Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Academic as Hero?

A one-sided popular portrayal of the figure of the Hero would have the qualities of physical action and bravery, and these seem to be the antithesis of the (equally one-sided) popular image of the Academic – the latter being a person bent studiously over a microscope or book, discovering things mentally, rather than transforming lives practically. But this is to underestimate the breadth of what the Hero may potentially represent. The Hero narrative – be it in epic, tragic, romantic, or comic idiom – has only a few basic elements: a journey, leading to transformation, motivated by the discovery of inner resources that the protagonist has never before realized. In this wider sense, then, heroes do not necessarily ‘win’, they are not always liked or applauded, and they are not always in control of their own destinies. The hero may simply be making the best of an adverse or constraining situation – but it is integral to the very creative principle of the Hero that he or she does indeed make some kind of advance under such circumstances.

The Academy certainly creates a series of journeys for the student and the teacher, marked by a hierarchy of graduations and promotions. And it has its own systems of contests, hurdles and constraints – and prizes. Along the way, the scholar ideally discovers intellectual resources – inwardly, as well as within the great stream of intellectual tradition – that he or she greets with awe and delight. Higher education changes people, and the trained Academic should ideally serve as an example of a person who has undertaken such a journey. This journey begins from premises that are as old as Homer and Heraclitus, and then extends forward in advance of one’s own students and readers. So, even the bookish Scholar may have a narrative as Hero.

But the heroic legend most often begins with a depiction of a world that is disenchanted or oppressed, and we don’t have to reach into academic mythology to find the elements of this. The present will do – provided we do not fall into the trap of nostalgia for an idealized past. It is not hard to find personal stories of disenchantment among academics who lament that their world is ruled by a hierarchy of Dark Princes, each of whom chills the life of the mind with his dead hand. Normally, they are in the pay of some higher Master whose interests lie solely in money and power.

So, from what better quarter for there to emerge the Academic as Hero than from under the influence of such Lords of Darkness? The intrepid scholar fights against entrenched orthodoxies and cynicism to win the right to proclaim his new Science. Or, the brave young teacher inspires the younger generation, in spite of being refused promotion by her seniors. Or, the outspoken intellectual upholds radical ideas, against the opposition of the forces of ignorance and bigotry, eventually to be vindicated by Events.

Or rather, to keep things closer to the world we know, the academic may perform those little tasks of her devotion to a disciplined way of reasoning, and to the liberation of young people’s minds from the limitations that their upbringings have inadvertently imposed. And indeed, such things happen. I wonder, though, if the idea of the Academic as Hero only comes up at this stage in our History as a School because we feel so many causes not to act boldly and in the light of true Reason. If the exercise of genuine academic freedom, which includes the practice in the classroom, as well as in learned journals and in the public arena of debate, were more in evidence, we would not stop to write upon this theme. The matter would be taken for granted, and not so romanticized as a reformed identity that only appears in retrospect, as a product of nostalgia for a Golden Age that never happened.

If we did not baulk at heroism, we would not write about it. Conversely, if the Dark Princes actually existed, then the mythology would be as sharp as worn-out pencils. We have to dredge up the rusty figures of this fairy-tale theme from among the sediment of our oldest memories because the depressing truth is that the darkening of our little kingdoms has begun from within ourselves.

The moment I hear someone say that he will not speak up for fear of losing his job, then I say that he has indeed already lost that job. He has forfeited his vocation as an academic. The moment I hear someone say that her scholarly work will help to make her look good when she bows her head and pays tribute to the King, then I say that she may as well have taken a job at the coal mines. I don’t see enough of the bravery and integrity that one would wish to attribute to the figure of the Hero; but instead I do hear a myriad of excuses, including the pursuit of money, for the avoidance of principled heroism.