The term “ivory tower” is in fact biblical, from the Song of Songs (7:4). But it came to be applied to the Blessed Mother and is indeed one of the names given to her in the Litany, “Tower of David, Tower of Ivory.” Thus, it has the connotation of the self-possession of Our Lady.
The word today typically refers to academia and is usually not a compliment. A journal at the University of Minnesota is entitled Ivory Tower. Its current issue advertizes itself as “The Totally Boring and Non-Offensive Issue.” I did not bother to check the title of previous issues, but one can imagine, “The Totally Absorbing and Offensive Issue.” It’s funny when you are a sophomore.
But at this time of year, students return to the university for the second semester, or two more quarters, depending on the institutional system. Freshmen are accustomed to the place by now; seniors are immediately aware that this is it, with jobs, applications, weddings, professional and graduate work. The middle classmen are ready for their best work, at least at their age.
Old professors (no names) look back and wonder if students are learning anything on their watch. I heard recently that, in its new offices, the Wall Street Journal rid itself of all books. Everything is on-line. One must more properly say, I think, that everything is on-line but a book, a physical object, an artifact. We have newfangled electronic “books” on which you can call up whole libraries.
Here at Georgetown, we have a new business school, a palatial thing. Each room is wired for sight, sound, and air. You see students sitting in a classroom all looking at their own or a common computer screen. There may or may not be a professor in the room. The equivalent course is usually available at hundreds of other universities. Why is the professor necessary, really, if he is merely a director of a computer screen, watching session? The students can dial in the same course on-line at other hours of the day.
Do we even need classrooms? This generation is nothing if not computer literate. Everyone has a cell phone on which he can talk to his friend in Hong Kong anytime he wants.
I am frankly a defender of the Ivory Tower, of walls around universities, intended to keep students in, to protect them, for a short blessed spell, at least, from current events. But I know about Al Qaeda, genetic engineering, and the financial crash. These are the kids that will bear the brunt of what it is they have largely been protected from knowing—often by their own politics. In many ways, universities are the last places in which a true confrontation with ultimate things will occur. But it will occur in each student’s life, usually outside the Ivory Tower.
This semester I decided to do a course on classical political thought, no mean subject. I will probably begin by reading Strauss’ City and Man, a sober book if there ever was one. One has to choose his readings here, as the course includes both the Greeks and the Romans, with their similarities and differences.
Just the other day, a student told me that she had just purchased a copy of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which I had once somehow mentioned in class. Put in a nutshell, that is what “education” is really about. A student in a used bookstore somewhere buys Plutarch and wants to know where to begin. This book is of course 1296 pages long. It deserves a full semester of reading.
We will read Thucydides, Aristotle’s Politics, of Plato only the Gorgias. I wanted to include a book containing the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, but it is out of print. The material is on-line, I know. It’s not the same. We will read the three Theban Plays of Sophocles.
I find that the Romans often get a short shrift. This course should probably be divided, but I ask what I am doing? I am reading things worth reading for their own sakes with students willing to read along with me. Hence, we will read some Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. My little book, Unexpected Meditations Late in the XXth Century, was modeled on Marcus’s Meditations, written in my Roman days. Marcus Aurelius always has a profound effect on students. The issue of Stoicism and Christianity is one of the most delicate in all intellectual history, and is still with us today.
So what is a university? It is not a “research institution.” It is a place a professor and fifty or a hundred students can gradually read through together the works that tell them both what is. That is all you need. As Plato said, we deal with souls here.