"On Becoming Educated"
(page 5 of 6)
Last spring, my son graduated from Oberlin College, and in only a few
more months, I'll have paid off my own enormous student loans. That is, I
believe deeply in the intellectual benefits of higher education and have
willingly indentured myself to attain them. On the other hand, I loathe
the academy's blind spots.
A few years ago, Stephen Greenblatt—the Stephen
Greenblatt—said in an interview, "I've been at this for 40 years. And,
as an academic, I've been content with relatively small audiences, with
the thought that the audience I long for will find its way eventually to
what I have written, provided that what I have written is good
On the one hand, there's a lovely quiet confidence in the long view
Greenblatt takes, a modest surety of purpose, but it's also a position
freighted with an absence of urgency. That unacknowledged absence is a
luxury, a privilege, that too many academics ignore, not at their own
peril, but at the peril of others, others like the women who would have
been very grateful to learn about that provision in the Violence Against
Women Act about employers' responsibilities to protect them. "The
audience I long for will find its way eventually to what I have
written," Greenblatt writes. Eventually. There's no rush. And
the burden of finding knowledge, you'll note, is on the audience.
Seeking the audience out is not configured as the thinker's job.
Eventually, if I am superb enough, the chosen few will manage to
discover my work.
Sitting on my sofa on a Saturday morning, writing, it still surprises
and honors me that an editor has asked me to write for a prestigious
college's online journal. I was raised to be seen and not heard. Now
someone wants my voice?
That's the key, I think: to remain surprised, to remain honored.
Our public voices are an extraordinary privilege. We can make the
choice to carry with us and be shaped by the voices we've heard—the
strippers and dropouts and battered mothers—and we can act so that what
we do will matter to them. We can continue to choose—no matter what
islands of remove our positions may afford us—to keep inviting those
voices, to teach free classes to the poor, for example, and to listen to
what the poor tell us when they read our cherished texts. We can teach
texts written by poor women in our classrooms. We can remember that
torture and abuse traumatize humans into silence, and that humiliation
and subordination train people into reticence, but that their voices,
those valuable voices, can be fished to the surface again, if we are
patient, if we are kind. If we care.
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