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Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Professor


“That’s the problem,” professor Ella Kestine said. “It isn’t so much on the outside as the inside. It isn’t the world you face in your everyday life- it is the world you have created inside yourself, the world you have probably never faced.”

Professor Kestine was not a static speaker. It was unusual for a professor to walk around in a survey class, but she always did. She regularly left the raised stage and paced the rising steps of the auditorium so that every one of her fifty-three listeners would turn their heads to follow her. And she scanned the room, kept eye contact at all times, nearly dared them to NOT pay attention. She used every trick in the book to keep her students interested, listening, learning.

Now she picked up the heavy course textbook, dramatically lifted it over her head, and slammed it down on the stage.

The THWACK made people jerk in their seats.

“Pay attention now,” she said. “Now, if at no other time in this class. Or at this University. The problem is NOT the outside world you face in your everyday life. The problem is the inner world you have created for yourself, which you have probably never faced at all. Which 99.999 percent of the people on this planet never will face. This is what shapes your perceptions. This is the world that tells you what the outside world IS.”

She had them now. This was the stuff. They were part of that .0001 percent, or they could be, if they paid attention.

“I’m not talking about whether my dress is black,” Professor Kestine continued. “We can all agree on that, we can trust this basic perception. I’m talking about value judgments. When someone says something is good they are saying it is good compared to something else. That is a judgment shaped by their inner world, not a reflection of reality. When another says something is bad, that is, again, a reflection of what is inside them, not what’s outside of them.”

As she scanned the rows of seated students, she knew from experience who would probably come to her after class, and who would make sure they took her class next semester. The fat girl with the earnest face, there, and the pretty but confused one a few rows back from her would probably visit. The angry young man who sat in the front and sneered all the time would probably ask for a word as well. But these were the easy ones, the marks. The tough ones, the ones who would possibly be worth something to her after a few years, were the uncertain ones. There was little use in preaching to the choir if you were preaching that people should not believe in something. She wanted people who were able to believe with passion. She wanted to create a vacuum she could fill, not talk to people who were incapable of believing in anything. Cynics were no use to anyone.

“What is the difference between liberalism and conservatism? Both philosophies see the world the same way, or nearly enough in the same way, but they make different, opposing judgments, about value. A liberal, because of their inner nature, sees the faults in a society and therefore wants to make change. That is the simple definition of liberal. A conservative, because of their inner world, does not see these faults, and therefore fears change.”

She had to tread softly now. A semester’s worth of patiently going around this idea, of reinforcing it, of selecting certain facts and figures to prep their pliable minds to agree with what she was about to say would tend the seeds she planted now.. Still, she had to go softly.

“Regardless of what you believe now, it is your inner world that has made you believe it. Maybe you are a conservative by today‘s standards, maybe you are a liberal, but regardless, you must give the liberal mindset credit.”

She took a breath and checked the crowd. Was the timing right? Bluntly telling a group of young people that their country was an evil blight on the world would not do. Telling them that the better people generally thought their country was bad did not work either. But telling them that people who loved their country were ignorant, cowardly, and/or jingoistic was very effective, as long as you worded it right.

“The conservative loves who they are and has no motivation to fight, to change, to progress, to improve. The liberal is able to love the dream. To love who they COULD BE, what their country COULD be, and so has the courage, the crazy courage, to hate who they are. And through that hate they find the necessary motivation to fight. To change. To progress. To improve.”

She picked the textbook up from the floor where she had left it, held it high over her head, and slammed it down again. Nobody jumped or jerked this time. They were enrapt.

“Three thousand years ago a man named Moses brought Ten Commandments down from a mountain and said these were the law. He was a liberal. He hated what the Jews were and wanted to change them, to make them better. When the conservatives of that time tried to ignore those laws Moses threw his tablets onto the ground just as I have done with that book! Two thousand years ago another Jew named Jesus said the Roman world was wrong, that the Pharisees, the conservatives of the Jewish world, were wrong, that the Jews who went along with it all were wrong, and the conservatives of the time crucified him for hating the world and trying to make it better.”

There were over two months left in the semester before the summer hiatus. She estimated that as many as one fifth of the students she was speaking to today, would see their families in an entirely different way over the break.

“You must face YOUR inner world and shape it. You must create it. I’m not telling you to be liberal or conservative. I’m not asking you to make judgments about the outside world you face every day. I want you to face the inner world you have never seen, and decide what that world is, and if it is what it should be. And I dare you to have the courage, if you can first have the strength to acknowledge that it is not what it should be, to change it.”

Their parents would seem ignorant because they lacked education, or else willfully ignorant because they were greedy. Wicked. And if they argued, the kids would be immune to whatever was said because, by that time, they would identify themselves as elites due to their political beliefs. Nothing they were told would matter because anyone who disagreed with them was not important, obviously, since they disagreed with them.

“Thank you.” Nearly all the students clapped, and for a moment she thought she might get an ovation. It wouldn’t be the first time. But the applause died off and kids began to awkwardly shuffle out. But some stayed, trying to grasp what she had said, or simply staring at her with appreciation. Passion was a rare thing in a survey class, and these children had just seen a lot of passion. Many of them appreciated and had been moved by it. (A few looked at her as if they hated her. There were a few like that in every class. She didn’t understand them.)

It was difficult to teach people virtue. You could not simply tell them the truth. First you had to make them available for it. You had to make a hole. You had to batter their hearts. And this survey class of fifty-eight, five of whom had not shown up, would produce ten or fifteen people who were ready to begin the journey. And maybe one or two of them would continue down the road until they were ready for real instruction.


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