Daring and Foolishness

Earlier this week, I was one of the 13 million American television viewers—along with uncounted millions of viewers in 200+ other countries–who tuned in to the Discovery Channel to watch Nik Wallenda walk across a gorge of the Grand Canyon on a two-inch steel cable. He carried a 30-foot-long balancing pole that weighed a little over forty pounds, and he wore no safety harness. Before starting the walk, he spoke very casually with the representatives of the Discovery Channel, indicating that they should let him know when they wanted him to start, and as if to provide a counterpoint to the extraordinary thing that he was about to attempt, he wore a blue t-shirt and somewhat faded, baggy blue jeans. In fact, during the walk, as the jeans flapped between his lower legs, I thought that he probably should have chosen some sort of tights, instead of the jeans, simply for reasons of freedom of movement and safety.

For the 22+ minutes that he was crossing the canyon, the camera angles shifted among close-ups of him and of his feet gliding slowly, step by step, along the wire, views from either side of the canyon that conveyed how far out into the thin air he was moving, views from the bottom of the canyon that conveyed how far he would plummet if he lost his balance, and dizzying panoramic shots that made the canyon walls seem to whirl by him, conveying how difficult it actually was for him to maintain any fixed sense of perspective.

Indeed, there was much about the walk that the camera could not convey. First, it was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the lip of that gorge, and the braided steel wire itself along which Wallenda was walking was hotter still. Second, it was also very windy, and Wallenda’s flapping pants legs and his stopping—stooping—at one point because of the wind gusts hardly conveyed what it must have been like to be buffeted regularly by 30- to 50-m.p.h. gusts rushing down and swirling up from the gorge. Third, as Wallenda moved along the wire, each step sent a vibration out over the wire that then returned. At one point these mixed vibrations became so pronounced that Wallenda had to stop—to stoop again—this time to let the wire relax. Finally, despite the multiple camera angles, the television images could only approximate what it must have felt like to be so tenuously tethered—so very tenuously safe—in the midst of such an immense space.

For all of these reasons, it was an absolutely amazing thing to watch.

Because Wallenda succeeded.

If he had lost his balance and had plummeted to his death, we would not have seen it, at least not immediately, because the broadcast was on a ten-second delay to permit the channel to cut away from any disastrous turn of events.

But, almost immediately, we would have heard all sorts of editorial comments on the suicidal desperation for added fame that had led him to attempt something so ultimately pointless—so foolhardy.

What Wallenda did is not quite the same thing as attempting to get to the North or the South Pole, attempting to climb Mount Everest, or attempting to reach the moon. All of those undertakings have had some scientific or at least exploratory rationalization. In contrast, Wallenda’s achievement has added nothing to our knowledge of the world. That distinction makes it in some ways more frivolous than those other efforts, which have been lauded almost universally as “heroic.”

And that distinction also makes Wallenda’s achievement, paradoxically, arguably more impressive than any of those other feats.

At least existentially. . . .

I can barely walk along a curbstone without losing my balance. So for me to pretend that what Wallenda has done is trivial would be preposterous.

But for me to pretend that what he has done has any direct impact on my existence would be equally preposterous. At most, it has reinforced some insights that I have already earned through my own misadventures. When I was much younger, I was seriously injured in a gas explosion, and that incident, as well as several others, have impressed on me how arbitrary survival usually is.

When our son was younger, he often used to ask when a character was shot on television or in a film, why the character had not simply dodged out of the way of the bullet. I do not remember asking that same question when I was that age, but I imagine that I most probably did ask it. I do know with near certainty that most of us pass our daily lives without much sense of how most tragedies occur—that is, they are almost over before you fully realize what is happening to you. I imagine that Nik Wallenda’s margin for error was so slim that he might have already been plummeting to his death before he realized, consciously, that he had lost his footing.

So, the question may finally be whether this whole topic is essentially a fascinating diversion that suggests some existential truths about the most extraordinary moments in our own lives or it has anything to do with—suggests anything about–our daily lives and, more narrowly, our work as academics.

In a very broadly thematic way, I think that it might say something, at least by analogy, about the latter.

A very recent post to this blog has chronicled a case at Florida Atlantic University in which a faculty member endured all sorts of menacing student complaints, administrative censure and public condemnation, and, no doubt, tremendous professional and personal turmoil for using an in-class exercise provided by the publishers of a standard textbook in his discipline.

In reading the account, I almost immediately recognized that I would never have used the assignment because the potential for it to be misconstrued is simply too great.

And then I realized that, for all of my seeming willingness to embrace controversy, I have actually been conditioned by several decades in academia to avoid most of the myriad possibilities to excite controversy that present themselves almost on a daily basis, especially those that might be described after the fact as “self-inflicted wounds.” Although I have earned a reputation for being very willing to butt heads, I have also learned how to balance very carefully self-assertion and self-preservation. It is, no doubt, a judicious way to proceed, but I do not often put myself out on a wire where one small misstep can have catastrophic consequences for me professionally.

How different this reality is from the typical rhetoric of education.

We often talk about the need for faculty to be innovative, to reach their students in fresh and provocative ways.

But this truism ignores the reality that truly fresh and provocative teaching methods—almost anything innovative, in fact—is as likely to provoke consternation and criticism as it is to garner admiration and accolades. We know this from the controversies that ground-breaking research always excites. But, with research as with pedagogy, we choose for the most part to focus on the success stories and to ignore the failures.

So, in actual practice, we are asking faculty to challenge their students without making those students uncomfortable.

Very similarly, in terms of exercising shared governance, we often ask faculty to challenge their administrators without provoking them or deepening their antagonism.

We might just as well be asking faculty to walk across a deep gorge on a slender wire.

Little wonder that most faculty content themselves with the equivalent of stepping briskly along a curbstone.

It is, after all, one thing to risk your life doing something that most people would consider absolutely crazy. But it seems quite another thing to risk your hard-earned professional standing and even your livelihood simply to make a pedagogical point or to take a stand on a matter of shared governance.

I am forced to admit that I have pushed this whole thing, metaphorically, to a dead-end—though given the literal topic with which I have started, I should probably say, instead, a rhetorical cul-de-sac.

Indeed, it might have been a lot simpler for me to cross this figurative canyon if Nik Wallenda had slipped–or if he had at least worn a harness as he had been required to do while walking above the Niagara Falls.

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