Saturday, April 9, 2011

There is No Excellence Without Labor

There is no excellence without labor. Liberty Hyde Bailey.

What the hell was our soon to be installed Chancellor thinking?  Or, rather, just how was she failing to think?  

In case you have not been scrutinizing the Installation section of the Chancellor's webpage, "There Is No Excellence Without Labor" is indeed emblazoned on top of it. You'd have thought someone who was refusing to negotiate with organized labor might think twice before choosing this as a motto.  But apparently the Chancellor is so tone-deaf that the noun "labor" does not for her carry any connotation of "organized labor," "unionized workforce," "you've got to negotiate with the peons," etc., a usage which the OED traces back to 1830, though this admittedly postdates its usage for a group of moles, which may go back as far as 1471. As you can tell, I've done some manic research on this phrase, which follows after the break.  Plus, to make the savage indignation easier on the eyes, there are pictures.    

If you google the phrase, the first page to appear is the "Excellence Quotes" section of, where one finds "A Collection of carefully selected Excellence Quotes and Quotations by Famous People", including Aristotle, George Elliot, Rick Pitino, and Oprah Winfrey.  There these words of wisdom are indeed credited to Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), an American horticulturalist, botanist, and cofounder of the American Society for Horticultural Science (or so Wikipedia informs me). 

Mr. Liberty Hyde Bailey

Perhaps our Chancellor has a green thumb.  Rather more likely, she, or someone working for her, has used some list of quotations or other, if not the website I found then some other equally august source.  "Excellence" is what were striving for, so get me a quote about excellence.  (I wonder, in passing, if excellent universities need to say they are committed to excellence; the motto Deo volente is growing on me.)

My thorough research, consisting of 15 minutes on Google, traced the quote (in the form "No Excellence Without Labor") back to an 1842 tome, a school reader by a Charles W. Sanders, A.M., "Author of Spelling Book and Series of School Readers; Young Choir; Young Vocalist, etc."  Likely it goes back farther, beyond even the memory of Google.  At any rate, the prolific Mr. Sanders was active well before Mr. Liberty Hyde Bailey.  Probably Bailey remembered the words from his own school days.  Good for him.     

Here's a Google Books link to the passage in question, which is highly inspirational. It credits the ancients with understanding that it is not natural talent (traditionally regarded as the result of aristocratic birth) but hard work that makes all the difference.  It's a fine, uplifting sentiment, if not exactly an original one.  I'd have nothing against it as a motto for the installation of a Chancellor, were her use of it not in itself evidence of intellectual slovenliness, the slapdash use of a quotation that came to be attributed to the first semi-famous man who used it.  Add to the mix that the Old Timey feel of the quotation blinded the Chancellor (or her scribe) to the modern connotations of the phrase. So no one was thinking either about the origin of this phrase or its contemporary meaning.  No one, in fact, was thinking at all.  There was no intellectual labor.  Hence the mediocrity. 

Speaking of inauguration quotations, the last SIUC inauguration spectacular contained similarly damning quotations.  Glen Poshard's inauguration address contained much passionate advocacy for public education in what was already an increasingly hostile political climate. I was impressed by Poshard's strong advocacy on these points.  Unfortunately, Poshard also demonstrated the same lack of intellectual work (and therefore excellence) that Cheng has demonstrated.

Speaking of Delyte Morris' brave ambition in the face of the poverty of Southern Illinois, Glen Poshard said the following.  

Dr. Morris could have despaired over the chaotic conditions. Instead, he embraced, in the words of the German philosopher Nietzsche an attitude
which believed “one must have chaos in order to give birth to a dancing star.”

This comes from page 3 of Poshard's address. It comes from page 17 of Walter Kaufmann's translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  You may have heard that this is a rather controversial book.  The Übermensch and the Last Man and all.  Did Glen Poshard regard himself as an Übermensch sent to rule us last men (and, even worse--at least in Nietzschean terms--last women)?  I rather doubt it.  (Perhaps Morris did, but that's another story.)  Rather, Glen Poshard blithely quoted "The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche" because had nary a clue that Nietzsche, being a rather controversial fellow, isn't exactly the safest source of sententious remarks, even if they do appear in some dictionary of quotations. 

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Poshard also asked my colleague Rick Williams to read much of Tennyson's famous poem, "Ulysses".  In it the aged Ulysses addresses his old sailors, nobly urging them to join him for one last adventure.  

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Rather like Glen Poshard, I suspect, I have liked this poem since I first encountered it as a boy. Its stirring end is difficult to resist, if you have any weaknesses for this sort of thing  . . .

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yiel

I like it.  I also, as a classicist, happen to know that in every imaginable version of the tale of Odysseus/Ulysses, he had no old mariners to make this speech to: he lost them all on the way home.  How's that for recruitment and retention? Still, one can hardly blame Poshard for not having taken mythology recently.  But one can blame him for ignoring much of the poem he chose to have read.

For this poem, as it happens, is among the least suitable poems imaginable for the inauguration of a university president.  For as he leaves Ithaca behind, to sail off on his last voyage, Odysseus abandons his duties to rule--to administer--his kingdom. Here's how the poem starts.  

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

True, he leaves these duties in the hands of his son, Telemachus, in lines Poshard had my friend Rick Williams skip; but these damn with faint praise. 

This my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine

Telemachus is the administrator, not Ulysses.  This is a poem to read when you step down as university president, not at your inauguration.

To close at last. When you find yourself thinking that shared governance is a matter of dull meetings and unread resolutions and reports; that you've got better things to do than join the union, pay their dues, attend their meetings or their rallies; that you would just like all this hassle and discord to go away, so that you could get on with your teaching and your research, remember this: these are the people who want the power to dictate terms to us and fashion the future of this university.  They have shown themselves to be ignorant and intellectually lazy in ways that ought to shame the assistant vice-principal  of a middle school, much less the appointed leaders of a university. Chancellors and Presidents can't write all their speeches; but they can hire competent people to do so, and proof their work. The evidence in this blog post is of course anecdotal, but it's illustrative, and what we know of Poshard's academic career, at any rate, obviously confirms this conclusion.   

Give these people the power they want, or simply stand by and watch them take it, and you've done your part to ensure this university is run by people who do things you chide your students for doing. These are people who treat the texts and values and words so many of us have devoted our careers to as random, decontextualized, and undigested tidbits with which to decorate their speeches. A inept quotation is hardly worst of sins, but it can reveal quite a lot about one's limitations.  

Given the political process that selects university presidents and their immediate underlings, it would be foolish to hope for much more than what we're getting from the incumbents. If you want this place to be someplace you can be proud of, you must help run it yourself.


  1. I apologize, by the way, if this post has odd line breaks in your browser. I am finding Blogger's composer tool rather shoddy in this regard, and am having to spend far too much time playing around with html code I only half understand in an effort to avoid multiple spaces in odd places, line breaks in mid-word, etc. (The breaks between paragraphs are always too large for reasons I fail to understand.) Given how persnickety I'm being above, I thought some such prophylactic apology might be in order.

  2. Regarding the quotation, "There Is No Excellence Without Labor," the word labor doesn't have to refer to organized labor for the motto to be tone deaf. If the chancellor believes this motto and is demanding that we not labor for four days, isn't she commanding us to be something less than excellent for four days?

  3. I propose we come up with our own motto:

    "There is no excellence with furloughed labor."

  4. Since our Chancellor does not seem to know "labor" - maybe shorten the motto:
    "There is no excellence!"


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