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In My Words/Fine Rate of Exchange

One of my favorite literary figures is George Bernard Shaw. I could give you many reasons why, but mostly it’s because of his devilishly delicious wit.

Several years ago, when I was rummaging old newspapers researching the book I would write about another literary great – The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell – I came across a profile from the 1930s that Mitchell produced about the Irish playwright. Shaw, then 80, was visiting America, and as the great man disembarked from his ship at the Hudson piers, New York’s rowdy reporters pressed in around him. One of them asked what he hoped to do in New York City. Replied Shaw, “Get out of it.”

Of course, Shaw was wickedly astute about so many aspects of life, from our relationships to our infinite capacity for foolishness (and as he taught us time and again, the two were usually connected). As it happens, Shaw was even something of an expert on higher education.

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple,” Shaw once observed. “But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

Though Shaw exited this mortal stage 67 years ago, I’ve yet to hear a more cogent description of what happens on a college campus. Take Shaw’s hypothetical transaction and amortize it over a typical college career. A St. Norbert student completes at least 32 full courses, spending some 16 hours a week in the classroom. If you figure he or she hears at least one good idea per hour – a pretty conservative estimate, I think you’d agree – that student will walk away from here with about 2,000 new ways of looking at life.

To those people who still ask if college is “worth it,” I would say: Tell me that kind of intellectual bank account doesn’t profit a young person on the verge of launch.

Indeed, higher education is about, at bottom, the passing of ideas, principles, perspective and expertise from the experienced to the less so. What a privilege it has been to watch these transactions every day, every week, every semester for the past nine years. And how grateful am I to the hundreds of my faculty colleagues who take that responsibility so seriously, and respect it so deeply.

I have appreciated that over this time many of you have invited me into your classes. Usually you asked me to address topics that connected somehow to my own experiences or intellectual pursuits, and that specificity was perfect for me. I enjoyed these occasions a great deal, and I hope your students learned something.

But I learned something, too, reinforced with each visit, and that is that I could never do what you all do so well. Not only do I lack the requisite training and on-the-job experience, but on a more organic level I simply don’t have the deep reserve of patience or the organizational chops to carry a course across the arc of an entire semester. To do that with genuine impact takes a kind of “X factor” that we recognize in every great teacher, but which so few people actually possess. That ingredient is part charisma, part empathy, part curiosity, part focus, part discipline – and yes, a whole lot of patience.

Of course, you also have to believe you are making a difference. Well, take it from me, you do. I see that conviction validated every year when those once scared and callow young men and women whom we welcomed to SNC four years back are crossing the Commencement stage to shake my hand, confident and prepared and ready to get on with life.

After I started writing this, it occurred to me that Mr. Shaw and our founder, Abbot Pennings, must have been near contemporaries, and at least chronologically they were – born just five years apart. Of course, it’s highly doubtful the Irish wit and the Dutch Norbertine ever bumped into one another. Nor is it likely that the man who famously said “Let us love one another” ever observed, as Shaw once did, that “Every man over 40 is a scoundrel” – even if, from time to time, our wise founder probably thought it.

Still, the playwright and St. Norbert’s first president shared two cardinal values: a belief in the transformative power of ideas, and the obligation to share them.


March 17, 2017