"How do you like working on a campus?" I asked my friend recently retired from state politics.
"It's really different from the political arena." A small, somewhat forced smile grudgingly bared itself; he was now a vice-president at a large university. One of my favorite oh-yes-tell-me-more expressions greeted his revelation.
"You're an academic, you should know," he said. "You people take your politics far more seriously than we politicians do. People in the legislature blast each other on the floor, but when it's over they forget about it. They go out and play golf together. They don't take it personally."
"And we do?" I asked knowingly.
"You also answer everything with a question." He shook his head. "And if you academics aren't asking each other questions, you stop talking to each other altogether. Amazing! Half the people in the history department here don't talk to the other half. Look around." We paused and briefly gazed at a few faculty walking across the campus quadrangle. "See that? Everybody's so self-absorbed and solemn, as though they're marching to their execution. Why don't they loosen up?"
"Why do you think?" I asked soberly.
"There you go again." He sighed, without smiling.
It does seem that learned personages of higher education-presidents, administrators, professors alike--are a somber lot. We don't deliberately set out to be that way; it's something that just happens naturally, like tennis elbow or writer's cramp.
Despite our quarreling with each other, society celebrates us as beacons of learning; and, indeed, we begin to see ourselves as superior intellects whose pronouncements are full of deep and memorable truths. And when we speak, we want our listeners to appreciate our extreme profundity. So we take on an exceedingly serious demeanor. After all, we secretly know that a somber presence does wonders: mundane observations translate into the verities of oracles. I remember a professor in a freshman course saying not once, not twice, but three times, "Mortality is an inextricable ingredient of human life," pronouncing this banality with such rising passion that, at his climax, I actually felt weak all over.
Our sage-like visage is conveyed to our adoring audience in other ways--by sitting seriously; by mumbling seriously; by pausing seri-