Finding Time to Wonder
I recently flew north to see my niece Cait receive her degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, the place where “fun goes to die.” I might not have been so excited about the trip had I known I’d be sliding off my chair from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at an outdoor graduation ceremony held under a blazing 95 degree sun...or that they would read aloud the name of every single graduate...all 1500 of them. I was beginning to think that UChicago was the place where I was going to die.
In between gulping down bottles of water and trying to kick-up a breeze with my University-supplied paper fan, I actually learned quite a lot at the ceremony.
I learned that the translation for alma mater is “nourishing mother” (not “send money”).
I was reminded that people in academia have titles that would never fit on a standard size business card.
Our keynote speaker, David Nirenberg, for example, is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Departments of History and Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College; Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences. In his spare time he writes books focusing on relations between religions.
As a medieval authority, Nirenberg explained the medieval roots of a modern university, drawing our attention to the Gothic buildings around the courtyards that surrounded us and the cloisters entered through pointed arches.
I learned that the traditional graduation robes, all our degrees (Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate), honors (cum laude) and diplomas (parchment) evoke ancient symbolism. Yet ironically, universities are one of the most future-oriented institutions in the world, “...devoted to looking beyond the horizons of the known, and to preparing their students for lifetimes to come.”
What all of us already knew was that this prep time doesn’t come cheap. These graduates (their parents and the federal government) shelled out over a quarter-of-a-million dollars to get a seat at this ceremony where they were rewarded with Nirenberg’s observations about “time,” or more specifically, “a time of mind,” something that is particular to the life of a student, but hard to hold on to as adults with families, careers and financial responsibilities.
Nirenberg told us something most of us knew or experienced: “Time at a great university is different from other types of time in the world...in the extraordinary freedom it gives its inhabitants to shape it as it will: when to sleep, eat, study, love, play...a freedom of choice in matters that we probably did not have before and will not have again.”
We learned that the ancient Romans called this time for contemplation otium, a gift of university time, “a unique zone of exemption...where students can dedicate years to reach insights which require a degree of exemption from short-term time horizons of the everyday world.”
Nirenberg challenged the students to “take this ability to choose your ‘time of mind’ into the world” (where I fear it won’t be long before they discover that they are exempted from time to think but still expected to crank it out).
He argued that “time of mind” is a prerequisite for all great discovery which he defined as “rendering the familiar strange, provoking you to wonder.”
Finally, he offered a riddle of sorts worth sharing and contemplating:
“What is familiar is what we are used to, and what we are used to is the most difficult to know...the greater discovery lies in becoming aware of our most basic assumptions so that we can question them and make them strange.”