Why I wrote “On A Stormy Course?”
By Valson Thampu
In the formative years of my intellectual life, I was as much influenced by the Greek view of life as I was by the Hebraic. From both I had learned that the essence of being alive consists in two things: acting significantly and speaking effectively. It is sub-human to separate expressing from doing.
The core difference between how animals exist and how human beings live, is that we can seek and share the meaning of our experiences. Animals seek food. We seek meaning beyond food. Seeking without sharing is like taking half a breath: inhaling without exhaling.
When I decided, in 2007, to resign from the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NEMEI), Govt. of India, to help St. Stephen’s, I did so with some clear and well-defined intentions, not all of which can be detailed here. But one of special significance to the general public may be flagged. I crave the indulgence of the reader in outlining it.
From the time I joined the English Department in St. Stephen’s in 1973, teaching the tragedies of Shakespeare fell to my lot in St. Stephen’s, which I did all through my tenure. Sophoclean tragedies were added to my basket, later.
These texts used to fill me with a deep melancholy. There is a mismatch between the greatness of a character – take Hamlet, for example – and his predicament. Even in the case of Macbeth – the most criminal of all Shakespeare’s characters – there is a sublimity about him that exalts him far above crime and depravity. Oedipus the King suffered for his greatness. So did Socrates, Jesus, and a host of other lovers of humanity.
Why does it happen that way? This question used to haunt me.
I resigned from St. Stephen’s in 2003 and entered the uncertain world of social activism, because I got disillusioned with academia. Little else, except undeviating routine, happens there. I felt like a race horse attached to a bullock cart.
All my life only one thing mattered to me: to live significantly, meaningfully, fruitfully. I knew that this meant serving as a change agent. The deep disconnect I increasingly felt with academia was due to its becoming the farmhouse of the status quo. You have to be a sensitive soul struggling within it to know how soul-stifling this is. To me this is the foremost reason why our educational potential is like a circus elephant that stays pegged to a tiny pole.
One of the most courageous decisions I took in life was to quit St. Stephen’s in 2003, with 13 years of service still left for me. I was, it seemed, walking into nothingness. But I believed, believed firmly, that anything was better than continuing in the rut I found myself in. I would be, by staying stuck, doing a serious disservice to myself.
Ask any teacher in higher education what is his or her topmost priority. In nine cases out of ten you will get the answer, “job security.” A few years into this noble profession, I realized that ‘security’ hindered professional fulfillment by serving as a disincentive to excel. The day a teacher is confirmed in service, everything changes. The fire dies out. Slowly the embers turn cold. There are exceptions. I am pointing to the general.
Security of employment is the main reason why higher education is stuck in the morass of mediocrity. This is the reason too why academia is today a domain of the shallow and the commonplace. With easy work and attractive salaries, higher education now attracts the lazy and the indolent, who want to survive, doing the least.
This is called the ‘practical’ approach to life. In the sort of academia that we have crafted – this applies to our general way of life, and therefore take note – the successful and popular types are the ‘practical’ ones, who are free from all ‘scruples.’ We are happy, to take another example, to accept politics as a domain of mere expediency. Yet, we are surprised, every now and then, that people behave crudely and ignobly!
One thing was clear to me. This entrenched stereotype needed to be interrogated. Though I was not a student of history in a formal sense, I have had recourse to history for the lessons it offered. One thing was very clear to me, especially from the life of Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, 161-180 AD). He got into a lot of troubles because of his greatness, the grandeur of his soul. But it generated a body of thoughts unrivalled by that of any other king or ruler.
So, what is the option for a true teacher? To be a Nero, who was very practical. Or to be a Marcus Aurelius, who was very idealistic?
Readers familiar with the life and works of Aurelius see this at once: the character of the ‘practical way of life’ is that it is hostile to those who pursue ideals. Ask any teacher of philosophy – St. Stephen’s has a department of philosophy – he will tell you, there is a tension between the practical and the ideal.
But ask ‘why’? I doubt if you would get a satisfactory answer. That is because in academia it is only theory, mere disembodied information which is mistakenly called ‘knowledge,’ that matters. Information becomes knowledge when it is applied to life. Academia walks only on one leg: theory. Experience is in exile.
When turbulence erupted in St. Stephen’s, the philosophy department should have come to the fore and provided a valid perspective on issues and events. Did that happen? Why didn’t it happen? What, do you think, is the role and relevance of philosophy? Only to recycle noodles of riddles?
It was this very intellectual deadness that I was keen to confront. I was not naïve or unlettered in the realities of life, when I decided to take a course contrary to the expedient. The details of the choices I made and the turbulence they provoked are sketched in On A Stormy Course, and need not, for that reason, be repeated here.
Let me put the issue clearly; for it is, or should be, a matter of serious concern for everyone. It affects and afflicts all people, one way or another. And most victims know not why things happen the way they do.
That issue pertains to the predicament of every one who tries to bring ideals into the domain of their work. What happens? Their merits become demerits; talents turn into liabilities. They become hugely unpopular. The man of ideals is despised, friendless and lonely. (Only ask, “Can an honest man win an election? If not, why not?”)
So, what should he do? Become one of the pragmatics, and learn the ropes of expediency?
The answer to this question will shape who you are, what stature you attain, what quality of experiences becomes accessible to you and what transformative impact you leave behind.
Of this latter, though, there is no guarantee. There is assurance only of your inward fulfillment of having expressed your authentic self through serving as you did.
This was invisible to the public. They could see only the thunder and lightning. The other side of the story needed to be told.
Yes, it thundered. Lightnings forked and flashed. But there were rains too. Ask the parched land. It will say, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”
Admitted, rains could fall on rocks and fall off, rebuffed. A congregation of rocks could applaud this as steadfastness. But it is simply not an option for water to become rocks, or anything other than itself. The world will die of thirst, you see?