Why Do People Teach?

Curiosity or Ideology?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, faculty members at an elite college in Massachusetts aimed their frustration at President Bush. We stood like a small crowd in the department lounge, all of us facing the TV. CNN showed the moment an assistant whispered in the president’s ear while he was reading a book to a group of children. A professor of French threw her hands up at the screen: “Why did we elect this dolt?” After a brief silence, a young man behind me let slip: “Right, because Al Gore invented terrorism.” She whirled around in search of a face. Our eyes met, and I failed to hold back the air in my cheeks. She had every right to conclude it was me. Other people in the room also assumed only one person there would say something like that.

It was really nothing. William was from a university on the other side of the Connecticut River. Nobody recognized him. He just happened to be in the building that day because he was too cheap to pay to print the five final copies of his dissertation on Hobbes. I had access to my department’s printer, and I had been too quick to oblige him. We’re all guilty of something. The man’s dissertation needed to be bound, and copies of it had to be deposited in his university library.

Being outed as someone with a shameful sense of humor was no surprise. It could’ve been worse. I could have been outed as a person who has friends with shameful senses of humor. Most of us can agree that people who purposefully associate with those who have shameful senses of humor are themselves exceptionally shameful. They know who they are. We know who they are. But they’re getting harder to find these days, no?

I wager I witnessed the first two jokes coined after the Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. There was the one about Sally Ride having crabs. To be honest, I heard it in a matter of minutes. Then there was the salt shaker poured out on the table and shaped into a billowing pillar of vapor, with smaller trails spiraling off from the site of the explosion. But something like that had to have happened on every campus, right?

The days after 9/11 were instructive. How did David Letterman put it? Three thousand people had to die because they got up and went to work that morning? I recall thinking it was distasteful for Chilean poet Ariel Dorfman to remind us that General Pinochet had taken power in Santiago on September 11, 1973. But I was youthful and prudish then. We all say odd things at the wrong moment, and nobody can be held fully responsible for their politics. Besides, a terrorist attack and a coup d’état or golpe de estado are analogous enough to merit comparison, especially by a poet. They’re both targeted acts of political violence against a nation-state, for starters.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “How We Love to Hate Foucault!”]

Stranger than any single comment or act in the wake of 9/11 were the ways groups formed—like bright schools of fish that suddenly find themselves up against the surface of the ocean. Most of them never emerged from the shadows below, but small clusters of people still wheeled about and churned. They gathered, they marched through town with whistles and pans. At first, I couldn’t figure out what they were protesting. I would learn soon enough.

Certain words and actions now became unacceptable, others obligatory. My reaction to Dorfman might have been shared by others at, say, a bar in New York City, for example. On a college campus, not so much. It’s entirely plausible that every person at the institution where I worked would have embraced Dorfman’s comment. And this reflected nothing peculiar about where I worked. That ratio of responses to 9/11 was surely similar at elite institutions across the U.S.

Realizing this roused me from an academic stupor. I had been shamelessly immersed in the early Renaissance Petrarchan poetry of Spain. On 9/11, I had new respect for my own father’s view that few fields were as arcane or pointless as mine. I looked up from modern transcriptions of poems written around 1533 and watched a group of women form a very tight circle. Then they all nodded their agreement to each other. That was weird. I’d only known people to do that at a church service or a ballgame.

On Wednesday, I believe it was, faculty were urged to attend a luncheon at which we were asked what we had done in our classrooms the day before. Most had canceled their lessons, some held a moment of silence, others sat in circles, still others hugged their students. I had been teaching the epic Poema de mio Cid from thirteenth-century Castile, i.e., a text just slightly less obscure than the sonnets of Garcilaso or Boscán. We were still in the first weeks of the course, so the Cid had only just camped outside Burgos, the capital of the Kingdom of Castile. But we had met the Jewish merchants Rachel and Vidas, and so we had discussed the Muslim invasion of 711, and we had even begun to assess some of the differences among the three great religions of Iberia.

My class, then, had been about changing students’ perspectives. When it was my turn to speak at the luncheon, I deployed the unfortunate phrase “teachable moment.” My students had been pushing back against the notion that Jews, Moors, and Christians might be culturally distinct or at odds with each other in serious ways. They’re all monotheists after all, and they all worship more or less the same god. Their sacred texts tell the same exact stories. The Archangel Gabriel visits Mohammad and the Cid, too. So, what’s the problem? After 9/11, students were somber, but they were open to reassessing what they thought they knew the week before. Perhaps groups of people fall apart. Perhaps we don’t instantly recognize each other as equals deserving respect.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “All Hail Mailer! A Belated Eulogy for a Fellow Jeffersonian”]

Most students love the Poema de mio Cid. The story is too good. The modernized version by Francisco López Estrada (Castalia / Odres Nuevos) is spectacular. Students find a rhythm early, and they learn that attention to detail pays off. Most feel obliged to feign postcolonial outrage over the Reconquest. But the Castilian epic describes perhaps two decades at a frontier between Christianity and Islam which is more than a thousand years old. Whatever readers want to blame on the poem, the author, or the hero often dissolves into anachronism and misinterpretation. Meanwhile, they’re overwhelmed by a truly exotic poem. It’s not modern. It speaks for a time and a people very unlike our own. But just because the characters, events, and authors of the Poema de mio Cid are hard to recognize doesn’t mean they lack meaning or beauty.

I’m not sure how much of this royal harangue I gave at lunch the day after 9/11. Several times I had felt amiss, and so I gazed up at the ceiling and scratched my head. I remember being intently focused on my iced tea while poking and pushing at the tablecloth around it with my index finger. When I finished, I looked up and saw people with their mouths open. Our reactions to 9/11 were now litmus tests in a grand, yet compulsory appeal to transcendent humanity. And I was still a sweaty pirate in a room full of priests. Distinctions and categories were falling away. Comparing nations and religions, for example, carried more risk than usual. While it’s true that much of the nation united in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11, nobody could honestly argue that this happened on college campuses.

An assembly was held Wednesday afternoon. The student body, which I estimated at around 2,800, and a faculty numbering about 250 gathered in the Greek Revival building that was more or less the school’s public face. Its dark red pillars frown over the first intersection of Elm Street. The provost went up to the podium. His words were too aggressive, I think, not well coordinated: “Anyone who thinks Islam had anything to do with what happened yesterday, shame on you!”

A certain type of self-righteousness has no place on a college campus. It finds ways to intrude. There’s always a protest or someone passing out fliers, but to insist on mass conformity from an academic pulpit should be an odd thing to do. On September 12, 2001, the brimstone of Jonathan Edwards seemed just that, odd. Besides, is not college a place where people think difficult thoughts? I assumed I could excuse myself. I knocked the knees of some colleagues in the third row, but I got up the aisle and pushed through the door into the foyer before the speech took off. Outside, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight. I expected a handful of students to exit after me, maybe five or six professors. I was ready to count for the purposes of a useful stat. Being generous, one percent (1%) of over 3,000 people would mean roughly 30 individuals who were unwilling to subject themselves to the accusation that they had thought wrongly.

Zero. Nobody. Two crises were undeniable after 9/11. Students and faculty at my college knew people who had died in the Twin Towers, and the nation was now going to war. Beyond that, our institutions of higher education had no way of assessing what had happened. The giant C-5 transports from Westover Air Force Base struggled overhead in the weeks after 9/11. At night they formed a shimmering chain of lights off to the east. The growls of their engines could force conversations that started on the street indoors. I’m not convinced anybody noticed.

Image: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here: ericcliffordgraf.academia.edu/research.

2 thoughts on “Why Do People Teach?

  1. LOL – I was a Purdue freshman on the day the Challenger blew up. A classmate had an embryology experiment – several dozen fertilized chicken eggs – in a “Getaway Special” in the cargo bay. We had a LOT of jokes going around about the crew lunch being “scrambled eggs” and “fried chicken.” Dark humor is a way people work to cope with stress and grief. We had two Purdue alums killed in the Apollo I fire, and the morning of the Challenger explosion I had walked through Grissom Hall (named after Gus Grissom, who died in the Apollo fire). Challenger hit us a little closer to home than it did at most places.

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