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NEW FORCES IN THE SOUL
May 21, 2008 - 1:25pm

By

UD

Let me combine two university-related subjects I've been promising to write about -- online courses, which I've called the poor white trash of pedagogy, and student/professor affairs.

These subjects, seemingly unrelated, might be considered together under the heading Live Souls, the working title of a book UD hopes to write this year during her sabbatical: Live Souls: Re-Animating the American University.

***

What's striking about the contemporary American university isn't this or that flashy scandal -- drugs at San Diego State, professional basketball players at USC. It's that many American campuses look like death warmed over.

Put your ear to the American campus. Listen. The pulse of the cellphone, the click of the laptop. The drone of the headset.

The quiet of the grave.

The quiet of a cathedral full of monks.

In class all heads stay bowed, the professor over her PowerPoint, the student over her Mac. The room flickers with illuminated screens in whose thin light a soul scopes out its trivia: Facebook, Minesweeper, Solitaire.

Students take meals together hunched over their plates while television screens mounted on the wall across from them tell of Britney.
"What if death is nothing but sound?" one character asks another in Don DeLillo's White Noise.

"Electrical noise."

"You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful."

"Uniform, white."

The white noise of the American university is the sound of souls subdued throughout the day by a succession of screens. The screen is in the classroom and in the diningroom. It is the dorm room and on the quad. Its pacifying effect deepens with iPods, cell phones, and Blackberries.

Of course it's not just university students. We all look down, messing with our stuff on the metro, in church, in bed.

But it's sad to see it among university students. Among their professors.

Because of all American cultural settings, the university's specifically designed to break through the nothingness, to nudge you awake, toward enlightenment. The form of vitality intrinsic to a university is intellectual bliss, the condition of being engrossed in new thought. Not abstract thought. Thought embodied, vitalized, in another human being, a professor.

There are forms of vitality university campuses share with sports arenas and bars, but the distinctive nature of the university is that it offers intellectual vitality, that it offers a faculty which includes people who adore the play of the mind as it takes up this and that element of the world.

It's not so outlandish a form of enthusiasm. Most people find the classic story of youthful awakening in My Fair Lady and Educating Rita enormously appealing.

And why? Because they recognize these as essentially love stories. They're not about people downloading lecture content and tapping inquiries to an online ghost. They're about two people who share a passion for clarity and self-transformation. One of them, a teacher, delights in the discovery of an eager intelllect, receptive to the ideas that excite him. The other, having found a sympathetic human being who has thought about the questions that fascinate her, spends every day charged with cerebral energy.

Also with emotional energy, to be sure. Erotic material exists inside the relationship.

A friend and fellow blogger puts it like this:

[A]cademic life is likely to be formed out of intense relationships all around. …. [T]he eros surrounding them injects them with an ambiguity and intensity that makes life interesting and urgent. Studying is exciting; eros is part of that excitement…
Studying is exciting. Eros is part of that excitement. Feeling your mind expand is exciting. You can do it fitfully, with LSD, or you can do it in a more disciplined way. Feeling a respected professor's interest in you - even admiration for you - as you receive, absorb, and respond to important ideas is heady stuff.

Be assured that the professor is also excited -- excited to have connected with a student about things that matter enormously to the professor.

Heart and body and mind -- all are engaged in this intensity. William Deresiewicz writes:
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.

Actually, occasionally, this intensity will express itself physically, and an affair will ensue. Much more than an affair sometimes. How many professors are married to former students?

John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard Magazine obituary notes, "wrote to Dean Rosovsky about the rules prohibiting romantic
liaisons between instructors and their students of the opposite sex (having himself married a Radcliffe graduate student, he favored a more liberal stance)."

Our lives are more and more online, silent, self-absorbed, and, in our preference for customized websites, provincial. The university should be a counterforce to dulling, lulling screenlife, a place that arouses our passion for lightning bolts.

 

 

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