Success in Circuit Lies
The best of times, the worst of times. Americans have, for the first time in half a century, lived anew the meaning of Dickens’ famous words. For many, the soaring markets of the Bush years proclaimed the final ascendancy of capitalism and the American way, bringing the dream of early retirement and fiscal tranquility.
At the same time, the attacks of September 11, followed by the tragically blundered war in Iraq, forced us to confront both domestic and international issues that admit of no easy or sure solution. And then in 2008, everything seemed to come apart at once: an economic system undermined by faulty reasoning and greed, a social contract threatened as citizens watched their life savings begin to shrink to half their peak value.
The wisdom of the ages tells us that hard times, adversity, disappointment, and pain demand renovation, a restructuring of both what we have done and how we understand our actions. At no other time can education offer a clearer, more certain path for a journey certainly grown dark. The University experience unites the mechanics and process of professional life, even as it teaches us how to reflect upon what happens to us, how to think about ourselves.
Henry James, in his famous distinction between reality and romance, frames what I believe are the two great gifts, practical and theoretical, material and spiritual, of a University education. Reality for James discloses to us “the things we cannot possibly not know,” the science and knowledge necessary to forge a lifetime of meaningful work. Romance, by contrast, “stands... for the things that, with all the facilities in the world, all the wealth and all the courage and all the wit and all the adventure, we never can directly know, the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit of thought and desire.”
Our reason, what Mark Lilla calls our “rage for order,” leads us to create an orderly and fiscally sustaining life, what we cannot possibly fail to learn in order to survive. But the unstable, mutable, insatiable knowledge our hearts crave reaches us through that beautiful circuit James calls romance. Together, reality and romance offer the physical and psychological comfort of a life well lived, that which we most certainly will find, and that which appears before us only in our thoughts and our desires.
Now, in times of fiscal and political turmoil, we need more than ever the balanced life a University experience teaches, both reality and romance. Our studies will lead us to recover sustainable economic and political order while we also reflect upon their inner lives, comforted in that beautiful circuit.
Ray M. Keck III