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Stewards of the language

A.Bartlett Giamatti has decided seven years, a familiar unit of time in academe, as president of Yale University is for him enough. ``Bart's'' achievements at Yale are secure. Among them: raising the university's endowment to over $1.1 billion; improving faculty and staff salaries and morale despite an unprecedented white-collar-worker strike last winter; and serving as an energetic and forthright spokesman on university and intellectual affairs -- all within the remarkable scope of his interests as a man of letters, the novelty of his tenure as Yale's first non-Anglo Saxon president, and his devotion to the Boston Red Sox. Time to get on to something new, Giamatti says of his decision to leave. Last week at Yale's elder Ivy sibling, Harvard, Giamatti spoke eloquently about today's university, literary scholarship, and the importance of language, which suggests that whatever he might do, much remains to be done to restore the university to its rightful role in civilization.

``American colleges and universities . . . lost the confidence of the American people 15 to 20 years ago and they have not regained it,'' Giamatti told his Harvard Signet Society audience. ``And it is not good enough to say so much the worse for the American people, for we are here to contribute to the intellectual and ethical well-being of the people; we are here to contribute to the increase of civilization in our time, not to be indifferent to it.''

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Giamatti had especially caustic words for his fellow literary scholars: ``We have beat to airy thinness the name and nature of literature and of language; we have questioned the very existence of texts, of representations of reality in words; we have displaced the writer with the critic, and the critic with the reader, and the reader with the cheesecloth of consciousness. . . . Some have promoted the sentimental fiction that literature, and the study of literature, involve the use of power, and power relationships, and that therefore literary study is about the use and abuse of power.''

But it was Giamatti's evocation of the special place of language in education that most bears repeating: ``Not solely but specially we have a responsibility to and for the language. Those who pursue literary study in English have assumed a special relationship to and perhaps stewardship for our language, the most powerful and central means by which humankind creates and reflects upon our common reality. The language is the means by which we define ourselves and define what all the definitions mean.

``There can be no transmission of values; no sharing of perspectives on human nature; no common good aggregated from the shared convictions of disparate individuals; no unique design in words imposed on chaos or consciousness; there can be no legitimate aesthetic or intellectual or civic justification for literary study without the primary recognition that the language -- its defense, nurture, and dignity -- is our first and our special responsibility. Not for or against some ideological system but in and for itself.

``Ours is still a rhetorically based culture, a culture based on Greek ideas of paedeia, those cultural values whose textual study is education and whose pursuit forms the good citizen, a concept the Romans would translate under the rubric studia humanitates; it is a culture whose Judeo-Christian roots are manifested in sacramental texts, and acts of interpretation, texts of a revealed word. Ours is a culture radically imbued with logocentricity, with the ancient, enduring, and finally numinous awe of writing and what is written.''


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