Sink or Swim


John SymeIn February, Mike D’Andrea ’15 wrote a Davidsonian op-ed about the Super Bowl that caught my eye. A week later, he posed a question at a lecture that was at once sophisticated and plainly naive, in the best sense of that word: native, natural. A Davidson natural, I thought.

There soon resulted a semester’s worth of occasional bull sessions over breakfasts at Summit Coffee. Herewith, two related essays that came out of that time well spent.

Rolling Hope Uphill

by Mike D’Andrea ’15

My adviser, Doug Ottati, leads a discussion group on Monday afternoons. Ottati, the Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Religion, selects readings with religious or philosophical bearings. Group members range from theist to atheist, from anthropology to math major.

Mike-headshotOne week, the lot of us—humanities and STEM majors lumped together—unpacked “The Myth of Sisyphus,” an essay by Albert Camus.

Camus suggests that, with the right perspective, we can find purpose in any task or torment. For example, Sisyphus, the Greek guy who eternally rolls a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, subverts his captors by discovering meaning in his punishment. Misery and suffering are unavoidable, but with the right outlook, we can stave off existential anguish.

With that cheery sentiment in mind, we wallowed awhile in the idea of inevitable existential angst. Then someone in the group offered a suggestion: “Subverting your tormentors and finding the silver lining in suffering is great, but what if—even additionally—you clung to hope for some final resolution where everything turns out all right?”

Another friend, a brilliant math major, offered her rebuttal: “Every time Sisyphus gets to the top, and the boulder rolls back down, he experiences a decrease in hope. Ultimately his hope will follow a linear decay.”

The comment startled me. I’d never considered modeling hope mathematically. Assuming that hope can be modeled in that way may be to fundamentally misunderstand it, or so I suspect after four years of Davidson religion, philosophy and English courses.

A few of us pushed back. I don’t know whether our protests were convincing, but the encounter left me reflecting on Davidson and the conversations its culture creates. At how many schools would someone present a mathematical model for hope in response to a Camus essay? And at how many institutions would a math major ever hear that sort of idea rebutted?

The marketing clichés about the intangible benefits of the liberal arts and the magic of cross-disciplinary study all turn out to be true, I think. At Davidson, sentimental reasoning about hope and faith do not escape the scrutiny of reason, but neither does cold logic get to skate alone.

Thank God, or Zeus, or something, that it doesn’t.

Math and the other STEM disciplines are fine enough on their own. But they’re especially fine at Davidson, where STEM students attend philosophy discussion groups, where physics professors moonlight as bass-baritones for Opera Carolina, where math professors double as nationally renowned mimes, and some religion professors are all-but-dissertation physics Ph.Ds.

The idea is tough to pin down, and I won’t deform it just to reduce it, but a diverse liberal arts education develops some part of our humanity that I can’t empirically present or prove. It also tends to eliminate the false divide our current culture erects between STEM and the humanities.

The idea has a profound implication for our post-Davidson lives: an education like this one may be our best chance at pushing the boulder uphill with the aid of some sacred motivation, like the hope that everything will resolve itself for the best.

Sink or Swim

by John Syme ’85

I had a dream I was riding my bicycle and then I came around a bend and then I was in a river, riding my bike in a broad, deep, fast current. It was strange and unsettling and exhilarating and fun.

And it occurred to me brushing my teeth the next morning: That’s how a Davidson education in the liberal arts and sciences works.

Here you learn—intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually—how to ride your bike along new pathways, how to swim in new waters. And you learn it in such a way that, later, you can intuitively mix things up just right when life demands it.

On May 17, seniors will go around their own next bends and into the river, themselves formed and filled with this Davidson education, this particular combination of distribution requirements, classroom magic and dorm-room bull sessions only to be found on this particular small, residential, liberal arts college campus.

When I arrived on this campus as a freshman, many minds greater than mine had given distribution requirements a great deal of thought. For four years I did my thing, studying in a wide variety of disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences. The work was sometimes deep, sometimes broad, sometimes both. My response to it was sometimes deep, sometimes broad, sometimes both.

Also, I took Humanities, the robust, two-year offering of great ideas, great books, great lectures and great discussions, a little of everything.

In fact, it was this uncomfortable juxtaposition of a “little” of “everything” that led to my freshman frustration with all that “broad and deep” business. I called upon my advisor, the late Professor of Religion Max “The Ax” Polley and announced to him I was dropping Humes for a more à la carte approach to education.

He replied, in a word, no. His word was kindly spoken, but he bade me in no uncertain terms to persevere. I grumbled and lugged my stack of Humes tomes off to the library. Thank you, Max. I am ever in your debt.

On I went through my four years, supplementing the grand sweep of Humes with eye-crossingly close work in modern accounting, flowery readings in 19th century French literature, a couple of Spanish classes, even intro to political economy.

I do not now clearly remember much of this specific course content as iterated in my own meeting of the Davidson distribution requirements of 1985. But the content itself—the data, the information—is not so much the most important thing in a liberal education.

What abides is the broad and deep sweep of perspective, the handy and sometimes arcane connections, and the flexible habits of thought developed unwittingly along the way to be able to ride a bike in a river.


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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