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Agora, not Tower

Spring 2004


"Come down out of your ivory tower!" we often hear hurled at someone during a heated argument. The tactic is an effective one. This command always forces the listener to a defensive position. Popular parlance associates "ivory tower" with a misty, theoretical frame of mind, an impractical, sunny seclusion, and a disposition to avoid harsh realities. This usage of "ivory tower" is, in English, a 20th century coinage, and the expression gained great ascendancy during the convulsive waves of student protest of the 1960s.

Attacking a society that seemed too tolerant of war, racism, and poverty, students also turned upon the universities, accusing them of isolation, denouncing studies that seemed far removed from the immediate, urgent needs of a nation is crisis. "Ivory Tower" quickly came to mean the university itself. Our campuses, often designed as walled enclaves, easily permitted isolation. Many suggested that a casual indifference to life outside accompanied isolation. The idea of a "university without walls" began to gain in interest. Is not a city's center the very best location for a campus?

Stunned by the charge thrown at the institution by its own students, universities took up for serious discussion the ancient dichotomy between contemplation and execution, between study and action. To what extent do study and learning require a haven from the world? To what degree should a university involve itself in social issues? Does a strong presence in the community compromise the university's responsibility to teach and to conduct research? The best treatment of these issues remains Derek Bok's Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University, published in 1982 when Bok was president of Harvard.

Bok's conclusion points the university to that most difficult of all positions--a dual focus, a divided mission in which study and action must share equally the designation of "most important." The university must preserve and foster academic freedom, the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, and it must engage itself directly with the society which surrounds it and gives it life. Since the publication of Bok's study, this uneasy truce between thinking and doing, between Mary and Martha, has been institutionalized by significant new way of pursuing both teaching and research.

Today, collaboration and cooperation have become the most powerful words in higher education, and perhaps not accidentally, the most powerful words in social and political discourse. In our society, every inspiring tale of progress and every vivid dream must awaken one basic question: Who are your partners? Today, even our study within the university is carried forward as a collaborative process. Students learn in groups, present their findings in groups, and faculty increasingly engages in collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary research.

Internal partnerships to invigorate study and research are a relatively new development in university life. At the time that I completed my doctorate in 1978, I had never been asked to partner with any other student for any reason. By contrast, students at Texas A&M International University who take up residence next fall on campus will be supported in their university study by close proximity of natural partners, and themed floors to bring together undergraduates of similar interest and goals. In this new residence athletes, musicians, artists, students of health care and language and business will find themselves living in close proximity to others following similar paths.

External partnerships, direct links between our study and the world, bring to vivid fruition this university's mission to change the face of South Texas. With Laredo Community College, we are together collaborating to strengthen and preserve the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra. Other initiatives are aimed at attracting and employing a wider range of music teachers, identifying and mentoring students who will be teachers, and devising a common curriculum to ensure that Laredo's students learn to write.

With The Texas A&M University System, TAMIU now offers doctoral work in education (Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Administration), and soon will add doctoral studies in English and in Hispanic Studies. With our school districts we partner in the design and delivery of the Advanced Placement curriculum through our Faculty Fellows, and the promotion of teaching through Tomorrow's Teachers. Perhaps most significant, we will soon begin our Ph.D. in International Business Administration, a program with extensive opportunities for collaboration between Laredo's business community daily engaged in the trade, faculty daily engaged in research in the trade, and students daily preparing to enter the trade.

The great Renaissance humanist, Fray Luis de Leon, described in a famous poem the classical vision of the scholar—secure, secluded, serene: "Dichoso el humilde estado/del sabio que se retira/de aqueste mundo malvado,/y con pobre mesa y casa,/en el campo deleitoso/con sólo Dios se compasa,/y a solas su vida pasa,/ni envidiado ni envidioso" – Happy the humble state of the wise man who withdraws from this wicked world, who with a modest table and house in a pleasant countryside is in harmony only with God, who spends his life alone, neither envied nor envious.
The world may still be wicked, but today there is no withdrawal. Today, wise men and wise women, students and teachers, the university and the community, together examine our common problems, reflect upon common challenges, and together devise plans of action. But if "tower" misrepresents the nature of learning today, which locus appropriately describes the vast, collaborative endeavor that education now embraces?

The university has become, in its programs and in its mission, the agora, the forum, the vast, open, common space at the center of all ancient Greek and Roman cities. Agora, not tower.


Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University