A message from President James W. Wagner

The University Diet

An old English proverb says, “Spread the table, and contention will cease.” This advice might serve as a watchword in our age, which sees a proliferation of great contention of every sort—religious conflict, road rage, political divisiveness, terrorism, genocide. You name it, there are plenty of ways in which the world seems inhospitable.

One ancient role of the university that remains especially relevant, therefore, is to serve as the place for a kind of hospitality—to “spread the table” in a variety of ways, so that we can explore our deep differences and come to greater understanding; to serve as a place where people of every walk and every persuasion can break bread, as it were, around the seminar table or at the coffee shop, talking over their different perspectives with civility, if not amity.

After all, the meal appears to be an important source of metaphor for academic life. Many people see college as a simple recipe for success, not realizing that the academic menu on most campuses presents an array of prix fixe as well as a la carte options that are anything but simple to choose from. The academic buffet offers everything from meaty concepts to confections of art, from raw data to half-baked ideas.

And, of course, there are competing prescriptions for improving the intellectual diet. For instance, the “Spellings diet,” offered by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, tends to view all colleges and universities as needing the same minimum daily requirements received via the same menu for every institution, whether research university or community college, technical school or small liberal arts college—as if the varsity football team and a sorority, or a teenage student and a middle-aged professor all should have exactly the same daily regimen of calories.

The “Knight diet,” encouraged by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, renews an emphasis on academics as the incentive to and the scale for weighing a successful athletics program—in a sense, requiring institutions to eat their vegetables before they get dessert.
And the “Horowitz diet,” suggested by writer and activist David Horowitz, would balance the amount of “puffy liberal” talk on the campus intellectual buffet with extra platters of “beefy conservative” speech.

Of course, all this fun should not obscure the serious aim of what we are about at Emory. We do want to spread an amazing banquet table of all sorts of dishes, from the most exotic international fare to the most familiar “comfort food,” with a balance of good things from every major food group. Some of these things we require our students to partake of (the required courses in health and physical education, freshman English or its equivalent, foreign languages, quantitative and natural sciences of one branch or another, and an array of other humanities and social sciences). Others they’re free to choose for themselves.

In the end, what we seek to achieve is not simply a gustatory experience for our students to recall in later years, but a way of life that involves their hunting and gathering their own intellectual and spiritual nourishment, combining it in ways that feed and sustain them, and bringing zest and flavor to their lives and to those whose lives and tables they share. To paraphrase the old bromide—give a person a fish, and she will eat for a day; teach her to season and grill it just right, and she will attract a table full of companions in social discourse, where contention might be dispelled and understanding increased.



 © 2007 Emory University