Most of my life has been spent in universities and colleges—and for a moment just short of retirement, in a seminary. I have often wondered what I was doing in such places. Was I there to learn? To teach? To supervise? Perhaps to worship?
The truth is that I have come to regard such places as fundamentally unmanageable, increasingly difficult to teach in, all but impossible to worship either God or mammon in, and—worst of all—inimical to learning. All this makes mysterious my lifetime association with the academy.
In writing this “chapter” and the next, I have been trying to solve this mystery for my children, my friends and my self. I’ve had some success in the pages just ahead, as I hope you agree—but the investigation remains “open”.
Professor Without Portfolio is a seven part essay. What follows below is the introduction. If this blog post is your starting point, the links below will take you to the reminder of the essay.
I entered upon graduate academic life as a young father without prospects—other than the meagre Teaching Fellowship offered me by the University of Hawaii’s Department of Political Science. I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from that department, and gratefully accepted the fellowship to bring to bare adequacy the income I was receiving then from a miscellany of dead-end jobs. I came to the academy for a license, not for learning—but I have come since to embrace the axiom that that the only reason to be anywhere freely for any length of time is to learn.
And when I first came into the academy, I did learn! I found folk there who had learned the fine art of close reading, and others who practiced the matching art of disciplined deliberation. The most joyous incidents in my life have been discoveries that have exploded into view like a Ruffed Grouse from an Ohio thicket as I went hunting through the pages of a great book with the help of careful conversation in classroom, office or living room.
The stage for these joyous incidents had not yet been set when the Registrar of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu looked up in the spring of 1962 from his audit of my mottled 6-year transcript of general and professional courses and announced that I had, in fact, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Chinese Studies. The mottled record began (and was quickly interrupted) at Westminster College, New Wilmington, PA, resumed at the Ohio State University, and culminated in the degree at Hawaii (and the fellowship)—by which point I was husband, father, and, among other things, Night Manager of a big service station between the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Although it came two years late by the standards of the day, the degree was at least weak evidence that the academy was the right place for me. I took the money and stayed on; I got back on the horse that had thrown but not trampled me.
The decision was vindicated almost immediately. In my first graduate course, I was “asked” to summarize Charles McIlwain’s Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern by a quiet, young professor of American Politics who, fortunately, thought the origins of the agreement at Philadelphia in 1787 lay, as did Montesquieu (of the whole of English law and culture!), in the shadows of the Saxon forests. I spent a frantic week reading and re-reading McIlwain’s little book, and delivered myself of what the prof declared as “mastery” of the argument that the jurisprudential fundamentals of constitutionalism took form in English, even European, feudalism. Ever since that experience, I have longed to repeat it—to emerge from the close reading of a rewarding book with a little new light in at least one eye that allows me to see such connections as, in this case, between feudalism and Federalism (or, in the case of books written in restrictive and censoring cultures, to find the secret of construction that reveals the author’s true teaching). And though I continue to undertake long, slow close readings, I have emerged from every one of them so far with new understanding. Thus have I come to believe that recognizing generative connections between superficially disparate eras, people, events (and generic contrasts in superficially similar phenomena) are collateral gifts of the open minded, the constantly curious, and the frequently surprised.
I was so thrilled by the McIlwain achievement that I immediately presumed that I had somehow earned the gifts with which I accomplished it–that I merited them individually. This arrogance (quite momentary, as it turned out) reflected my extensive but failed effort to reverse my father’s disappointment in me, and to overcome the self doubt that it had largely engendered. The sudden burst of arrogance was a great, albeit tarnished gift; it allowed me to confront for the first time and begin the defeat of my deepest-dwelling demon—the failure of my father’s tests of me and of his own fatherhood. He died in my 15th year, and I never won from him as much praise for all the assignments that I fulfilled as the amount of disappointment he expressed in my failing even one of them. From the moment that I found the discipline and discovered the ability to comprehend an argument the size and complexity of McIlwain’s book, I stopped trying to satisfy him and began trying to understand how he and I had gotten into such an unholy tangle. It took a long time, but eventually “we” straightened it out—in the broad hall of careful recollection, attentive observation, and my own eventual realization that forgiveness both is and yearns for love. That realization welled up only after I was well into my career in the academy. It transformed my ambition from reversing my father’s disappointment of me into finding and following a moral code that I could defend before him as well as the best of my teachers. That transformed ambition has supplied drive enough for a lifetime—a demiurge altogether as challenging as quarreling with “the child inside” but far more satisfying.