Inside the Ivory Tower, But Touching The World

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Betty Sue Flowers
Austin American-Statesman
Monday, August 23, 2004

The strongest argument I know for academics staying in the ivory tower is this: academics serve society best when they produce new knowledge in their fields; and to produce this knowledge requires protection not only from the marketplace, which values only what it can measure, but also from society itself, with its short-term focus on today's desires or needs. Thus, research universities create an ethos of service to the field in the belief that to serve the field is to serve the world in ways that haven't even been thought of yet.

Even in fields like mine -- poetry -- arguments have been made for a different kind of usefulness:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

On the other side are the activists who argue that in an age of diminishing public support, academics in public universities don't have the luxury of staying in the ivory tower -- and that the ethos of the academy must change so that it can learn to recognize and reward "service" in a more profound way. Perhaps the ivory tower itself is outmoded, they say, with its protective system of tenure and support for bizarrely obscure research topics.

As is typical of such disagreements, this one rests on a false choice -- serving the field or serving the world. Both sides are right.

In an age that is grindingly economic -- in which, it has been said, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing -- the academy is one of the few institutions left that honors other dimensions of the human spirit. But anyone who has looked closely at the engine of our economic growth and at our nation's amazing economic productivity gives immense credit to our individual enterprise and our creativity.

While we fall behind many other nations in our primary and secondary education systems (at least according to standardized test results), we are second to none in our graduate education system, where we let researchers and students freely pursue the truth. And there is a direct connection between freedom and creativity and between freedom and individual enterprise.

Every University of Texas student has seen the inscription on our tower: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Academics might argue that this promise can be fulfilled only in a religious dimension and that all we academics can offer is, "You shall pursue the truth, and the pursuit can set you free" -- free of the narrow confines of your habitual thoughts, free of the one-dimensional view of the world that comes from knowing only one culture, free of taking freedom itself for granted through ignorance of the sacrifices it has taken to gain it.

The world of the tower -- the pursuit of truth -- is a powerful field for public service. But the activists are right, too, in their criticism of academia. At its heart, this criticism is not that academics are selfish or that their pursuits are irrelevant. What ignites the passion of these activists in their call for academics to serve the public more directly is their powerful vision of the missed opportunities. More than most academics, these activists know examples of the marvelous benefits that come from such collaboration -- for the academics as well as for their communities.

At this point, a confession is called for. It was the "pursuit of truth" in my own field, literary criticism, that led me to ask: "What is the story that we are telling as a nation about who we are and who we might become?"

The attempt to answer that question led me far afield from academic literary conferences and into NASA, General Motors, the Pentagon, Shell International, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development -- and eventually out of academia and into more direct public service.

In the end, I think the core purpose of UT has it right: "to transform lives for the benefit of society." In this case, it was my own life, as an academic, that was transformed -- whether "for the benefit of society" remains to be seen. But that is always a question to be answered in the long term, with the benefit of hindsight, by thoughtful observers, from a high vantage point -- something like a tower.

Flowers is director of the LBJ Library and Museum and formerly the Kelleher Professor of English at UT.