Selling profound ideas


Our mission is full of words that invite pompousness and overblown expression; these same words often also trigger cynicism and scorn:  “excellence”, “passion”, “compassion”; “the pursuit of truth and goodness”. The criticizing mind would say that any organization could take these glossy words and make a pretty mission statement. Pretty mission statements are like the nail polish that looks perfect on Saturday night but is chipped by Wednesday. It is true: anyone who deals in missions and visions knows well how often the dazzle of such phrases becomes a hollow shell abandoned after an organization – or in our case, the School – has moved on to other distractions, and newer pressures.

I speak about the Mission often enough: we believe these words represent realities, and we pursue these realities – sometimes known as ideals, as if ideals and realities are different things – despite how the imperfections that busy schedules, mixed motives, honest and dishonest mistakes, or misinformation might remind us of our inadequate success. Nevertheless, I still talk about our Mission. Winds might buffet the vessel we are steering, but these ideals give our hands the confidence and faith to set the sails and adjust the rudder.

There you go: overblown expression.

Sitting on the shelf next to my desk is a set of cards given to me because they might improve people’s performance. The title on the cards reads, “The Cores of Credibility”. The cards are a product that has sprouted from the original package of ideas assembled about twenty years ago by a man named Stephen Covey, who wrote a book with the prosaic title, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Again, it was a book someone gave me because it might improve people’s performance. The book contained a few key lessons, elaborated with some detail from Covey’s own life, about setting priorities, leading a balanced existence, treating people with respect and some humility. One of his metaphors, about treating our relationships as a bank in which we make deposits and withdrawals, has become quite popular, although I personally find the metaphor demeaning to those relationships. I could be happy with other metaphors for how I treat my relationships – trees to nourish, gardens to cultivate and other clichés- but a bank account?

I don’t want to belabour the question. It’s not hard to detect where I am headed: that the repackaging of enduring virtues and ideals by people who popularize them for the purpose of making money may in the end do more damage than good to those ideals. Some of the worst examples are the glitzy evangelicals that make you shudder as you flip through the channels on Sunday morning. Or new age purveyors of wisdom who would right the world by meditating under pyramids. There are many examples. I wouldn’t deny them their right to practice their shtick, but I do cringe inside when I see them taking profound ideas and making them shallow.

So in case there is any doubt, we will continue to live and breathe at SMUS thus: our School seeks the excellence in all of us, with passion and compassion. We are a community shaped by the pursuit of truth and goodness, providing outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

Have a great March break. I will be taking my annual trip to Asia to visit families and alumni, then some rest and relaxation. It’s all about balance.


  1. Have a look at this quote from Jonah Lehrer’s book: Proust Was A Neuroscientist:

    We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

    But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

    At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”
    Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was A Neuroscientist
    His next book is coming out this spring: Imagine: How Creativity Works


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