Restoration of Academic Identity: On Truth and Responsibility

Micah Sadigh

“I know the cause . . . of your sickness. You have forgotten what you are.”

Boethius

Alethea. Human life can be sustained either in the darkness of ignorance, which will cripple the mind, or in the light of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, which will promote creativity and intellectual and social growth. Those arts that are meant to free the mind are called the liberal (liberating) arts, among which are the art of communication, the art of reasoning, the art of acting, behaving, and serving for the good of others (ethics), the art of creating—all of which play a decisive role in mastering the challenges of life for the betterment of humanity as well as its communities. Such arts will open us to a better understanding of who we are in the midst of the chaos of life by nurturing the capacity to reason. “In this way the darkness of ever treacherous passions may be dispelled, and [one] will be able to see the resplendent light of truth.”1 Charting our journey through life as social beings solely based on what we apprehend through our senses may seem expedient; yet our shortsightedness and self-centeredness can have devastating personal as well as societal implications. “Because of the weakness of our senses,” Anaxagoras reminds us, “we are not able to judge the truth.”2

With the arrival of the age of information and the seeming realization that all we need to know sits at our fingertips, we may erroneously arrive at a conclusion with pernicious possibilities, that information is truth; and that quick fixes borrowed from here and there and pasted together are sufficient to soothe our struggles and offer lasting reprieve from what ails us, our society, our civilization. The plague of confusing opinions with truth may result in either hubris or premature, faulty conclusions, sinking us deeper into the ocean of ignorance. Everyone is informed but no one understands, as the tools necessary for proper understanding of any phenomenon are scarcely put to use. This is indeed a nightmare of our time, when every single day we are exposed to that which pretends to be “the fact” of the happenings of life, opinions holding our attention in bondage, directing us in every which way, not of our own volition; in helplessness, we seek remedies to dull our attention. “Commit your boat to the winds,” Boethius teaches us, “and you must sail whichever they blow, not just where you want.”3 Yet, an adroit pilot who understands the behavior of the wind is able to use the force of the wind to reach the charted destination and not the unknown shores forced upon it. Unlike those so simply manipulated by opinions, a person who is educated with proper mentoring to seek the truth “resist[s] the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”4

Hegel proposes, “The true (truth) is the whole.”5 That is to say, “anything short of the whole . . . is necessarily one-sided, incomplete, hence partially false.”6 An idea, no matter how alluring, may keep us in darkness unless it is examined. It is through dialogue, discourse, engagement—the tools of academics—that we come closer to gaining a better understanding of the whole. The tools that guide us in the search for truth are explored, taught, and in time, acquired through a liberal education, which prepares the mind for critical thinking, by which we come closer to seeing the whole, embracing the truth.

If “the true is whole,” then we cannot have the truth unless we have all the parts, not what is in our grasp, but that which is outside our immediate grasp, that which eludes us. With an open and exercised mind, we may have an approximation, an inkling, of the truth, but it is not the truth. It is this humility that opens our eyes and moves us forward, helps us to make progress, as we seek all the parts. The academy was meant to set the stage for such a process to proceed, as the academics pursuing different disciplines—different angles—through dialogue, discourse, and collaboration sought to discover the nature of things. Such a systematic process was meant to help the mind to overcome the bondage of ignorance, a one-sided, narrow perspective on reality, and to reach for a higher understanding through reason. “Freedom of the mind requires . . . the presence of alternative thoughts.”7 These alternatives are most readily presented in the study of philosophy, which offers opposing perspectives, dialogues, and dialectics, which challenge and stretch the mind to grasp new ideas and formulations and perhaps, in time, solutions to life’s most pressing struggles.

Is there justice when truth is hidden or partially known? In despotism, tyranny, dictatorship, there is no desire to seek the truth, as “the truth” is, supposedly, already known, which is, indeed, a deception perpetrated only to rule and subjugate. “The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity,” Allan Bloom reminds us, “but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.”8 The admonition resolutely to seek the truth has been at the very core of the structure of the academy, perhaps even long before Plato established it. Academicians were taught with tools for seeking it—rational tools that were then taught to the student. It was well understood—as we should remember now—that without such training and disciplining of the mind, it was not possible to gain a deeper understanding of our reality. What was hidden inside had to be brought out methodically, through the close association with a teacher, a mentor.

“Truth of whatever kind,” John Henry Newman asserts, “is the proper object of the intellect; its cultivation then lies in fitting it to apprehend and contemplate truth. Now the intellect in its present state . . . does not discern truth intuitively, or as a whole. We know, not by a direct or simple vision, not at a glance, but as it were by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process.”9 Such an educational process, we might add, is improbable, if not impossible, without the companionship of a mentor, the truth seeker who is equipped with the art of reasoning and argumentation, and tools of critical thinking. This is the task of an adroit and caring academic, teacher, and professor, to offer such tools and impart the art of reasoning.

Preparing Minds for the Pursuit of Truth

To prepare a mind to see the world from a higher ground, so that it may gain knowledge and wisdom about the workings of life, sustained mentorship and guidance are essential, even imperative. This sustained presence of a mentor is at the heart of what in academia we refer to as tenure, which is an expression of commitment, loyalty, and a constant striving toward excellence so as to protect the integrity of higher education and to uphold the values that define it. Indeed, this presence makes it possible for such teachings and values to be passed on to the student. The mentor professes, teaches, challenges, unleashes the dormant potentialities of students and prepares theme for greater self-reliance and, in time, for self-transcendence; that is to live and to strive for higher values.

Plutarch offers us deep insight as to the role of the teacher. “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather like wood, it requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”10 When the impulse to create, to think—to challenge what one hears or sees—is not kindled, we witness a person who exudes nothing but a fading glow, nothing but borrowed light, borrowed warmth, an empty vessel constantly needing to be filled. There is nothing automatic about education; proper guidance and mentorship are central in such a process. “The bodily eye, the organ of apprehending material objects, is provided by nature; the eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.”11 Those who engage in opening the eye of the mind and guiding it to see new things are the educators and not just instructors, that is, mere imparters of certain techniques, or practical knowledge. They fulfill a higher responsibility to students and our civilization.

A higher education is an ongoing process of growth designed to offer companionship throughout one’s life, and not simply in the workplace and under specified circumstances. The ability to think, to reason, to address problems and challenges of day-to-day living is not taught in a series of instructional programs that are vocation-centered. Such trainings do promote problem solving about work-related issues and concerns; yet, when one leaves the place of work, the challenges of life remain, questions surface that cannot be simply avoided, a confrontation occurs. One’s sense of purpose and search for meaning for his existence demand a deeper understanding of self, where true freedom is discovered. For this reason alone, “[one] cannot impose anything on a free mind, and [one] cannot move from its state of inner tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason.”12

Newman suggests, “[Education] implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent.”13 This formation of character is indeed one of the key functions of a higher education, which once again comes about in the presence of a dedicated mentor—it cannot be manufactured. As Seneca teaches us, “Nemo potest personam diu ferre fictum” (no one can wear a mask [or persist in a fictitious character] for long).14 What humanity needs at this hour are not masks; it needs resolute faces of integrity that do not shy away from challenging falsities, uncovering what is true.

Mirror of Responsibility

[F]or the eye sees not itself but by reflection from some other things.”15

Perhaps what is lacking most in academia today is genuine leadership. Our institutions are run by managers—not leaders! “Shared governance,” as attractive as it sounds, therefore, is nothing other than shared management; but even then, only an illusion of managing what has already been planned and prescribed, often capriciously. Managing and leading are two very different concepts; the former is guided by what transpires around us, the latter is fueled by inner vision and values—just as “practical” and far more resilient when it comes to coping with uncertainty.

We, the academics, have become compartmentalized, segregated, overwhelmed, and gradually disconnected from the very values that should act as our compass, which have defined our profession for so long. We have become strangers to each other. Our current marketing strategies further distance us from each other as the whole of who we are has simply become the parts that are profitable, popular—even if utterly absurd, applicable, and readily “assessed” and quantifiable. It is as though we recognize a tree for its stem and branches but ignore the roots that feed it, without which the stem becomes nothing but a stick. Those who “manage” us are focused on the immediate and marketable outcomes and through a variety of strategies, distractions, and fear tactics that force us in any which way the market guides, instead of the time tested values that rest at the very center of our existence.

Plutarch’s perennial motto, which guided him through much of his career, the essence of his formula for effective leadership, was “city before self.”16 Here “the city” is and must be the academy and any particular discipline “the self.” The city’s health, integrity, growth, and evolution—its occupants—must act as our guiding principles. When the reverse prevails, Plutarch warns us, envy and hunger for more power become the leader’s obsessions, while the fear and paranoia of losing power become his demons.17 When the city is the focus, power and fear cease to rule, commitment and loyalty become the guiding principles. But have we forgotten what our city, the academy, looks like or the values for which it stands? It is a place of “teaching universal knowledge,”18 not conveniently carved out knowledge or what is in vogue; it is a place of the pursuit of truth, which, in the end, makes the pursuit of justice possible. The academy must embrace and live by these values, which are “life-preserving and life-enhancing.”19 And who prepares minds for such pursuits, teaches them about such values? That responsibility falls upon our shoulders.

We have ample data from a series of studies that suggest a loss of meaning frequently results in destructive tendencies. Impulsive behaviors, addictions, suicides and homicides are examples of such tendencies. Do we not see examples of these today in our nation and in our world, now more than ever? The search for meaning has much to do with the discovery of those values that guide our lives, particularly in time of uncertainty. Such values were once taught by religion, philosophy, history, literature, and art as a mirror of our progress, all of which guided the flourishing and development of our civilization. In their absence, we shall witness the death of our civilization, for what is replacing them has nothing to do with values at all, but impulse, chaos, confusion, personal agendas, and avarice.

Conclusion

Certain structures central to human existence, defined in terms of meaning-generating values that have guided and preserved civilization—which are traditionally explored in higher education—have been compromised and we are beginning to witness the resulting manifestations that have personal, social, and global ramifications. One such manifestation is that of unabated anxiety, fear of the unknown, not the kind of anxiety that can be medicated away but the kind that must be lived through—the anxiety of being human, having to make difficult choices, having to grapple with the uncertainties of life. These are the types of uncertainties that appear at the end of the day when we are not engaged in some mechanical activity, and no technique or technology or spell can scare them away. They return with impunity, robbing us of peace, clarity of mind and a sense of purpose. Yet a mind equipped with reason—and a set of examined values and not whims to be guided by—can circumvent their assaults, disarm them until the next encounter. The answers to many of our current struggles can be found in those values that define a higher mastery of life and its vicissitudes—wisdom so rich and old, yet immediately applicable to this day and to tomorrow. Who teaches them and how are they taught, for what reason and with what goals in mind?

Historian, Yuval Noah Harari asks, “How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple—just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’ When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. . . . a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t suffer. It is a metaphor. In contrast . . . when a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. . . . This is reality.”20 By applying this same logic, let us ask the question, “How do we know that higher education is real?” As a set of organizations based on property, budgets, and employees, akin to other businesses that come and go, higher education does not suffer. Yet, if it stands for the pursuit of truth and justice and the values that make such pursuits possible, if because of it civilization is guarded and protected, and continues to grow, then its absence, its loss, causes great suffering. Think of higher education as merely a business, then its demise can be understood, tolerated and, in time, forgotten. Think of it as that which to a large extent sustains humanity, then its fragmentation, deterioration, and disappearance will cause unspeakable suffering, such as the loss of those values we hold so dear. “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and under nourishment.”21

Indifference is not an option. We must preserve and echo those voices that have challenged ignorance and confronted the brutish impulses that have brought atrocities upon humanity; voices that have warned us about the resurgence of such brutality; while, at the same time, have offered hope for the evolution of a creature capable of higher morality and conscience. Such voices cannot be allowed to fade away—our teachers must teach through us, just as our students must preserve those teachings that uphold humanity. In the company of the great thinkers of the past, our teachers of antiquity, we find nourishment of mind, peace of soul, and remain resolute to purse what is truth. “In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.”22

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