"We were saying yesterday...."
life is the next best thing to farming when it comes to staying
in touch with the rhythm of the seasons. Just as summer's end
brings an increasing slant to the sun, a growing chorus of cicadas,
and the need to have the corncribs full, so it brings the rising
hum of a few thousand station wagons and minivans approaching
Hyde Park and the need to have a vast array of facilities and
people at the ready. It is not unlike the theater or the concert
hall. There comes a moment when the curtain goes up, and no matter
how often one has performed this work, the pulse quickens. There
are butterflies in the young stomachs riding in those station
wagons and minivans, and there are butterflies in the stomachs
that await them here on campus, too.
This year that rhythm has been interrupted in the most violent
of ways. Weeks after the horrible tragedy in New York, Washington,
D.C., and Pennsylvania all of us everywhere remain in some degree
simply dazed and in some degree overcome by the conflict between
wanting to do something and not knowing exactly what that should
be. We are bound to wonder whether and how the familiar rhythms
of life can ever be restored.
this moment is precisely the moment in which to interrogate our
oft-expressed beliefs about the importance of our University.
Do the declarations so easily uttered in times of great prosperity
and relative calm at home ring true in the weeks since September
11? Do we mean now what we said we meant before? The answer can
only be yes. Surely a great part of the trouble among peoples
of the world derives from their ignorance of one another and a
concomitant lack of respect for one another. This is one of the
kinds of ignorance that Chicago is most committed to combating.
If it has ever been true that ideas matter, then they must surely
matter more now than ever.
we were called upon literally to ascend the ramparts in defense
of what we believe, we would surely do so and set aside-temporarily-much
that we now do in daily life. But it remains Chicago's duty in
the present circumstance to carry on in its noble calling, which
is the pursuit of much of what has been attacked. We will never
again be the same after this great interruption, but we should
take a lesson from the 16th-century Spanish thinker and poet Fray
Luís de León, who was taken from his classroom at the University
of Salamanca and thrown into prison for his ideas. Released years
later, he began his next class with the words, Decíamos ayer:
"We were saying yesterday…." The interruption we have suffered
in a few weeks has been even more profound than a few years in
prison. But we must remember what it is that we were saying "yesterday"
and believe that this interruption is but that-a mere interruption
in a tradition of belief in the importance of ideas for the good
of humankind, a tradition that now more than ever must continue.
then will we all feel the butterflies at the start of this academic
year just as we have in the past? It is because at the heart of
the academic experience there are transforming individuals. To
be sure, there are also great books. But the meaning of those
great books is most effectively drawn out in the presence of transforming
individuals, and that is why there are universities, monasteries,
and other forms of community. Preparations for the start of the
academic year are like the arrangement of a few thousand blind
dates. Because not every individual can be transforming for every
other, some of these blind dates will not succeed, or at least
not immediately. And each of us is bound to wonder if it will
work out in our particular case, even though we desperately want
it to work out. None of this would be true if we did not take
ideas so seriously. A passage in the first pages of Anna Karenina,
in describing the young Oblonsky, captures by opposition some
of what is meant when we say that ideas matter at this University:
tendency and opinions were not his by deliberate choice: they
came of themselves, just as he did not choose the fashion of
his hats or coats but wore those of the current style. Living
in a certain social set, and having a desire, such as generally
develops with maturity, for some kind of mental activity, he
was obliged to hold views, just as he was obliged to have a
opinions, views-are here arrived at by rather different methods.
We interrogate the great minds of the past and the present, we
pry at the secrets of nature and society, and we challenge one
another to think as we have never thought before. No wonder the
pulse quickens on a regular basis!
of us-not undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty-can
suppose that arriving at a new academic year is like arriving
at the tailor for a fitting. We cannot ever suppose that we know
precisely what size we wear or that someone else is responsible
for the line of our hem or the peak of our lapel. The life in
which ideas truly matter is a life of continuous openness to new
ideas and to the interrogation of old ones. If we truly believe
that ideas matter, then it can never be the case that we already
know what we think about everything. Alas, there is a perverse
irony in this. Those of us who have had the most challenging exposure
to the belief that ideas matter may have a greater-than-average
susceptibility to a pathogen that, after a certain point, drives
out new ideas or indeed any ideas that we haven't already had
ourselves. In academe, some of us are actually paid to make judgments
about ideas and even about other people in relation to their ideas.
This ought to inspire in us more humility than arrogance, lest
we prove unfaithful to what we claim as our nourishing principle.
all have a terrible responsibility at the end of this summer and
the start of a new academic year: to be true-truly true-to what
has brought us together. Laying aside matters of personal and
academic style (if they can be distinguished from substance),
we must all be open to the possibility of new people and their
ideas. If we believe in the power of ideas, then we must believe
that ideas cannot be judged on the basis of who produces them
and that people cannot be judged by the degree to which their
ideas coincide strictly with our own. This should make the beginning
of a new academic year the beginning of yet another great, new
adventure-nervous-making to be sure, but thrilling nevertheless.
Don Michael Randel writes each issue on a topic of his choosing.-Ed.