Taguniversity

two descriptions of the university

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

— Maria Magdalena Theotoky

Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

— The Warden of Ploughwright College

(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)

Blessed are they that inanimate all their knowledge, consummate all in Christ Jesus. The university is a paradise, rivers of knowledge are there, arts and sciences flow from thence. Council tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are fontes signati, wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable counsels there. But those Aquae quietudinum, which the prophet speaks of, The waters of rest, they flow from this good master, and flow into him again; all knowledge that begins not, and ends not with his glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance.

— John Donne, sermon preached at Whitehall, March 1624

Dinner parties and cocktail parties dominated every Ann Arbor weekend. Women wore girdles; the jacket pockets of men’s gray suits showed the fangs of handkerchiefs. Among the smooth-faced crowds of Chesterfield smokers, I enjoyed cigars, which added to the singularity of my beard and rendered living rooms uninhabitable. When I lectured to students I walked up and down with my cigar, dropping ashes in a tin wastebasket. The girls in the front row smoked cigarettes pulled from soft, blue leather pouches stamped with golden fleurs-de-lis. As the sixties began, if I was sluggish beginning my lecture—maybe I had stayed up all night with a visiting poet—I paused by the front row and asked if anyone had some of those diet things. Immediately, female hands held forth little ceramic boxes full of spansules or round, pink pills. After I ingested Dexedrine, my lecture speeded up and rose in pitch until only dogs could hear it.

— Three Beards : The New Yorker. Donald Hall on living and teaching in the Fifties.

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