In Praise of the 'Bubble'
Dr. Michael Papazian
Opening Convocation Address, Berry College
Aug. 28, 2007
Thank you. It’s an honor to be asked to speak to you here at the beginning of a new academic year. There was some doubt about whether I would be giving this talk at all since I’ve got a sabbatical this semester (which basically means I’m being paid to do nothing). A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the provost’s office asking whether I would be speaking. And my response was, yes, of course – how can I pass up an opportunity to speak before a captive audience. Even if I were in Madagascar, I would come back here just to give this address.
But enough about me. By now, many if not most of the freshmen should have heard about something called the “Berry bubble.” You have heard people talking about it. You will read articles in our student newspaper, the Campus Carrier, mentioning it. Some time ago I went to the library and read every word of last year’s issues of the Carrier and found numerous references to the bubble – all negative. Invariably the bubble is said to be something that we need to break out of, to escape – it is blinding and limiting. One author even had the temerity to write that the bubble causes us to forget about the mission of the college!
Well, it’s high time that someone came out in favor of the bubble. That time is now and that “someone” is me. I stand before you, friends and Romans, not to burst the bubble but to praise it. The bubble, rightly understood, is an essential part of education. The bubble, for lack of a better word, is good.
I came to this conclusion after doing a little empirical research, something we philosophers are not used to doing. It turns out that every prestigious institution of higher education in the country has a bubble. If you don’t believe me, just Google the words “Harvard bubble,” “Yale bubble,” “Princeton bubble,” “Stanford bubble.” You will find scores, if not hundreds, of references to articles in campus newspapers and to columnists who talk about how “it’s really easy to get trapped inside the Harvard bubble and not know what is happening in the world,” or “the Stanford bubble [insulates] its inhabitants from social and political issues beyond the confines of Campus Drive,” or “It’s about time we all get out of the Yale bubble…”
Which got me to thinking – maybe the whole point of college is to set up little bubbles, or as I prefer to call them, oases of learning, islands of knowledge, that are deliberately set apart from the world, intentionally insulated from the harsh conditions of the “real” world. That’s the world that can’t quite understand or appreciate why otherwise quite normal people would devote their lives to studying the Albigensian crusades or knot theory (yes, knots, the kind you tie and untie, only not real knots, but theoretical knots!). The so-called “real world” demands a payoff – what’s the point, how can this help me make money or get a good job? Well, I like to think that part of the point of college is to reveal that there’s more to being human than that. Part of the dignity of humans has to do with our inclination to love and pursue knowledge just for its own sake. Our college, with its mighty bubble, is a safe space in which to explore and cultivate that deeply human urge.
Indeed, the Berry bubble is itself the direct descendant of the earliest centers of learning in the West. We can go back to the ancient Greeks, and the very first Academy, the school of Plato, where students lived in a community separated from the rest of Greek society and pursued a life devoted to the love of truth and wisdom. After Plato, the bubble was further developed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus established his own school, called the ‘Garden,’ and forbade his students from leaving its walls until they had so internalized his teachings that there was no danger of their being corrupted by the outside world.
For Epicurus, the problem with the outside world was that the people just didn’t know how to pursue pleasure in the right way. Life is all about the rational pursuit of pleasure – but most people don’t pursue pleasure rationally. They go for the immediate gratification even when they know they are going to suffer later on. Think about how people are tempted by the sight of donuts and other enticing foods and stuff their faces to the detriment of their figures and health. Epicurus wanted to train his students to resist temptation so that they would maximize their pleasure in the long run. That meant leading a life of modest consumption of simple food and drink, with only perhaps the occasional cigar as a treat! And that life can only be realized if the students live for a time separated from the outside world.
The same points concerning food consumption can also be made about sex, but I will not talk about sex since we are in the chapel.
Anyway, the Epicurean garden has become the very model of the modern college campus – a bucolic setting often walled off and separated from the city or town it is located in. We see the same approach in the Middle Ages, with monasteries and cloisters as the main centers of learning and preservation of knowledge. Today, we are wearing vestiges of monastic habits as a symbol of this heritage that remains a precious part of our civilization. And so when Martha Berry established her school and later college here on these incredibly beautiful and isolated acres, she was surely following in a tradition that can be traced back through the medieval monasteries to the ancient Greeks.
So I ask you today to keep in mind the benefits of the bubble and to take advantage of them in your years here. The bubble is best embodied in the classroom, an intentionally artificial environment where you are free to experiment and make the inevitable mistakes that we all make. So when you are in French or Spanish or German conversation class and you accidentally say something that is either absurd or offensive, you will receive only the gentle correction of your kind and patient foreign-language professor, rather than the scorn or ridicule that you would receive in the outside world. Under the bubble, you will have the opportunity to grow your wings, so that when you are ready to fly, you will have the confidence and assurance to succeed wherever you decide to go. This is why, although internships and other “real-world” experiences have their place, the classroom, the science lab and the library are and always will be the focus of genuine education.
And I also ask that you demand of us, the faculty, staff and administrators, that we remain vigilant guardians of the bubble and the environment that it creates. We have been given the sacred responsibility to protect and foster the conditions that make authentic education possible and to defend them against the twin dragons of ignorance and narrow-minded practicality that surround us and threaten the true mission of the college.
Long live the Berry bubble! And have a wonderful new year!