MAXWELL:  Drawn by the call of academe

9/23/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


To be in this town, home of the University of North Carolina, is to understand the meaning of the term “ivory tower.” Even for hard-boiled, organized journalists, the campus invites discursive thinking.

I am here for two days as a panel member of the first annual Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, sponsored by UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

On Sunday afternoon, I, a former university professor, strolled across this tree-lined campus, captivated by its simple, red-brick architecture signaling insight, wisdom, permanence.

Because I spend each weekday at a major daily newspaper, where cynics and pessimists _ myself included _ ply our dubiously relevant trade, I was attracted to the students here. I was struck by their innocent faces, and I envied them their chance to start life from scratch, their unabashed faith in the future. Although some are budding ideologues, they still have time to become free thinkers, world travelers who will return home respectful of the denizens whom they may have encountered.

As I passed a group of students studying on the lawn (on a Sunday afternoon), I felt the familiar longing to return to academe.

When I came to the St. Petersburg Times in 1994, I left behind the campuses of the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College. Their lovely physical surroundings literally insulated me from most of the real-world concerns of people in other orbits. Moreover, I had books and journals to read, student essays to grade, scholars with whom to consult to verify my latest inspiration as to how, say, student writers go from “concept” to the “point of composition.”

Unlike life in the newsroom _ where deadlines, topicality and “just-the-facts-ma’am” caution channel the intellect _ life in academia permits tweed-suited recursiveness. Academia is a place where I could return time and again to ideas and patterns that interested me because, well, they are interesting. Often, when I went to the library, I had no intention of writing about the subject I would spend hours researching.

The value of the quest was in the pleasure of learning, in not knowing where the path would end, in not being surprised at being surprised, in treating personal ignorance as a call to action and a grand opportunity to make better sense of life.

As I sat with my colleagues at the Carolina Inn _ journalists representing some of the South’s best newspapers _ I contemplated perhaps the biggest difference between the academy and the newsroom _ and why I sometimes long for my old life.

The academy is obliged to discover. It is a place where old structures are routinely deconstructed or obliterated. The newsroom, including the editorial board room where open discussion is celebrated, all too frequently is a place where old notions get face lifts, and prejudices get implants.

Newspapers such as the Times have long histories as bastions of either conservatism or liberalism. In our area, the Times is viewed as liberal, and the Tampa Tribune is considered conservative. Columnists, editorial writers and reporters who enter these environments do so with the understanding that a dogma precedes them.

I knew upon arrival that the Times opposes the death penalty, that, as a writer of editorials, I would not be free to write an opinion other than that of the institution (my column is different, of course).

Universities, on the other hand, give the professoriat the freedom to think and publish as it pleases. Being in Chapel Hill made me realize what my colleagues and I give up when we move from Elysium to the Fourth Estate.

Is this a good trade-off for editorial writers? Yes, if they are not fiercely wedded to ideology. When they write to support a side that they oppose _ as I sometimes did when I wrote editorials _ they enjoy the uncommon experience of sincerely analyzing the best arguments of the other side. In so doing, they often discover that their cherished beliefs are wrong.

For me, few things are more satisfying than discovering that I am wrong. When I am honest with myself, I find that I am often wrong. Being at UNC makes me appreciate this, the ultimate of intellectual experiences, anew.