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Thoughts on Higher Ed from George Steiner
Tags: education

I had not heard of George Steiner, known as one of the great scholars of comparative literature -- funny to have been through my programs without hearing of him. I found the following quote here, originally from his book Errata: An Examined Life, 1997.



A worthwhile university of college is quite simply one in which the student is brought into personal contact with, is made vulnerable to, the aura and the threat of the first-class. In the most direct sense, this is a matter of proximity, of sight and hearing. The institution, particularly in the humanities, should not be too large. The scholar, the significant teacher ought to be readily visible. We cross his or her daily path. The consequence, as in the Periclean polis, in medieval Bologna, or nineteenth-century Tubingen, is one of implosive and cumulative contamination. The whole is energized beyond its eminent parts. By unforced contiguity, the student, the young researcher will (or should be) infected. He will catch the scent of the real thing. I resort to sensory terms because the impact can be physical. Thinkers, the erudite, mathematicians, or theoretical and natural scientists are beings possessed. They are in the grip of a mastering unreason.


What could, by the lights of the utilitarian or hedonistic commonwealth, be more irrational, more against the grain of common sense than to devote one’s existence to, say, the conservation and classification of archaic Chinese bronzes, to the solution of Fermat’s last theorem, to the comparative syntax of Altaic languages (many now defunct), or the hairs-breadth nuances in modal logic? The requisite abstentions from distraction, the imperative labors, the tightening of nerve and brain to a constancy and pitch far beyond the ordinary, entail a pathological stress. The ‘mad professor’ is the caricature, as ancient as Thales falling into the well, of a certain truth. There is something of a cancer, of autism in the necessary negations of common life, with its disheveled inconsequence and waste motion.

In the critical mass of a successful academic community, the orbits of individual obsessions will cross and re-cross. Once he has collided with them, the student will forget neither their luminosity nor their menace to complacency.

...Once a young man or woman has been exposed to the virus of the absolute, once she or he has seen, heard, ’smelt’ the fever in those who hunt after disinterested truth, something of the afterglow will persist. For the remainder of their, perhaps, quite normal, albeit undistinguished careers and private lives, such men and women will be equipped with some safeguard against emptiness.

 
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