"I know my time is short," G. tells me, "and I want to pack as much thinking as possible into what’s left."
It's the last night of class in the last course these students can take with me. A mix of nostalgia, excitement and exhaustion is in the air. We are saying goodbye with presentations and food, quick hugs and promises to keep in touch. Against all odds (some acknowledge with stunned expressions), this class has not been a mere deposit in the bank vault of education. We have changed each other.
G. is not dying, just graduating. But tonight feels like the death of ideas. All our fellow thinkers and talkers and dreamers are walking out the door. There’s no structure left to reel them back tomorrow, next week, next year. Our community has dispersed (something we’ve talked about this semester — the virtual nature of community) and the finale, as always, has a melancholy feel.
For the past several weeks, we have collaborated to create what Hemingway might call a "clean, well-lighted place" to question our own practices. Now, the lights are going out throughout the building and, in many ways, throughout the world. Slashed budgets, job cuts, strange politics, war, discrimination, willful misunderstanding, despair. And here we sit, asking, "How is identity formed? What is the nature of community? Who is the oft-cited 'they'?"
After 16 weeks of intellectual abandon, G. and I both know that the space to come and talk about these things is narrowing to a pinpoint of light.
And so he stays to talk after everyone has left, a habit we’ve fallen into these past few months, unusual tonight only because it’s the time most of us — students as well as teachers — are coiled tight and ready to bolt at the precise moment when break begins. It's the latest in a series of late-night concept pitches and strategy sessions about how he can articulate his thoughts without stifling them.
Much later, as I’m driving home, I will think of all the things, trite and otherwise, I should have said. This is not the end; it's a transition. You can never really lose a mind. The universe would not be so cruel to limit thought to a mere 16 weeks. You are leaving the institutionalization of critical thought. Now, you will have to create your own clean, well-lighted place in the face of what can seem like a very dark world. From here on, you have to make it happen.
But for now, we talk as if G.'s interpretation is truly our plight, the only reasonable conclusion given our experience. We discuss biology and culture and personal choice, wrong-headed policies, the future of education, his envisioned place in the corporate world. We make cross-generational references to popular films. We finish each other’s sentences.
"The really exciting thing about J.’s work is—"
"--everything we’ve been talking about is only 5 percent of the potentiality--"
"--even if the theory is ultimately proven false—"
"—it opens up so much—"
Which, we agree, is both terrifying and exhilarating.
G. thinks at warp speed, a far greater velocity than the everyday world requires or supports. A simple assignment turns into a 50-page thesis. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth or pen has several disclaimers, qualifiers, and alternate interpretations lurking behind it. If he tries to follow our mandates to "focus" and “frame,” his work becomes a strangely truncated outline with key connections missing. When everything seems important, editing is an arbitrary act. What to cut? How to choose? In a world full of meaning, which vital thing will you omit?
He's been medicated, counseled, mentored, and rewarded for this. But he remains the passionate explorer. Once an idea grabs him, he can’t seem to edit out intersecting issues. He experiences everything at once. Nothing is backdrop; it’s all center stage. He wants to explain totality. Anything less is a cheat.
"You’ve got to go to grad school," I tell him. We laugh.
We are suddenly aware of a peculiar silence. The building has taken on that hushed waiting that all public spaces get after hours. We can hear little pings and creaks in the walls and air ducts all around us, no longer masked by the rush of humanity through the rooms and halls. It’s long after 10:00 p.m. The security guard rattles the main doors, checks the side entrance. We are about to be "secured," and we decide that we don’t want to be the ones to discover whether exiting after lockdown sets off the alarms.
Backpacks and briefcases gathered, keys jangling as I shut down the computer and enter the security code, we walk, still talking, through the halls and out into the deserted parking lot. My cheap, reliable car sits not far away, in a little pool of streetlight, and we head toward it. As I unlock my door, I glance around the empty lot.
"Where’d you park?" I say, expecting to see his car lurking in the shadows nearby.
He flings one hand toward the deep-dark at the far end of the lot. "Back over there," he says. "I just didn’t want you walking out here alone."
I pause, keys in hand. It’s a courtly gesture, an everyday kindness. But tonight, it feels a lot like hope. I stand here, five thoughts warring at once in my head, each jamming the others so that not a one gets spoken. Because it strikes me just then that we create these clean, well-lighted places for each other. Hope flows both ways. It flows both ways. We conjure these temporary, malleable, and, most importantly, collaborative spaces for, and with, each other. We build them, not as escapes from a world gone unaccountably off track, but as paths through it. And from here on, we’ll have to make that happen. The scaffold is falling away.
"You have my e-mail," I say finally. "Use it." G. gives me a quick smile and saunters off, leaving me in a pool of light.
Submitted by Amy Lewis on November 5, 2012 - 3:00am
It's advising season on my campus. My management students will want guidance selecting their spring classes. Their major classes are easy to pick -- we have checklists and flowcharts to let them know what they "need" to take. It's the general education requirements and free electives that stump them. I typically point out that employers want well-rounded employees who can draw on a breadth of knowledge. Sometimes I share that the best course I took as an undergraduate was a physical geography class completely unrelated to my major — that you never know which class will completely captivate you. This fall, I will tell my students something different as I urge them to consider taking classes outside of the business school: Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to sell offensive T-shirts.
Last week, I was browsing the web, looking for current events to discuss in my undergraduate management classes. I came across several mentions of a T-shirt being sold by the Gap bearing the phrase "Manifest Destiny" and the unsurprising outrage and calls for Gap to stop selling the shirt and to offer a formal apology. Facing protests that the shirt was, at best, culturally insensitive and could easily be interpreted as glorifying the massacres and cultural destruction of Native Americans, the designer apparently issued a flippant tweet about the survival of the fittest. Quickly, Gap stopped selling the shirt, and issued an apology.
As a business professor, I initially planned to discuss the story and link it to the decision process that lead to the shirt’s initial release. As I read the unsatisfying apologies from the designer, I considered linking back to a recent class discussion on restoring trust and qualities of a sincere and effective apology. However, as I prepared for my class discussion, I realized that none of these topics really captured why I wanted to discuss the story with my students. It wasn’t so much the business blunder that I wanted to discuss; rather I wanted my students to come away from our discussion with an understanding of why, as business students, it is so crucial for them to have a broad background in the liberal arts.
Although I teach in a business school, my university has a long history and commitment to the liberal arts. We recently had candidates for president of our university on campus, and a common question the candidates were asked was how to articulate the value of the liberal arts. This is a crucial question, as there are clear attacks on the liberal arts through a devaluation of their contribution to society, cuts in research funding, and state governments questioning the appropriateness of distributing scarce budget resources to the liberal arts.
I argue to you, as I did to my students, that the Gap T-shirt is an excellent example of why the liberal arts matter. An American history class might have given a better understanding of the massacres committed under the name of Manifest Destiny. A sociology class might have given an understanding of the implications of the institutionalized oppression of Native Americans in the aftermath of these programs. A philosophy class might have led those involved to pause and consider the ethical implications of profiting from genocide. A strong liberal arts education might have prevented the sale of this offensive T-shirt, and the backlash a company faced.
A well-educated population is crucial for a vibrant economy, and in these times of constrained resources, a liberal arts education might be seen as an unaffordable luxury. I see parents encouraging their children to avoid majors in the liberal arts in favor of "something employable." I see students questioning the value of the liberal arts core curriculum we require. Some resent being "forced" to study a foreign language. Others question how they can justify the expense of a study abroad experience. Too many feel their time is being “wasted” by taking classes outside of their major. As business faculty, clearly I see great value in my students pursuing an undergraduate business major or an M.B.A., but that does not mean higher education should simply be conceptualized as job training.
Even if we accept an argument that we must prepare all of our students for their future working lives, the broad background provided by a liberal arts education can help our students see the connections from the past, to understand that there are multiple viewpoints or cultural lenses through which to view the world. To critically think -- to stop and realize that "Manifest Destiny" is not just a catchy phrase, but rather a complex issue from our past, loaded with pain and outrage.
My university recently redesigned our general education curriculum to afford students more flexibility and the opportunity to explore courses as free electives. I encourage my advisees to take advantage of this opportunity to take classes from other academic units — to take that sociology course that just sounds interesting, the course in political science that captures their interests. It is precisely the breadth of background gained by this exploration that is the true value of a liberal arts education. Be well rounded — check out courses in the humanities. Take a literature class or something in the behavioral sciences. I’m sure the Gap wishes someone had paid a little more attention in an American history class to avoid the sale of this offensive T-shirt.
Amy Lewis is associate professor of management at Drury University.