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Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities

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The C-Words

Edward H. Friedman

No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it. —Halford E. Luccock

How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct. —Benjamin Disraeli

I hate the fact that people think "compromise" is a dirty word. —Barbara Bush

The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities is a site for the liberal arts at Vanderbilt University. The Center offers programs in the form of seminars, talks by local and visiting scholars, discussion groups, and so forth. Graduate dissertation fellows interrelate and enhance their professional development as they complete their doctoral theses, and the contributors to the annual faculty seminar share interdisciplinary approaches to a given topic. Over the years—and the Center is about to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary—the dialogues have become greater in number and, correspondingly, have involved more participants and more schools within the university. This brings us to the first of the c-words: collaboration. Everyone in the Vanderbilt community is simultaneously an individual with a job to perform and part of a larger mix. More often than not, the position—student, faculty member, administrator, staff—will entail multitasking, and, more often than not, will have a description with some sort of academic inflection. With increasing frequency, universities have been compared to big businesses, and the idea of teamwork hardly can be removed from the equation. As a microcosm embedded in a microcosm, so to speak, the Warren Center fosters a spirit of collaboration, of cooperation, of joint ventures, of meaningful debate, and of reciprocal learning. It is as if there were a sign posted at the door of the Vaughn Home that cautioned, "NO 'WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?' ALLOWED." Looking out for Number One is fine, as long as it is understood that, as Structuralism points out, everything is a component of a larger system that helps to define its purpose, its function. Universities can teach, by example, that we can thrive personally and as part of a group, which is to say that instruction is a both/and rather than an either/or proposition.

Academia has been marked in recent decades by stronger interaction among fields of study and areas within universities. Stated succinctly, interests, methodologies, and discourses have expanded. Vanderbilt's record in the opening of boundaries has been impressive. This is good for the university, good for scholars, and, especially significantly, good for students. Achievement is calculated in many ways, and we honor individual efforts, as we should, but we also ask our students to consider the larger picture, with the objective of serving more than oneself. We expect students to know the difference between submitting their own work with unauthorized assistance and depending on others to deepen their vision. Vanderbilt students recognize this distinction through work on group projects and through numerous service and charitable acts. Alternative Spring Break encapsulates this sensibility, this sensitivity to others, as a feature of the educational process. In the classroom, the sharing of knowledge obviously is fundamental. Discussion should not be about oneupmanship but about formulating ideas—and growing intellectually—in a productive environment. The concept of collaboration may seem self-evident when one speaks of life in a university, and at Vanderbilt one finds an atmosphere of generosity and solidarity that at times can seem natural when, if truth be told, it is benevolently and carefully managed. There are, understandably, imperfections in the scheme of things, and there certainly is room to grow, but good will abounds on campus. People care about each other, in the classroom, in residence halls, in circles of friends, in all types of gathering places. Camaraderie is not forced, and that makes it all the better, of course. Still, a consciousness of the need for—and the rewards of—collaboration is useful, because on the broader playing field, as it were, collaboration currently is not quite the operative paradigm.

One does not have to enter the ranks of punditry to comprehend that we are experiencing an obstructionist moment in history. Whereas much could be accomplished if smart people of diverse persuasions, ideological and otherwise, were to assemble peaceably to problem-solve—to aid in curing the ills of the body, of society, of the economy, etc.—there seems to be a struggle for power that supersedes collective benefits. A notably large bloc of opposition seems to lie in wait to attack plans and proposals as they are introduced and advocated. The attacks almost seem preordained, to the extent that the specific content of the plans and proposals become, to a degree at least, irrelevant. What counts in a mindset that favors the obstacle is resistance for its own sake, precisely the antithesis of collaboration. Sad to say, obstructionism yields results: impasse, delays, defeats, confusion, and bad publicity for "the other side." Results of this variety, however, do not translate into success, except by the most cynical standards. People can be overlooked, and hurt, when these kinds of tactics are employed. As educators and colleagues in an educational community, we cannot change all that is happening around us, but we can offer examples of collaboration that will have an impact on the ways in which we and our neighbors—and future generations—deal with problems, disagreements, and divergent points of view. To interject another c-word into the conversation, perhaps we can examine strategies of compromise in such a manner that negotiation and concession do not become equated with losing, giving up, or choosing the easy solution. Educational techniques can be direct, or, at the other end of the spectrum, they can tend toward the subliminal. We are in a position to show as well as to tell about the importance of collaboration and compromise. The opportunities are unlimited, and they should not be wasted.

In a similar vein, and noting a matching opening consonant, we can reflect on the place of criticism in the curriculum and (way) beyond. As a teacher of literature and "purveyor" of criticism, I see it as my duty to encourage students to read critically and analytically and to give them tools to do so. I want them to read carefully, thoughtfully, and independently, and to polish the presentation of their ideas orally and in writing. Their work should not be mechanical, rote, or a regurgitation of their class notes. Their opinions matter, but ideas must be articulated with precision and defended with rigor. Teaching critical skills is key to most, if not all, disciplines. On the one hand, then, we are training students to be critics. On the other hand, we generally want to refrain from overkill, that is, from creating critical monsters, for whom the critical act is first and foremost about the critic. We do not want to suggest that all criticism is equally viable, that everyone is automatically equipped to be a critic, or that the most negative criticism is the best criticism. We want students to be open-minded, flexible, and willing to take into account a range of perspectives. Some of these thoughts—the bullet points—are simple to grasp, while others are more nuanced, in light of the proliferation of media outlets for criticism. We can convey our assessments of just about everything quickly and openly. Those who publish in The New York Times or in The Wall Street Journal are not as separate or as hierarchically removed as they used to be from fledgling analysts, from the millions of bloggers "out there" in cyberspace. What might be called the critical balance may be difficult to pin down. "Be critical, but not overly critical" could come across as a mixed message. We should be advocating informed and constructive criticism, but current conventions appear to promote shoot-from-the-hip maneuvers. Everyone is not prepared to judge every issue or every person, yet we are regularly given free rein to do just that. Few of us believe that we are ill-equipped to pass judgment, but the fact is that (1) we may not know what we need to know to draw appropriate conclusions; (2) there are countless channels through which to disseminate our views, not all of which are reliable; and (3) the mechanisms to differentiate valid from irresponsible critical stances are limited and are themselves subject to criticism.

These days, everybody really is a critic, for better or worse. In academic contexts, we need to stress the correspondence between clear thinking and well-founded critical arguments. No social, political, philosophical, theological, or literary commentary can be completely unbiased, for, as they say, one cannot separate the dancer from the dance. Rhetoric is as much a factor today as it was in classical antiquity. Even sacrosanct scientific evidence is open to scrutiny. Nonetheless, the search for objectivity is noble and worthwhile, as is the goal of eliminating injustice and prejudice. Contrary to the prevailing view in some quarters, compromise may be the opposite of cowardice or of copping out. As with the tango, alas, it takes two to compromise. As Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition politician and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and other awards, observes, "You cannot compromise unless people talk to you." Silence and the shutting out of others should never trump dialogue, and dialogue should be as fair and as substantial as possible. If the youngest members of our community can learn this lesson now, they likely will be able to enlighten their elders, and we will smile as we contemplate the future.

Edward H. Friedman is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish, professor of comparative literature, and director of the Warren Center.