1996 Convocation Address - Students and Scholars

Convocation 1996
Tom Gerety

When I first studied philosophy I read Aristole's Poetics and Politics, as many of you will in introductory courses. I was moved by the sweep and power of some of the definitions that Aristotle offered: "Tragedy," he wrote, "is the mimesis, the imitation, of an action that is passionate and complete and has greatness in it, with words that give pleasure...showing what is done and not telling of it, through pity and fear inspiring the catharsis, the purification, of these and other like emotions..." In the Politics he defined the Greek city-state, the polis, as "a community of families and settlements in a complete and separate way of life...in order to live together happily and nobly." This last phrase was a portion of his insistence that politics and government concern themselves with the ends and not just the means of living.

In a very few words, definitions of this sort seem to tell us truths about ourselves and our lives together, truths familiar in some sense but difficult to capture.

A definition like Aristotle's seeks to set down the most important features of a complex activity like a city-state or a drama. It is by its very nature an interpretation: a view or opinion, that is, subject to criticism and competition from other interpretations. The best of these accounts or definitions may well draw the sharpest challenges.

I'd like to ask tonight about the definition of Amherst College, and in particular about the relationship between what most of us see as its central activities: teaching and scholarship. In raising this question, I am asking a kind of moral question about what the College stands for, here and now. In characterizing it, each of us participates in an argument about the College that is one of its important features: Amherst itself is what a classicist once called an 'essentially contested concept', one that is inherently controversial; Amherst at its best is an essentially contested institution. Its nature is to elicit dispute and argument even over its identity.

My own simplest statement of what we are about is this: We are a gathering of students and scholars for the sake of learning. I admit a mild evasion in the generality of these terms. This is America; these are undergraduates in pursuit of degrees that lead on to careers; the ideology of the liberal arts is itself a part of a larger, often unstated, ideology about careers for the leadership class in our society. Nonetheless, I come back to what seems to me fundamental and defining: we gather here as students with the scholars who are our teachers; all the rest is secondary or complementary--the dorms, the library, the laboratories, the theaters, the meals, the schedule, even, in a sense, the curriculum.

The most generally controversial feature of this very simple definition is the insistence that the teachers at Amherst--the faculty of the College--should be scholars. Or, to put this fairly, the controversy centers around the balance between the commitment to scholarship and the commitment to teaching.

Critics, including some alumni, make the point that teaching is what is essential in a liberal arts college. To them, scholarship is secondary and certainly not of the essence. As we embark together with our alumni on the greatest fund-raising campaign in our history, it is important that we restate and re-argue our conception of the importance of scholarship in what we are and what we do.

Most of us will acknowledge the primacy of teaching. We are not gathered--we were never gathered--solely to do research together, as a simple academy, a pure research institute. Research was never our reason for being: our founders did not think so; our supporters do not think so now. Educating is our chief purpose and has been so from the beginning.

Yet we touch on a real ambiguity in this. Study is an end in itself, much of the time. Indeed, where we cannot treat it as an end, we will often reduce it to the crassest of means--to a good grade or a good resume or a good job. And where we reduce our study in this way to some immediate end, we will lose at a least a portion of the joy and reward of inquiry. The negative way in which we define the liberal arts--as not being vocational or immediately applicable--is a roundabout way of insisting on the importance of study as an end in itself. You may intend to be an inventor or an executive and bend many of your day-to-day efforts to this purpose. But your most glorious moments in the physics laboratory will not be those that fall neatly into line as leading on to your vocation. To the contrary, they will be those moments in which the excitement of learning and discovering brings you a joy that stands alone.

If I am even partly right about the joys of study in the lives of students, then we come face to face with the paradox that the best study--and thus presumably the best teaching--occurs when the student becomes a researcher, that is, someone motivated by curiosity and the quest to know rather than by some need to learn one thing in order to do or accomplish another. In this sense, as in the language of the medievel universities, students and professors here are scholars together, studying together in a joint enterprise, with the professors situated much farther down the road of study and research, but on the same road and with the same purpose and direction.

Great teaching is itself a kind of mystery. Dostoevsky has Alyosha Karamozov smile skeptically at the bold assertions of a fourteen year old who suddenly realizes, under the influence of just that smile, how much he has to learn. In one of the many beautiful images of teaching that Plato, the student, attached to his memory of Socrates, his teacher, a spark jumps from one soul to another at the moment of learning, igniting the same fire, with the same brightness and warmth in both. Stanley Rabinowitz of our faculty tells of his own joy in the student who wrote on her exam paper of her reaction to Nabokov: "I'm in love with the sentences," she said, "faltering, tripping over my words, only able to choke forth these few..."

I want to approach the question of the balance of teaching and scholarship in the spirit of these images and impressions: At Amherst we are all students and, in a sense, we are all teachers. What we have in common--what we must have in common--is an attitude towards our common work that I will call scholarly. It shapes a vocation for the faculty; it shapes four years for undergraduates; for all of us it shapes our lives whatever vocation we may take up later on.

Critics, too, have emphasized questions of attitude or motivation. Critics as far back as the Greeks have attacked the bad attitudes of students, seen as idlers and dilettantes, carousing and cutting classes, more interested in romance than study. Aristophanes went after Socrates and the other teachers of his period as distractedly and absurdly intellectual and occasionally corrupt. The present critique is in this sense in an old tradition in which the leisure time that is required for scholarship--schole in Greek means leisure--is seen as wasted or at least frittered away.

The harshest critics have treated scholarship as a professorial indulgence. In the classic form of the criticism, which appears in the Wall Street Journal more or less weekly, an arcane or silly example of scholarly work is trotted out for an editorial thrashing. And once the thrashing is administered, the journalistic taskmaster smacks his or her lips in satisfaction, pronounces either all or most scholarship worthless and then tells us colleges and universities to get back to our real work in the classrooms. Some of what passes for scholarship in this country and others is silly; of course it is. Socrates was a constant critic of the Sophists; we too must take on the sophistry in our own culture, including the sophistry of the academy. But that is a small concession to a sweeping critique.

Implicitly, these harsh critics suggest three kinds of faculties or faculty-members. The first is the faculty member for whom teaching holds no interest and research is the true and exclusive vocation. Most of us have known great scholars of this sort. They are happiest themselves in research institutes or at least in the graduate schools of our great universities. Amherst is not the right place for such a person and no one on our faculty believes that it is or should be. So on this first model the critics have no quarrel with us. But the critics' real target is the faculty member whom we do take for a model, the one for whom teaching and research comprise a joint vocation. Now individual faculty members, on any faculty, will differ in their motivations, and differ, too, at different points in their own lives. There will inevitably be periods of doubt about research or teaching, or both, in the lives of our best and most interesting professors. But I would be hard put to find any professor at Amherst whom I would hesitate to describe as a scholar. And there is no one on our faculty who does not see herself or himself as a teacher.

Yet the harsh critics say that we are kidding ourselves, and wasting time and effort by doing so. They condemn the scholar-teacher as a pious fraud. They would style us all teachers, first and last. I assume they would want to hold on to the adjective 'scholarly' but they want little or no scholarship to go with it. I should be clear here that at Amherst, when we use the word scholarship, we mean the full range of a scholar's work and expression. We are proud to count artists as faculty members--poets, novelists, composers, actors, directors, singers, painters, sculptors. Their work helps us all to see that what matters is not so much the form or quantity of the work, but its expressiveness, its originality and incisiveness; its truthfulness. To put this plainly, we at Amherst take pride in all the work of all our faculty. We don't count pages or canvases or productions. We have Socrates's among us who rarely publish and Aristoles who publish volumes. But Amherst itself is a kind of public square, a place where ideas are set out to be tested and tried, in classrooms, lectures, arguments, demonstrations, journals, books, exhibits, performances. Ultimately, in whatever form we publish, we make our ideas public as Socrates did by presenting them to an audience that we can challenge and that can challenge us in return.

Now the teachers our harsh critics hold up as models have put aside research; it is secondary to what they really do; they teach first and foremost--they teach because the young need to learn and because they know what the young should know.

All of us may have known teachers who fit this description to an extent: where the subjects are simple and well-bounded; where the knowledge in question is unvarying; and where controversy over methods and conclusions is rare or unacknowledged. Reading seems to have once been taught this way. Assume, for the sake of this argument, that there are teachers--good teachers--who teach what they know and have no active interest in knowing more.

The question then becomes: what subjects and at what level might these teachers teach? (I leave aside the question of whether we can believe that the lack of scholarly interest improves their teaching.) Surely there are no subjects taught at the level of a liberal arts college or university that quite fit the bill.

My own experience, as early as I can remember, was of good or great teachers whose modesty was such that they always pointed to the unknown even as they taught what they did know. Their own curiosity was eager and vivid. They were good teachers because they were good students, abidingly, actively, demandingly.

I want to argue above all for a disposition to scholarship, a vocation for it. I assert a quality and not a quantity. In colleges and universities there is no formula by which to predict the precise balance of passions and achievements in a lifelong vocation. But the scholarly interest is always alive and active in the best teachers. At Amherst College I cannot find the seam where the lives of our faculty divide into scholar on the one hand and teacher on the other. These critics then are wrong. In their eagerness to condemn they dismiss the very qualities that animate great teaching and make it possible.

A gentler version of the critique might accept what I have argued and yet still criticize us for a lack of balance in the way we work. Some of our most loyal alumni wonder if we have kept the right balance between scholarship and teaching. Some of our most successful faculty, on the other hand, worry that we lean sometimes too hard towards teaching.

The controversy goes to the heart of our work and vocation. Needless to say, Socrates never faced the question we face every day: do we give more time to teaching or more to the scholarship by which we ourselves, as faculty, learn and advance learning? Our junior faculty, in particular, feel this question in the rounds of their professional lives. But in the lives of all our faculty the press of time forces choices that often present themselves as a simple dichotomy: teaching versus research.

I will resort to what I take to be a scholarly (and certainly a Socratic) virtue in saying that we can never be sure that we have kept the right balance. Amherst is unusual in its scholarly ambitions; we know that much; few liberal arts colleges have faculties that compare so favorably with the best universities in the quality and even the quantity of the faculty's scholarship. Few have teaching loads and sabbatical policies as generous towards scholarship. We devote great resources to scholarship. Yet we seem again and again to recruit faculty for whom teaching is central. Those few faculty who leave for universities will often say that they do so "for graduate students" or "for more time for research," implying that the tilt towards research is what prompts them to go. The great universities have entrusted much of their teaching to graduate students. We entrust essentially none of it to anyone but our own faculty.

Our ideal is plain: we seek to create here a gathering of students and scholars that can offer the best undergradute education in the world. A system of teaching assistants cannot, I think, be defended under that ideal. If, as I said at the outset, the question of the balance between teaching and scholarship is a moral one, then we should be clear about the moral nature of the struggle to maintain the balance in our lives and the life of the College.

The balance has to unite the scholarly virtues with those of teaching, as I believe it does.

The deeply moral nature of teaching hardly needs to be explained. The relation is second only to parent and child in its trust: that the learning sought and offered will be genuine and not sophistical or fraudulent; that it will challenge the intellect and will of the student; and that it will give the intellectual foundation on which to build a fulfilling life.

By contrast, the moral nature of scholarship is often reduced to simple honesty about sources and authorities. In most discussions, it comes down to what one of my first law professor colleagues used to call "the morality of the footnote."

I join him in saying that the arguably vanishing footnote does, indeed, have a morality in it, if often concealed in the excesses to which it tempts us. The footnote says that your own conclusions have been compared with those of others who have studied the same materials. It points the reader towards the work of those who may have helped you find your way (and away from those who might lead you astray). It says to the reader, "Go. See for yourself." This is a teaching virtue, I think, and suggests again the tie between teaching and scholarship.

But I would argue for Amherst that the morality of our enterprise rests most fundamentally on a deeper moral structure inherent in the idea of scholarship.

Putting aside skills and facts, what should a student learn at Amherst? My answer is that the student who learns the way of the scholar, learns to practice it, if only for a short time, has learned all that we could hope to teach were she to stay a century. The scholar is one who pays close attention to a subject; and close attention--attentiveness--is in a profound sense the first moral virtue. Only by opening our eyes can we open our hearts. Simone Weil, the French mystic, spoke of attentiveness as the purest form of love on earth. Plato had it that the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, is one stopped in his tracks by wonder, by a blend of amazement and curiosity. And the scholar does not simply stop and wonder; the scholar pursues wonder and seeks to find its source. Scholarly inquiry disciplines our curiosity and leads it on to knowledge. Even more, disciplined inquiry leads the scholar on to inquire yet further, to ask more questions, and to see that knowledge itself is always alive with new questions and the possibility of new insight and revised conclusions.

The scholar must have, as well, the courage of convictions, the courage to teach them, to put them forward in whatever form best expresses them, whether in the classroom, lectures, performances, books, essays, paintings, poems. We were once a college structured by religious faith. Now we embrace less certainty and more doubt. Yet we remain "a city on a hill," one to which young and old come to inquire about the truth. Amherst may seem an unruly, even anarchic city at times; certainly it is an unpredictable one. That too is part of its greatness. Amherst depends for its order and strength on the balance we strike every day, all of us, between the two great passions that have brought us together--the passion to teach and the passion to learn. In the oldest sense of the word, then, Amherst remains a school, a place, that is, to share in the rigors and joys of scholarship.

Tags: 
 

Botany Students