Academics are not necessarily scholars and scholars are not necessarily academics: Academics basically pass on a body of knowledge; scholars, on the other hand, aim to modify and/or expand the traditional body of critical knowledge to be passed on to each generation.
If fortunate, s/he gets to retire, but then is faced with “what next?” Perhaps s/he will teach another year or two as a faculty adjunct, attend a few more professional conferences, write another article or two, perhaps post a blog, and then, time running out, write a final book—but what then? Advanced old age, arthritis, aches and pains are fast catching up; imperceptibly s/he slows down, strength is not what it once was, balance is awful. Children want mom and dad nearer to them for their/our sake and that of the grandchildren. S/He resists. But finally faces reality: future days are limited.
S/He looks around; the family home needs repair and paint, neglected for the pursuit of scholarship (Alles für die Wissenschaft, right? ); dozens of boxes filled with various stages of research, half finished articles, books completed or begun, and forty or fifty years of living in the same location, a scholar’s library of books lining every available wall in the house, its value now diminished in the digital age—but surrender the books? An incredible thought!
S/He begins dumping boxes of files, resolving only to preserve photographs that may have historical value—professional ideas consigned to the ages in that which s/he has published. Each dumped file a creative process, either completed and published or paused, representing months of work around the world in conferences, museums, libraries, on ancient archaeological sites. Each dumped file is one piece of the movement toward achieving the goal of reducing the carbon footprint and facilitating the move nearer children, but it comes at the cost of obliterating who s/he was: a scholar.
Unfortunately this scenario, or something similar, is the way of all flesh: you can’t keep things forever, and you cannot take them with you. There is a proverb, probably traditional, that the evangelist John appropriates to conclude Jesus’ address to Peter in John 21:18; the proverb succinctly summarizes the plaintive situation of those of us who live into advanced old age:
When you were young, you dressed yourself and walked where you wished; but when you become old you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.
Alas, obsolescence is the way of the world: things eventually wear out, become ineffectual, and pass into oblivion—museums and libraries, on the other hand, are our ways of ensuring that we never completely forget, a way of ensuring immortality for some. Recognizing the way of the world for what it is should bring us neither to the edge of despair nor resigned acceptance, but it should disturb us enough to “rage rage against the dying of the light”—evoking for good or ill lines by Dylan Thomas:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.*
Rather they begin filling new collections of boxes. That is the way of the human spirit.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-52 (New York: New Directions, 1957), 128.