Where’s Waldo?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

Shake it up is all that we know,
Using bodies up as we go
I’m waking up to fantasy
The shades all around aren’t the colors we used to see
Broken ice still melts in the sun
And ties that are broken can often be one again,
We’re soul alone and soul really matters to me…Take a look around

You’re out of touch, I’m out of time (time)
But I’m out of my head when you’re not around

– Hall and Oates, “Out of Touch”

Recently I spoke to a group of freshmen who were being inducted into several different honors societies on campus. My theme was the quest for excellence. As I have few opportunities now to actually interact with the rising generation, I was eager to say something that would have some resonance with students over twenty-five years younger than I am. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to do this would be to draw upon the idea of “the quest” as represented in history, mythology, and popular culture. Intoxicated by this IDEA and fortified by the power of Google, I put together a brief series of images that I believed were iconic representations of “the quest”: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jason and the Argonauts, the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Indiana Jones, the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, and Mulder and Scully. I gave my talk; I got a few laughs from the audience, and left the stage thinking that it went better than I had hoped.

During the reception after the induction ceremony, a student approached me and admitted that she has never been able to understand a thing that I say, including the presentation of which I had been so proud just minutes before. I was stunned. She was an honors student and reasonably bright – the type of student I work hard every day to attract to my institution and inspire—and I could not reach her. Suddenly I was awash again in the disappointment and frustration that I so well remember from my days as an assistant professor of history. And like any good denizen of the Age of Social Media, I jumped onto Facebook and asked my digital friends to tell me what I had missed. Surely, I thought, they would see the brilliance of my approach and depth of my commitment to being relevant to my students.

My bruised ego was soothed by several of my friends; and I thank them for it. However, a well-respected colleague who is also an award-winning teacher chided me for failing to use cultural reference points that actually come from the world experienced by my students, not the one I remember from the last millennium. I was indignant, firm in my belief that a truly intelligent person would know and understand the examples I had used – examples which surely rose above the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for popular culture today. Why, in my day…

My colleague was absolutely correct. I had dismissed the era inhabited by my students – i.e., NOW – as irrelevant and inferior to the Golden Epoch of my youth. I had closed my eyes, willingly, to a world that was continually and stubbornly remaking itself. I was not the teacher or mentor that my students deserve. Somehow, at the ripe old age of 43, I had transformed into an embittered old codger.

I used to joke that I became an historian because I understood the dead better than the living. I cannot laugh any longer. I see now that I must embark upon my own quest out of the realm of shades and back into the world of the living. I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I have to try. Jim Kirk and Indiana Jones would not have it any other way.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Perhaps both you *and* your colleague are right. There is much to be gained from understanding the current culture, and certainly that is reflected in the films, television, books, and other art and media of today. But I would agree with your original thesis as well, that a deeper understanding of the culture, and indeed an appreciation of it, comes through understanding from whence that culture developed. It did not develop in a vacuum. An historian who can help young people place their current favorites into some context, to see how their music and art and stories reflect nothing so much as the same themes of love and loss, good versus evil, desire and pain that have been expressed by writers and artists for centuries – that, my friend, is a true teacher. You have that skill in you, more than nearly any other teacher I know. Good luck on your quest into time, my friend.

  2. I just say this. I’m glad that on occasion I get through to you. I hope you are well.


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