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EPIPHANIES IN ACADEME or MEDITATIONS ON A
Francis Edward Abernethy
2006 Regents Lecture — University Lecture Series
Wednesday Feb 8, 2006, at 11 a.m. in the Cole Auditorium
Stephen F. Austin State University
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
I came back from The War in 1946 and went to Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College on the GI Bill of Rights—along with 700 other vets. Our first formal greeting on the SFA campus was by Dr. A. W. Birdwell in the old Aikman Gym in the fall of '46. Dr. Paul Boynton was president then, and Birdwell was President Emeritus, having retired in 1942. Boynton was a mite jumpy, and I have always had the feeling that Boynton pushed the aged Dr. Birdwell on stage ahead of him—before that gym full of returning soldiers and sailors—to test the waters. Dr. Birdwell came out, unintroduced—and he was that cool that he didn't even have his false teeth in. He smacked a couple of times and said very seriously, “In spite of what you might have heard or suspected, I am not Stephen F. Austin.” When the laughter and applause died down, he said with perfect Bob Hope timing, “But I knew him.” I have been connected with SFA ever since, one way or another. I got my degree here in '49 and merged into SFA history when I married Hazel Shelton, the daughter of Coach Bob Shelton, who was the first athletic director and coach when the school opened in 1923. Coach Shelton was the Dean of Men until his death in 1964. I joined the SFA faculty in ‘65. All of my five children attended here, as did my wife, who got her degrees here and taught history twelve years before she retired. At one time Hazel was teaching history, I was teaching English, and my son Robert was teaching geology on this campus. So as you can see, SFA is my home, and I am now and always have been completely committed to its welfare. And should I die in service, please prop me up in my chair in my office with a Snicker bar in my hand and a copy of Hamlet open in my lap; then roll in a great stone to seal the doorway to my sepulcher. — You don't need to come out and look on the third day. I'm not going anywhere.
But this paper is about epiphanies in academe, specifically here at SFA—By the way, an epiphany is not a coed of easy virtue, although we've had our share of those.— Epiphanies are sudden revelations, marvelous manifestations of ideas that change our ways of living and looking at life—light bulbs that go on in little balloons above our heads, as they did when Copernicus realized that the sun, not the earth was the center of the universe—and when Newton considered the force of gravity on a falling apple—and when Einstein finally figured out what E=MC 2 meant.
For the scholars here, I do know about The Epiphany, which is a religious celebration of the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi. My epiphanies were not as religiously divine, but they were as significant to my profession and my life.
Epiphanies of varying degrees show up throughout our lives. Like realizing the reality of the Easter bunny and Santa Claus and suddenly and at an early age discovering that the ladies' underwear adds in the Sears and Roebuck catalog hanging in the outhouse have a significance far beyond their two dimensional representations.
And I stretch the definition for an SFA example: We had a biology prof here during the Forties and Fifties who was notoriously absent minded. One campus legend relates that Dr. Smith drove to the Texas Academy of Science meeting in Dallas, forgot he had his car, and took the bus home. Then, when he caught the Greyhound to go back after his car he bought a round-trip ticket.—Here's the epiphany.— This was the same professor who on one trip stopped to get gas, filled up, and then drove off, forgetting that his wife was with him and had gone to the restroom.
— You can bet that Dr. Smith had one dramatic epiphany when that light bulb lit up.
But I think that most of our epiphanies, rather than exploding a new bombshell of an idea before our minds' eyes, have been the felicitous ordering of a jumble of ideas that already lay in a state of advanced gestation, like chicks late in a brood, just waiting to come forth in a hatch. I believe that we are continually epiphanizing, realizing, recognizing. — It is a long-time, long-term process.
During my forty-six years in academe, I consider the following as important, as three memorable intellectual epiphanies.
****************************************************** Epiphany #1: I taught a lot of freshman early in my career, and believe now as I did then that those classes provided me with a more liberal education than I had ever received at the hands of my illustrious mentors in graduate school, who had me comparing the epic tradition in Virgil's Aeneid and Milton 's Paradise Lost.
The first half of all freshman English courses during the 1950s and ‘60s—and even later, in some instances—was devoted to reading articles with important and debatable ideas and using these ideas as the beginnings of their own critical writings. I was as excited about the freshman introduction to Freud's Anatomy of Mental Personality and Darwin 's hypotheses and the Malthusian Doctrine as I wanted my students to be.
And I remember the first time I read Jeremy Ingalls' essay “Catching Up With the Human Race.” I had a cataclysmic emotional upheaval, a full-blown epiphany, and I stood on my desk with glazed eyes gazing upward while angels in academic regalia chanted Latin verse to the twanging of celestial harps. Or something like that.
Ingalls' thesis—and it was not particularly world shaking in itself— was that when human beings arrive on earth they have thousands of years of accumulated knowledge stacked up and waiting for them to ingest and digest. Ingalls believed that the educated person's life is one long intellectual journey to catch up with the knowledge of the human race. — I had never really thought of it that way before.
Ingalls' thesis is that in the seven to nine months between conception and birth a person passes through all the evolutionary stages—from one-celled he becomes multi-cellular, is gilled, has a tail, and before he is born he accomplishes what took 600 million years of evolution to perform— that is, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny—and that part of the nervous system known as the brain developed greater power and sensitivity and memory than the brain of any other animal.
In his first six years the child progresses about 950 thousand years, and he enters the Old Stone Age of about 50,000 years ago. This is a four- or five-year-old child. He knows his friends and relations, can take care of small animals, can talk and tell stories, draw rough pictures and say prayers. When angered he resorts to sticks and stones. — I hope I am not doing cave men a disservice here.
In the next six or seven years through adolescence he advances 43,000 years to the Bronze Age of about 6,000 years ago. He feels the necessity of a tribal society and chooses his leader from the warrior class. He can read, write, count, use artisans tools with limited skill, and he understands the wheel, the screw, and the inclined plane. His ideas about his society are greatly limited, and he knows or understands little outside his own group or tribe.
When he graduates from high school, if he has persevered, he should have approached the stage of the Greek civilization, 600 years BC. He wonders now about man's relation to the universe, society, and his gods, about the working of the mind, about the basic sciences, and he recognizes the value of art forms.
By the time he graduates from college, if he has the IQ and the inclination, he has progressed a good part of the way through the last 2500 years and is catching up with the human race. Of course, he'll never make it, but running well the race is as important as a crown of laurels.
I won't give you the full lecture; but isn't that a neat hypothesis! I have kept the print of that orderly and evolutionary progression (perhaps a bit simplistic for some, but not for me) in my mind ever since, and I think that I always taught with the idea that I was passing a baton in a sustained sprint to catch up myself and my students with the human race.
As importantly, I was passing what I could of a seamless cloth of human culture that covered all races for all time—a study of the Oneness of the human race.
Professionally, my reading of “Catching Up With the Human Race” convinced me beyond all question that all (I say ALL!) college students should be required to successfully complete twosemester courses in World Civilization and World Literature early in their college careers. I don't think that a person has a chance of catching up with the human race unless he has an understanding of the history and the culture of mankind back through the Neanderthals to the australopithicenes and lemurs and the primal ooze. So add biology to the requirements. And art and music history.
And there is more, but the bottom line for me is that basic courses—in geography, for crying out loud! I had a senior student who could not find Scotland on the globe when we were reading Robert Burns' “Tam O'Shanter”—is that these basic courses in the fundamentals of our culture should be successfully completed before students elect such pop courses as “The History of Eroticism,” or “John Wayne” or“Rap” (God help us!). And bless their hearts, professors advertise these courses on billboards!
My ultimate fear for academe is that solid collegial departments will so trivialize the curriculum for the sake of student popularity that eventually their important, relevant courses will be dropped from the University's core of requirements.
And if you will allow me a concluding, personal aside— I enjoyed teaching English—ancient and modern, but never trivial—because I believe without any doubt that literature is the most necessary course for catching up with the human race and is the most important creation of all mankind, greater than Beethoven's Fifth or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the landing on the moon. I believe that humanity is what it reads and is the stories that it tells about itself. Its culture develops from what it receives from its literature—from the Iliad, Beowulf, the King James Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress and from Horatio Alger, and 007 and Rocky and even the governor of California.— Once upon a time I hitchhiked to Alaska because of reading Jack London, Robert Service, and an Alaskan nature magazine I borrowed from a neighbor.— And I believe that the Arthurian legends and Chaucer and Elizabethan drama and Mark Twain and T.
S. Eliot are relevant and necessary to a student's catching up with the human race.
**************************************************** Another epiphany in academe: I remember this happening as if it were a snapshot in my professional Kodak book. It occurred in 1967, when the School of Liberal Arts was still in the Birdwell Building. I met sociologist Charles Vetter on the sidewalk as I was coming back from coffee, and he collared me and began lecturing me on this book he had just finished reading. It was called African Genesis, it was written by Robert Ardrey, and it was about ethology, the study of animal behavior, a relatively new field at the time but one in which Vetter and I had discussed before.
I read Vetter's copy of African Genesis, bought a copy of my own which I read again, and awakened in wonder—I epiphanized!— to a scenario of new and old ideas brought together in a startling but orderly and understandable way. Ardrey included man, of course, in his ethological investigation of animal behavior, and he came up with a conclusion that four basic genetically inherited drives—sociality (herding instinct), dominance (the pecking order), territoriality (space!), and sexuality—governed the behavior of all animals, including man.
I began looking with greater focus—with an ethological focus—on the activities of my fellows— both literary and otherwise. I saw much of narrative literature as the battle for dominance and territory, from the earliest Biblical stories of the Canaanites taking over their Promised Land through Fenimore Cooper's tales of the conquering of the Indians and the America frontier to modern struggles for space and prestige in tv ' s West Wing. The conflict in narrative literature is through the continual struggle for dominance and territory —between Achilles and Hector, between Macbeth and Macduff, and between Captain Kirk and the evil forces of the universe.
Hercules and Theseus endure all manner of physical and mental tests to reach the room at the top with its prestige and territory, as did Cinderella and Pretty Woman Julie Roberts.
Literature is an exercise in ethological basics.
Outside of literature, Ardrey's thesis is wonderfully illustrated in the world of games we play, such as King of the Mountain, where the strongest holds the pinnacle—and football, in which the Cowboys struggle to protect their own territory while trying to invade and capture the Redskins' camp—or baseball, where an individual Atlanta Brave makes a raid within the Cleveland Indian's territory and tries to get home safe and unscathed. Not to mention chess and checkers, Red Rover, and London Bridge.
I observed that strongest of human drives, sociality, or the herding instinct, on campus. I watched attentively as students herded up into select social groups in the old student coffee shop (Perhaps now better illustrated in the mall in front of the library). The males came in first and claimed the territory, a table or two, and the females came in and joined them—jocks and their babes in one bunch, black-hatted kickers in another, African-Americans making their own circle, the Greeks in closed cliques. They each had a territory, a personal and social space which was close to inviolate. And one could watch long enough and pick out the pecking order, the dominance, in the group by watching who held the floor and who was being groomed and looked at and talked to the most.