Fast and Slow, Near and Far, In Between

Et in Arcadia Ego (1618-22) by Guercino

I’d certainly like life to be simpler. To have fewer, less disparate goals. More modest aspirations. I’d prefer not to feel the often-straining, draining pressure of too many competing obligations and expectations.

But at the same time … I can’t, don’t want to give up those goals and hopes, abandon vital personal and professional responsibilities.

For me, at least, a fulfilling life is not a simple life. I sometimes tell myself that if I had to do it all over again, I’d make choices that would increase the likelihood I’d be able to simplify things … Yet, I know deep down that I’d probably make the same choices, entailing the same struggles to complete my PhD dissertation, find a permanent academic job, get grant money, balance work and family.

The issue may generally boil down to living life, while learning how to be aware of living life. Which intrinsically entails being able to live life–with all of the conflicting, inevitably imperfect choices we have to make–while also making time and space to reflect over life and death. And … while learning how to represent, remember, and constructively communicate about said reflection. I have this much in common with artists from a much more ancient tradition.

Et in Arcadia Ego, by Nicholas Poussin (1627). Oil on Canvas.

Choosing a Complex Life

As a teacher and researcher in higher education in the early 21st Century, I’ve taken on a lot of stress and complexity by choice, where I have a great deal of difficulty balancing time and attention among family, students, research, and administrative and planning service. As problems I’ve fundamentally taken on by choice, my problems are luxury problems. To be sure, I get frustrated with larger economic pressures and short-sighted, probably lazy administrative decisions that make my life even more complicated than it should be. But such impinging pressures–for instance, the contemporary double-whammy where universities like mine (Emory) are trying to attract and admit college applicants comprising a globalizing pool from which families can cover rapidly rising tuition and room and board bills, even as those dollars most often go toward building and technology costs, leaving course choices to dwindle and class sizes to rise, so that it actually becomes harder for professors to reach students, get them to slow down, and really open up to the possibility of educational transformation, the disciplined, devoted development of critical thinking, learning, and creativity–reveal something important. I mean, really important …

Which is that those of us who feel both fortunate and frustrated to be part of the elite higher education system are just as extensively connected to, impacted by globalizing, highly complex political economic forces as anyone else … but while some of us in certain corners of the social sciences successfully model and analyze these extraordinarily complex forces–suggesting that we should be able to do something about those forces–higher education is generally pretty bad at dealing with them.

Administrators and trustees all-too-often get overwhelmed by events and powerful trends surrounding globalization, information technology, environmental impacts, and aging populations … rather than considering and understanding their wider causes and the potential for universities and colleges to effect–or at least inspire and support–near-term and long-term change. They make decisions to deal with short-term conditions, which can make it all the more difficult to reverse course toward more constructive, humane, sustainable goals later on. Meanwhile, faculty struggle with remarkably rapid, exhausting changes in the availability of research funding and on-campus and online conditions for teaching and learning. And with it being generally so difficult to get together and get on top of the fundamentally complex, quite fluid situation of higher education, faculty get further frustrated with the seeming futility of meetings that either cannot generate consensus or lead to recommendations mostly likely to be ignored or (at least from our perspective) unwisely altered by administrators.

And which is to say that those of us who have sought out and succeeded in establishing a higher education faculty career should be really serious about figuring out how to really deal with the rapid, complex world of which we are part. This means not just focusing on our narrow areas of specialization. This means not succumbing to nostalgia and reactionary positions and covering these in the guise of theory.

Et in Arcadia Ego, by Nicholas Poussin (1637-1639). Oil on Canvas.

Being Part of a Complex World … That Has Always Been Complex … And Which Will Continue to Be Complex

Why am I reflecting now about this ambivalence–rocking back and forth emotionally, but always slightly but inevitably tipping toward commitment to diving into this complex and difficult world, rather than trying to find a nice safe harbor? I guess I’ve gotten to a certain point in trying to reconcile my intellectual research interests with my professional educational goals and obligations. And quite simply, I’m ready for higher education to deal more broadly, more effectively with the complexity that has shaped our past, continues to shape the present–making things at least as complicated as they’ve ever been–and which we need to deal with better to step into the future.

No more retreating to narrow laboratory research questions, defined by either headline-grabbing but theoretically trivial questions and angles.

No more reactionary assertions about our post-post-modern moment–following an earlier “rupture” with the pre-modern–as being constituted by yet another “turn” best illuminated by the writings of some partially forgotten 19th or early 20th Century white male thinker.

No more reactionary manifestos that are all about antithesis, with no interest in synthesis on the horizon. Slow food is great. But not only slow food. Close reading is great. But sometimes scanning or digital searches and data mining serve a more important purpose of inquiry and insight. Slow science is great, too. But not when there are genuinely urgent problems to solve. Not to mention the fact that if we vary the modes of our engagement with scientific inquiry, we have a better chance of integrating greater creativity and contextual knowledge with practical know-how, efficient problem solving and timely, constructive communication. We need to build virtuous cycles of inquiry, communication, learning, and creativity.

Oedipus Taken Down From the Tree, by Jean-Francois Millet (1847). Oil on Canvas.

I certainly think that universities and colleges MUST allow–must continue to encourage–specialized, critical, and alternative arguments, hypotheses, and investigations…

It’s just that I think there’s an enormous potential to make the university or college and its place in this complex, still-globalizing world more of what we want and–well–profess it to be. Rather than allowing higher education to be buffeted and eroded in relevance while we largely retreat into all-too-narrow, reactionary, inscrutable, or largely irrelevant intellectual lacunae.

So how do I want the frustrating status quo situation to change?

For one thing, more thinking and communication about the complex system that our world is, has always been, and continues to be–this complex world which has shaped and constrained our experiences but which, with some concerted, critical and creative effort, we can in turn shape and constrain.

More sustained, interactive and collaborative effort to understand that complexity, keep our balance and inspiration, yet gain energy and creativity from one another. To help one another have time for slow, close reflection and appreciation of the near. Yet, also be well trained to move quickly and efficiently, cover the world and beyond, and create new, relevant connections between the far and the near.

Just Because We’ve Forgotten or Lost Touch Doesn’t Mean There Was a Historical Rupture Separating Us From the Past

And just because we modern academics–and, for the most part, our students–experience the world differently than did our predecessors 200 years ago … well, that certainly doesn’t mean that we can pinpoint a time or a place when things suddenly became modern … and then post-modern.

Let’s prove this point deductively. If you agree with me about how I define forgetting, remembering, and learning, then we will have to conclude that while hypothesized historical ruptures are plausible, it’s at least as likely that we’re confusing real, abrupt historical change with our own forgetting about the past and how things have changed.

So, let’s onsider the process of forgetting. For humans the irretrievable loss of a memory is simultaneously a biographical, cognitive, and social process. But because memories are constituted by associative learning and memory construction, forgetting is more about fragmentation, substitution, or broader structural rearrangement in a socially experienced, learned web of associated representations. Recalling a memory–that is, re-membering a representation–involves a complex, emotional, embodied, learned, socially influenced process of association.

And therefore, remembering is recursively embedded in learning. And learning remains relevant because–in a complex world, with complex experiences over long lives–we will inevitably fail to evoke all of the related associations we’ve put together in our minds at various points in our past. We will inevitably forget.

But we also have the opportunity to re-learn. And since re-membering involves complex evocation of associations–with the implication that it is unlikely if not impossible that what we remember is only roughly a representation of what we had previously experienced or remembered–that re-learning and remembering are fundamentally the same processes.

Just because people today identifying with a post-modern moment, post-industrial economic times, or a post-epidemiological transition public health era have forgotten most or all of the intermediate steps separating them from the pre-modern, the pre-industrial, or the pre-epidemiological transition periods … well, that doesn’t mean that the transition from then to now occurred in the form of a discontinuity.

Things are always changing at multiple temporal and spatial scales, and it is fundamental to the purpose of higher education to learn and cultivate commitment to asking questions, developing skills and methods for representation and comparison, in order to carry out the task of thoughtfully remembering, relearning the past in its intricacy, while reflexively remaining aware of our relationship to the past and our possibilities for the future.

We all have to learn the job of shepherd. We all have to learn the job of artist. And we find that shepherds may not always be the most compelling, alluring subjects. But we should remember that they couldn’t be more relevant for learning, remembering, and being part of a complex world.