In Defense of the Ivory Tower

Obligatory tower photo:

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Truly, those are words I never thought I would write. Perhaps a more accurate title would be, “A Particularly Limited and Nuanced Partial Defense of the the Ivory Tower,” but let’s face it, that’s pretty wishy-washy.

For the last two weeks, it has been my honor and privilege to participate in Virginia Tech’s Global Perspectives Program, under the direction of Dean Karen DePauw. As part of the class, 14 graduate students from all eight colleges traveled throughout Switzerland (with forays into France and Italy) in order to learn about university systems and education abroad. That’s an incredibly dry and inadequate description of a life-changing experience, but it will have to do.

It would be easy to fill a post with dramatic images of mountains, castles, and cathedrals, but that would entirely miss the value and aim of the program. Because while a picture may be worth a thousand words, words have power, too. And that power cannot be captured through the lens of a point-and-shoot. I suspect many of my fellow students would agree that the real heart and soul of the Global Perspectives Program was found in the discussions that took place at universities, in Villa Maderni, on trains and buses, and over cups of cappuccino. These were discussions about the future of the university system, and it’s role and purpose in the the global community. And while at home we tout the importance of interdisciplinarity, this program made it happen.

Now for the defense of the Ivory Tower part. The class brought together all of Virginia Tech’s colleges, and forced us to get out of our own research, sit down, and talk to each other. We were in, as Joy Thompson termed it, a “fancy bubble.” But this was not a transparent, empty bubble. When you bring together a group with a common goal, a healthy dose of critical analysis – and most importantly – the freedom to speak without fear of repercussion, you create an environment where things can actually happen.

This is something that is, at best, difficult out in the “real” world. In the “real” world, we are quick to judge, and default to negative criticism (why it won’t work), as opposed to constructive criticism (how might). Let’s face it, it is easy to see the problems in the world, and I would like to believe that higher education has a more interesting role than simply pointing out the obvious. But no matter how much we might want to put our ideas out there in order to make something better, that fear of being torn down has likely killed off more good ideas than anything else ever has.

After a few days in the nearly literal ivory tower of the Global Perspectives Program, that fear was almost nonexistent. People spoke up, and spoke out. Ideas flew, and we saw where each of our fields needed the others. I do not believe this could have happened without some insulation from the outside world.

As we all know, such a tower can only be of value if it has a set of stairs: ones that are harder to climb than to go down. We live in the real world, and I know few people who can be truly satisfied if their work seems removed from the pressing problems we face. What is important, as with all aspects of life, is to have some space for processing and reflection – time to gather our thoughts and decide what to do next.

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