I didn’t know what I was going to say to you today. Only on the train, on the way in here, did it become clear. I realised that I’d been given the very thing that had to be said.
Absent-mindedly driving to work yesterday, I stopped at traffic lights. Waiting to cross the road were a mother with a toddler in a stroller. The child was turning around to engage the mother and something about the intensity of their moment shook me from my half-life. I saw them: I saw how alive they were. For them, everything in the world was unfolding from this moment together, whereas for me it was only the empty time between leaving home and arriving at work. At the corner of Darley and King Streets, Newtown, at 11.10am on Thursday 2/11/17, two worlds touched, one a half-world of befores and laters and the other a vital moment of here and now.
What came to mind, unsought, was Pieter Bruegels’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and Auden’s poem about it, Musée des Beaux-Arts. These two have been constant reference points in my adult life. When I got my first academic job, at Macquarie University in 1984, the first and almost only decoration in my office was a print of the painting, with Auden’s poem glued to its back. Somewhat pompously, perhaps, it was to remind me of the role of sociologists: to witness the suffering that would otherwise go unnoticed. In 1989, the picture came with me to my office at UNSW, and it stayed for decades, until the foxing became too embarrassing.
This is how the poem begins:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
The poem and picture came to mind yesterday because I realised that Auden was wrong, or perhaps more right than he knew. Certainly I had been wrong. What Auden was saying about suffering was also true of joy, or wonder, or love, or the miracle of the universe unfolding at a particular corner in Newtown. What I saw was that, every day, we witness what is really important, without acknowledging it. We nearly always drive pass.
Because this picture had been an emblem of my career, my revelation yesterday lets me re-evaluate that career, from the point, today, of my retirement.
It makes me realise that here, at UNSW, we are up to our necks in untidy spots where the universe happens when most people are just walking dully along. In Colombo Theatre B, or CLB 5, or Mathews D, or Morven Brown LG2, there are unnoticed miracles unfolding at any Monday or Wednesday or Friday, at 10am and 2pm and 7pm.
In those classes there will be students, and students and teachers, engaged with each other and with their class. The classroom will be sacred space, as intimate and boundless as here. Time will hold its breath to see what potential now unfolds. Carried by love and wonder, the students and teachers are seeing knowledge, and each other, and the world, develop and grow through their live engagement. The students are not learning in order to pass future exams or get a future job. They are learning because learning itself matters, they know, beyond doubt, in these moments of creation. Whatever else they are learning, they are learning how to live, with difference and respect and love and wonder.
University administrators, with governance policies and corporate visions, believe that what matters at university can be measured in future outcomes, and marks, and rankings, and that it must be led from the top and must be policed to ensure compliance. Perhaps it is fortunate, then, that they are usually too important and busy to notice the here and now of ordinary classrooms.
How lucky, then, are those of us who still engage in those classrooms. How lucky we are to be continually brought back to the reality of what matters.
How lucky have I been!
From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the good friends and colleagues and students and the disciplines that have allowed and encouraged me to research and write and, especially, teach. You have blessed my life. Whenever I was in despair, you reminded me of what really matters and kept my life alive.
I wish you all well. I trust that you hold onto your gratitude for the good fortune that made you teachers. I trust you keep up the good fight for what really matters at university.