The University and the Myth of Decline

Myths are the most truthful stories we tell. They reach beyond fact and argument to the essence and authentic nature of who we are. Myths are the collected repositories of human wisdom. And every world mythology includes a myth of decline. This myth and its corollary — the myth of redemptive and recaptured glory — are twin narratives in every culture. They match and mirror the trajectories of hope and loss, of empowerment and erasure. They are object lessons in hubris and folly: Atlantis, The Galactic Republic, The Roman Empire, Gilead, The British Empire, Rivendale. The myth of decline describes how these places, how the moods and spirits of a given age, fall away and are lost.

Within the cultures of the University we are now living through the myth of decline. Its signs and stages could not be more clear: old ways abandoned, ancient traditions spurned, shrines of the ancestors neglected and forgotten. Now much scrambling ensues, and debates about the future, and a vigorous campaign to stem the tide. But that tide rises inexorably, and we stand upon a crumbling shore, and we feel the creeping demise of a vast and once-great enterprise. The centre cannot hold.

Most of the cherished values and norms of the University are already being swept away. Experts and authorities are losing their status. Disciplines are stretching — and will buckle, finally — in the face of the interconnectedness of everything. Quiet halls and ordered bells are being replaced by the fluidity and dynamic chaos of modern life. Students are beginning to seize their roles first as learners, then as architects of their own structures of understanding. The book and the hallowed author will fall too, and be swept into the wider sea of collective knowledge. The currents of thought that our ancestors laid down for us, and that educators cleave to in the name of tradition, canon, and shared knowledge — these will widen, and mingle, and become once again eddies in the great stream of human inquiry.

The momentum of the myth of decline is first toward destruction, then toward transformation.

But it is not a myth of apocalypse, in which a given cycle of the world ends. That is a different myth, larger and more final. No, the myth of decline involves the falling away of the spirit of an age. Its mood is slow at first but surprising in its voracity. Things will break. Great, sacred, cherished things. They will slide, finally, from the crumbling shore and into the sea. The space they vacate will come to be occupied by a nascent, turbulent, unpredictable force. This force cannot be controlled nor perhaps even guided. It is the wind of the old myths, the storm, the onslaught of fresh and vibrant destruction. The storm comes, and we must be ready. Our myths tell us this: be ready for the storm. And countless myths speak of those who are not ready.

If you teach in a university, or have kids at university, or interact with the culture of the University in any way: have you not seen this? Have you not seen the crumbling shore, and the storm coming?

Have you not seen it?

During the age of decline — in the moments of destruction, transformation, and renewal — there are some who survive and thrive. They are the misfits, sages, wanderers, tricksters, heretics. Those who find the cracks between things. Those who set out, across the wilderness, to find the hidden country. Those who stand, fearful but not cowed, against the monsters of the deep forest. They are small, often, and are vulnerable and uncertain. They do not know the sure path. They follow one another, ever urging onward, toward a destination of hope and rumour.

And they arrive, as all the old myths say, after much turmoil and travail. They discover the far shore, the tower, the sacred tree. And from this place they make a new beginning.

The myth of decline is long, and labyrinthine. We have only begun, in the cultures of the University, to feel the ground sliding and cracking. We have not yet surrendered our hold upon what we have built, what our ancestors built. With increasingly frantic and desperate hands we shore up the foundations, not realizing that the edifice has already fallen beyond us.

But the myth of decline is also, at heart, a narrative of redemption and wisdom. It teaches us how to grapple with change. It is the greatest of the myths of learning. And now, as the cultures of University face the storm, the tide, the wind, we are called to be learners in our own halls of teaching.

We will learn by way of destruction, dissolution, and havoc. Within the clear eye of that storm, some of us will find wonder, purpose, and illumination.

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