being out of touch.
As many of our fellow human beings are driven by feelings as are driven by words. That means we may be teaching word-centered truths about world events whose truths about world events whose truths lie elsewhere. An occupational hazard – but one we must take seriously. Having achieved a highly balanced adaptation to a world dominated by literacy, we may find it more rather than less difficult to a world that looks, increasingly, post-literate.
But with the usual agonizings, the adaptation has begun. The visual history of Western Culture, for example, has moved far closer to the heart of the humanistic curriculum than was imaginable when I myself was a college freshman.
So let’s get done with the agony of our adaptation to the era of digital intelligence. And after we’re finished with that tumultuous process, why shouldn’t we feel a surge of triumph, and actually, treasure the wreath being placed on our collective head?
Now is the time, therefore, for a rebirth of spirit. Imagine once again feeling optimistic about our future!
-The writer is University president and professor of public administration.