Emory Report

 August 4, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 36

First Person:
An institution's soul provides
a distinctive identity

The French historian Paul Veyne counsels us, in attempting to understand an ancient society, to examine what he calls "the optics of the sources." By that he means the beliefs and customs so obvious to those who held or practiced them at the time that they "went without saying"-the things that never appear in the documents or monuments with which historians normally concern themselves.

What are the "takens-for-granted" at Emory? What is it beyond the buildings and the media rating, beyond the monuments and documents, that gives Emory its identity but which remains so obvious or so elusive that it escapes our explicit awareness? What is it that gives or gave Emory its distinctive identity as this educational institution and not another? What is the basis of its inner life, its spirit?

Aristotle calls the principle of the living unity of an organic body its soul. By analogy, we may speak of the principle of the living unity of the University as its soul. The question I am asking is whether Emory has somehow lost its soul.

And what if Emory has lost its soul? The school in any case would have retained the unity of the Administration Building, the library, the DUC, the Quad. It would continue to be a legal entity and a degree-granting institution that performs an increasingly impressive array of functions in a variety of professions and throughout an expanding circle of influence.

It could point to a strong physical substructure, a well-published faculty and a growing pool of ever bright applicants eager to earn its certification. Even without a soul, Emory could function as a valuable way station on the road of life, a ladder, if you will, to be mounted and left behind without a second thought as one advanced to the next goal.

But while many are loyal to their alma mater or employer, few retain such affection for their step-ladders! I'm not talking about fetishism or woolly thinking or even of romanticism. I have in mind something like what Max Weber calls "enchantment"-the quality of an experience that evokes our love and sustains our loyalty, that adds a certain magic to our lives. I'm referring to something each of us will recognize: interpersonal relationships and those places, circumstances, rituals and symbols that foster and preserve them. I'm talking about the school as the locus of an especially formative experience in the lives of most of us.

If it takes a "heap of living to make a house a home," it requires a great many shared experiences over a long period to bring a school to life. And those schools that we admire as having achieved such a living identity did not do so overnight. Conversely, if they lost that quality, it wasn't the result of a momentary oversight or a dramatic mishap. It required years of neglect, something like the weakening of a bridge or the souring of a friendship.

It is that crisscrossing and overlapping of a multiplicity of traditions, collective and individual memories, friends, mentors, practices, symbols and rituals that I would call the soul of the university. It forms the basis of our common identity and the object of our pride. It's implicit in the expressions "we at Emory" and "we of Emory." But student guides can't point it out as they lead tours of the campus, even though the campus and its inhabitants form its material base-we're not talking about a soul that hovers over a body like the nimbus in a religious icon. It is to this soul that I refer when I inquire whether it has departed the Emory body, leaving behind an institutional corpse, though perhaps an expensively mummified one.

But before we invoke the priests of Anubis, or at least consign the remains to the archaeologists if not the grave robbers, let us look for signs of life. What indications do we have that there is a living academic community infusing these lovely grounds and constantly regenerating edifices? What are Emory's vital signs?

It's not enough to point to the existence of programs, facilities, professors, administrators and staff; it's not even enough to add that all important component, the students, whose absence we faculty appreciate in the summer but whose return in the fall we value even more. It is a matter of significant communal moments, such as the annual Town Hall meeting of President Carter with the freshman class, the (almost) rainless commencements on the Quad and, of course, William M. Dooley-our reminder of permanence amidst the flux of life. One thinks of The Emory Wheel, the Barkley Forum, the parade of All-Americans in the gym, the Greek system, the Oxford experience (with a special identity of its own)-as some of the events, traditions and organizations that help build our community, fashion our identity and enable us to grow with a sense of where we've come from and where we're heading.

If the soul is the principle of life and if truly human living, as distinct from mere biological survival, involves awareness of a past and a future, then what I've been calling the soul of the university must enrich us with a sense of our past and prepare us to appropriate that future.

I agree with the existentialist philosophers that we are our biographies and that collectively we are our history-we are the stories we tell and retell about one another and ourselves. Those of us who have experienced teachers who took an interest in us as individuals and who did so not as a sop for the careless preparation of lectures but because they recognized in the student the human face-we who are lucky enough to have known such an affirming atmosphere are privileged to continue it with our present charges. I suspect that every instructor who is reputed to be "caring" was himself or herself blessed by a similar instructor in turn.

This, I believe, is the chief way the present builds on the past and the richness of the instructional moment is transmitted; the school's soul is communicated-to borrow Augustine's simile-like a flame from candle to living candle. That's what I'm looking for, when I speak of the "vital signs" of academic life. And that's what gives me hope when I find it, hope that Emory is alive and well, though not without its growing pains.

But the past must be a springboard, not a prison house; it must be the humus from which we draw the strength to rise above our past, not to lie buried beneath it. This is the dimension of soul that involves the future: a living future-one that doesn't just muddle through in pragmatic fashion, but one directed by a vision of what we want to be. "Change what a person values," Brand Blanshard once wrote, "and you've changed them as a whole, for the important thing about them is what they want to be." Neitzsche called us "valuing animals" and he was right. We live in terms of the possible, the "could be," the "why not?" as President Kennedy put it.

So another sign of life in the academy is that it breathes the air of the possible. Institutional, like biological death, is the demise of the possible, the eclipse of vision.

Tom Flynn is Dobbs professor of philosophy. His recent book is Satre, Foucault and Historial Reason. This essay was excerpted from a speech at Alumni Assembly.

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