I must speak to you about something that I can only formulate as the soul of the university. I begin, moreover, with a litany that may not seem entirely appropriate to this edifying setting: Enron. Arthur Andersen. Dynegy. Qwest. Tyco. Adelphia. ImClone. WorldCom. RiteAid. Xerox.
What went wrong? Those ten names, and the frauds associated with them, account for a loss of a half-trillion dollars in investment value, more than the gross national product of all but a dozen countries on our planet. That's not the whole story. In 1981, three U.S. companies found it necessary to restate their earnings; between 1997 and 2000, 700 companies had to. And clearly a lot more are doing so this year.
The problem goes far beyond fraud in a few highly visible companies, or the criminal behavior of "a few bad apples," or the half-truth that perverse incentives have led some CEOs to greedy behavior.
Look at another well-known corporation, GE, or specifically the perks a compliant board of directors lavished on the most admired CEO in America. Now, I believe Jack Welch when he says that he could have negotiated cash payments that would have cost more than all the wine and flowers and groceries and sports tickets and free newspapers he got from GE. Was he greedy? Sure, but why? The problem goes beyond greed: Jack Welch didn't see that he was disgracing his name and that of GE by seeking these trivial status markers.
We have become a culture not of greed, but of excess; that is, a society in which status is conferred by lavish consumption and display. In such a culture, greed is not enough; it's just a way of getting status. But status comes at a price: alienation from friends, neighbors, communities, and nature.
None of this would surprise the early Greek writers, who were convinced that there was a sequence in human affairs, expressed through three personifications. Koros, "satiety," really means having a full belly. Hybris, "overweening pride," is the feeling that you can do what you want and get away with it, even if it's arrogant or violent. And Ate-- blindness about who you are and where you are--will lead you to ruin.
Silly Greeks, to think such personifications represent a universal process. Silly, but I fear we may soon see that they were right. In a time of bloat, we think we can get away with things, and sooner or later we get blindsided. That applies to each of us as individuals, and, I fear, to our nation.
This situation would not seem surprising to these Greeks, nor to William Wordsworth, who, almost 200 years ago, saw what we are talking about quite clearly--affluence, alienation from nature, the inability of traditional cultural norms to inspire restraint, and, not least, blindness to what is around us and what could sustain us. It's all in his sonnet: "The world is too much with us, late and soon,/Getting and spending we lay waste our powers/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"
When you set foot on a college campus, do you ever feel that you are stepping onto sacred ground, into a place that has been set aside for something beyond getting and spending? Sometimes I even think that I am back in classical Athens: glorious buildings are rising up (perhaps not the Parthenon, but a much-needed parking deck), leadership is at a pinnacle with Pericles in command, intellectuals from all around the world are giving lectures, the fundamental nature of matter is being explored as atomic theory is formulated, everything is there--except one funny-looking old guy: Socrates.
Where is he in today's university, on this campus? Is he out there, buttonholing young people, challenging them to think through their assumptions, cross-examining them about the values that will shape their lives, teaching them the vocabulary and the techniques they need to be effective moral agents, and convincing them of that one ineluctable Socratic truth--that the unexamined life is not worth living?
Where is he? Is he locked out, sneered at as "irrelevant," or "impractical," ostracized into some remote curricular corner, asphyxiated with pedantries, forced to drink hemlock lest he corrupt the minds of the young with his incessant questioning and challenging of society's unexamined values? Or does his insistence on the examined life live on, not in a few courses, but in the heart and soul of the place, as the spirit that infuses greatness into a university?
Where is he in this university, and this country of ours, endangered as it is by the drive for status, greed, and bloat, and in danger of being blindsided? Where is he if our graduates, affluent, influential, well-intended, on some September morning look up, see those planes, watch those buildings crumble, breathe that smoke, and realize then that they need to rebuild their lives and have neither the words nor the tools to do the job?
Walking one afternoon, Socrates converses with his young friend Phaedrus about the things that really matter--inspiration, knowledge, madness, and, above all, love. But then, Socrates turns the talk to wealth, in a self-mocking, tongue-in cheek prayer:
Pan, my friend, and all the other gods who dwell here, make me beautiful--inside. And as for the externals, let them be compatible with what I have within.
Help me to remember that it's the wise person, and only the wise one, who is really rich.
May I have a pile of gold, but no more than a sensible man would try to carry around.
He turns to his young friend and says, "Is there anything else we should ask, Phaedrus?" Phaedrus says, "Just include me in your prayers, for friends have everything in common."
Socrates must have smiled. Phaedrus got it. He saw that he was not an isolated individual who looked after only his own wealth, status, or self. He was a friend, part of that wider community to which he was returning--just as we here today are friends, bound together by our devotion to an institution that has a special place in our hearts, a special heritage from its founders, and a special duty to perform. That's why we are here. Once we understand that, we can move forward.
And Socrates turns to Phaedrus and says, "Let's go."
-Connor is director of the National Humanities Center. These remarks are excerpted from his Founders' Day address.