Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

On the Final

Posted by Ron Coleman on September 21, 2007

I have been pondering this link from Instapundit for a couple of days now.  It is about, in one sense, a cutesie trend on American campuses now called a “last lecture”: 

Schools such as Stanford and the University of Alabama have mounted “Last Lecture Series,” in which top professors are asked to think deeply about what matters to them and to give hypothetical final talks. For the audience, the question to be mulled is this: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance?

Now the lecture in question in the article really was the last chance, for all practical purposes, for the professor involved, who is dying.  I was, however, rather put off by this idea.  The man was facing his end, I realized; how churlish could I be about such a topic?

On the eve of Yom Kippur, however — when among Jews the congregation as a whole admits to a state of sinfulness generically, but as individuals reserves the most intimate of confession for the private communication between Man and his Creator — I’ve had the chance to contemplate the matter some more.  Regrettably for those among us who circulate heart-warming emails and who yet care about my opinion (uh, hi, Mom), I want to go with my initial instinct, at least as to the general trend; as to the case in the article, perhaps that requires more thought. 

The “last lecture” trend is truly the emblem of ours, history’s most narcisstic era. It is true that in ancient times, the few close students of a great master would gather around his deathbed, seeking the last traces of wisdom and, perhaps, blessing.  But I am not aware of an historic practice of such a “master” (a concept that is dubious enough in the context of the modern academy) assembling hundreds of his (paying) students for a public tribute to himself, his legacy and his supposed accumulation of wisdom at the end of his days. 

These public “me-athons” are one thing, and are questionable enough as it is; but the idea of engaging in such self-indulgence when that end is, in fact nowhere near at all only brings to mind the interminable “retirement tours” of the never-say-never cash-driven performers of today, from Roger Clemons to Michael Jordan to the Who, who refuse to get off stage as long as the ka-ching of the cash register refuses to die.  (Which it never does, for another symptom of the Me Generation is obsession with reliving its mythically perfect childhood, a phenomenon that goes beyond nostalgia to virtually infinite replication of Then.)  How often does one get to make one of these “good bye” lectures?  What if he changes his mind about the lessons of life?  I’m reminded of Steve Martin, offering to leave his audience with the one great piece of wisdom he has learned in life, but not remembering whether it began with “always” or “never.” 

And far be it from me to suggest that the popularity of these lectures has something to do with the fact that, like the famous television show, they are about nothing.  By all indications even these ego-fests, which presume broad humane “wisdom” must emanate from a person by virtue of his expertise in bacteriology, French Medieval literature or basket-weaving, are not part of the curriculum.  No, students, this will not “be on the final.” 

But surely my withering gaze does not extend to the really dying professor, for whom Final has a very different meaning?  Well, far be it from me, too, to deny a man whose mortality is facing him a small pleasure of the mind and a large one of the ego.  It warmed his heart to feel loved by the students who came to hear him, and, like an episode of Oprah, the audience surely felt they had been part of creating a meaningfully transcendant emotional experience for a worthy person. 

But still I believe the phenomenon would be unthinkable except in an age in which limits on self-revelation are gauche, private struggles are public fodder and — lacking spiritual guidance, and taught in these very academies that there are no absolute truths, and being essentially illiterate on the topics that matter most in men’s struggles for meaning in this world — even those engaged in the pursuit of supposedly higher education must take doses of Profundity from whatever fount it seems to spout.  What dies here is, above all, dignity, and all the more so when imminent death is not an imagined intellectual game, but real.

So the Last Lecture will live on, whether or not the lecturers do.  That is our fallen state. 

I would think that people so obsessed with their own observations would be satisfied to just get a blog.

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12 Responses to “On the Final”

  1. You raise good points, but in the end I think it comes down to the details of each case. Is this something the professors sign up for, or is it something they’re asked to do (and are they compensated for it in any way besides recognition)? Are students required to attend, or is it simply an option, like having any other speaker come to campus?

    If the answer is that the professor is asked to do this as a favor to the school and students are invited to attend then I suspect this may be far better than, say, paying tens of thousands of dollars to someone like George Stephanopoulos to say what he thinks about the upcoming election (as Virginia Tech did about a year and a half ago). These lectures won’t always be full of dazzling brilliance, but they may be a way for, say, a chemistry professor to connect his studies to those of, say, philosophy in a way he can’t in Advanced Organic Chemistry 402.

  2. Jody said

    I think as when judging the morality of all things, intent matters. (Note that intent doesn’t matter for judging the utility of things, but that’s a separate question not addresed in this post)

    A last lecture could be a self-indulgence or it could be someone’s sincere desire to help the world as much as possible in the little time they have left. It really depends on the intent. Or as the other Hokie says, it comes down to the details of each case.

  3. zach. said

    Ron,

    you are truly a curmudgeon.

    why do you insist on attributing the worst possible motives to the entire group of people discussed in your post. as if it must, of course, be about ego and narcissism to take a last best stab at imparting whatever meager wisdom one might have accumulated throughout his or her years. Is it not rather narcissistic and a stroke to your ego to believe you can divine the intent and motives behind the actions of another?

  4. No.

    More significantly, though, I didn’t question people’s motivations. To the contrary, I suggest that they are products of a culture that has left them bereft of not only answers, but the means to find them, as well as of dignity and self-respect.

    And, Zach, to some extent I did anticipate your point in my last sentence. To some extent.

  5. Jody said

    More significantly, though, I didn’t question people’s motivations.

    But you did question their morals (see “self-indulgence”, “narcissism”, and “ego-fests”). And motivations are intricately wrapped up in morals. So moral judgement cannot be passed without an assessment of motivations.

    This is also the source of the maxim that one shouldn’t judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Merely by looking at outcomes, you can’t judge morality, only utility.

  6. I am giving my critical opinion about the trend and the culture that produces it. But it is an odd reaction — “don’t judge” — perhaps this means the end of blogging and punditry! Is there some reason college professors are not to be judged but presidents, congressmen, “celebrities” and athletes are?

  7. craig mclaughlin said

    I’m with you, Ron. And did you notice that one of the lectures mentioned in the WSJ article was titled, “Get Over Yourself”? That made me laugh.

    FWIW, that guy seemed like a mensch, but if I’d been there I’d rather have had him teach me some computer science– a subject I gather he knows something about, I don’t need to be in his family moment. None of my business.

  8. zach said

    Ron,

    well, you seem to be saying it is IMPOSSIBLE for someone to have gathered any worthwhile knowledge even after a lifetime of learning. And thus to attempt to give a “last lecture” is the height of narcissism, because, really, what could these people possibly have to say that wasn’t (really) about themselves? Doesn’t that seem like a silly assumption?

  9. No, I’m not saying that at all, and while I can hardly imagine how what I said could suggest that, why, I am hereby clarifying any such impression:

    Some professors really are wise! And many or most are very sincere.

  10. But on further reflection, I submit they are not necessarily any wiser than mail carriers, plumbers, soldiers, preachers or farmers; and in some respects, they may actually have less valuable perspectives and are more prone to bias, because of the environments in which they work and their habits of mind, than another given person.

  11. zach said

    Ron,

    okay…then what are you saying, exactly? it’s a product of our narcissistic culture that some universities ask top professors to speak about their life experiences? why does it have to be narcissistic? why can’t it be a simple exchange of knowledge? i agree that wisdom does not always accompany knowledge, but presumably those professors being invited have some modicum of each. it would be one thing if the professors decided to organize their own last lectures well before their demise. it is quite another to simply be asked to speak by your university and to accept that request. as jody brought up earlier, i think the whole discussion hinges on motivations. no one is saying you cannot judge someone’s actions, but you must judge their actions in full knowledge of their reasons. to do otherwise is mere speculation.

  12. Bob Miller said

    This whole thing takes something basically serious (last words of eminent people) and transports it to the world of shtick and simulation. Does all education now need to have entertainment value to succeed?

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