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The Flightless Birds of Academe
When the wild ducks or the wild geese migrate in their season, a strange tide rises in the territories over which they sweep. As if magnetized by the great triangular flight, the barnyard fowl leap a foot or two into the air and try to fly. The call of the wild strikes them with the force of a harpoon and a vestige of savagery quickens their blood. All the ducks on the farm are transformed for an instant into migrant birds, and into those hard little heads, till now filled with humble images of pools and worms and barnyards, there swims a sense of continental expanse, of a breadth of seas and the salt taste of the ocean wind. The duck totters to the right and left in its wise enclosure, gripped by a sudden passion to perform the impossible and a sudden love whose object is a mystery .
Antoine de Saint Exupery
Robert Frost thought a student ought not to be allowed to graduate from college until he could read metaphor. There is more to the world than meets the eye. To perceive the truth, we require images. All life is allegory, and we can understand it only through parable. A boy with a birch tree can vault beyond the confines of the place and time in which he is housed to “climb black branches up a snow-white trunk/ Toward heaven.”
Imagine being a domestic duck or goose cooped up in Nebraska, the heart of the central flyway, hearing and feeling the pull of migratory Canadian geese, mallards, sandhill cranes, herons, plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns, and pelicans. The marrow in your bones quickens to your wild brethren. Stretching your neck you flap your wings with the yearning to rise out of the confines of the coop to join the triangular triumphant, only to be stopped at the chicken wire, gasping, “I don’t have it in me.”
Further, imagine your despair, once the birds have passed, left among the barnyard fowl pecking cracked corn in a dung heap of your own making.
Looking out my window over the plains of Nebraska, between the Oregon and Mormon trails, I remember that beneath the houses and roads lies the ground the immigrants once crossed while overhead the geese and ducks of today are still calling, still calling . . .
Back to earth. I received my health insurance package today; it looks more like a looting. Paying $230 a month with an $850 deductible translates to $3,560 before a penny is reimbursed. Drop it? I totter to the right and left in my wise enclosure, reminded that in centuries past, immigrants did not have health, house, life, dental, or even wagon insurance. How did anyone make it without insurance for the unforeseeable acts of nature? Surely the pioneers fretted the day away, what with the wind, rain, brushfires, buffalo stampedes, dysentery, depression, fatigue, and a wagon full of children asking “when are we going to get there,” knowing all the while that all they had might be lost in the blink of an eye.
There are various forms of confinement. We are bound by our abilities, age, family, occupation, community, state, institutions, time, place and death. Even further, we can be confined by disease or confined in a mental asylum.
Which brings us to the university. The university has become a barnyard of sorts, a collection of birds, cocks and hens, who roost to teach pullets a diversity of things, ranging from the traditional academic disciplines in the Arts and Sciences to the use of the latest technological advancements in office equipment, as well as exercise physiology, airway science, music business, and a seemingly limitless variety of occupations, attempting to ensure the students will make a living while confined in the coop of the daily grind.
The modern university is but a dropping of what she once was. Universities were founded to sustain faith by reason and to maintain order in the soul. Universities have fallen to being secular rather than universal and no longer provide students with the whole picture: faith is not in the province of the mundane and that there was ever order in a man’s soul has been forgotten. Remember, “university” comes from the Latin universitas which means “the whole.” However, they have sunk further and further into the provinciality of place and time. A university which does not present her students with the ordered knowledge of the sciences and the flight of the spirit in the arts, “the call of the wild,” leaves her students featherless in the world, grounded to scratch out a living as computer scientists, accountants, teachers, graphic artists, counselors, lawyers, physicians, and the like, without any higher sense of purpose to their lives. We are prudent, practically-minded people, interested in attaching ourselves to the means of making a living but not in addressing the ends of living.
Back to the wilds.
Geese and ducks are symbolic of freedom and order. Given they are birds; they are not free to choose to migrate but do so by instinct. It is normal for geese and ducks to fly in a pattern when migrating. However, their freedom may be taken by cooping them up in pens or by clipping their wings. Though geese and ducks are innately wild, their freedom is lost when they are domesticated and fattened for market.
Human beings are also born to be free; it is normal for humans to be free. However, it is not an instinctual freedom – in other words, if left to themselves to do whatever they like, people might go wild, but they would not be free. Likewise, humans were born to talk, but if left isolated from each other, our talk would be babble and the free expression of our minds would be unintelligible.
While it is normal for man to be free, he more frequently denies his freedom than does he accept his freedom. [It is here important to remember the word normal does not mean “average” or “generally accepted:” it means “enduring standard” and is from the Latin norma which means “carpenter square.”]
It is normal for man’s intellect to migrate to the truth, to move from principle towards principle. One of the fruits of a developed mind is the ability to make qualitative distinctions, to tell what is just or unjust, what is beautiful or ugly, what is clumsy or graceful, what is good as opposed to what is evil and what is a virtue versus what is a vice. Such a mind involves us in our own birth because, by our own free choosing of what is good, we are at liberty to become ourselves.
The last thing any student needs is to be domesticated like a pet, tamed to use his intellect to be the handmaiden of his desire for comfort and security within the confines of institutions -- of being fattened in a coop. The birds overhead are wild but they are not chaotic when they are “magnetized by the great triangular flight.” Paradoxically, birds are wild but stay the course and, though science may chart the flight of the birds, it is a mystery as to what prompts the birds to migrate -- which is best answered with the simple explanation that they can.
Psychologists and neuro-philosophers can study both the human brain and the phenomenon of intelligence, but neither is a step closer to understanding an intelligent human being. Imagine trying to understand man’s intellect by looking at how the brain works instead of looking at the works of intellect and you will have an idea of what has happened in modern education.
Man cannot be understood objectively by standing outside of himself like an entomologist studies an insect by using a systematic categorization of organisms to place them into a coherent scheme. Applying the scientific method to man by classifying him according to the material conditions of sex, gender, race, body type, height, weight, economic class, years of education, and IQ ends with talking about man in the general terms of abstraction, as some composite of parts, and does not bring a person one step closer to understanding himself as a person.
The person is irreducible; this is why he cannot be fully explained in terms of his nature and history: the person is rooted in transcendence.
The way to understand intelligence is by letting intelligent people enter your intellect. Pick up the Odyssey, Phaedo, The Brothers Karamazov, Nicomachean Ethics, Inferno, Job, etc. and let the images, ideas, and metaphors work their way in your mind so you can transcend yourself. Going beyond the confines of your immediate existence is a means of measuring and forming your soul through the enduring standards of humanity as found in the works of poets, authors, philosophers, artists, and musicians. This is the way of literacy, and in this way, a living soul is quickened by the words of other living souls while in the creative act of wrestling with the circumstances of his own existence to make something of himself in creation. In the words of Richard Weaver, “Cultural life depends upon the remembrance of acknowledged values, and for this reason any sign of a prejudice against memory is a signal of danger.”
We live in a dangerous age in which the qualitative judgment of morality, necessary for the development of character and the formation of culture, has been overshadowed by the relativistic judgments of public opinion surveys, which spin a statistical analysis on the results to come up with a norm based on what the majority hold regarding abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted-suicide, etc. However, what is morally right is not determined by social scientists taking opinion polls and informing people of the norm, what the majority hold to be “generally accepted.”
Remember normal does not mean “average” or “generally accepted”: it means enduring standard.
Russell Kirk reminds us of the tenets of the “great triangular flight,” when he says, “Human beings have the power either of observing the norms of their nature, or of violating them.”
There is no surer way to dampen a person’s spirit than to separate him from the enduring standards of his intellectual ancestors. There is no surer way to keep a student domesticated, cooped up in the static confines of ignorance, than to place him in a school system which censors the books and the language of the spiritual adventures of his intellectual ancestors.
Which bring us back to Exupery.
Exupery looks at the Europe of 1930 and sees:
There are two hundred million men in Europe whose existence has no meaning and who yearn to come alive. Industry has torn them from the idiom of their peasant lineage and has locked them up in enormous ghettos that are like railway yards heaped with blackened trucks. Out of the depths of their slums these men yearn to a be awakened . . . Once it was believed that to bring these creatures to manhood it was enough to feed them, clothe them, and look to their everyday needs; but we see now that the result of this has been to turn out petty shopkeepers, village politicians, hollow technicians devoid of an inner life. Some indeed were well taught, but no one troubled to cultivate any of them . . . Of course any science student can tell us more about Nature and her laws than can Descartes of Newton, -- but what can he tell us about the human spirit? 
Exupery might well look over America in 2004 to see nearly three hundred million men whose existence appears to have no meaning beyond getting the means of existence. Out of the depths of the modern ghetto of sanitized suburbia these men yearn to be awakened from their idleness of being tethered to television and computers screens . . . . Once it was believed that to bring these creatures to fulfillment, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was enough because it fed, clothed, and looked to man’s everyday needs; but now we see that the result of providing for their basic desires has left them docile, subservient, hollow wards of the state, devoid of an inner life, to be entertained by television shows which seldom rise above the comprehension level of eight-year-olds. In effect, modern men have become like house pets. I am reminded of assistant-professors in universities who are afraid to speak their minds until tenured, when in effect, fearing to speak negates that the first principle of being mindful is the freedom to speak when one disagrees with what one sees.
Sure we may think Exupery’s vision of Europe harsh, but he writes a few years before Hitler and Stalin’s enforcement of their vision on the world. Europe had become a prison house for the human spirit, as created by the materialistic philosophies of Rousseau and Freud, while Marx’s idea of a classless society was having its way with the Russian people. These futuristic thinkers were instrumental in robbing men of their moral imagination and replacing it with an idyllic and utopian vision of a pseudo-scientifically-minded will to power which, having removed God from man’s psyche, was free to make a new man through political legislations and institutions designed by social engineers to strip man of his freedom and to “turn out petty shopkeepers, village politicians, hollow technicians devoid of inner life.”
It is time to fly the coop.
Exupery joined the wild geese when he enrolled in flight school for Airopostale (now Air France) in 1926, to fly cargos of passengers and mail between Toulouse in southwestern France and Dakar in French West Africa. In the early days of aviation “the motor was not what it is to today. It would drop off.” The instrumentation on a cloudy day in the mountains of Spain consisted of a compass and “flying blind” through cloud-packed mountains. A man alone with the elements, he felt “ill-prepared” for this responsibility.
“A man cannot live a decent life in cities, and I need to feel myself live. I am thinking of aviation. The airplane is a means, not an end. One doesn’t risk one’s life for a plane any more than a farmer ploughs for the sake of the plough. But the airplane is a means of getting away from the towns and their bookkeeping and coming to grips with reality . . . Flying is a man’s job and its worries are a man’s worries. A pilot’s business is the wind, with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea. He strives to outwit the forces of nature. He stares in expectancy for the coming of dawn the way a gardener awaits the coming of spring. He looks forward to port as to a promised land, and truth for him is what lives in the stars . . . I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is danger not love. I know what I love. It is life” .
It is not life in general that Exupery loves; it is the life of the individual, his life that he loves. His writing demonstrates his love for life by showing that it is not just life that he loves, for the domesticated duck loves as much, but a certain kind of life that is worth living, that is worth loving.
He gives us the basis for life in the first four chapters of Wind, Sand and Stars: The Craft, The Men, The Tool, and The Elements.
His craft is flying an airplane in the early days of aviation before sophisticated instruments, when a pilot would fly in an open cock-pit and stretch his neck around a rain-splattered windshield to get his bearings. These early pilots were charged with charting the airways for future pilots as well as the geographical sites of importance, such as mountain passes and emergency landing strips to be found in farmers’ fields. They flew through foggy nights, around mountain faces and over vast expanses of deserts. As in all crafts there are masters and apprentices.
In The Men Exupery, himself a novice, gives us Mermoz whose job it was to survey the division between Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. He was given a plane with an absolute ceiling of sixteen thousand feet and asked to fly over a mountain range that rose more than twenty thousand feet into the air. Mermoz and his mechanic, while trying to maneuver the mountain passes, were forced down on a twelve thousand foot plateau and for “two mortal days they hunted a way off” only to realize they were trapped.
So, they played their last card by rolling the plane over the edge and falling straight down the precipice where the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz was then able to tilt the nose in the direction of the peek and sweep over it; however, all the water in the pipes burst because of the cold and the ship was again disabled in seven minutes. Fortunately, the plains of Chile were beneath them by this time. The next day they were at it again.
Finally, after a dozen years of service, Mermoz, having taken off from Dakar bound for Natal, radioed that he was cutting off his right engine. Silence. Never to be heard from again.
From his master Mermoz, Exupery extracts the following:
This, then is the moral taught us by Mermoz and his kind. We understand better, because of him, that what constitutes the dignity of the craft is that it creates a fellowship, that it binds men together and fashions for them a common language. For there is but one veritable problem – the problem of human relations . . . We forget that there is no joy except in human relations. If I summon up those memories that have left with me an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me. True riches cannot be bought. One cannot buy the friendship of a Mermoz, of a companion to whom one is bound forever by ordeals suffered in common .
The Tool. For Exupery his tool is the aircraft, produced as all of man’s industrial efforts, by his computations and calculations, after nights spent over drafts and blueprints, after the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. He admonishes moralists who have attacked the machine as the source of all man’s ills for having created the “fictitious dichotomy,” as if the mechanical civilization could be the enemy of the spiritual civilization.
The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, and to join together for the common good. Technology, especially sixty years after Exupery’s insights, has brought men closer together. However, he cautions that men are being driven into the service of the machine, instead of building machines for the service of man.
Which brings us to The Elements. Every airline pilot in Exupery’s group had flown through tornadoes, through the revolt of the elements which the pilot seemingly had mastered.
Exupery’s tornado comes when he is flying down to Comodoro-Rivadavia, in the Patagonian Argentina. He takes off in a pure blue sky. “Too pure,” he says. His troubles start with a slight tremor, but every pilot knows “there are secret little quiverings that foretell your real storm.” Then everything around him blew up, he was standing still, making no headway and the “plane was skidding as if on a toothless cogwheel.”
He found himself imprisoned in a valley, “There was no longer any horizon, and he was in the “wings of a theatre cluttered up with bits of scenery.” He was wrestling with chaos. He discovered he was not struggling against the wind but the ridge itself, the crest, the rocky peak of Mt. Salamanca. What happened next is best told by Exupery:
I who for forty minutes had not been able to climb higher than two hundred feet off the ground was suddenly able to look down on the enemy. The plane quivered as if in boiling water. I could see the wide waters of the ocean. The valley opened out into this ocean, this salvation. – And at that very moment, without any warning whatever, half a mile from Salamanca, I was suddenly struck straight in the midriff by the gale off that peak and sent hurling out to sea .
If ever a man felt like Jonah, Exupery did, at least until he realized he was several miles out at sea facing winds of one hundred and fifty miles an hour. In the next twenty minutes of struggle, he moved a hundred yards towards the shore.
How he got back and the rest of the book are well worth reading. But I will leave that up to you. He does, however, conclude “There is nothing dramatic in the world, nothing pathetic, except in human relations . . . the physical drama itself cannot touch us until some one points out its spiritual sense.”
Until a person realizes the spiritual sense of his relations, to his craft, to the previous and present practitioners of his craft, and how he must respect the elements with which he crafts himself, he will be unable to rise out of the confinements of his coop. Every person who has lived long enough, whatever his craft, has been confronted by at least one tornado, the death of family and friends is example enough, when all seemed to be lost. The task is to rise above the storm, to craft ourselves by working with the elements which appear to hold us captive – to be involved in our own transformation. In Greek the word “wind” is the same as the word “spirit” and the spiritual sense of Exupery is that we are exiles who have not yet found our homeland. Migrating through this world, “we are crossing the great dark valley of a fairy-tale, the Valley of Ordeal. Like the prince in the tale, we must meet the test without succor. Failure here would not be forgiven” .
And so it goes . . . still calling, still calling.
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