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What is an Academic?

by John Bryant
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(original text of speech given for the inauguration of Patrick White as president of Wabash)

Wabash College has asked me to welcome Patrick White to the presidency of this institution of higher learning, on behalf of the broader academic community.  Pat, who was my college roommate for three years, has been a central figure in my life, from the time I met him when he and I first arrived at the University of Chicago in 1967.  I was from California and loved the coast, but was desperate to get away from home; he was from Illinois, loved the prairies, and was homesick though only fifty miles from his home town.  We were both psychotic. 

Pat and I have never gone our separate ways; we remain best friends.  So I was honored when asked to greet him on behalf of the broader academic community, although the request threw me instantly into an identity crisis. What is broader academic community?  What does academic mean?  Am I an academic?  Well, look at the cap and gown; I must be.  But what does that label require of me? Why am I here?  What is this place?  Who are you? What is reality?  Who is my father?  Who am I?  Pat!

Since I got the call to make this welcoming speech, I have calmed down.  And like a good academic, I have tried to think things through.  So before I say the words "Welcome, Pat," I want us to be on the same page together as to what "academic" actually means.

We think of academe as an ivory tower:  an unreal place where young people spend four years, where older professors pontificate, where deans, if they are good, try to bring students and teachers closer, and where presidents, well, Pat? what do presidents do?  Or perhaps academe is just a collection of specialized departments, each pursuing a specific course of study, with little interaction.  Not one ivory tower but many, and no bridges among them or to the rest of the world.  This is a grim stereotype.  Academe, or so the stereotype tells us, is where you stay for four years before moving on to the real world, to real life, to real achievement.

Granted, college is a place we seek to leave.  We are students wanting our independence.  But if a college does what it should, we take with us the understanding that we are always learning, always seeking awareness, always students. Academe is the life of the mind, the body, the heart, altogether, looking at itself, in wonder.

When Pat and I were in college, we would talk, laugh outrageously, and never touch alcohol or smoke.  And with our friends—many of whom are here today—Pat and I would wonder how cool it would be if we could form a college of our own.  We were born teachers as well as students.  We wanted to set up a community of scholars, teach classes, be with each other, talking, thinking, and writing.  We never thought about buildings, class schedules, deans and presidents, or funding.  Somehow our college would just run by itself.  And we would all teach and learn.  These were perhaps naÔve thoughts, especially in our years at Chicago, which saw the murder of Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy, sit-ins against racism and the Vietnam war, demonstrations, police riots, the Democratic Convention, and the draft, not to mention revolutions in teaching: how to teach and what to teach.  That was academe in 1968.

But what is an academic? It’s an inhibiting word, and not the label most people would apply to themselves. 

Don’t use that word to describe yourself at cocktail parties.  Someone is bound to say, "Oh, I must watch my grammar" and move off in search of the dip.  Surely, there is more to what an academic is than the grammarian or egghead.  So let me ask you some questions.

Have you ever picked up a bolt or screw, and it’s not the right one you want; have you wondered why so many bolts and screws; who designed this bolt, its head and its threading; who made the machine that made the bolt; who worked the machine; who boxed the bolt; who sold it; and how did it get in my bottle of useless bolts and screws; if you have ever wondered about a little thing, then you are an academic.

Have you ever taken a glass of water from the tap, and wondered what is water, and what makes it flow; where does it come from, why does it have a taste, or no taste; who makes it safe to drink and how.  Have you ever taken a pill, and wondered what it does and it is safe.  If you have ever wondered about a process, then you are an academic.

Have you ever been to a playground, and wondered who placed the swing here, and the sandbox there; or who placed this playground in this public space; have you wondered about civic action and social programs like rural health care, zones and variances; city planning and community consultants; then, citizen, you are an academic.

Have you ever designed a cake, or a garden, or looked at the way a weed mimics a rose; have you ever watched a child grow, and made a decision; have you ever been asked by a child why the days get short in the winter, and not said shut up; then you are an academic.

Have you ever watched a film, and wondered how the scenes were put together; or noticed that the ending is different from the book; or noticed that the government has edited a scientific report; or that it seeks to sell the writings of Ted Kaczinski, the Unabomber, but with various words removed; have you wondered how words, and books, and films get changed over time into different versions, then you are an academic.

Have you ever wondered about computer systems, or computer games, and how they fit together; then you are an academic.

Have you thought about the past, the fall of Rome, or Britain; and the rise of empires, and wondered what is war, and where is America; then you are an academic.

Have you been in conflict with a boss or fellow worker or neighbor or relative; and have you wondered what are the ways to resolve conflict peacefully, intelligently, openly, and effectively; then you are an academic.

What is an academic?  My friends, the answer is you.  We are academics.

We are the ones who ask questions and seek answers.  We are the ones who look at little things and wonder how and why.  And we are the ones who look at big things and wonder how and why.  We confront problems, and wonder how to articulate them in words that make sense to others.  We are communicators.  We devise solutions, and we learn to live in honest hopeful ways when there seem to be no answers.  We are lovers of truth and of peace.  We seek independence but also community, and the vital balance of the two.  We love ideas, and the right of all to love ideas and to speak them. We seek to know the invisible, and to make the invisible visible for others. We love what is close to us and what is distant; we love microbes; we love words; we love stars. 

And so, I cannot come alone to Wabash college as a representative of the broader academic community, for that broader academic community is all about us.  But I will make the following welcome on their behalf.

We, the questioners and seekers; we, the answerers and doers; we, the poets and businesspeople; we lovers of truth and dealers of peace; we men and women of head and heart; we, the broader academic community, welcome you, Patrick White.