The Professor and the Would-Be Monk

This summer my wife and I participated in a seminar on vocation in higher education. One of the readings was Pierre de Calan’s Cosmas, or the Love of God. We and our colleagues found this book provocative and helpful in thinking about the role of vocation in higher education and how an intense vocational drive may not actually line up very well with what one thinks one’s vocation to be.

In Cosmas, the title character believes that God has called him to become a monk in a Cistercian abbey. He arrives for his novitiate having memorized the Rule of St. Benedict, which governs life there, and with a thorough knowledge of Benedictine theology. As the narrator, the novice-master Father Roger, recalls, “Both his faith and his vocation seemed to be a matter of course. Just as he had never had the slightest doubt about the meaning of his call, so he seemed never to have been at all troubled by his religious beliefs. For him faith was more a state in which he happened to be than a grace or a virtue.”

Academics know that the foundation of higher education lies in the monastic tradition, which is one reason this book resonated with us at the seminar. Like monasteries, at least until recently, colleges had a range of traditions, norms, and processes that clearly marked the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Moreover, both sets of institutions—as human constructions and thus subject to human fallibilities—can have stark gaps between their ideals and the reality of life within them.

Cosmas, Father Roger, and the abbot struggle throughout the book with this dilemma between reality and the ideal. Cosmas cannot reconcile his lived experience with the ideals that led him to believe in his calling in the first place: “He described the gulf between the monastic life as he had previously imagined it and its day-to-day reality; he spoke of the contrast between the time spent in prayer in the church and the other activities, which all seemed so remote from the religious ideal.”

Cosmas cannot accommodate himself to permanently forsaking the world, or, more precisely, to the cloistering that is a requirement of life at the abbey. He twice leaves, once under the cover of darkness and without permission, to take a break from its realities and closeness. What he never seems to see, though, is that his inability to deal with being cloistered makes it impossible for him ever to be what he believes he must be as a monk.

Over the past few weeks, I have thought often of Cosmas’s story. I remember aspiring to graduate school and a professorship because what I saw as an undergraduate was the truly wonderful things about academic life: the devotion to scholarship and learning, the intellectual engagement, the connection to a great tradition, and the time flexibility.

I know that many future scholars share those feelings, which motivate them, still, to take the enormous risk of pursuing doctorates in fields where the chances of professional success are close to nil. As many critics of graduate education have noted, every potential Ph.D. student believes, and somehow must believe, that he or she can be an exception to the rules of the job market, just as Cosmas somehow persists in believing he can be a monk even as he proves temperamentally unsuited to a monk’s existence.

But Cosmas’s story has another important lesson. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to make the transition from idealistic undergraduate to experienced academic professional know that there is an immense gap between the bucolic vision of intellectually engaged collegiate experience and what academic life is really like. Teaching and scholarship, our equivalent of Cosmas’s “time spent in prayer,” turn out to be only a small part of scholarly life. Our colleagues disappoint us with their quarrelsomeness, bullying, and irrationality, as we surely disappoint them.

The operations of our institutions—committee work, frustrations with parking, budget cuts, dealing with the legislature or the board, students’ lack of dedication or acuity, and so on—can blur or even hide from us why we went into higher education in the first place. It becomes disconcertingly easy to lose sight of our original motivations and simply to give up, as Cosmas seems to do even as he continues to claim dedication to his original vision of his vocation.

Anyone who cares to reflect on his or her relationship to an academic career will, I think, find contemplating Cosmas’s struggles, and the struggles of those around him at the abbey, to be a provocation to further thought about his or her own work. It would be a desperate shame to lose the idealism that still underwrites a great deal of higher education, but for that idealism to survive in any viable form, it must be founded on a wise perspective about what things are really like, and a sensible strategy to deal with the gap between those poles.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user AlicePopkorn2]

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