"The Luckiest Man in the World" - Professor of the Year Stephen Sloane
Address delivered on April 28, 2011
July 4, 1939 was declared "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" at Yankee Stadium. It was on this occasion that Lou Gehrig delivered his famous farewell speech proclaiming that he was the luckiest man in the world.
When I was notified of this honor my kneejerk reaction was "I am the luckiest man in the world." Am I channeling Lou Gehrig? No. But I want, on this occasion, to unpack my understanding of Patricia's phone call giving me the good news.
The Question is : Why am I the luckiest man in the world? The Answer is: the place, Saint Mary's College; the people at Saint Mary's; and one person in particular.
First the place, Saint Mary's College, a community of liberal learning. This is a place where (whether of not we openly acknowledge it) we are in the happiness business. What we do here is not and end in and of itself. It is a means to the end of empowering our students to lead examined lives, lives that lead them along a path of enlightenment, lives that free them to discover their authentic selves, lives that are lived by practitioners of the art of living.
Let me start by reflecting on my experience prior to that day, in 1986, when David Alvarez greeted me on the steps of the chapel and invited me to fill in for a faculty member who had departed for what he hoped would be greener pastures.
Before coming to Saint Mary's I accumulated, by way of education and experience, what John Henry Newman calls useful knowledge. I acquired degrees in Engineering, Public Administration, and Political Science. All this information and knowledge dealt with explanations concerning how the world works: what happens, how, and why. Why does an airplane fly? Why does management decision making have as much to do with values as it does with fact? Why do nations go to war? Why does A win an election, rather than B? Why does this nation prosper and that one suffer?
Of course, while one starts to discover how the world works one also starts to discover one's self.
The self I discovered resembled the character in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera "The Pirates of Penzance" ... Major General Stanley.
I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I 'm very well acquainted too with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news Â
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
Along with all this useful knowledge, came degrees testifying to the highly developed capacity of my brain. But then again, as the Wizard of Oz informs the straw man:
Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum e plurbis unum, I hereby confer upon you the degree of Ph.D.
Then with plenty of information, and plenty of knowledge I descended onto our beautiful campus armed with what the wizards awarded me by virtue of the power vested in them by Universitatus Committeeatum e plurbis unum.
Before long, I discovered that, indeed, I was no longer in Kansas. There was, something missing. Something left out of my information vegetable, animal, and mineral, something the Universitatues Committeeatum left out.
While team teaching a Collegiate Seminar with Shawny Anderson, I experienced somewhat of a pedagogical epiphany. As we discussed the great works of the ancient Greeks, Shawny took the conversation one step further. She asked the students the So What question. So Odysseus became a hero when he returned to the bosom of his family after a ten year sabbatical. So Oedipus could not avoid his fate: killed his father and bedded down with his mother. So the outcome of Orestes' murder trial was that Athena let him off the hook. SO WHAT?
As students tried to figure out what Shawny was asking, they struggled with matters that transcended time and space, matters that were relevant to their own civilization, their own lives. What does it mean to be a human being? What is of value? What did Socrates mean when he told us that an unexamined life is not worth living? What did Aristotle mean when he told us that happiness is acquired as a result of activity of the soul in conformity with virtue?
Prodded by the so what question and wafted by a gale of liberal knowledge, I have tried , yet not always succeeded, to leap out of the mode of conventional education, to take off the uniform of the "Modern Major General," to live in the community of Saint Mary's, to live here in an environment of liberal education, a world where either implicitly or explicitly I might be nurtured by the idea that all knowledge is of a whole, where I might accept the notion that the purpose of education is to acquire wisdom beyond mere knowledge, where I might follow Shawny's lead and seek answers to so what questions - whether in Seminar classes, or in Politics classes, or in various January term courses - where my students deal with matters as wide ranging as the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan that , for example, suggest that that class consciousness can thwart romantic love, or where we analyze stories told in film and novels concerning the complications of life as a participant in the activities of modern organizations.
Subsequent to my experience with Shawny and the Greeks, it became apparent that the search for answers to the so what question should not be confined to the ancients. Joseph Campbell, who has inspired much of what we do in our studies of "great books" points to Carl Jung as a man who was "... Not only a medical man but a scholar in the grand style, whose researches, particularly in comparative mythology, alchemy, and the psychology of religion, have inspired and augmented the findings of an astonishing number of the leading creative scholars of our time."
Jung's ideas concerning the lifelong search for answers to so what questions is expressed in his essay "The Stages of Life." Jung looked at the psychic aspect of the human condition from cradle to grave.
He tells us that the child lives life in a paradise, wholly taken care of by parents and governed largely by instinct. Subsequently, the youth prepares for a role in society. As he (or she) does so he needs to cope with false assumptions based on "... exaggerated expectations, underestimation of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude."
(Sounds like many of the students I have known.)
Then, as we move beyond youth, Jung tells us we are "forced to limit ourselves to the attainable and achievable." Practical usefulness seems to be the ideal that points the way out of youthful confusion.
(Sounds like me as a naval officer and as a graduate student.)
As one arrives at the stage of middle life, Jung tells us, "it is as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behavior ... We overlook the essential fact that the social goal is attained only at the cost of a diminution of personality." ... And, accordingly we risk the wreckage of our authentic selves.
Jung's warning concerning a diminution of personality was clarified for myself and for my students when we, during a January course session, discussed the film "Electric Horseman."
Sonny Steele is the Electric Horseman. His past glory as a champion rodeo cowboy has faded. He has become an aging spokesman for a corporation. He hawks breakfast cereal at shopping center promotional events and at high school half-time football games. He has commercialized himself, become a "product."
The washed-out cowboy is to ride a has-been racehorse to promote the corporation's product in a glitzy Las Vegas review Sonny sees the wreck of what was the soul of the horse. And he sees himself.
Sonny and the horse unite to escape from their corporate masters with an amazing ride through a hotel casino and a wild chase by police cruisers. Sonny no longer has the security of a steady job. He is much closer to, more in harmony with, whatever is the essence of his authentic self ... his soul.
When I asked my students to think about the situation of Sonny and to answer the question, "What is his problem?" one insightful student answered, "The corporation has uncowboyed him."
So Sonny Steele came into conflict with an organization that diminished his personality. So what?
Then, as older age approaches, Jung goes on to tell us, "...one's cherished convictions ... especially the moral ones, begin to hardened and grow increasingly rigid." In the worst case, we have reached a stage of "intolerance and fanaticism."
Beyond such a bleak outlook, Jung reminds us that some people, albeit the very few who reject science as the sole and absolute arbiter of value "are artists in life; that the art of life is the most distinguished and rarest of all the arts."
In the same January course, my students and I viewed the film "Groundhog Day." We observe a dispirited, one might even say miserable, TV weather forecaster ... Phil. He has been assigned to cover the emergence of the groundhog that will predict the length of winter weather. The fantasy of the story revolves around what Phil experiences as he is forced to live the same day over and over. As he does so, similar to Scrooge in Dickens "A Christmas Carol," Phil examines the source of his discontent. It is himself. He has isolated himself from his colleagues and from the human community in general. Eventually, Phil gets the message. Finally, he wakes up and it is no longer the same day. He has carried the experience of the lesson of each day into the next day. By a slow process, Phil has learned much about what Jung calls the art of life.
If, as I have suggested at the onset, we are in the happiness business, then the thrust of our efforts can be and should be to lead our students' (and ourselves) to a path that can guide them (and ourselves) on a journey that avoids the diminution of personality, a journey that leads to the discovery and the maintenance of their (and our) authentic selves. In this community of liberal learning we can and we should put tools into the hands of our students that will empower them to become practitioners of the liberating art of life.
Finally, in the Collegiate Seminar we read Toni Morrison. As she relates the tale of "The Bluest Eye," Morrison tells us that seeds may be planted in soil which will not allow them to grow.
Pecola Breedlove is a black girl who prays every day for beauty. She is mocked by other children for the dark skin and eyes that set her apart. Her yearning for blond hair and blue eyes disintegrates in the face of adversity and strife. In the final paragraph Morrison's narrator explains the tragedy of Pecola's life.
I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think that now that the land of the entire country was hostile to growing marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.
So the the seeds of Pecola's life were planted in soil that would not allow them to grow. So what?
So we have looked at the ancient Greeks, at a couple of film stories, and at Morrison's novel. So what?
So I am the luckiest man in the world.
Here, I am surrounded by people that free me from the isolation experienced by the unhappy weather man in "Groundhog Day."
Now let me turn to some of the people I work with, people that help to make me the luckiest man in world.
Patricia Longo understands that all knowledge is of a whole.
Mindy Thomas leads us and that is as difficulty as herds cats.
Hisham Ahmed is a leading expert on the Middle East.
Suzi Weissman is loved by students and is an unflinching advocate of working class.
David Alvarez is the model of scholar teacher. He knows where all the skeleton's are hidden at the CIA, the Vatican, and SMC.
Ron Ahnen is an expert on the politics many nations. He is devoted to social justice causes.
Viky Bichard never stops smiling and is as much a colleague as anyone.
Ann Kelly is one of the few people who knows the difference between a human resource and a human being
And there are many others.
Here at Saint Mary's I am encouraged to learn and to teach the liberating art of life.
Here, each day I am one day closer to actualizing the promise of whatever is my authentic self.
Here, I am in no danger of being uncowboyed.
And, most important of all, here, I am part of a professional community that is encouraged by way of its Liberal, Lasallian, Catholic mission to plant seeds in soil that will enable them to prosper and grow.
Just one caveat.
I do not want to give the impression that I consider Saint Mary's College to be a utopia. The administrative quest for efficiency, i.e. the diligent management of scarce resources, inevitably comes into conflict with the professional quest for effectiveness, separate and apart from the requirement to keep a lid on resource allocation. This is true of all institutions. Since our institution is in the happiness business, however, we need to understand that the results of our teaching, our research, and our administration take the form of products and not purpose. Our common purpose should be the empowering our students, our selves, and the people of our society to lead examined lives filled with activity of the soul in conformity with virtue. And I believe that given all the real world restraints in play we do an exceptional job of just that.
At the start I referred to the people, the place, and one particular person. Let me close with a thanks to the "one particular person."
In the film "Zorba the Greek" a young man travels to Crete seeking wisdom. He chooses Zorba as his mentor. When he asks Zorba, "Are you married?" Zorba replies, "Yes, I am ... I have a wife ... children ... the whole catastrophe."
Let me spend a few moments refuting Zorba's generalization.
In the mid-1970s, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt of good luck at me from his perch on Mount Olympus. She drove up in a yellow MG, a tennis racquet neatly tucked beside her on the front seat. She wore a white tennis dress that revealed a figure like that of Aphrodite and a face like that of Greta Garbo. She had acquired a knowledge of and a lifelong love of the liberal arts at Mills College and, as she dated post adolescent fraternity boys across the Oakand hills in Berkeley, she learned the gentle art of dealing with men (like me) who never grow up.
A few years later, as a married couple we arrived on the west coast for me to serve in my last Navy tour at CAL as the Professor of Naval Science and Commanding Officer of the Navy ROTC Unit.
After my first day of work, I stopped off at the bar of the Treasure Island Officers Club. A long-retired admiral was the lone person sitting there. As he thought about days and years past when senior officers had servants is asked me, "How many do you have in help?"
I replied, "Just one. But she cooks, she cleans the house, she takes care of the children, and she sleeps with me."
The astonished admiral responded with, "You are the luckiest man in the world."
Well ... I still am the luckiest man in the world. She cooks, she cleans, she publishes mystery novels, she no longer takes care of the children ... they now take care of their own children ... and she, well ... we don't have to go into that now.
My answer to the "so what" question concerning the happy bolt thrown at me from Mount Olympus is captured by a poem that was set to music by a group known as "The Beach Boys." I think it should be required Collegiate Seminar reading. It goes like this.
Well East Coast girls are hip
I really dig those styles they wear
And the Southern girls with the way they talk
They knock me out when I'm down there
The Midwest farmer's daughters really make you feel alright
And the Northern girls with the way they kiss
They keep their boyfriends warm at night
(And then comes the theme...the answer to the so what question)
I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California girls
Thanks, Kit for making me the luckiest man in the world, for making it all possible.