This column originally appeared in the Fall 2003 Participant.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria (chapter 14, 1817), called drama “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” The suspension of disbelief is an interlude when we drop our guard, willingly flowing with the action taking place on the stage or the page before us. For a little while we are able to join in the fun, tragic or comic, where the unreal and untrue is artfully contrived to beguile and entertain. Fiction can be described as a form of play with the imagination, a time-out from the paramount reality of life. As an English professor, fiction, and in particular, drama, has always been a close friend of mine, an intimate.
In our post-modernist times, the boundaries of art and life can be confounding, and, at times, difficult to distinguish. These hot August days of California summer have brought us an interesting turn in the history of state politics, and possibly a new brand of drama. Between the time I write this Participant column and it sees print there is a distinct possibility that a new governor of California will be elected having accrued a tiny plurality of the recall/election votes costing budget-plagued citizens of the state an additional $75 million at minimum. The news media’s reaction to this chain of curious events appears to be rationalizing the potential benefits of such an outcome. This play with the election process makes me uneasy, and glancing through the morning’s papers at other local and national news only serves to deepen my concerns about fiction and reality. I read that shortness of stature (subjectively perceived) has been redefined as a correctable medical condition, that organized religion and the federal government are reinventing the debate over the normalcy of nonheterosexual orientations and what logical limits should be placed on gay rights, and that intelligent professional women are crippling themselves with the latest shoe fashions (I tuck my feet under the chair as I write this for no particular reason, thank you). In the coming months, in what other ways will we be challenged to suspend disbelief? Leaving aside the whole realm of geopolitical theatrics, how much more can the boundary blur? I imagine the answer will be entertaining, and disconcerting.
Just more than a year ago, my family moved into Harvard House and I began my work as President of Pitzer College. This is a good place to be in uncertain times. Daily I find that my interaction with brilliant and diverse faculty, students and staff keeps my feet on the ground. Reality in the world beyond the Pitzer College campus may be adrift, but the critical atmosphere of the liberal arts college campus provides a vantage point, based in intellectual traditions, that gives us a grip. There is a glaring irony at this historical moment that reverses the trite observation that the “real” and the academic worlds are hopelessly divided. The perspective of a Pitzer College education, which brings a questioning that is based on ethics, logic, an appreciation of history, principled and creative thought, and social activism, is a tradition that has never been more needed or more real than at the present time.
Part of our ability to play our role in this period of history stems from our youth, and that is something that we can also turn on its head, something of which we can be proud. Last year emeritus faculty member Carl Hertel sent me a letter expressing his thoughts about the College. Carl wrote that experimental colleges of the 1960s like Pitzer were meteor-like. That is, it was their nature to burst brilliantly across the academic skies and then disappear forever. Yet Pitzer remained long after others had vanished. After 40 years it is clear that we are more a comet and less a meteor. We reappear over and over again as light and direction are needed. In an era of photo ops and sound bytes, when some technological innovations have a shelf life of six months before they go stale and are replaced, when enormous corporations burst into being and then explode leaving employees and stockholders penniless, 40 years is a long time.
The world outside has changed and so has Pitzer College. Our earliest graduates are approaching retirement. The generational wave that followed them are senior members of their organizations. As for faculty, this past year saw the retirements of Susan Seymour, Ann Stromberg, and Jackie Levering-Sullivan. In the spring, the respected and beloved Barbara Beechler passed away, and this summer we bid an emotional final farewell to John Rodman. This issue of the Participant, with its emphasis on the environment, is dedicated to John. He was a driving force in the environmental movement. John founded our Environmental Studies Program and poured his considerable energy into creating gardens to emphasize regionally compatible species. All of these members of the community personify the Pitzer scholar, a person who is grounded in concerns for the world we live in, who is influential within the academy, and someone who leaves a practical legacy. Pitzer College’s faculty embodies Gloria Anzaldua’s observation: “I change myself, I change the world.”
Last year we proclaimed that as a college we had come of age. That is true. Our academic success is remarkable, and this year we celebrate a national record of graduating six Fulbright Fellowship recipients in one year. We will continue to build on what we have already accomplished: This and all our future years will be years of accomplishment. Our goal will be to raise the College to the next level of achievement and recognition. We will do that by continuing our tradition of preparing students who are committed to positive goals of creating social change, integrating our students with different cultures, and by becoming even more publicly well known. We will do so as our faculty continue to make their mark within their disciplines and, I am confident, in their tradition of speaking out as experts and citizens on social issues. There has never been a time when our identity as an institution has been more needed to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and there has never been a time when we have been more ready and respected as an institution. As concerned as I am about the willing drift of the popular mind and social events toward a fictionalization of reality, I am proud to be a part of an institution that refuses to suspend disbelief when it comes to issues vital to the welfare of our fellow beings. Let us rededicate ourselves to our tradition of full participation in maintaining reason and relevancy during these interesting times.