Friday September 21, 2001
Why Have Higher Ed?
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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