I Can't Be Serious

Whenever I go to airports or out to lunch in major cities, I see all these men and women yakking into cell phones, wearing nice suits, talking about money, strategy. Maybe they are heart surgeons or investment bankers. Who knows? It just seems like the world hangs on their decisions. Stuff happens as a result of their choices: buildings go up, markets expand, new devices are developed. And if they screw up, there are real consequences as well.

And then I think about what I do. What consequences are there if I fail to correct some kid's semicolon error? Will the stock market crash or India implode if I give a C- on an essay that should have gotten a D? Perhaps it would be different if I were in the sciences or social sciences. Perhaps my research would affect real change. But who needs another take on the Iliad or Moby-Dick? Who wants another re-hash of Plato's Apology? Sometimes my job doesn't seem like serious work.

I remember from grad school a professor who was an expert on John Milton. He was an amazing guy (even though he looked like someone who just came into the building to get warm). I remember him beginning class one night by saying, "Well, I suppose I better get started. The state of Illinois expects its money's worth." This struck me as funny. I hadn't really considered it before, but Illinois actually employed a professional Miltonist (probably more than one). And I wondered if there ever arose a situation in which a state official or bureaucrat down in Springfield would shout to an aide or secretary: "Where's our Miltonist! Get him down here right away! We've got a serious situation on our hands."

Not that I'm griping too much, mind you. I love teaching. I can't think of a better job than coming to work and talking about big ideas with a room full of students. I suppose, too, that the world does need its Miltonists. Still, it's fairly hard to define what that need actually is. Someone once pointed out to the great English poet W. H. Auden that "there was no money in poetry." Auden is said to have responded by pointing out that "there's no poetry in money either."


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