Conversations on Teaching

'Small things'­and large­

at Emory stem from great

minds that came before

To explain my sense of awe at being privileged to be a part of this great university, I turn once again to Italo Calvino's Mr. Palomar and the title character, who continues to look carefully at all he does in order to see if he can find the universal in the commonplace. So it is the case when he visits a cheese shop. By now, you may be getting the drift of my perspective here, when he says cheese shop, I am thinking "university."

"Mr. Palomar is standing in line in a cheese shop. This is a place whose range seems to exemplify every conceivable form of dairy product, whose numerous varieties and descriptions advise that here is guarded the legacy of a knowledge accumulated by a civilization thorough all its history and geography. . . . Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows caked with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows scented with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; that are different flocks with their different stables and seasonal movements; there are secret processes handed down over the centuries. This shop is a museum; Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that has given it form and takes from it."

In this same sense are we not in a museum each time we set foot on the Emory campus? Think of what is on display here, what our university represents. Think of our libraries filled with the works of literally millions of great minds who have gone before; think of our faculty, each carrying a body of knowledge built up over decades, centuries and even millennia. Think of our many schools and colleges, each standing for skills and insights honed and discovered by hundreds of thousands of our predecessors; and of our professional schools, representing the growing edge of some of the most important components of our civilization. Who could not be awestruck at the thought of such deep meaning? But the power of that campus is not only in the big things, in Mr. Palomar's cosmos. It also can be seen in the seemingly more mundane qualities of Emory and sometimes these can be even more overwhelming.

Consider some of these "small things" for a moment. How many craftsman's hands helped shape the marble and wood that grace our buildings? How many centuries of knowledge guided their every movement? How many thousands of students, faculty and staff have walked our quadrangle? How many hours of work, how much belt-tightening and self-denial stand behind each dollar of tuition? How many books have been read on this campus; how many grades have been recorded? How many millions of words have been uttered in our classrooms, lecture halls, chapels and thoroughfares? How many young mothers, fathers, lawyers, ministers, physicians, businessmen, dentists and politicians-to-be have "commenced" their adult lives in front of the marble-clad buildings on the quad? How many dreams of how many parents-and grandparents- have come true on that beautiful green grass in the middle of that original quadrangle of buildings that represents the very heart of Emory?

Recall Mr. Palomar's thoughts about his grass: "You never know at what point you can stop; there may always be a tiny sprouting leaf that barely emerges from the earth, its root a white wisp hardly perceptible; a moment ago it might have been overlooked, but soon it, too, will have to be included." In many ways the quadrangle, the heart of our campus, is Emory's lawn. Just as the spirit of the quadrangle permeates all parts of the campus connected with it physically, so the spirit of Emory permeates all those connected with it emotionally. In this sense, no matter where members of the University family may find themselves, no matter where life's roads have taken them, no matter how long ago they last saw the campus, no matter when it was that they last experienced the aroma of its new-mown grass in the morning, so long as they sense that they are part of a lasting relationship with the physical, intellectual and human aspects of Emory, they will continue to be taught by its faculty and guided by its administrators. And we since all go on, a community of scholars standing together on that endless quadrangle, that infinite lawn, where truly is guarded the legacy of a knowledge accumulated by a civilization through all its history and geography.


Marshall Duke is the Candler Professor of Personality and Psychotheraphy. This is the third of a three-part series based on his address at the 1996 Board of Trustees banquet.

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