I used to teach a general education requirement called “Quest for Values” at the former University of La Verne in Athens. The titles on the syllabus – Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – expressed worlds in crisis; no matter the culture, time, gender or race, crises, like an x-ray, exposed the bones of what lie beneath the skin of our assumptions, the discrepancies between what we say we believe and what we actually do.
“Write of a crisis” I urged: “any event that changed your perspective, revealed blind spots, made you view yourself differently.” It was an attempt to deconstruct the reasoning behind our beliefs. Sometimes I did the assignments with my students to suggest that knowledge is relative and learning ongoing. The speaker in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” tells us that he hates his job in Burma working for the British empire, stating: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing,” yet, he finds himself in a crisis that compromises him, and empties him of integrity despite his avowed dislike of a system he allows himself to be defined by.
The forced closure of our school and the subsequent reality of facing a jobless fall had me reexamining fundamental assumptions. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th Century. As the California representative in his tasteful suit sat eating a Greek salad “without oil,” I thought what better metaphor to describe the substanceless words served us. We were shut down without severance or so much as a letter to the faculty as the suited representative spoke of the respect he had for our program. But this is in the nature of self-interest; it never sees past its own thick skin. He even let one of our former counselors know the home campus would be needing her help with transferring students. “My help!” she exclaimed, a woman undergoing chemotherapy who had found out her health coverage was no longer viable: “who is going to help me?”
I think of another woman who had just had a thyroid operation, someone with three children. I think of our accountant who had co-signed checks for a loan for the reconstruction of our new campus, believing he was simply doing his job; I think of the absent school lawyer, the financial officer, the executive board, the president. And the accountant, again, who was told he would be taken to jail if the check couldn’t be cashed; in fateful confusion he gave his word that within the month the payment would be made while the California administration and the responsible parties in Athens remained absent and unwilling to help.
The accountant is telling me not to cry while I am on the phone with him. Suddenly I am ashamed for the man who orders his Greek salad without oil, ashamed for the entire administrative body who continue to be paid while people who have health problems or urgent financial difficulties are left unassisted. I am ashamed of the fact that as individuals associated with an institution of education those in authority have proved themselves such sad examples of what constitutes basic human values.
Former ULV Athens Faculty Member