The Fellowship of Scholars: Blessing? Or Curse?

Trudy L. Hanson


Gandolf, the wizard, cites a poem to Frodo, the Hobbit, in The Felllowship of the Ring which explains the significance of the golden ring Frodo has inherited:
Three rings for the Elven Kings under the sky
Seven for the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them (Tolkien, 1965, p. 81)
Gandolf goes on to tell Frodo that the ring he holds is the Master-ring, the One Ring to rule them all. Those of you familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy know that Frodo, a simple hobbit, is charged with battling the evil of the mighty Sauron, the Dark Lord. With an alliance brokered by the elven King Elrond, nine travelers set out to return the ring to the place it was forged and thus break the power of the Dark Lord. Just as Frodo and his companions faced a journey fraught with danger and deceit, I think those of us in higher education face a similar quest today. Within our hands we hold the promise and the hope of education and its rewards, but within those same hands we hold discouragement and an elitism which separates us from our colleagues who teach in public schools.

When you are asked the question, "What is it you do?" is your reply: "I'm a professor." Or, do you say "I am a teacher"? As United States society has devalued the profession of teaching, so has the "academy," as higher education likes to call itself. Garret Keizer, a writer and a public high school teacher for fifteen years, wrote an essay published by Harper's Magazine entitled: "Why We Hate Teachers." Keizer observes: [T]eachers find themselves an embarrassing exception to the first article of their own creed: that education prepares one to be privileged and prosperous. Of the professional classes, theirs is probably one of the least esteemed; it is certainly one of the least paid" (Keizer, 2001, p. 40). Keizer points out the contradictions we have about teaching. On the one hand, we expect our public schools to change communities in which they are located and yet we don't value the teachers who are charged with making these changes happen.

Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has urged universities to make teacher preparation their top priority. He notes that even though we have a critical teacher shortage, the nation's 1300 schools of education prepare more than enough new teachers each year. Gregorian states: "Our public schools leak talent like a sieve; more than 30 percent of all teachers and up to 50 percent of teachers in large urban districts, leave their jobs within five years" (Gregorian, 2001). While there are a number of reasons cited for teachers who quit, those of us in higher education must accept some of the responsibility. Too often safe within our academic departments, just as Frodo was safe in his home in the Shire, we have essentially placed the responsibility of teacher preparation upon our departments of education. But as Brown University President Ruth Simmons says: "Colleges and universities must validate teaching at all levels if teaching is to be validated at any level" (Simmons, 2002, p. 2). As my own university president told the WTAMU faculty recently, teacher education is the responsibility of all departments. Gregorian goes on to boldly suggest: "It should not be considered a step down for a Ph.D. to teach in a public high school. . . . Colleges should urge Ph.D.s to consider teaching in our high schools and high schools should welcome them" (Gregorian, 2001). But how many of us, as we have advised our graduate students about potential positions, have suggested they consider applying to the local school district?

The elf leader Gildor tells Frodo and his companions: "The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out" (Tolkien, 1965, p. 123). Like Frodo, those of us in the academy have been reluctant to leave the safety of our communication departments, but now it is time for us to venture forward even though our mission may be unpopular and even a bit dangerous. To rally our spirits for such a quest, let me share with you a story of another adventurer named Ron Clark of Aurora, North Carolina. Ron Clark was named the 2000 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the Disney American Teacher Awards program. Listen to his story in his own words:

I never wanted to teach: all I wanted was a life filled with adventure. After college I became a dancing and singing waiter in London. I went to Greece and got stranded on a desert island for four days. Then I went to Romania and stayed with gypsies in Transylvania, they fed me rats and I got really sick, so I had to come home. I lived with my mom in Belhaven, North Carolina. She told me a teacher in her area had passed away and asked me if I'd be willing to finish out the school year for that teacher. I wasn't interested, but I figured I'd just go down to the school. I was hooked! The next day I started teaching fifth grade. From then on it was magic, I fell in love with teaching. Five years later, I saw a [tv] program about a school in Harlem, It showed these students who although they were intelligent had extremely low test-scores because the school couldn't attract good teachers. And at that moment I had a feeling. . . it was a calling. The next day I told my co-teacher, I'm going to teach in Harlem. I packed up my car, drove up to New York and stayed at the YMCA. Everyday I went from school to school in Harlem trying to find a school like the one I'd seen on TV (Clark, 2001)

Ron Clark did find a school in Harlem "P.S. 83" and a job. In order to motivate his students and show them he cared about their progress, he spent every recess learning to jump rope Double Dutch. When the other teachers were having lunch in the teachers' lounge, Ron Clark would be practicing his Double Dutch with the students on the playground. And when he was selected as the Teacher of the Year and invited to the awards ceremony in California, he raised $25,000 to bring his entire class with him. Ron Clark learned the lesson Gildor sought to teach Frodo. He embraced the challenge and by so doing he opened the world to a generation of students at P.S. 83. As Gildor observed: "Courage is found in unlikely places" (Tolkien, 1965, p. 124). Now is the time for universities to find the courage and the resources to validate the profession of teaching. Gregorian (2001)states:

Throughout higher education, the importance of teaching must be demonstrated in many ways, including equalizing the rewards for those who conduct research and those who teach. Colleges and universities should reward teachers for the excellence and quality of their teaching . . . for their contributions in other ways including advising school districts, coaching teachers, and actually teaching in local schools.

At the council in Rivendell, Frodo steps forward and says, "I will take the ring though I do not know the way" (Tolkien, 1965, p. 354). Like Frodo, it is time for us to accept the charge of validating teaching at all levels, even though we may not know the way and even though we may be pursued by the Black Riders. I believe each of us can make a difference.
  • We should seek partnerships with our local school districts. If such a program is not in place, we should create one.
  • We should accept the responsibility of educating teachers, not pass that responsibility on to others.
  • We should visit local schools and use what we know about communication to enrich the lives of others.
  • We should direct our research in communication to problems existing in our public school system. As Dr. Simmons has urged: "Colleges have a responsibility to educate the next generation, not just those who walk through their gates" (Simmons, 2002, p. 1).
SSCA Vice President Kate Hawkins has urged us to contemplate how our scholarship makes a difference in our communities. If we are to educate the next generation, then we must become a part of our communities, rather than fencing them out. What may be viewed as a small gesture, a limited effort, may result in a mighty change, as was the case in Sarajevo.

One day during the war in Sarajevo, a bomb was dropped on a bakery where 22 people were waiting in line to buy bread. All 22 people were killed. A citizen of Sarajevo, Vedran Smialiavic, decided that he wanted to do something to mark the death of these innocent victims. He said, "I am a simple man, what can I do?" Before the war, Smialiavic played in the Sarajevo orchestra, but once the war started everyone was afraid to venture out just to hear music. With no music to perform, he walked the streets near his home and tried to find things to keep himself busy.

When he heard about the bakery bombing, Smialiavic dressed in his tuxedo and took his cello and a chair to the site. He sat there for 22 days, one for each of the victims of the bombing, and played his favorite piece of music, Albinoni's Adagio in G. He braved the artillery fire and the sniper's bullets and played his cello.

Today the statue in the town square is a statue of Vedran Smialiavic, sitting on his chair playing his cello. People often bring flowers to put around the base of the statue, always 22 flowers to honor those 22 people. He made a difference doing what he could do.

Now this is not the end of the story. When it was picked up by the wire service and printed in The New York Times Magazine, music teachers all over the world read of Vedran Smialiavic and his gesture in memory of his neighbors in Sarajevo. Many of them encouraged their cello players of all ages to play on street corners around the world for Smialiavic and the people of Sarajevo.

How many of us brave the artillery and sniper fire in daily commerce? How many of us demonstrate the strength and beauty that is ours? How many of us share our gifts with others who need them? We can make a difference and we can do it today (Rooks, "Beauty in the Midst of Horror, Spinning Gold Out of Straw: Stories that Heal).
Clark, R. (2001). Phenomenal man: Mr. Clark's opus. [online article] Retrieved March 8, 2002 from:
Gregorian, V. (2001, Aug. 17). Teacher education must become colleges' central preoccupation. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 47 [online version]. Retrieved March 7, 2002 from:
Keizer, G. (2001, September). Why we hate teachers: Notes on a notable American tradition. Harper's Magazine, 303, 37-44.
Rooks, D. (2001). Beauty in the midst of horror. In Gold out of straw: How stories heal. Salt Run Press.
Simmons, R. (2002, March). What messages did September 11 events send to academia? Women in Higher Education, 11/3, 1-2.
Tolkien, J.R.R.R. (1965). The fellowship of the ring. New York: Ballantine Books.