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Friday September 21, 2001
Why Have Higher Ed?
In the face of what's happened, why do we
even bother doing what we do?

Bruce M. Alexander

    MIAMI -- The afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, I arrived in my office numb. I sorted the few e-mails, reading an invitation to a campus prayer service and notes of disbelief from associates across the country, and then just shuffled papers aimlessly.
     At some point, a colleague interrupted my pretended work to talk about an academic issue. Before she left, I asked her, "In the face of what's happened, why do we even bother doing what we do?"
     Neither one of us had an immediate answer. Having an answer would have meant being able to make some sense of the tragic attack on our nation, and neither one of us could make sense of it at all.
     Days have passed and the question has remained. Why do we even bother doing what we do? Why have a college, an institute of higher learning? It seems so inconsequential, focusing on writing essays or reading works of a past long-removed in time and place.
     What's the point of teaching people to solve mathematical problems or know the anatomy of a rat or understand the structure of a symphony or just about anything else?
     Our ivory tower of higher learning seems so absolutely, positively removed from the reality of a violent world where explosions destroy real towers of concrete and steel murder screams out of a calm Tuesday morning.
     But now, several days later, I have made an answer for myself. Why do I bother doing what I do-why does any professor in academe bother? Because what we do is important.
     We teach. I am a teacher, and my mission as a college professor in the academy is the same now as it was before the crisis: to help my students become more critical and intelligent readers, writers, and thinkers.
     To me, that statement is the embodiment of the goals of all education, from kindergarten to graduate school. And especially in this time of chaos, I will pursue my academic and teaching mission all the more resolutely.
     Being better readers will help my students sift through the piles of information (and mis-information) that are as deep and disordered as the rubble of the World Trade Center.
     Being better writers will help my students assemble those thoughts into some sort of cohesion and order and help them make sense of it all. Being better thinkers will certainly help my students learn from what has happened and judge best how to improve our human condition.
     The human condition. Because of this tragedy, I now recognize so much more clearly the importance of my role as one who teaches about the human condition. As a professor, I constantly expose my students to that which is good about humanity.
     Yes, we human beings have destroyed and killed. But we have also created powerful works that reflect what is best about us. We human beings have written poetry so moving that it can touch a soul 1,000 years later.
     We have written novels and dramas that explore the psyche in such profound ways that they still make us weep with both empathy and exultation. We have created cathedrals that sing in verses of stone the loftiness of the human spirit.
     We have written music the strains of which reveal a pure, undefiled celebration of being a human being. I think in these dark days of the final movement to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The movement begins with a discordant crashing of sounds, a chaos threatening to bring all to a close.
     Though a new melody rises in challenge, the discord returns, louder and more strident, drowning out the peaceful music. But then a voice-a human voice-confronts the chaos, singing, "Oh friends, not these tones!
     Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!" That human voice calling for harmony holds chaos at bay and, swelling into an almighty chorus, ultimately overwhelms it as we hear voices singing in jubilation of a heaven-sent joy and in celebration of humanity.
     Oh friends, colleagues within our essential academy, even in the face of chaos and death let us likewise remember what is good about humanity.


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