“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”—thus, Wordsworth over two centuries ago, bemoaned man’s disconnect from the natural world and meaningful lives. Universities these days are exhorted to prepare students for the “real world”. But what that “reality” is, puzzles me.
In one sense, there is a depressing soul-numbing banality to our daily lives. As the Fool told Jacques, “From hour to hour, we ripe and ripe/And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;/And thereby hangs a tale.” Surely we do not need Universities to teach students to cope with that tedium—picking out the best buys from a selection of toilet paper or tooth pastes, parking cars, changing diapers, filing tax forms and other drearies (to coin a word). The ‘real world” is one where many trudge through their working days longing for the weekends when they can begin to live. We always ask people how their weekends went, not their week. Do we need courses in coping with tedium or preparing for the weekend?
We could of course, prepare them for other realities. Beyond death and taxes, there are other certainties, the “resonant lies” that Auden warned us about in his Ode to Terminus. That our students will find themselves in a thicket of lies in the real world is more than certain. We can prepare them well by giving them the right tools. In the sciences, much is made of critical appraisal where students are taught to assess peer-reviewed articles and analyze publications. That is all well and good, but the more dangerous lies have rarely been subject to peer review. They lie buried elsewhere in the minutes of Committee meetings, confidential reports etc. I think it was David Halberstam in his brilliant analysis of the Kennedy administration, who noted the significance of selective “minuting” in skewing decisions. Perhaps an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary mandatory course in “Institutional Lying” can be very useful.
Philip Larkin found himself in a church where he mused on what would become of such sacred spaces, “In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/ Are recognized, and robed as destinies.” To me, the University much like a church, is a sacred space, where one melds the richness of the past with the exuberance of the future. It is that richness of the real world that we can pass on to our students, not just its banalities.
I am a basic biologist and most, though not all, of my courses deal with biological mechanisms that underly the very marrow of our existence, the stuff we are made of, so to speak. The words and concepts, I use, (receptors, inverse agonists, G-proteins, allosteric modulators, constitutive activities etc.), may seem a trifle arch but these can, and have, made their way from bench to boardroom and beyond. In addition, our daily lives, loves, behaviors, misbehaviors stem from responses to such molecules.
None of what I teach may help my students deal directly with their quotidian vicissitudes; in a deeper sense though, they may realize that underlying all their actions, their fears, hopes, loves and despairs are molecular interactions whose mysteries have been probed and defined by their own species adding to the rich tapestry of human expression and creativity. We are, ourselves, part of that wonderful world that Wordsworth wanted us to be in touch with. Truly the unknown psalmist got it right when he said “Oh Lord, How manifold are Thy works! In Wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches”
What better way for a university to fulfill its role than opening the windows to their students to that wonderful world, the REAL one?
P.K. Rangachari is currently Professor (Emeritus) of Medicine at McMaster University. Depending on the emphasis placed, that word emeritus could imply he has much merit, none whatsoever or only in cyberspace. He has a medical degree (M.B.B.S. 1966) from the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India and a Ph.D. (Pharmacology) from the U. of Alberta (1972). He drifted into medical school due to a bureaucratic blunder that derailed his efforts to become an organic chemist. However he was lucky. He had great teachers in the basic sciences and so after graduation, he left his stethoscope behind and began a peripatetic existence moving from lab to lab in several continents, finally landing up at McMaster University in Canada, some thirty plus years ago.
P.K. Rangachari’s experimental research focused on the effects of inflammatory mediators on ion transport in smooth muscles and epithelia. He has taught students in undergraduate science, liberal arts, nursing, medicine, physiotherapy and pharmacy. He has sought to bridge the two cultures (the sciences and the humanities) by designing interdisciplinary courses or encouraging students to express their learning through more creative outlets such as framing conversations, writing reviews and plays. He is blessed that he is blissfully ignorant so he can wake up each day convinced that there is so much more to learn. His students fortunately help him in that regard.