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"We were saying yesterday...."

PHOTO:  From the President, Don Michael RandelAcademic 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.

Yet 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.

If 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.

Why 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:

Oblonsky's 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 hat.

Ideas-tendency, 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!

None 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.

We 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.

President Don Michael Randel writes each issue on a topic of his choosing.-Ed.


  OCTOBER 2001

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