In Praise of Wobbly – Ted Gup

Ted Gup had an NRP “This I believe” article, called, In Praise of Wobbly. Over the weekend, I wanted to hear it again. I also recalled that he once gave a convocation speech at Case. The original link to the full text is here. But, since it gives you a warning that it is getting old, I decided to copy the whole text here as a back-up so that I can find it later when I want to show it to other people.

The Gospel According To Gup
And Other Reflections To Be Taken With A Pound Of Salt

Ted Gup, Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism
Fall Convocation — August 31, 2000

Thank you, President Auston, colleagues and students.

I am honored to be here. I only wish I had some grand wisdom to share with you. I do not. I am only a reporter — I can ask a decent question, but I seldom get a satisfying answer. I tried to think of what I might say today — I toyed with the idea of trying to be clever or to impress you. On both counts I realized that was hopeless. So instead, I decided to speak of what matters to me, though I risk falling into the banal, which I doubtless will — and for that I apologize in advance.

Those of you who know me know that I am basically confused, genuinely and profoundly confused about the world and about life; BUT, I am confused without apology — I have come to believe that confusion is at least an honest state of being and I am growing ever more suspicious of those who champion neat answers and round resolutions, purveyors of one-size fits all arguments. My world, and THE world in which I live, are messy and riddled with contradiction. Only in such a world could flourish so many gurus and oracles, false prophets and self-help authors. My former editor at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, once told me he considered me a “Wobbly.” That meant I was in a constant state of confusion. Unstable. I asked him who else he considered to be a wobbly and he gave me the names of several reporters and writers in whose company I was proud to be, though that was not the intent of his message. But over the years I have learned to represent myself and other wobblies with my head held high. I do so today, offering some random reflections on what college is about, as seen through the eyes of a wobbly.

First, let me voice a concern: I sometimes fear that individuals and institutions lose sight of their mission and purpose. I fear that some have become consumed with the badges of success rather than the achievements that such badges were intended to reflect. I hear freshmen fretting about getting a job, declaring an early major, satisfying requirements. They are swept up in the bureaucracy and its Lilliputian strings. As a teacher, I have heard some administrators and teachers pay lip service to teaching and scholarship. But in truth some have come to regard them merely as minor stepping stones to tenure and promotion. True, it is easy for me to say — I arrived here with tenure. But it is also true that for the preceding eighteen years I was paid no more than $4,000 to teach as an adjunct. I taught because it gave me pleasure. Simple as that. If you judge a system’s true values not by what it says but by the conduct it rewards — and I believe you can — then I think there is reason to be uneasy.

This and other universities have an obligation to send a clear message to students that there is more to college than career planning or maintaining a high grade point average. They have an equal obligation to reward their professors for outstanding teaching and scholarship, and to make sure that tenure and promotion reflect the highest values of the academy, not the basest. I recognize that we cannot isolate ourselves from a culture that is driven to quantify that which cannot be quantified — that insists upon measuring success when in reality no institution can confer self-worth. But the noblest institutions can, I believe, validate those qualities that lead to a sense of self-worth; the quest for external recognition is a quixotic journey — I am reminded of that hapless group of pilgrims on the yellow brick road in search of hearts and brains and courage.

As a wobbly, let me say a word in praise of indirection, instability, and intellectual vagrancy: Take courses that mean something to you — that lead nowhere except perhaps to the awakening of personal passions. The purpose of college is not to prepare you for a job, nor to prepare you for life. Free yourselves from this preoccupation with preparation that infects everything we do. Do something for the joy of doing not for the opportunities it creates in some indeterminate future. This is the future. This is your opportunity. Nothing is more habit-forming than the deferral of personal satisfaction.

Our culture is obsessed with “the bottom line,” a phrase imported form the world of commerce. It suggests that the only thing that matters is profit. It reflects a society eager to cut to the chase and clear away the interim distractions that engage us between the initial undertaking and the completion of our task. “The bottom line” — these are the words of a society impatient with process that deludes itself into thinking that it is speaking of perspective, as if all that mattered was the final outcome.

I have a different take on the bottom line. In January I went to Paris for Smithsonian Magazine to write a story about the catacombs that tunnel beneath the city. Each day I walked underground past the exposed remains of six million human souls — skulls, tibia, fibula — extending a mile and a half. You want to talk bottom line? That’s bottom line. Death. Can’t get more bottom line than that. If I came away with anything from that assignment it was a compelling awareness of the brevity of life, the vanity of our species, and the precious nature of each day granted us.

Tomorrow I go to Arlington National Cemetery to say goodbye to a friend and subject of a story, Bud Gallagher. I was with him nine days before he died and was the last person he had breath enough to speak with. He was a warrior. It was his duty to be ready to save every president from Eisenhower to Bush from the ravages of nuclear war. But in the hours we were last together what did he remember most fondly, looking back on his seventy-eight years? Not the glory of attending to presidents, but a time a year ago when he watched a young doe come into his backyard. It had been orphaned, its mother struck by a car. Bud knelt down in the grass and whispered to the fawn and tried to help it eat an apple. Later, he took down all the defenses he had posted around his fruit trees and did what he could to make it easy for the doe to eat. Now in his final days, Bud took comfort in seeing the yearling return. His was a simple act by a complex man. It was an act of communion, a bonding with something at once both much smaller than he was and much larger. Such things matter. They are the bottom line.

We often speak of productivity and sacrifice as if they were Siamese twins. Many of us are raised to believe that to have a brighter tomorrow we must sacrifice our todays. What do we sacrifice? Mostly ourselves and those we care about. And we sacrifice time, a Faustian trade at best. Are such sacrifices ennobling or are they made in pursuit of a security that is not ours to ever know? As I approach fifty, the year my father died, I have come to see that nothing is more precious than time. We are taught that it is sinful to waste time, but no one tells us how to define waste. Is it a walk through the woods, spending time with a child, fishing in a stream? Is it anything that does not advance career or professional standing? My father showed me by example that relentless work can produce prodigious accomplishments. I learned too well and even now struggle to unlearn some of those lessons, to spend less time being “productive” in the narrow and myopic sense of the word. I encourage you to learn to waste time fruitfully — to invest in today, not the mirage of tomorrow, to spend time with those you care about, to do the things that make you feel whole. Be responsible, by all means, but to yourselves, first and foremost; Be on your guard. Do not confuse making a living with living.

As a wobbly, I have always viewed college as a place for romance — not merely dating, but romancing the world around you — a place to unlock hidden interests and to discover the passions of the mind and heart. As a student I hated grades and tests. As a teacher I still hold them in low regard. Too often these have corrupted the deeper pleasures of the work. Grades, tenure, promotion, can all too easily become ends unto themselves. When my book made it to the bestseller list it was not enough for me. I had to ascend another rung, from number ten to number nine, or to stay on the list yet another week. It nearly clouded the deeper joys the book had already given me. Such metrics of success may serve a purpose but all too often they are devilish inventions. What counts is how you feel about yourself. There is a purity to learning for learning’s sake that has no equal and defies all measurement. Come to know it well.

Now a word about the hazards of certainty. If you come as a freshman already resolved that you know what you wish to do with the rest of your life then you have already foreclosed countless other possibilities. Your tastes and interests may change. Embrace that change, don’t run from it. There is security in knowing what you want to do but be wary of the seductive powers of the safe and familiar. There are some who hug the shore all their lives. They are not always to be envied.

Too often the system, the bureaucracy, is guilty of complicity, of rewarding those with an early and solid plan, who seem immune to self-doubt or a change of heart. But there is nothing weak about being vulnerable to change, and nothing strong about being closed-minded. As a wobbly I would argue that uncertainty, confusion and contradiction are our friends, not our enemies. I grant you they can be nettlesome and vexing but they are often the signposts of an honest quest. “If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll probably end up some place else,” observed the humorist Will Rodgers. I can tell you that “Some place else” can be a pretty exciting place.

A word of warning: Don’t let anyone coerce you into a life that isn’t yours — not your parents, not the university, not your peers. In college I might well have been mistaken for the Dead-end kid. I studied Latin and English poetry, and went off to Trinity College in Dublin Ireland for a year to read William Butler Yeats and Horace and Catullus. Back then I was a student at Brandeis. Before going to Ireland I needed permission from the registrar of Brandeis. He tried to talk me out of going, even threatening to withhold academic credit for the year abroad. Imagine, he worked for a school founded in 1948 and wasn’t sure he would recognize credit from Trinity College, a school founded under Queen Elizabeth I in 1591. There are often those so entangled in the rules that they fail to see the larger picture. Don’t let such people block your path. My year in Dublin was a time of profound self-discovery.

I know that Case is not a party school — far from it — but let me suggest that college is not a time to sacrifice. It is a time to celebrate. These years belong to you. You are not here to serve this university. It is here to serve you. Never forget that. Be insistent. Sometimes, all we need is a little reminder about why we are really here.

Now understand that I am not championing academic sloth or mediocrity. Far from it. I urge you to approach your subjects with abandon, to throw yourself into them. Some of you will spend the next four years saying to yourselves “when I graduate, I will buckle down. I will apply myself at my first job. Then I will prove to others and myself what I am capable of.” But it rarely works that way. The tomorrow with which you delude yourself never arrives. The reality is that the work habits and standards you set for yourself today will be yours forever. The concrete is hardening around your feet even as I speak. Most of you are smart enough to just get by, smart enough to never have to break a sweat. Maybe one day you will look back and laugh smugly that you pulled one over on the world, that they never knew that you were just getting by — but then neither will you ever know what you were capable of. For me, the pleasure of work comes in giving it my all. Effort is its own reward. You want to find out what you’re made of, find out now.

Take risks. Someone once remarked that most spills are caused by the rider pulling back on the reigns mid-jump. They doom themselves with fear of failure. Complete your jumps. If you fail, so what? You think your parents, your professors, your heroes whoever they may, have never failed? Failure hurts, but is not catastrophic. What is catastrophic is not having the gumption to take the risk. I have had innumerable stories killed. I have lost entire months working on stories that never saw the light of day. I spent an entire grueling and traumatic year on a story about experimental cancer drugs, was wracked with nightmares, saw scores of people die, ended up in the Mayo Clinic and on a psychiatrist’s couch, and watched as my story was picked apart by the National Cancer Institute. I was even attacked by the editorial page of my own newspaper, The Washington Post. Failure is a part of the landscape of any successful life. Its absence is evidence of a more profound failure — the failure of will.

I titled my remarks today “The Gospel According To Gup And Other Reflections To Be Taken With A Pound Of Salt.” It is an awkward title but is intended to poke fun at myself for taking myself so seriously, and it is also an invitation to question everything you hear now and forever more. Do not look to human beings for the Gospel. The Gospel does not come from man. Absorb the canons of literature and science, but remember that many of those we most revere today were yesterday’s radicals, that they rejected the orthodoxy of their day; In nature the sheep that strays from the herd falls prey to predators; in education, the student who clings steadfastly to the herd falls prey to convention. The herd produces little originality and even less intellectual leadership. “The surest way to corrupt a young man,” wrote Nietzshe, “is to teach him to esteem more highly those who think alike than those who think differently.”

And what does that mean for those of us who are teachers? That we should protect our students from being reduced to disciples, that we must welcome challenges, even — no especially — those that threaten to unravel all that we believe in. “The ‘Silly’ question,” said Alfred North Whitehead, “is the first intimation of some totally new development.”

So to you students I say, be a rebel. You want to pierce your body and cover yourself with tattoos, be my guest. But all that is cosmetic and superficial. Be a real rebel — a thought rebel. Question, critique, accept nothing at face value. Lies and half-truths have a way of surviving only where complacency thrives. In China, when they describe their educational system, they often speak of stuffing the duck, an analogy to how they take a feed tube and blow grain down the gullet of a duck to fatten it up. Such an approach works well in a society that preaches subordination of the individual to the state. Here, it is your responsibility not to become the duck.

What is it I am suggesting? That you practice a kind of enlightened selfishness. Do what makes you feel good about yourself, what makes you feel whole. My wife and I adopted two sons from Korea. Some people said “how giving, how selfless.” Nonsense. It was a distinctly selfish act. We wanted children. That we may inadvertently have done something good along the way is fine, but we did it for us not them. It was the farthest thing from charity. But at a certain point selfishness and selflessness may intersect because it is hard to feel whole if we are isolated and disconnected from the community around us. So take part in this community, give to it because it feels good to do so, and give what matters — your time and talents.

Finally, I would say, do not merely attend the university, attack it. It’s there to be plundered. I remind you, you are not here to serve the university; the university is here to serve you. Look beyond the columns and the pomp, the credentialism and resumes. These years are yours. Hoist the Jolly Roger, have a heck of a good time, be selfish, but in a way that respects others’ rights to do the same. The university is a community, but it is built around the sanctity of the individual. It does not merely suffer eccentricity or tolerate individualism, it depends upon them for its life’s blood. Any attempt to stifle the unique, to weed out the unorthodox, to render education formulaic, to value answers more than questions, is contrary to everything I would like to think a university stands for.

There is a line in a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins I like very much. The poem begins “Glory be to God for dappled things.” It is a celebration of the diversity of creation. One line in particular I am drawn to: “All things counter, original, spare, strange.” These are the things that make the world intriguing, that enrich our lives, and that make the university the rich place that it is.

So allow me in my own wobbly way to welcome you to Case Western Reserve University. May your time be well spent, steeped in distractions, intellectual indulgences, and profitable setbacks. Let no one choose your course but you. Thank you.


Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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