By William Urban


            In one year of teaching at the University of Kansas and forty-nine at Monmouth College I have learned that if all knowledge was firm and settled — as it seemed to be way back in Kindergarten — educating students would be easy: professors would explain and students would memorize. However, real life doesn’t work that way, except for people who don’t have a clue, but are certain that they know everything.

Difficult problems have nuances and most have a price tag. For example, I don’t think that disagreeing with President Obama is racist. I grew up reading Herbert Marcuse, who argued that only people with power (males, whites, Americans) can be racists. Last I looked, the president of the United States has a pen and a telephone and his critics don’t.

I have also learned that people with no sense of humor are hard to talk with. In our intellectual discourse we need more humor, a sense of irony, and the humility and humanity that these bring with them. This does not mean that we just tell jokes, because too much levity can lead to dialogue constipation.

Discussions are what give life to higher education. Note that I do not say “civil” discussions, because the exchange of ideas and opinions are more important than a civility that is used to shut up those who think differently — they are the very foundation of a civilized society. Discussions are also easier to start at small colleges than at a university where one is practically anonymous or at a junior college where fellow students go home right after class. In a residential college one can move easily from conversation to discussion to debate.

The faculty also takes more interest in individual students. It isn’t that they are better people, but there is less pressure to publish and less pomposity, more time for listening and to take part in campus events. However, if a few people refuse to be civil or to take differing opinions seriously, they can damage the intellectual community; and individuals who need trigger warnings should be told that the life of the mind is not a fear-free zone.

            One cure for all this is to return to the simpler life of the mind, that of Ancient Athens, where citizens took a mid-day break to exercise, then drink some wine and talk; better yet was a symposium with Plato or a playwright.  Plato, it might be remembered, was very funny.

            Another is to not let the most emotionally involved person define the terms. One articulate individual I know intimidates others by suggesting that disagreement with him is sort of racist. He loves Marcuse’s ideas, but I doubt he has ever read him, because almost nobody reads the previous generation’s philosophers. I am half amused by this — if the victors write the history, that is true of the culture wars, too. The Middle East is filled with peoples who have hated one another for centuries, and that is all America’s fault; it can only be solved when the Jews are all killed. (I say this ironically, of course, but look back at paragraph three, then do a humor check.)

            The world abounds in similar paradoxes that confound our preconceptions. What seems easy becomes complex when you look into it. What is complex is, well, actually pretty complicated. Thus, we look for simple explanations — like saying that we just need to understand other people. (I was tempted to write “the other,” a word that academics put into every sentence only a few years ago. I do not miss it.) Understanding Genghis Khan was never the problem. Dealing with him was.

            Society moves on, leaving behind a debris field of outdated ideas that many stumble over in their attempt to catch up without actually dealing seriously with anything that contradicts their sense of reality.

            Good intellectual discussions can help put this all in order again.



Monmouth College Magazine (Summer 2015).