It’s August 1st and a faint scent of the new academic year is in the air, detectable only by returning teachers who with a mix of melancholy and excitement begin to brace themselves for re-entry. We have learned to expect neither understanding nor pity from our fellow citizens, unemployed or employed. After all, we have jobs and we have three solid months of more or less paid vacation. August is the decidedly non-liturgical Advent of the academic year, but all the same a season of anticipation and, if we take our work and our lives seriously, a period of self-examination and resolve. We all know we can do better, learn more, and be more honest about what we still don’t and may never grasp. However shabby the politics of our workplace, we know the human stakes are high in what we do, whether we teach children to read or their older siblings to think. I teach college students while my wife teaches first-graders, and the less-than-startling truth is that we tell many of the same stories at the end of every day.
For me, re-entry is a matter of finding my voice again. Whether or not anyone notices, every summer I become, in relative terms, an elective mute. Weary of the sound of my own voice and the parade of my own ideas, I retreat into study and thought and silence. I try to listen again. Unless by September I have re-discovered an initial hesitancy to speak, a fundamental reticence to fill the world, my wider world, with more words, much less my own, then I know I have not spent my summer properly. School and the school year, after all, are a place and a time of many words, too many words, of every imaginable sort: empty, wrong-headed, earnest, wise, fierce, modest, learned, clueless, delving, dogmatic, silly, confusing, and impenetrable. And, after forty-two years of college teaching I have no illusions that, as the saying goes, “words can never hurt me (or anyone else).” No, the truth is that words are no less dangerous than sticks or stones, slings and arrows, except that the formers’ wounds rarely break the skin.
Every August for the past forty-two I have stood on the brink of a new academic year wondering how to find my way with any integrity in what is invariably a war zone, where the battle lines are frequently and unpredictably re-drawn. My world, reputedly higher education, is awash with cliques, ism’s, ideologies, dogmas, and altogether too many popes. My flagless four-decade academic cruise has necessarily navigated waters seething with intellectual pirates of one stripe or another—existentialists, logical positivists, behaviorists, neo-Marxists, deconstructionists, post-modernists, to mention a few. Across these years, gold-braided captains and commanders of once calm seas have awoken to cannon shots across their bows. Entire ships have been boarded and seized. Peers have made each other walk the proverbial plank. It’s all been quite colorful if not always edifying. But I have never stopped wondering what would happen if academia were to disarm and if the pirates took off their patches. Admittedly you can see the world through one eye, but not with any depth. And if life-long learning is not about depth then what is it about?
So just who are the pirates afloat in my waters? I’ll give a single example. As one who teaches comparative religion, I naturally took note when the national and world media informed us not long ago that “the soul has died,” just as they announced forty years ago that “God is dead.” Each of these sensationally witless proclamations represented not only a popular phenomenon but also an academic sect. Focusing now on the more timely death of the soul, it has become commonplace in cognitive science and beyond to claim, with Steven Pinker that “the mind is a product of the brain.” This means that you and I — “Neuronal Man” — are, in the words of Francis Crick, “nothing but a pack of neurons.” Mind, self, and soul are all illusions, and not in the profoundly thoughtful and layered way a Buddhist would understand this to be the case. Put as crudely as possible by Marvin Minsky, “The human mind is a computer made out of meat.” Such is the science of one-eyed pirates and would be humorous if it were not so pervasive and influential. It is the way some people talk but thankfully not often the way they live, and therein lies the peril of the academic world. It is a world of words often unaccountable to anyone or anything, even to those who utter them. Words like bacteria mutate freely here and develop strains or schools of thought resistant to reason, common sense, experience, and evidence. It is a challenge to stay on course, make sense, and try to tell the truth in such a turbulent free-for-all. My years on the high seas of learning have convinced me that the Hippocratic oath is not, or shouldn’t be, just for doctors. We teachers too ought to pledge ourselves to first do no harm. This is why, every summer I covet silence and why this August I plan to revisit Hannah Arendt’s Life of the Mind to recall a time gone by when you and I still had one.