My big news for this year is that I have received a true honor.
The rubric for the Mark Van Doren Award is that it is bestowed on a CU faculty member for "humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership" by a committee of Columbia College undergraduates. I will endeavor to live up to it - in the meantime, here are the remarks I made at the ceremony this evening:
It is very difficult for me to imagine a more meaningful honor – meaningful to me, personally – than the Mark Van Doren Teaching Award.
I came to Columbia ten years ago as an assistant professor, and I must confess that I immediately found that my hugest and most helpful pool of colleagues was to be found not among the ranks of my fellow faculty but in the classroom. My students were responsive to my excitement about the material I was teaching and more than willing to be seduced by the relatively recondite pleasures of eighteenth-century British literature.
Most of all, I felt that we shared a sense of the excitement of the enterprise on which we were all embarked: a belief that the stakes were high, and that what happened in the classroom each day really mattered, not because of professional futures and the need to apply to graduate schools and get jobs and so forth (though I’m not knocking those things either) but because learning things – and learning how to find out the things one doesn’t yet know – and learning how to think about things is for some of us almost a spiritual vocation, one for which it’s worth submitting to a stringent discipline in the short term for the rewards those habits of thought, once they have been successfully cultivated, will pay out to us in the future.
A collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays was published a few years ago with the striking title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. That phrase is actually the title of a 1915 essay by John Erskine, one of the pioneers of Columbia’s core curriculum, an educator and a theorist of education. (Erskine received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia and taught here for almost three decades. An aside: I looked up his biography online and was laughing to myself as I read these two sentences: “Although he was a gifted teacher, Erskine seems to have lacked a traditional scholarly disposition. His flamboyance, eccentricities, and literary ambitions set him apart from most of his more staid colleagues at the College.”)
“Intelligent” here doesn’t mean smart or clever so much as it means thoughtful, and I would revise that phrase to read “the moral obligation to think clearly.” Some people have a natural gift for thinking clearly, but it is a talent one can work for as well as having it simply handed to one as birthright.
That is always the underlying goal of what I’m doing in my classes. I would certainly like my students to learn about the battle of the ancients and the moderns as it coalesced around Swift’s Tale of a Tub, or about the forms of presentation of the self that we see being developed in Restoration comedies like The Country Wife or The Man of Mode, or about the lightning-rod role that Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France played during the 1790s. All of these are interesting and important moments in literary and cultural history that case some light on aspects of our own culture as well.
But it is more important to me that the students I teach continue to learn and stretch their abilities to recognize and work towards comprehending things as yet unknown to them, things that may in many cases be important and difficult and even almost inscrutable.
I am happy to spend half an hour in class working through a single sentence or paragraph of prose – obviously not just any prose, it’s going to have to be something really significant – one of those dense rich paragraphs you find in Richardson’s Clarissa or Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments or for that matter Austen or Henry James or Proust. It is tempting to rush to broad thematic generalizations about a work or an author, but how can you answer a big question about what something means if you can’t parse the meanings of the words in one enigmatic sentence? It takes a willingness to puzzle over small things – and often to admit that one doesn’t understand some particular turn of phrase or twist of argument – to earn the right to answer the bigger and more glamorous questions.
The joy of puzzling meaning out of an intricate sentence is something I never grow tired of. My students will perhaps laugh when I say this – I have been known to mention it now and again! –but when I was a little kid, like many children I was fascinated by tales of magical adventure. I had a particular love for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, stories that take many different incarnations, from the redactions of Roger Lancelyn Green to the chronicles of Malory and Mary Stewart’s Merlin books and the lovely upside-down versions of the stories in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I yearned to perform heroic tasks and live in a magical world where everything would be larger and richer and more colorful than ordinary life.
I realize it doesn’t look particularly glamorous from the outside, but I am very lucky to have found something surprisingly like that magical and rich and colorful life – in the classrooms of Hamilton and Kent and Philosophy. I walk into the classroom and everything is heightened for me – the language on the page before us comes alive, and the exchange of thoughts and the playful back-and-forth between the people sitting in that room are at best absolutely electrifying.
I use the word “playful” deliberately, because in the end what I most cherish about my life of reading and writing is the sense I have, while conducting it, of life's taking place in a very high-level and stimulating and challenging and utterly enjoyable game, something better and more rewarding but just as adrenaline-filled as any other sort of adventure one might have, whether real or virtual. It is a pleasure and a privilege, then, to invite my students to join that game – an unusually meaningful game that can be played, whether as a professional or just as a serious amateur, both in classrooms and out of them for the rest of our lives.