Better, though, for knowing both worlds

I have a bone to pick with my education. It concerns a small place, really a made-over railroad car, sandwiched into the end of a long alley between the Amherst Savings Bank and the local five-and-ten. The fading sign painted on the bricks told you all you wanted to know -- more than enough, some thought. It said, "Joe's Diner."

Inside, sure enough, behind the long polished wood counter and the tatty twirling stools, stood Joe -- or rather, two Joes. Joe the owner worked the day shift, presiding over his seething pots and dealing out lunch and loquacity to a clientele of policemen, house painters, and garage mechanics. We hardly knew him. We used to come around late at night. At that hour the pots gave precedence to the grill, over which the night shift Joe (for so, either by birthright or for convenience, he called himself) labored with spatula, scraper, and brush, for all the world like a palette-knife artist creating a great impasto in hot steel and potatoes. From his grill came an unforgettable creation: a hamburger sauced beyond recognition with cheesE, grilled onions, and a fried egg, slapped into a bun on a thick white plate, and slid perilously down the counter. Fastidious indeed was the fellow who could touch that sort of pitch and come away with his sweat shirt undefiled.

We came, I say, late, in pairs or half dozens, after the campus snack bar and the library had simultaneously shut their doors and abandoned their responsibilities to students whom scholarship had rendered famished and bleary-eyed.

It was a pleasant walk along small-town, elm-towered streets, all the more rewarding because, for some reason, we only seemed to think of it rarely. Our own world, bricked up by bookshelves and ivied by the many-branching interweavings of learning, seemed self-sufficient. We were students first and foremost, and whatever else we did -- our athletics, our music, our fraternity low jinks, or our more elevated candle-end arguments about Utopia, love, and Keats -- were done among ourselves. For we were in every sense a college, collegial, intimate, and committed to our own little visions. We were of the campus. Joe was of the town. It was the age-old distinction, and we never knew how precisely we were manifesting it.

Therein lies the bone. I have no complaint about the details of our education. We learned our calculus and our history. We were taught to analyze, to abstract, to reason, to describe, to articulate. But unknown to us, the palette was hardening. The underpainting of our fundamental intellectual design was drying even before we realized it had been laid down. The composition included all the right pedagogical nuances. But it had no place for Joe.

Joe's Diner is gone, swallowed up by the ever growing savings bank. But some weeks ago I shared a plane trip with a classmate and close friend from those days. I had recently changed careers, from university teaching to journalism. Twelve years into a very successful and rather scholarly profession, he too was looking for a change, maybe into business. He had thought deeply, and so much of what he said touched chords in my own experience so profound that I cannot hope to replay them here. But what took shape, as I thought about it later, was the outline of that very bone -- the bone it had taken us each more than a decade to recognize.

My quarrel has to do with solitude. Now, I love solitude. Every scholar has to, because without it there is no opportunity for deep study. For solitude, in scholarship, is undeniably the high road to productivity. But only since leaving the academy have I realized what can happen, very slowly, to those who must make it their highest priority. That priority, in itself, is not bad. It is the apparently inevitable corollary of that priority that concerns me now, the subtle alienation from humanity that grows up when, year after year, one is forced to think that people are a distraction from one's real work. Think how we use the word "discipline" when we speak of studying. It usually means the ability to turn away from people and get down to books. Most of the time, good students are alone.

REader, if you have come this far, you also appreciate solitude. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not lobbying for some anti-intellectual bent, nor promulgating another round of fires at the library in Alexandria. In books --good ones -- we touch the essence of a mind. In the best ones we touch the essence of an entire age. And in solitude we touch the essence of a book.

But life is more than essence. It is also detail. It is the rich resource of people talking to people out of sheer affection for humanity. It is the willingness to invest time and energy in all sorts of friendships and acquaintanceships. It is the sense of caring, inborn in us all -- the sence which I think causes so many students such turnmoil when it is challenged by the academic requirement for isolation, the need to cherish both caring and solitude. For which of us can hold two apparently contradictory feelings in equal regard without some ruffling of our preconceptions?

I suppose that's why I like journalism. For the world, or a very large part of it, is Joe -- the man who drew us out of our separateness, fed us, liked us, and had nothing much to say beyond the trivial detail of his dailiness. Yet in that detail something genuine lived. And that detail is terribly worth reporting, saving, understanding.

Or so I think. I guess I don't really know. Joe (as the old ballad has it), I hardly knew ye.

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