Not long ago, one of my colleagues, who had been reading a number of articles on the need for older professors to retire, asked me why I taught throughout my 70s when I could easily have retired. His was a well-meaning inquiry, because he was wondering when might be the right time for him to say goodbye and go off into the sunset.
I was upset by his question, and I was tempted to respond in this way: “Why should professors feel they must retire in their 60s or 70s?” I wanted to add, “I believe it is my moral responsibility not to retire, because I am still incredibly effective at age 80 as both a teacher and scholar.”
But this time, I decided to take a different approach. I wanted to convey just how much I love the life of academe. I decided to de-emphasize the ritualistic loathing that often comes with a candid conversation between colleagues about higher education and concentrate on what I love about my work. William James sums up how I have decided to live out my professorial life:
I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.
The Importance of Stories
I am learning through the years to draw out my students’ personal stories, particularly when I think they are relevant to the material we are studying. I encourage them to draw out my and each other’s stories, as well.
At times, I find that their personal stories are far more important than the content I am teaching them. Their narratives often give resonance and life to their studies. I love to hear their stories, because I believe that my students are their stories, and it is through those stories that I will come to know them — on their own terms and not on mine.
I strive always to understand what personal contexts my students are bringing to the classroom. I want to know how they frame and negotiate their worlds. I want my students to know that I am more than willing to meet them in the briars and thickets of the personal narratives they inhabit. I want them to know that I believe each one of them is a precious question to which there is no final answer. And I respect and love the questions more than I do any answers. There is no question, no student, that I consider to be unimportant.
On principle, no expert has anything more to teach me, or them, about forging meaning in their lives than any single one of them has. Every piece of wisdom is a narrative hypothesis waiting to be tested. There are just no guarantees that one great thinker’s story about the meaning of life will open all the doors to meaning for everyone else.
In this sense, my students and I, and all the authors we read and discuss, are equals. We come together to make mutual meaning. We come together, in William James’s words, because it is the “tiny, invisible loving human forces” that “rend the hardest monuments of human pride.” We come together to delight in each other’s company, to experience joy and illumination in the mutual conversations and explorations regarding our stories, and to flourish in the sense that we get the opportunity to become all that we can become with special people who make us feel safe and significant — yet always intellectually stimulated.
The Centrality of the Quest for Meaning
As the decades pass, my own quest for meaning has grown richer, more nuanced and satisfying, and, most of all, more lucid to me as I listen day after day to my students’ stories. I realize increasingly that, today in America, we are in the midst of a paradox: we live lives of poverty amid our abundance. The loss of meaning among young people is what the worm has nibbled away in the apple of heightened American expectations. My young students are caught between pulls of independence and interdependence, isolation and community, passion and apathy, and perhaps most seriously, between spirituality and materialism.
There is a common identity problem in the United States today, and it goes by the name of “quarter-life crisis.” Unlike the typical midlife crisis that I and most people my age have experienced — triggered by too much stability, predictability and security — the quarter-life crisis is the direct opposite.
Underlying all the conversations that I have with students are feelings of intense self-doubt, endless self-questioning and a gnawing regret over opportunities lost and relational roads not taken. Almost every student I meet with suffers from an ongoing restlessness that has its roots in a crisis of meaning and purpose. My students talk about whether all the sacrifices they are making to ensure their futures are, in the long run, worth what they think they are losing. Some are in varying states of despair over the prospect of ever finding a stable and secure meaning to their lives. Everything is so up in the air to them. Some are unwilling to give themselves over to a single, avocational passion for fear of being sidetracked from their career goals.
What I do in my seminars to help my students to create meaning in their frenzied lives is the following: I support. I teach. I listen. I clarify. I ask them to do what I call scholarly personal narrative writing. I theme all my courses with the quest for meaning. And even though I teach elective philosophically based courses only, they continue to attract students and are always filled to capacity. The quest for meaning is ubiquitous, no matter a person’s age, course of study or career leaning.
The Need for Noninterfering, Compassionate Dialogue
The ongoing process of dialogue in the classroom features its own mysterious logic. I have learned through the years that, most of the time, unless I fight it, everything is as it needs to be. And my best pedagogical move is to find the natural trajectory of the yin and yang of conversation, and the conflict that often accompanies it, and go with it.
With faith and endless patience, I find that opposites tend to reconcile themselves, but that happens only when I detach my interests from those of my students. Listen to the words of the Tao that guide my teaching: “Be like the Way, and practice noninterference. Do not leave tracks by demanding recognition. Wait for others to seek a remedy rather than forcing it upon them, and offer assistance only when the solution has been spontaneously developed by circumstances. Allow everything to slip into the spontaneous flow of things.”
I try not to allow my huge ego to dominate a classroom. I never want to be the last word on anything. Neither do I want to bind anyone through the imposition of dogma. Thus, my students become more intuitive in their learning, more willing to trust their own excellent intellectual instincts and more able to establish their own learning goals. My practice is one of pedagogical noninterference, as much as I am capable. I am learning how to cede professorial control. I am learning how to yield my authority to the natural authority of all the learners who make their way to my courses each semester. My intention is to teach far more by example than by fiat.
The Key to Meaning Making
The interdisciplinary, meaning-making courses I teach contain the most controversial and potentially volatile subject matter in my college, and not a single one is required. These courses run the gamut from religion to ethics to personal narrative writing to moral education. Why is it, my colleagues ask me, that undergraduate and graduate students flock to these courses in a professional school? After all, none of them is very “practical.” None will get students certified or licensed. What students will get, however, is meaning-making clarity, authenticity and inspiration.
Here is my latest insight about myself: my hope is that students see me (along with my “nonpractical” courses) as an educator with integrity, because I care about them. I am loyal to them. I have no absolute truths to sell them. I honor them. I spend large amounts of personal time with them, if this is what they would like. And I encourage them to become their own persons.
Along the way, I am a student advocate, a dispenser of joy, a meaning maker and a person with the courage to accept his imperfections without being anxious or defensive all the time. As I finish my 51st year of teaching in higher education, I am moving ever closer to accepting that, yes, I am a person of integrity, even though I might be more than a bit unconventional.
But most of all, for me, integrity is the willingness to be open and available to all truths, and to see their complementarity with my own. My integrity is neither imperialistic nor absolutist. Rather, it is humble in its profession of faith, pluralistic in its view of truth, and yet passionate in the conviction that the best way to serve people is with the utmost care and compassion, along with the utmost competence and accountability.
And it means that if I call myself a professional or a professor, then I need to profess a belief in something. At this stage in my life, I choose to profess a belief in the power of love, joy, meaning, courage and, yes, integrity to change lives — my own included. Consider my lived life, therefore, to be a profession of my faith — hard-won and celebrated as a gift after 51 years of doing what I cherish. Why in the world would I have chosen to retire in my 60s or 70s, at a time when I was finally getting what it meant to be a “professing” professor?