Since the terrible attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, many of us on campus have walked around in a state of shock. Our sense of security and certainty has been shattered, and we must re-evaluate our whole world. Still barely out of childhood, many of us are looking for guidance and reassurance from our elders.
This raises an important question: How should those in positions of authority on campus respond to these atrocities?
One possible response is for the faculty to do nothing. Their job is to teach, not to preach; their responsibility is to carry on in the face of events and preserve a sense of normality.
Such as response is insufficient. Certainly educators must keep cool heads and retain their commitment to scholarship. But burying one’s head in the sand, however comforting, is no way to teach. The task of the educator is to serve truth and the spirit of inquiry that drives us to discover truth. Wearing blinders that allow one to see only a narrow academic subject is a betrayal of the academic’s true mission.
A second response is to act as therapist, providing words of solace. Some faculty members are very good at filling this role. And of course professors should be sensitive and available to their students, and provide comfort when they can. But teachers are not therapists, and it is an act of well-meaning but misguided presumption to assume that classes can be events of psychological healing.
Another approach is to offer expert advice. Indeed, many of our faculty whose work has given them special insight have provided authoritative — if often strangely conflicting — prognoses of what is happening and what should be done. But it would be a shame if only those considered “experts” were listened to, while the majority of the faculty remained modestly silent.
Finally, many have urged that academics should act as moral leaders, vocalizing a sense of outrage at the evils of the terrorists’ acts or urging the United States to respond with restraint and not give in to hysteria. They should, in this view, give a clear shape and direction to the often inarticulate and incoherent responses of students. They should bring all of their moral and intellectual insight, gleaned from a life spent in the pursuit of truth, to bear on events that call out for such wisdom.
This approach is valuable and attractive. But it also contains dangers. There is the danger academics will speak with too much vehemence, intimidating students. There is a danger academics will use their prestige to give added credence to views which are, in fact, ill-considered — that pleasant platitudes or justified but counterproductive anger will be given undeserved credence because they come from someone with a doctorate. There is a danger they will contribute to an atmosphere of polarization and hysteria when lucidity and self-discipline are most needed.
I think our professors should act as moral leaders. But I think this involves something other and more than preaching or posturing.
Our teachers must lead by example. They must show us a willingness to engage ideas that may be scary, painful or offensive. They must respond to such ideas with civility and firmness. Respecting the force of arguments with which they disagree, they must also hold them to exacting moral and intellectual standards. They must struggle to understand and they must be ready to judge, while acknowledging the limitations of their own judgments. They must foster inquiry and debate, without giving way to anger or looking away from morally demanding questions in fear.
They must, in effect, act out before our eyes the most truly edifying of spectacles: of the human mind striving to understand and to behave with dignity and decency in the face of appalling hatred, irrationality and violence.
Confronting the dangers ahead without losing our humanity will be hard for all of us. In these days the greatest lesson our teachers can teach us is how to carry ourselves nobly in the face of fear and hardship. I hope they — and we — live up to this challenge.
Joshua Cherniss is a senior in Saybrook College.