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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

Town and Gown, Home Edition

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Town and Gown" are ancient opposites and adversaries. In the Middle Ages, at Oxford and the Sorbonne, it actually came down to street-gang warfare.

American academics no longer wear gowns, save for ceremonial occasions; and we no longer argue our differences in street-battle. But they still exist. Opinions are passionately held and touted on campus, since the young and would-be young are passionate already. Intellectual fashions flame and fade there, inexplicable to townsfolk, skeptical as they are from their lives of hard knocks. Unlike the passionate young, they know they don't know everything. Often all they do know is that they don't know anything. Which is the beginning of wisdom, according to Socrates.

I'm sure gownsfolk see it quite otherwise, but often townsfolk call ourselves "the real world," with which those gownsfolk, are fortunately, or pitiably, out of touch.

Life in Academe can be competitive, so I'm told, but it can be nothing like the cutthroat, sink-or-swim reality that reigns out in the "real world."

Friends urged me not to comment on a recent minor case of town-gown friction, since it was important, quoting one friend, for town to "maintain a good working relationship."

But a relationship, working or otherwise, has two sides. And a "good relationship" calls for effort and good will from both, not just one.

Town's feathers aren't so easily ruffled as gown's; yet it was town's feathers ruffled in the recent episode. And taken in broader context, in Academe overall, where such rufflings go on all the time (e.g. inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia), the local ruffling looked, among other things, more-or-less apurpose, a classic case of Úpater les bourgeois Surely its sponsors weren't so out-of-touch as not to know the sentiments they touted as truisms, held by all right-thinking folk, would strike this conservative community rather like having its fur rubbed wrong strikes the proverbial cat.

Town holds its convictions quietly, and is likely to break its silence only when it hears them scorned and mocked, something nobody likes. Academe goes out of its way not to mock or scorn, e.g., Islam. Only conservative Christians, it seems, are fair game.

A friend of mine, doing doctoral work at City University of New York, had a chat with Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of throngs of eminent resident Oxford philosophers.

"It must be wonderful," my friend enthused, playfully, "being there, amid all that wisdom!"

Said Sir Isaiah, ruefully: "I didn't say there was any wisdom there!"

Town and gown both have their fund of knowledge, each in its own necessary kind.

But there's very little wisdom anywhere. "Only the species is wise," to misquote Burke slightly. And town just may come closer than gown to speaking for the species. In my sweat-of-the-brow years, the wisest souls I met were farmers, real farmers, that extinct kind, who only unwillingly strayed off their acres. Academe, champion of radical individualism, seems to forget that (Burke again) "The individual is foolish." And a collection of individuals is a mob, a beast, little distinguished for any subdivision of wisdom, including "tolerance."

Town and gown think and believe more alike, deep down, than appearances suggest. The difference is, town, with its almost British phleghm, just doesn't make a song-and-dance about it. To town, for example, "tolerance" lies in doing, in doing right by others. To gown, too often it seems to lie in talking, "just spouting words." Complex, intransigent problems are to be helped, even solved, by simpleminded slogans, raucous demonstrations, "standing up for."

What did the recent verbal "standing up for" in fact do, apart from ruffling feathers, and presumably letting its participants feel nice and smug about themselves? What did it after all do for those for whom, presumably, it was supposed to do something?

Local town and gown have always gotten along well enough, it seems to me, from the first donations of land, through decades of shared cultural pleasures, to lately founded scholarships. A piece in this column series, last spring, lauded Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard as "A Pioneer for a Town and a Cause." It might well have read "for town and gown."

But, humans being all-too-human, relationships are seldom or entirely smooth. All collectivities are plagued by problem individuals, in our case thankfully few.

And fully as many or few on one side as the other. Gown, for instance, has been known to complain of town. A faculty member once sniffed in public print about local "parochial" minds. Those were racier journalistic days.

In our spuriously "kinder, gentler" time, one wouldn't dare publicly squelch him as blisteringly as Ken Postlethwaite did. Perhaps the offender never quite saw the error of his ways, but it seems he did find the encounter amusing, even enlightening. It bore fruit in a friendship.

Now if we'd all just speak our minds, or write them, as bluntly, honestly as those two did, rather than pandering to popular p.c. pieties or parroting stylish excuses for serious thought.

We townsfolk once dubbed ourselves "The Friendly City." Defining friendship not as simpleminded gushing over strangers but rather as "tolerance, with reservations," I think we just might measure up.

We take newcomers the way we take children, other people's children: On probation. We wait for them to show themselves, prove themselves. Are they here because they want to belong, be part of us? Or are they busy grinding ideological axes, out to convert andreform the world, starting with us happily handy hapless victims?