Learning a Pedagogy of Love
I had as much trepidation as I did anything else. I steeled myself as I climbed the steps of Low Library, silently invoking some of those who had walked the same path before me. There was my paternal grandfather, David Dallas Jones, who had come to Columbia as a young man to do his graduate work. There was my mother, Suzanne Y. Jones, a member of the inaugural cohort of Charles H. Revson Fellows on the Future of New York, who had studied here in 1979 and 1980 while caring for three high-spirited teenagers. As I imagined the journeys of graduates past, my mind turned to the experience of Thomas Merton, the poet, philosopher, and Trappist monk who had attended Columbia in the 1930s. Earlier that summer I had read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it Merton recounts how he had arrived in Morningside Heights as a young man who was somewhat adrift. By the time he left the University, he had discovered his spirituality (he was converted to Roman Catholicism at Corpus Christi Church on 121st Street), constructed an intellectual life, and filled his world with lasting friendships and an enduring sense of community. Mertons years at Columbia had been transformative, giving his life both a vocation and deep meaning.
When he later reflected on his time here, Merton wrote: The thing I always liked best about Columbia was the sense that the University was, on the whole, glad to turn me loose in its library, its classrooms, and among its distinguished faculty, and let me make what I liked out of it all. But Merton knew that to be turned loose was a double-edged sword. At Columbia there are no easy answers for graduate students, no prescribed paths, and very little handholding. Each of us is left to make his or her own meanings out of the experience.
Merton was also mindful that, as he put it, the least of the work of learning is done in classrooms. It was frequently in informal, often unplanned spaces that our moments of greatest insight came into beingin a diner sipping a bottomless cup of coffee, in a meeting planning a student event, or during a chance encounter in the library; during a conversation that extended long after a professors office hours had expired, or in the early hours of the evening when things in the lab had quieted down. In these encounters that are not accounted for by residence units or credit hours, in these scores of incidents, remarks, and happenings, that took place all over the campus and sometimes far from it, we experienced what Merton explained were for him small bursts of light that pointed out his way in the dark of his own identity.
The question that I want to ask you all to consider today is to what extent can our lives in a university communityas teachers, scholars, colleagues and public figuresbe lived through an ethic of love? Merton is instructive here because his vantage point as a cloistered thinker reminds us that love is far more than romantic happenstance. It is instead the highest expression of our humanity. He wrote: Love is in fact an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life. We do not live merely in order to vegetate through our days until we die. Nor do we live merely in order to take part in the routines of work and amusement that go on around us. . . . Life is not a straight horizontal line between two points, birth and death. Life reaches its high point of value and meaning when . . . the person transcends himself or herself in . . . communion with another. It is for this that we came into the worldthis communion and self-transcendence. We do not become fully human until we give ourselves to each other in love.
Surely few of us chose doctoral study during the 1990s, of all times, because it was the ordinary or the obvious choice. We have all been asked to defend this decisionperhaps by a family member who believed we could be equally happy following a more practical path or at social gatherings, with the question, But what are you going to do with that? I suspect that the majority of us chose doctoral study because we were driven, we were drawn, we were called to do that which we loved, and to do it well, even in the face of our loved ones gentle skepticism. We are among the very people whom Merton had in mind when he imagined those most capable of love. We already know that life is not a straight path, because we have stumbled and struggled to come to this moment. And we know that life is not lived only in the realm of the routine, that, in its fullest, life is lived in those extraordinary moments when we come togetheras teachers and learners, as thinkers and doersto become more than we might ever be alone.
. . . I would have admitted to a type of longing that I think Merton also felta longing to find a new ethic, a philosophy of life, an essence that would better equip me for all that might lie ahead.
Freires urgency is fueled, in part, by his deep interest in seeing that students experience the best learning possible, and for him love is essential to this end. But he is as deeply concerned with our survival, as teachers, in environments that are sometimes hostile, always demanding, and that invariably ask us to commit 100 percent, even as we are being continually subjected to the scrutiny of the tenure track. This can be a debilitating existence, and many of us have already witnessed those among us who bemoan their lot in the life of the academy, working tirelessly while never certain that promotion to tenure is within reach. If we recall Mertons admonition, it should be no surprise that such a narrow drive toward tenure is demoralizing. Life is not lived in a straight path between two pointsbirth and deathor, for usbetween landing a faculty appointment and being awarded tenure. Lifes meanings, its deep meanings, will not come in the routine pursuit of such an end. They will come instead in those extraordinary moments when we encounter, respond to, and work in communion with others.
How might we carry this ideal of love from the realm of the abstract into our lived experience? Legal scholar Derrick Bell offers the notion of ethical ambition in an effort to help us imagine how to put love into action. In his recent reflections on his career in the academy, Bell locates a space in which integrity and ambition might coexistnot to produce dissonance, but to manufacture a unique type of success that respects our core values and ethical convictions. For Bell, this means respecting our passions, mustering the courage to take risks, having the humility to see our mistakes, and relying on family, friends, and colleagues for the resources to weather difficult times. Bells vision requires, above all else, that we challenge ourselves to be uncompromising, but not about the vagaries of any given moment. Instead, we must be uncompromising in our commitment to our own ethical view, and we must have the courage to speak that conviction and invite others to join us in it.
In my life it was my own grandmother, Susie Williams Jones, who put the fine point on my worldview. Having spent her adult life living and working on the campus of a small historically black college, she, too, offered an approach to daily life that was guided by an intimate sense of the ethical. She wrote: It has always seemed important to me to give all I have to the things at handthat the daily routines and the small happenings by the way are not means or paths to great undertakings, but are ends within themselves. Serving a meal, making a bed, bathing a child, preparing a paper for a club meeting, visiting a frienddaily routines have helped me to find myself. Rather than shunning the ordinary, we might embrace the routines of daily life with an ethic of self-transcendence that will allow us to realize our fullest humanity.
This challenge requires that we contemplate not only our relationships with students, but also our relationships with peersin faculty meetings and through committee assignments, in conferences and through writing groups, in the University Senate and through peer review. What would it mean, as we traverse these spaces, to replace an ethic of cynicism, a narrative of overwhelmedness, or a worldview of petty competition, with a spirit of communion and self-transcendence? As I implore you to do, I challenge myself to strive for the greatest meaning in a culture that already offers us so many opportunities to know love.
When I returned to College Walk this week, it had been nearly nine months since I was at Columbia. I found myself sometimes alone, at other times with a friend, wandering from building to building, office to office, greeting many of the people who worked so hard to make our accomplishments possible. These days I take my daily walk in another place, at the University of Michigan, on what we call The Diag. There I am steeled, not through the invocation of those who walked there before me, but by my own experience, and by the relationships I forged at Columbia. Every moment of communion and self-transcendence, every moment of love, both given and received, has strengthened and emboldened me. I take those moments with me, and I strive to replicate them again and again. This is why I get up in the morning, and it is what I bring to my classroom and even the most challenging of faculty meetings. This is why I stand before you this afternoon. This is how I make meaning out of my life. I leave here with so very much more than I ever hoped forI have learned the pedagogy of love.
Merton: Sibylle Akers/Courtesy the Merton Legacy Trust