The “true nature of the university” as told by John Williams

I’ve been appointed as a lecturer a since the beginning of March; my first real academic job. In my short time in the ivory tower, I’ve wondered about my role at the university and how it complements my own career ambitions. This form of navel-gazing rarely results in any meaningful epiphanies, but it does push me towards interesting sources of guidance.

One such source is the novel Stoner, by John Williams (It’s excellent. I highly recommend it). Below is an extended excerpt on the ‘true nature of the university’, which struck a chord with me. I can relate to all the characters and especially to the closing paragraph. It’s a beautifully written novel and I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but, for those in a rush, I annotated the best bits in bold.

To set the scene: three young English lecturers, Mrs Masters, Finch and Stoner, are having a casual conversation after work when the following exchange takes place.

______________________________

Masters, holding aloft a hard-boiled egg from the free lunch as if it were a crystal ball, said, “Have you gentlemen ever considered the question of the true nature of the University? Mr. Stoner? Mr. Finch?”

Smiling, they shook their heads.

“I’ll bet you haven’t. Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do – when you do –” He looked at the egg for a moment more, then took a large bite of it and turned to Stoner, his jaws working and his dark eyes bright.

Stoner smiled uncomfortably, and Finch laughed aloud and slapped the table. “He’s got you, Bill. He’s got you good.”

Masters chewed for a moment more, swallowed, and turned his gaze to Finch. “And you, Finch. What’s your idea?” He held up his hand. “You’ll protest you haven’t thought of it. But you have. Beneath that bluff and hearty exterior there works a simple mind. To you, the institution is an instrument of good – to the world at large, of course, and just incidentally to yourself. You see it as a kind of spiritual sulphur-and-molasses that you administer every fall to get the little bastards through another winter; and you’re the kindly old doctor who benignly pats their heads and pockets their fees.”

Finch laughed again and shook his head. “I swear, Dave, when you get going – “

Masters put the rest of the egg in his mouth, chewed contentedly for a moment, and took a long swallow of beer. “But you’re both wrong,” he said. “It is an asylum or –what do they call them now? – a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us – we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don’t we? We know well.”

Finch was laughing. “What’s that, Dave?”

Interested now in what he was saying, Masters leaned intently across the table. “Let’s take you first, Finch. Being as kind as I can, I would say that you are the incompetent. As you yourself know, you’re not really very bright – though that doesn’t have everything to do with it.”

“Here, now,” Finch said, still laughing.

But you’re bright enough – and just bright enough – to realize what would happen to you in the world. You’re cut out for failure, and you know it. Though you’re capable of being a son-of-a-bitch, you’re not quite ruthless enough to be so consistently. Though you’re not precisely the most honest man I’ve ever known, neither are you heroically dishonest. On the one hand, you’re capable of work, but you’re just lazy enough so that you can’t work as hard as the world would want you to. On the other hand, you’re not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your importance. And you’re not lucky – not really. No aura rises from you, and you wear a puzzled expression. In the world you would always be on the fringe of success, and you would be destroyed by your failure. So you are chosen, elected; providence, whose sense of humor has always amused me, has snatched you from the jaws of the world and placed you safely here, among your brothers.

Still smiling and ironically malevolent, he turned to Stoner. “Nor do you escape, my friend. No indeed. Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm – you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough – brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.”

“What about you?” Finch asked. “What about yourself?”

“Oh,” Masters said, leaning back, “I’m one of you. Worse, in fact. I’m too bright for the world, and I won’t keep my mouth shut about it; it’s a disease for which there is no cure. So I must be locked up, where I can be safely irresponsible, where I can do no harm.” He leaned forward again and smiled at them. “We’re all poor Toms, and we’re a-cold.”

“King Lear,” Stoner said seriously.

“Act Three, Scene Four,” said Masters. “And so providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it, has created this hovel for us, so that we can go in out of the storm. It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive – because we have to.”

Finch shook his head admiringly. “You sure make us sound bad, Dave.”

“Maybe I do,” Masters said. “But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it; and that’s a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.”

Masters leaned back from the table, indifferent, no longer concerned with what he had said.

Gordon Finch cleared his throat. “Well, now,” he said earnestly. “You may have something in what you say, Dave. But I think you go too far. I really do.”

Stoner and Masters smiled at each other, and they spoke no more of the question that evening. But for years afterward, at odd moments, Stoner remembered what Masters had said; and though it brought him no vision of the University to which he had committed himself, it did reveal to him something about his relationship to the two men, and it gave him a glimpse of the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth.

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