… in which the student is brought into personal contact with, is made vulnerable to, the aura and the threat of the first-class. In the most direct sense, this is a matter of proximity, of sight and hearing. The institution, particularly in the humanities, should not be too large. The scholar, the significant teacher ought to be readily visible. We cross his or her daily path. The consequence, as in the Periclean polis, in medieval Bologna, or nineteenth-century Tubingen, is one of implosive and cumulative contamination. The whole is energized beyond its eminent parts…

What could, by the lights of the utilitarian or hedonistic commonwealth, be more irrational, more against the grain of common sense, than to devote one’s existence to, say, the conservation and classification of archaic Chinese bronzes, or to the solution of Fermat’s last theorem…

In the critical mass of a successful academic community, the orbits of individual obsessions will cross and re-cross. Once he has collided with them, the student will forget neither their luminosity nor their menace to complacency…”


George Steiner (1929-2020), from Errata.

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6 Responses to ““A worthwhile university or college is quite simply one..”

  1. Bruce Foster Says:

    Two thoughts. That intimacy was exactly what was transformative for me both as an American undergraduate and an American abroad at Cambridge. In my third rate church related college, I had a Greek professor who loved the classical world and put us all in awe of it. I caught the bug and it has never left me. At Cambridge the tradition of face to face supervisions was so valuable. I had a paper of mine literally torn up in front of me. The professor said, Mr. Foster, you will have to do better, and then he showed me what I needed to do. Much more important than getting a bad grade from a TA. Second, college students don’t want to be transformed today they want to be affirmed. That’s why trigger warnings are required. No body gave us a trigger warning when our philosophy professor disproved the existence of the good, the beautiful or the holy. We just had to accept it or fight and prove him wrong by argument not boycott. Again I have taken up that challenge for 50 years.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    True on both points, Bruce, and well-said. UD

  3. charlie Says:

    Some of us didn’t need college to have exacting teachers demanding that you think for yourself. Prior to being told to get the hell out of their high school, I had two classes with a priest and brother of the Jesuit order. The CVs were not at all traditional for clergy. Both had been married, became widowers at a young age, both had been in the military, worked in the secular world prior to entering religious life. One taught physics, the other a hybrid Ethics/Sociology class.

    Above anything else, independent thought, not grades, was what mattered. If you came to a conclusion, after debate, reproach, and recalibration, then you’ll understand what it takes to become educated. They interated the subject’s conventional thinking, told us to annotate, and sent us to find if we could prove, or disprove, any of it. We were in San Francisco, which allowed for the use of libraries, research centers, and university faculty. All of that was at our disposal, so get your asses out there and start digging. Those two Jebbies brought their wisdom, gained through experience, to us, and made it apparent we were responsible for our education. And it wasn’t going to be found sitting in a classroom…

  4. Ravi Narasimhan Says:

    My genius college English Professor pointed out that the Classics were traditionally pursued by those who could afford to do so. Generations of British public school boys took Latin and Greek not for any noble purpose but so they could run the colonial empires without technically going into (ugh) trade. Their methods were hardly civil or enlightened.

    I don’t know what else is in that book but the quoted excerpt doesn’t convince. Universities offer the humanities and a lot more but not all can or will go into the same classroom. We are not all equally tempered.

    “THE DEVIL. Dear lady: a parable must not be taken literally. The gulf is the difference between the angelic and the diabolic temperament. What more impassable gulf could you have? Think of what you have seen on earth. There is no physical gulf between the philosopher’s class room and the bull ring; but the bull fighters do not come to the class room for all that… et.seq.:”

    GBS – Man and Superman

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hm – let me think about that one, Ravi. UD

  6. theprofessor Says:

    As one of my geezer colleagues pointed out recently, the most striking change in the atmosphere here is the sense of emptiness in the buildings. It used to be a standing joke that B-school faculty were never around except to dash into their classes 30 seconds before they started. This increasingly is true of the entire faculty, especially the younger ones. Office hours are conducted by text, as far as I can see. Of the four full-time faculty in the department adjacent to us on the east, I have not laid eyes on one of them in over two years, and another one not in the last six months.

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