Friday, February 19, 2010

The Academy

Above the entrance to Plato’s Academy was the inscription “Let No One Who is Not a Geometer Enter.” Plato’s Academy was the eponymous Ivory Tower, a place of repose from the worries of the world, where students learned to be leaders. In its pure form, the Academy neither supported nor opposed any causes. Knowledge was a religion. “Let no one who is not a geometer” might be translated as “let no one who is not interested in the pursuit of knowledge in its highest forms cross the threshold," as mathematics was deemed to represent one of the purest forms of knowledge in ancient times, as it is today.
What a far cry from Plato’s Academy is the case of Amy Bishop, the Harvard-educated University of Alabama neuroscientist who killed three of her colleagues and wounded two others in a dispute over tenure! Everyone knows that departmental politics can be nasty and that modern-day life on a university campus is a far cry from the Elysium of Plato’s Academy, although perhaps the case of Socrates was prophetic in that his pursuit of truth eventually led to his drinking the infamous hemlock. Maybe the notion that the pursuit of knowledge is an innocent activity is illusory. Dr. Bishop was purportedly a gifted scholar and teacher. The Times quoted her husband James Anderson as saying that she “exceeded the qualifications for tenure.” According to the Times, Anderson also noted that his wife’s research “was generating millions of dollars for the university.” What could have gone wrong?  Is this just another case of the kind of mental instability that led to a shooting rampage by a student at Virginia Tech several years back, or is the Ivory Tower not what it’s cracked up to be? In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee describes the sadomasochistic relationship of a prominent professor and his wife. The play is a microcosm of the frustrations of university life. The famous saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” should be modified. Those who can neither do nor teach, kill.

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