Earlier this month I was invited to give opening remarks at the Plenary Session of The Left Forum held on Pace University’s New York City campus. Since Dyson College is a broad-based liberal arts college whose goal is to transform the lives of our students by providing them with access to a top-notch education, engaging them with the community, raising their awareness of global issues and ways to address them, and preparing them to go out into the world as leaders and change agents, it was fitting that we hosted this major conference. I’m pleased that our faculty and students have become engaged with the intellectual discourse and broad perspectives represented at the conference each year. You can watch the video here (fast forward to 7:20 to get to my part) or read my remarks below.
We live in challenging times, times that require resilience, ingenuity, patience, unflagging fortitude and a strong belief in the ultimate ability of the human race to overcome obstacles and strive for good. Around us we see events of apocalyptic proportions: earthquakes in China, Haiti, New Zealand and Chile; storms, floods and major droughts; global warming and unusually bitter cold winters; wars and threats of major pandemics.
More than this we see the world order changing, with major clash of cultures underway and rapid changes in the global power struggles that leave us breathless.
Closer to home, we see the gridlock of our national political institutions, a greater interest in partisanship than in solving problems that benefit the nation as a whole, and the loss of hard-earned rights.
On a more personal level, recently scholars have reported that many college students show no improvement in the higher level thinking skills after two years of college. While liberal arts students as a group do better than students in the professional schools, this is scant comfort when our society needs the best the next generation can offer!
How can we respond? How do we balance between hope and despair?
Paradoxically, I find myself turning to the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, you may recall, was the founder and the first king of Corinth. According to Greek mythology, he was punished by the gods for revealing their secrets and condemned to roll a large rock up a mountain every day, only to have to watch it roll back down to the bottom of the slope just before he reaches the mountaintop.
When people ask me what is the most critical characteristic for a university administrator, I always answer, “You have to have a Sisyphus Complex!”
By this I mean that you have to rise to the challenge every day, with enough hope and optimism to take on the challenge of rolling the rock up the hill again; you have to be able to take satisfaction in the task itself and enjoy the view from halfway up the mountain; you have to understand that much gets accomplished during these daily trips to the top, more than you might imagine(!), even when the rock goes back to the bottom at the end of the day. And despite the odds, you have to have the faith that maybe the gods will be merciful and generous, and THIS TIME, you might just make it to the top.
Increasingly, I find myself applying these precepts no just to my professional life, but to my world view as well. So I wish you all a Sisyphus Complex to carry you through life’s challenges.