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December 4, 2000

Returning to one's mission

Walter Adamson is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Intellectual History
and chair of the history department.

Nowadays, if you are in doubt about the circulation policies at Emory’s main library and you pick up its pamphlet on this topic, you will find that its front page consists entirely of two short paragraphs, one labeled “mission statement” and the other, “vision statement.”

If you then check out a book and walk to the nearby hospital cafeteria to read it over lunch, you may well take notice of the cafeteria’s short mission statement posted on the bulletin board beside the entrance. Returning to the office, a virtual tour of campus websites on your desktop can effortlessly turn up many more such statements promulgated by the vast array of departments, divisions, schools and institutes that we now are. Emory, it is clear, has become a university of “missions” rather different from those its Methodist founders would have imagined.

Last year, the history department’s faculty put together its own mission statement, though we hesitated to call it that. In it we touted the increasing recognition of the importance of historical knowledge both within the academy and among the wider public. We tried to say a few things about what this sort of knowledge is, how we obtain it and what we do with it.

No doubt we could have resisted codifying the tacit understandings we have all been carrying around since the day we decided to become historians, but the pressure on us to make them explicit was very strong. Univer-sity life has become, for better or worse, an elaborate process of various kinds of calculative thinking and behavior: setting objectives, specifying the means necessary to achieve them, and then engaging in periodic reviews to see how one has done before beginning the process all over again.

It is difficult to write about what some would call the corporatization of the university without sounding a bit jaded, but I do recognize its benefits—in the same way that I recognize that I should follow my doctor’s advice to rein in all the vices I associate with free living.

We need to get better at what we do, and the first step in improvement must be to understand what itis you seek to accomplish.

Yet in turning the relentless process of self-improvement into a way of life, we risk losing touch with the value that attracted many of us to a scholarly life in the first place: the importance of intellectual reflection for its own sake, without regard for where it may lead, how efficiently it may be carried out, or how great its resulting benefits may or may not be.

I was reminded of this value during this past fall when I taught a seminar to 14 incoming Emory freshmen on the topic of “freedom and individuality in modern mass society.” I should probably have felt somewhat ambivalent about the course since it grew out of a three-year faculty effort to produce a “new and improved” set of general education requirements that all Emory undergraduates must complete—in other words, out of one of those processes of self-improvement that I described.

Yet I found myself wholly swept up by it.

According to the new requirements, all incoming freshmen must take a seminar during their first year taught by a regular faculty member. Though there are many other new requirements that freshmen appear to have reservations about, this one meets their unqualified approval, at least to judge by my experience.

Why? The fact that freshmen are free to choose which of about 100 different seminars they will take certainly helps, but my guess is that it’s the nature of the experience itself that most attracts them.

Surrounded by exact peers, they have an opportunity to cross the intellectual threshold into college together. And in my seminar (typical in this respect) they did so without the pressure of any exams. We read nearly a book each week—from narrative histories, to novels, plays and works of social theory. They wrote three short papers and one somewhat longer one during the term.

Amazingly, class attendance was nearly perfect (one student missed one class), and I found myself leading discussions almost like a symphony orchestra leader pointing at the person who should play next. While I let discussions roam, I didn’t find them going very far afield too often. Apparently, good books read for their own sake and reflected upon collectively in relation to a common level of experience can be quite a captivating endeavor.

In nearly a quarter century of college teaching, I have taught a lot of courses. Many were satisfying; some were less than fully satisfying. But this freshmen seminar was one of the best, and I attribute it to the fact that, somehow, the students lost themselves in the books they read and talked about.

I don’t say they forgot about the fact that were being graded; I’m sure they didn’t. Nonethe-less, I do think they escaped the calculative dimensions of university education in this course more than they do in most—and more than most of the university’s more senior citizens do most of the time. In short, for me it was very reassuring to discover that what I value most in academic life not only has not been lost but can be found precisely at the point where the newest members of our community are being initiated into it.

This article first appreared in the Department of History Newsletter, August 2000.


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