JW: I think you’ve been keeping up with this space in your absence. I worry a bit, that I’ve been filling the Churm container with dispatches of despair-- despair about students, about the state of higher education, public discourse, etc.… Looking at trends, it’s hard not to believe that we’re swirling down the crapper.
And yet, I rarely, if ever feel despair. That’s not a question. I’m just wondering about you, vis-à-vis despair.
OC: Thank you for all you’ve done at this blog, John, it’s been terrific. You even stay on topic. (How does one do that?) I’ve noticed and talked with others about the growing political awareness in your posts, which I find gratifying, even touching. John Warner for public office! Wait, that’s been done….
I’m not prone to despair either. And I have a very hard time with those who espouse happy acceptance of “the world is a crapper and always has been and I’m fine with that.” If anything, I’m a get-pissed-off-and-work-harder guy. In that sense, Southwest Louisiana is exactly the right place for me, since the watery world I love is right here alongside the environmental effects of America’s bad consumer choices. It’ll be a bit like bearing witness, and I hope I’m up to that challenge. As far as the state of higher education goes, I’ll leave that to my administrative betters, to the reformers, and to the brilliant minds of the Fourth Estate. Public discourse can be fixed by taking the batteries out of the back of the remote. Mostly I’ll do what I’ve always tried to do: Help students to see and to express themselves better, even as I try to help myself do the same.
JW: Hear! Hear!
OC: The new job, good people, a home at last -- they all feel a bit unreal at the moment. Despite what I said about false bootstrap narratives, I’ve finally gotten to a situation I've worked very hard for -- most importantly, had the great good luck to get. If there was ever anything like despair in being adjunct, it was in thinking that I might end in even worse shape for having the hubris to try to buck my past and what other people wanted to permit me, and to have life as I saw fit to live it. I’m only hopeful now.
JW: I sort of explored this earlier, but I’m reading what you have to say here, that in addition to the hard work you’ve done, the “great good luck” is “most important.” I agree. But why do we agree?
Or maybe I’m wondering why everyone else doesn’t agree with us? I like to believe that I’ve worked hard, that I’ve done well through my own devices, but very few good things in my life wouldn’t have come my way without that great good luck, including my wife, who is what brought us to Hinterland U. while she did her small animal veterinary residency, which put me into Churm’s orbit, which many years later gave me the opportunity to fill this space for the summer.
Or did I make that happen?
OC: Aren’t there at least two kinds of luck? Consider the Beatles. (I know I can always count on you to do that.)
That Paul met John at a garden fete in 1957 is something like fate. Sure, Liverpool was a relatively small city, and they were both interested in music, and scientists hadn’t invented Internet addiction yet, which meant there was a somewhat less-than-impossible chance they’d meet. But it’s not something Paul could have prepared for, especially once you factor in the need for a mutual friend who played tea-chest bass to spontaneously introduce them, or that John wouldn’t be jealous and prickly that day, or too drunk to remember 15-year old Paul later, etc. That the event wouldn’t be canceled due to rain. It’s fun to play the game of Freak Yourself Out Over Things That Might Easily Not Have Been, which is why even actor Richard Dreyfuss writes alternative history.
But there’s another kind of luck, like in the story that says John gave Paul an ultimatum a few years later: Go on the road with me playing gigs for next to nothing or stick around Liverpool to do trade work to your dad’s plan. Me or your own father, in effect. The ultimatum, though coercive and maybe even sadistic, forced Paul to make a hard choice, based on his understanding of his developing skills as a musician, John’s charisma, Liverpool’s traps, the vision of Elvis in movies, etc. We refer popularly to what happened after that as incredibly lucky, not just for Paul but for all of us. But it seems a lot less capricious, that fate, and more like semi-informed free will.
JW: Life as Choose-Your-Own Adventure book. Except my memory is that four out of five paths had you enter a dark cave only to be eaten by a bear.
OC: The bear is a given.
The first kind of luck is out of my control. Why wasn’t I lucky enough to have been born to a father who was President of American Motors? Because few are. An op-ed in the Post quotes someone saying that Mitt Romney’s “outsized wealth is the direct result of his own hard work at Bain Capital,” and adds, “No one is claiming that Romney didn’t earn his money or that he isn’t a very hard worker.”
I guess, but I’ve known some awfully hardworking people who didn’t thrive, let alone become rich and powerful, including my own mother, a teacher with a master’s degree, who spent her golden years on the loading dock of a washing machine factory, throwing heavy agitator baskets high up into hopper cars on the spur line. I find the cultural blindness to Mitt’s kind of “luck” astonishing, and of course it goes hand-in-hand with a different kind of bootstrap narrative, the “self-made man,” which is central in the recent furor over and inquiry into whose orifice, exactly, the silver spoon was inserted.
But I still believe in trying to prepare for the second kind of luck, all of us, by developing our capabilities according to interest, time, and resources, taking the bus across town to learn a new chord, as it were. It makes sense if only to take on challenges that can make life interesting and rewarding. A lifelong revelation of self, to self, by immersion in a world not of one’s own making: this used to be called education. The goal being not “yield,” but the hope for better things and perhaps more choices yet.
JW: In Part 1, I mused that perhaps we were getting soft, but I think the truth of teaching is that it requires a certain hardness, an imperviousness to the prevailing winds of the culture. At this moment in time, there’s very little “value” placed in this work, and even the value of the credential we collectively oversee is being called into question, at least when viewed as a purely financial investment. I’d be embarrassed to tell my students how much I make because they would look at me with pity, because I may as well have “sucker” stamped on my forehead.
OC: But we’re the 47%, John, and are therefore suckers. They’re right.
JW: Except that I want them to know happiness, and purpose, and mission, rather than merely money.
I’m not going all Bill Buckley, standing athwart history and saying, “Stop!,” but maybe I am saying, “Hey, wait a minute!” I’ve always viewed teaching as a fundamentally conservative enterprise, its first priority to help students understand themselves in relationship to the world at large, or as you just put it, “A lifelong revelation of self, to self, by immersion in a world not of one’s own making.”
OC: A conservative enterprise with a liberalizing affect? You must be a centrist.
JW: I think I’m an Oakeshott-ian conservative, though plenty of people see him as having been liberal, so maybe you’re right.
OC: Conservative, liberal, let’s call the whole thing off.
I’m reminded of a Facebook friend’s recent post, with that Schopenhauer quote about how “it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to living creatures cannot be a good man.” I’d agree. And while I don’t think a liberal arts education is a guarantee of “understanding [oneself] in relation to the world,” let alone of making one a “good” person, being given the time to struggle with understanding, in a safe and supportive environment, with smart people to provide context, might be recommended to anyone.
What does education in this sense “do”? It won’t bring home the bacon to put dollars in the basket of plenty so you can butter your bread and eat your cake too with a chicken in a pot on every table. But for some people it does something else. I can never forgive Hemingway, for example, for not making the turn that Teddy Roosevelt did with respect to animals, from killer to conservationist/protector, and I see it as a failure of his education, or of his ability to continue to open himself to the world, which is the same thing. Hem, of course, would snort mojitos out his nose at that, as does Mitt when his advisors tell him that some guy in Louisiana doubts his empathy for people and animals alike.
JW: So, you’re back in your space. What are your plans?
OC: Hey, thanks for everything, John, it looks great in here. Did you redecorate? Kind of airy now, smells like patchouli. By the way, have you seen my collection of Inside Higher Ed Insider Trading Cards? I had two Doug Ledermans and a Scott McLemee. No matter. It’s good to be back, and god knows what kind of adjunct might have been squatting in here if you hadn’t held down the fort.
My plans? I’m a professor now. I guess I’ll profess.
What about you? I know you have other online writing gigs and at least one editorship to deal with, not to mention teaching, and writing the second novel. But if you want to share this cardboard box with me, you’re always, always welcome.
JW: Indeed, I have all of those things going, not to mention the rec-league no-check hockey. (Both of my teams are undefeated as of this writing.) I’d also like to hang some pictures on the walls of our house at some point, and that front grass isn’t going to mow itself.
But I’m also pleased to announce that Inside Higher Ed has rustled up a spare office for me, and while I’ll be leaving the House of Churm, I’ll have my own digs in these very virtual pages. We’re going to call it “Just Visiting” which means they'll probably end up prying it out of my cold dead hands.
It wouldn’t have happened without you, old friend.
John Warner is on Twitter @biblioracle.