A friend of mine challenged me recently to explain why I am a university professor.
“Why did you choose this path?” she asked me, over a glass of pinot grigio and nibblies on the terrace of the Bad Dog Café on trendy Locke Street in Hamilton, Ontario. “You’ve sacrificed a lot of your private life to build this career. Was it all worth it?” It was too heavy a topic for a sunny, breezy day, so I promised I would write her a reply on my blog.
I did not begin this path knowing where it would lead me. I remember being an undergraduate student at York University, and terribly impressed on the first day of my first class – The Classical Experience, taught by Dr Paul Swarney. It was a blustery, freezing January day and I was a few days shy of my 17th birthday. I had accelerated through high school because of a gifted program called PACE and, not wanting to waste any time, had enrolled in York’s winter-summer admission program. In some ways it was a back-door entry into the university system, and it meant that I missed out on all the festivities associated with frosh week and the pageantry of the beginning of a new academic year. In fact, I was done my last exam at Sacred Heart Catholic High School in mid-January and by the end of the month I was in my first university lecture. I loved what I heard and experienced. I loved wandering around York’s suburban snow-blanketed campus. I loved going to the Scott Library and reading under one of the skylights or listening to my walkman and drinking a coffee, watching the world go by. Although I was very social, I didn’t make many real friends. That has always been a challenge for me – I am very independent and have always taken a long time to trust others. I did enjoy many conversations though, attended a lot of club meetings, cultural events and the like. It was during my B.A. that I developed a lifelong love for watching dance: modern and ballet, ballroom and freestyle. My first term of university life opened up a world of possibilities for me, possibilities that are still unfolding in my life today.
And that is the central mission of the university for me – opening windows to a new understanding of the world in students’ minds.
I strongly believe that wisdom is born of lovingly applying reason to one’s experiences. Compassion and empathy are born of this practice. So is depth of feeling and caring. Why are these things important? Because they are at the core of the good life. I have met many people in my various travels who have told me that the good life comes of material possessions. This is false. Material possessions are wonderful and can adorn one’s life in the manner of a beautiful watch or bracelet, or make it easier in the manner of a blender or a four-wheel drive car. What they cannot do is bring you closer to the good.
Universities should strive to build in students a yearning for the good life. They should be accessible, open places, and a professor should be both a guide and a companion on that journey. I grow with my students. Sometimes through discussion over coffee or a beer in The Phoenix, our McMaster University pub. Sometimes through in-class interaction – answering questions, fostering discussion, sometimes even through the silent nonverbal feedback I get when I am lecturing. Sometimes during quiet, emotional moments in my office when young people who are faltering at meeting the challenges that life or the university has dealt them, open up to me and relate to me their dreams, their sadnesses, their frustrations and their aspirations.
Take the example of a student who, a few years back, faced great challenges because her father had suffered a heart attack which caused huge financial strain on her household. She was a bright, cheerful young lady who enjoyed socialising with her girlfriends in the student centre, going to football games to cheer on our McMaster Marauders, and studied very hard. Her world was rocked when she was suddenly flung into adulthood – having to take three jobs to pay her tuition – and thereby feeling that she was missing out on her youth and her university experience. Her grades suffered. She was struggling. We spoke for an hour – and she told me the tale of her troubles. She wept openly, and hid her face in her hands several times. We spoke of philosophy, of striving toward a goal, of personal honour and virtue. We talked of heroes of yore and those who have overcome great challenges. We talked of faith – in oneself, in others, in the future. We talked of prayer and meditation. And as our conversation flowed along, her heart was eased. Not by me – but by the connection to the tales of the alternation of light and darkness that are our history, both national and personal. By the firm belief that when one overcomes darkness and steps into the light, the glories of one’s life shine brighter than before. She left consoled.
A few weeks later, she sent me a note saying that it was conversations like the one she had had with me, with other professors and with thoughtful friends that keep her going. That lift her spirit and allow her to break the petty bonds of the sadness of the everyday. To strive, unflinchingly, for a brighter future.
That is the role of the university. To clear a path through the dark and forbidding forest that is fraught with fear and frustration. To give to students the space to develop the questioning spirit and the hopeful will to improve themselves and push forward and clear the path for themselves and then lead others to a better tomorrow.
That is how society progresses. We are all uplifted by a subtle but perceptible measure when a heart is turned from despair to hope. When a destructive influence is thwarted and an easy sunlit path is opened before someone. We all step a little more lightly when someone among us has experienced the freedom to feel joy. We are all enriched when two souls meet and find a sharing, generous love.
We live in a cynical age. In the 19th and 20th centuries, we put our faith in the machine, but the machine has failed us. Materialism has reduced our sensitivity to one another, to nature, and to the future. We have been numbed by the machine. People are not machines. We are far more complex than the most intricate of computers or space stations. The least among us is an astonishing blend of knowledge, and feelings and experiences.
Universities are one of the last bastions resisting against the onslaught of the machine. Although much diminished by materialism, closed mindedness and instrumentalism, they remain places where a citizen may find quiet. Where professors are allowed to exist in monastic autonomy and organize themselves. Where the ideas of the world meet to be debated, examined and pondered. Where people from all social classes, walks of life and backgrounds can gather in safety to discover one another and, in the process, perhaps discover something about themselves.
Universities are places where the classes mix – where we learn one another’s mores and cultures and ways of speaking and interacting. This knowledge is invaluable – without it there can be little success, since such a big part of being successful is knowing how to communicate with others in words that they understand; in appropriate words that make them comfortable. That is why universities must be accessible and professors must have the time to be available. Students must have the time to interact with one another too – in quiet ways, not just in the frenzied and often frantic hot house environment of the night club or the disco, but in the sweet moments of a crisp winter’s day walking from building to building; or on a park bench in the shade with a sandwich and some mineral water, a breeze caressing the skin and not a care in the world.
Our students live with a lot of stress. I see it in their faces. They are surrounded by machines. A laptop in front of them. Ear buds blocking out the world. A smartphone buzzing with always urgent messages. Email. Electronic learning systems that encourage them to communicate with other students online. Televisions flickering ghostly representations of how things ought to be, everywhere they go. Techno music blaring in clubs thumping to the beat of the heart, the beat of sex. Drugs, which are really just biological technologies, for improving their memory, keeping them awake longer, improving their mood, giving them access to a momentary feeling of freedom and bliss.
I find that technologies create a false sense of urgency, of expectatation that you’ll miss something if you log off, even for a moment. They reduce the way we think of our lives to inputs and output. One techonology causes you to feel stressed, so you find another technology to relieve that stress. Inputs and outputs. Machines – both mechanical and digital – impoverish our lives in that way. They distract us from seeking the good life – which is a shared, thoughtful, caring and human experience.
This saddens me. Not because I hate technology – anyone who knows me personally can attest to the fact that I am surrounded by it! But I live my life mostly in my mind, and I stubbornly refuse to allow the machines that I work with and that surround me to determine my actions. I try and grow a garden. I cook for myself a lot. I use a fountain pen and I wear a hand-made mechanical watch. I like the fact that it doesn’t keep absolutely precise time. My research may one day help to build intelligent digital machines, but I am quite happy to sequester myself away from them.
Universities should offer respite from that machine intelligence. They should be peaceful places. They should allow the people in them to move at their own pace – within reason, of course.
I became a professor because I love learning. I love reading and thinking. I love debate. I am addicted to the sweet intoxication of writing a good sentence.
I continue as a professor because I am profoundly moved every time I see a door of possibility open in a student or colleague’s mind. I am filled with joy every time a person around me shifts from confusion to understanding. I feel an upwelling of tears of hope and strength and relief when I hear a tale of someone overcoming personal darkness, insecurity and nihilism to take those blessed strides toward peace and freedom and confidence.
Do all of my colleagues think as I do? Certainly not. Some would call me a pollyanna. Others would promote the reduction and mechanization of the place. Some would take exception to my references to faith or classical heroes. Others may question my vision of the good life, of virtue and honour. But that is part of the richness of the place. It is a place where diverse ideas are put to the test of public controversy. I would have it no other way.
For me the university means peace. It means freedom. It means inclusion and respect. It means sometimes holding back the curtain of darkness to let someone run through to light.
I firmly believe that these things are good things and I will struggle to protect them. I invite you to join me. For there is much more at stake than my job description, should our universities be transformed into training centres. At stake is one of the last remaining oases of freedom and civility and progress.
That is why I am a professor.