I am allergic to cynicism.
I have been owning up to this affliction in each of the introductory department meetings I have had with faculty across the College during my first semester as Dean.
Of course, the more cynical among you will see such a confession as yet another mode of administrative manipulation. How can a Dean, so often the source of cynicism, fairly claim to be allergic?
So, let me clarify: I recognize that cynicism is often well earned. It is rooted in disappointment over time as the institutional apparatus fails repeatedly to live up to the ideals it is supposed to embody.
Most of us entered into the higher education endeavor as into a kind of calling; perhaps not religious, but grounded in faith nonetheless. For me it’s a faith in the transformative power of education. Although education does not need an institution to transform the life of an individual, its transformative effect is amplified exponentially when it is nurished in large public universities capable of cultivating generations of thoughtful, conscientious, and imaginative citizens.
Institutions, of course, are organic. They require care and attention if they are going to live up to the ideals they were created to embody. When they fail to do so regularly, cynicism is well earned. A culture of cynicism takes root when, over time, members of a community come to expect that failure as a matter of institutional habit.
Cynicism has its origins in ancient Greek Philosophy, and there are admirable dimensions to it as a philosophical position. Diogenes of Sinope, an early cynic, held politicians and philosophers in Athens accountable by insisting that the virtue of which they so frequently spoke should be lived out in deed rather than simply voiced in speech. His simple life and refusal to abide by social customs stood as a living critique of society and its corruption. Critique and an insistance on performative consistency are perhaps the two most admirable dimensions of ancient cynicism.
But the ancient Cynics also sought to break with the world by rejecting even the elementary norms that condition our shared life together. Plato is said to have called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad,” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers VI, 54). By this he may have meant that Diogenes had taken the Socratic capacity for critique to an extreme without bringing along with it Socrates’ deep commitment to the transformative power of words to create communities commited to a shared vision of what is just and beautiful and good.
My allergy to cynicism in a contemporary academic context is rooted ultimately in its refusal of community and in its incapacity to cultivate a culture of generosity and care that is the condition of sustainable organizational excellence.
Cynicism is contagious. Like violence, it is self-perpetuating, self-defeating, and destructive.
Cynicism starves the metabolism of an organization. Habitual cynicism calcifies into institutional inertia. It is debilitating at an individual and organizational level because it refuses the difficult work of cultivating relationships based on a shared vision of what is possible.
My allergy to cynicism can be traced, ultimately, to this refusal.
Recently, I read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. At the end of the novel there is an interview with the author in which he says:
I keep inching toward the point where I believe that it’s more difficult to have hope than it is to embrace cynicism.
My life in academia has long since inched me to that point, and further, to the conviction that McCann is also right when he says of the cynics that they:
seem to think that it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.
Without becoming too cynical about cynicism, I’d go yet further by advancing the opposite position: it is more intellectually engaging, more enriching and empowering, to be optimistic. And there is moral heft in it too; for at its root, optimism requires the cultivation of an ethical imagination that is far more capable of transforming lives and advancing a common good.
So I find myself reflecting very often each day in a wide range of different situations, about how I might put my weight, my words, and yes, my authority, on the side of what is possible, about how to nourish and advance a grounded optimism, what might be called “optimistic realism,” in a community committed to scholarship and education.
And very often, it is by embodying, as best I can in each situation and often in difficult contexts, the habits of humility, generosity, gratitude, enthusiasm, and caring support so that I can remain focused on what is best for us as a College, for our faculty and our students, whose lives are enriched by the work we do here.
Where in the life of the institution do you find enthusiasm, innovation, possibility, growth, and enriching creativity? There I imagine you will also find a certain hard won optimism and an allergy to cynicism animated by the belief that through education, the world can be made better, more just, and yes, even more beautiful.