One Faculty’s Reflection on the Fitzpatrick Lecture: The Only Thing

Paul Erb, English Faculty

At seated dinner last week, sixth-former Caleb Rogers told me that a Fantasy Football League player sometimes roots against his home team so his fantasy football league stats will win.  As a diehard Packers fan, I regret this trend. Loyalty matters. It matters unless, I guess, winning is the only thing.

But maybe winning isn’t the only thing.

After Dr. William Deresiewicz, our Fitzgerald lecturer, had delivered a complex speech, I asked a question from the back of the auditorium.  When Dr. Deresiewicz did not really answer my question, some boys claimed that I had “won,” that I had “shredded him” or “dissed him.”

That response is regrettable. I was not trying to win.

Author William Deresiewicz and the cover of his most recent and provactive book

Author William Deresiewicz and the cover of his most recent and provactive book “Excellent Sheep”

Disagreeing with somebody is very different from trying to win a discussion.   Successful negotiators know that you come out happy by defending your interests, not by defending your position. The lesson of the Maginot Line should have taught us that. You can be sure of your interests if you stay open to using the debate, if you are willing to grow stronger through struggle, through keeping the game going.  We should love having our ideas challenged. Facing those challenges in the opposition’s ideas is the only way we can protect our interests and keep our own values sharp, valid, and true.

I heard Dr. Deresiewicz share the following thoughts: Build your self–it won’t happen automatically. (I agree with that.) Dispute facts–they are usually just opinions in disguise. (Makes sense.) Study the liberal arts to become a citizen; at some point, if you will become a leader, you have to stop jumping through hoops.

Instead of jumping through hoops, he suggested, learn how to argue for the truth.  Study the ancient democracy of Athens, where philosophy and citizenship through argument arose and evolved together. Hmmm. I wasn’t so sure about that last part. It didn’t sound true–or valid–for today.  I wondered, “Aren’t you just asking me to jump through your own preferred hoops?”

That’s when I jotted down my question.

I mused over nationless states that force new conflicts on us and challenge our traditional assumptions.  Think of the attacks from Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Al Qaeda that have altered modern warfare, or contributions that offer to supplant our peaceful old ways:  Salman Khan’s “One-World Schoolhouse”; globally powerful populations like the citizens of Spotify or Facebook; or bitcoin blockchain technology, which The Economist praised this week for its promise to spread financial justice globally and locally without any interference from nations or central banks.

What might our climate be like in twenty years? Should I share my genome with research institutions? Will Fantasy Football ruin the game on the field? Given the advanced chemistry of GMO’s and pesticides, do I dare to eat a peach?

So I asked, “How will studying the traditional liberal arts help a person master the unprecedented, complex mass of specialized information available and growing every day? And how would a government policy address this very new fact of huge nationless populations?”

He didn’t answer those questions. But he did say, “Argue. Think about it. Use your best judgment.”

Certainly, as a 21st-century teacher, I want to weave the best of the past–philosophy, debate, face-to-face ethics–with the technical facts of the world in which we will live tomorrow. These facts challenge every face-to-face teacher to be better than the Internet teachers available across the world.  And they should challenge us all to be learners every day.

Learning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Categories: Opinion

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