Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On academic idolatry

I've been working today on rounding up some ideas I've wanted to go back to since reading Augustine's early dialogue De ordine a few weeks ago. In all of three of the early dialogues, the character of Licentius, a student of Augustine's from Milan who has retreated with him to Cassiciacum, stands out to me, as I think he must for any reader. He's hopelessly smitten with poetry, and he constantly earns sharp rebukes from Augustine for spending too much time playing with his verses and too little devoting himself to philosophy. And even when he engages with all his intellectual might in the dialogues' debates, he is always -- as he is painfully aware -- being scrutinized by Augustine's relentless critical eye.

One of the most poignant moments in the dialogues comes in the middle of the first book of De ordine. In a nighttime debate that takes place in the bedroom that all of the interlocutors share, Licentius has just had what, in my view, is a triumph of intellectual self-sufficiency, converting to the study of philosophy on his own terms. But, in the morning light, we see Licentius creeping to the bedside of Augustine and asking quietly, timidly: "What do you think of me?" Throughout the dialogues, Licentius seems as hindered as he is helped by the presence of Augustine, a teacher whom he admires and respects greatly despite his harsh pedagogical style. As I see it, having to worry about how he is perceived by someone whose opinion he values highly is simply distracting, to the point of being counterproductive. But, then again, the same desire to please probably produces results that independent study would not; we do not need to pursue a goal for its own sake in order to attain it.

I think most students have a bit of Licentius in them -- I know that I do. I've had many an academic crush in my day, and especially when I was about his age, in my mid-teens. Most of these crushes have been on women; looking back, I wanted to be these women as much as I wanted them to approve of me. They were role models elevated to the level of idols. And while I knocked myself out to do well in their classes, I know that the energy I expended simply idolizing my teachers personally, if not actually unhealthy, could have been better spent otherwise -- such as in developing my own personal talents and interests, while worrying less about conforming to a model constructed by someone else.

For me, Licentius, and all of us, I think, this is part of the push-and-pull of growing up. We need people we respect and admire to push us to realize our potential, but ultimately, it must be our own potential that we aim to realize. This is why I feel for poor Licentius in De ordine; it's painful to see him briefly, triumphantly assert his independence, only to revert to quietly, anxiously yearning for his teacher's approval.

In other news: it's been a day of good eatin' here! I made for the second time what we are now calling simply "pumpkin", as if there's nothing else one can do with a pumpkin, but is called by Dorie Greenspan in her new book "Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good." And by everything, we're talking bread, cheese, bacon, apples, nuts, and whatever else strikes your fancy! I also tried a new cranberry sauce recipe, which was unanimously adopted for the Thanksgiving lineup. Score.

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