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 Emorys 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 cafeterias
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 departments 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
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
benefitsin the same way that I recognize that I should follow my
doctors 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 completein 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
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 its
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
weekfrom narrative histories, to novels, plays and works of social
theory. They wrote three short papers and one somewhat longer one during
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 didnt 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 dont say they forgot about the fact that were being graded; Im
sure they didnt. Nonethe-less, I do think they escaped the calculative
dimensions of university education in this course more than they do in
mostand more than most of the universitys 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.