When I came to interview for the job I currently hold, the first question my interviewer asked was, “So you’re a Camel?” This might seem odd, except I am, in fact a Camel. And as his question would imply, so is he. The Camel is, of course, the mascot of my distinguished New England Alma Mater, Connecticut College. Yes we have a good basketball team. No, you are thinking of UConn. This is the one in New London. Small, private, liberal arts? Like Wellesley and Bates? Never mind.
Anyway, this fellow alumnus of mine loaned me a book, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage. I have detailed before how remarkable I find it that weather reports cover my zip code and that anything that happens in my life might get covered in any detail. This book took that concept to the next level. It is a discussion of the Supreme Court eminent domain case (Kelo vs. the City of New London), generated right there on the sleepy banks of the Thames. It takes place in large part during exactly my tenure at that fine institution. And it talks about people I know.
Claire Gaudiani was the president of the college during my full stay. She was about as far as you could get from tweed smoking jackets. She believed she was extremely sexy (that was up for debate among those of us under 40). She was extremely powerful and hated getting crossed in any way. She was eloquent, energetic, determined and dynamic. She did some excellent things for the college: much of the ambition, renovation and reconstruction of the college was her doing. She pushed to college forward to be a little less sleepy and complacent, and a little more willing to try to become a world class institution with a highly forgettable name. There was much she did for Conn that was to be commended.
Then there was the weird stuff. Her wardrobe was largely written off as a different version of academic eccentricity by many of we students. The art work, on the other hand… well, I personally liked “Synergy” which we called the kissing blue french fries. The sundial was ok. But some of the other random artwork (I’m looking at you styrofoam blocks in Cummings) was just weird.
Then there was the bad stuff. She ran roughshod over dissent. She once told me that she preferred to ask forgiveness rather than permission. She didn’t believe in balancing budgets. She was the sort of person who believed, “If you build it, the funding will come.” This was partially true, and partially not. The book I read was all about the bad stuff. Namely, she lead a redevelopment consortium (not really bad — it had some excellent goals) that used increasingly dire and destructive means in order to obtain those excellent goals. She never quite got that the ends did NOT justify the means, and paid for it dearly in the end.
If Claire (as we all called her — no one called her Dr. Gaudiani, ever), was the villain of the book, one of the heroes was a Connecticut College professor named Fred Paxton. The crux of their conflict was the year 2000. In the year 2000, Dr. Paxton and I spent a lot of time together. Every Thursday, he would eat dinner with me in the cafeteria, and we’d go over my honor’s thesis. He wasn’t actually my thesis advisor. (I remember one meal when he and I tried to work out how and why it had transpired that way.) After that, we’d go to “Death, Dying and the Dead” which was just about my favorite course in all of college. It was a 400 level history course, which I was taking as an elective. That year for spring break, I drove out to Missoula Montana with my family to meet up with him and tour the school of Music Thanatology where he taught during breaks from Conn. We had dinner. There’s a picture of the two of us standing overlooking Missoula on an early spring day.
Of all the fantastic and excellent professors at Conn, he was probably the one who gave me the most, with the least formal reasons for it. (He was never my advisor or had any formal assignment to me. And in addition to teaching a full load and running the opposition to the eminent domain in Fort Trumbull, he was the director for one of our big programs). At the time, I knew the whole NLDC thing was bad. I knew that there were tensions between him and Claire (this whole saga was a serious argument for the tenure system, let me assure you). I knew that he was catching heat.
I just had no idea how much, or what this all signified, until I read about it in a book.
I’ve admired Professor Paxton for 12 years. I’ve never admired him more than I do now, having finished this book. The activism, that’s awesome. The community organizing. The taking on of burdens of people who were not his obligation. (Recognize a theme there?) But you know what really, really caught me up short in this book? When he comes back from Sabbatical, Professor Paxton returns to a hornet’s nest. He tries to figure out what’s up. He goes to the NLDC offices and spends hours upon hours reading source documents to understand the plan the NLDC is putting forth. Having read all this raw material, he digests it and comes to his own conclusions on what it means, where the opportunities are, and what the consequences will be.
THAT’S the bit that floors me. That might be the hardest thing to do. It is so easy to listen to an interpretation of an event or conflict, and follow along. It’s simple to take comparisons of rhetoric, and go with the best sounding. But to go to the sources, do the work of extrapolation yourself, figure out what it means, and then figure out what the consequences are for you and your values? I can hardly think of any examples of when I’ve seen that. I know, to my chagrin, I’ve hardly ever done that. That is so hard. But can you imagine how much better the world would be if we all pulled a Paxton, went to the sources and interpreted them for ourselves? What if we all actually read the Healthcare bill, offered constructive criticism based on our expertise, and figured out what we thought for ourselves? What if we took the hornet’s nests in our own lives, and instead of just listening to our favorite and trusted sources, took a neutral investigative look? Man, I’d settle for even our journalists doing that!
I take the example seriously. It’s a good thing to remember, as the rhetoric gets more heated and polarized. Dig into the policies. Avoid the rhetoric. Look at what underlies the politics, not the personalities expressed. Find out how this all lines up with your values. Then take the actions that are right, without recklessness or fear.
Thank you again, Dr. Paxton, for teaching me.