The Professor of Fluency

“No one can be fluent in all the languages of the universe, for there are those of science, nature, and mathematics, of literature, man, and music, of animal, politics, and art, but of the many, one must choose a path toward mastery, and in this become fluent. Some know early on which path to follow, but for others it is a journey; whichever path you choose, let it come naturally, and I will do my best to be your guide.”

And so Professor Kern opened the Seminar on Fluency as he had year after year. He was a strong and practiced speaker, and by the time I studied under him he was at least sixty years old. Every word that he spoke seemed crafted, weighty. We scratched most everything he said into our little pads, hoping that someday the words there would inspire our children as much as the man who spoke them inspired us.

The year I first studied under Kern was a year of change at Pickwith College. At the time of my matriculation, Kern had fended off numerous attacks on his philosophy, which he had reiterated time and again in his thirty years of presidency. He discussed and advised on single-subject mastery in his yearly seminar, which was required of all freshmen, and helped to guide them toward the path that fit each best. After the first semester, during which students would experiment in various subjects, students would select a single field to dedicate themselves to, becoming fluent, as Kern called it. It certainly made sense, in a way, to dedicate yourself to one field, but part of the whole idea’s convincingness was certainly due to its orator. Dr. Kern is the most persuasive speaker I’ve known, and the authority in his manner of speech could hold a hall of hundreds in awe. I helped to start the fuss, and it all began after Kern’s first lecture on fluency that year.

Papers rustled as they were shoved haphazardly into packs and satchels. Kern straightened his papers, tapping them on the podium before sliding them into his briefcase. I folded my attached desk back into the armrest of my chair. The student next to me still hadn’t sorted out the papers on her desk, and I noticed that among her equations on the top sheet there were pastoral representations of mountain pastures and hard-angled views of city towers, all drawn in careful detail with black ink.

“It looks like you’re going to have to choose which path you take there.” I said to her jokingly. She looked at me questioningly.

“You know, I just don’t really buy that.” She returned to her work, organizing the papers carefully before slipping them into her backpack. I was shocked that anyone would even consider questioning Kern’s lessons; after all, he was one of the most widely respected academics at the time, and was certainly the most respected at the college.

“Why do you go here if you disagree with the core principles?” It was the obvious follow up question. “I’m Leo, by the way.” My hand extended, I hitched my satchel up more securely on my shoulder. The last of her papers organized, she folded up her desk and shook my hand.

“Lise. Lise Cramner. And I’m here because when I was accepted I was devoted to Kern’s philosophy. Now I’m not.” We exited the hall, and once we were safely out of the throng, I asked Lise what exactly she found wrong with Dr. Kern’s lecture.

“It isn’t that I think he isn’t trying to do good here, Leo, it’s just that I disagree with the fundamentals of his message. He’s trying to tell us that we have to select a path to take, which is perfectly reasonable, but he takes it a bit too far when he says we must focus all our energy on that one subject.” Her expositional hand movements illustrated practically every syllable of her monologue. “How are we supposed to innovate? How are we supposed to live a life in one tiny box?” She paused briefly for me to respond.

“But don’t you see how we could become so much better at something so much faster if we limited the distractions of other fields?” We walked along the stone path toward her dormitory as afternoon faded towards evening.

“No! If it weren’t for distractions from other fields then life would be dull and boring. Nuclear fission is named for the process by which cells multiply for goodness sake!” she said, throwing her hands up. We walked for another minute or two. “This is me,” she said when we came to Wayde Hall, three-story, grey stone building with a red roof. She turned up the walk toward the dark wooden door. “We should talk again sometime,” she called over her shoulder.

I’d come to Pickwith in part to learn from Kern, but my conversation with Lise reawakened my old skepticism about the single-subject philosophy. I lay in bed for a long while that night turning it over in my head. Things like ‘what if Mozart hadn’t been any good at math?’ kept popping into my head and postponing my sleep. It didn’t take long for me to determine that I wouldn’t get a straight answer from myself, but it was a while before I drifted off.

In the morning I microwaved a bowl of instant oats, recalling, to my great displeasure, that a friend had once told me microwaves were invented by accident. They weren’t trying to make an oven at all. Distractions, distractions. I decided I would seek out Lise after my morning class. We had the opportunity to sample many different courses before we settled on a path, and that morning it was a course in political history, which greatly interested me. My interests were focused on psychology, so while I answered questions in the class with ease, Dr. Clark, who taught the course, easily perceived my flippancy for it. It was evident that he loved the subject, and thought that we should as well. After the class, Clark pulled me aside.

“You did well in class today, Leo. It seems that you have quite the knack for history; you might want to consider giving it more of a fighting chance.” He slapped me on the shoulder, and directed me from the room. I liked the class, but it wasn’t psychology.

I ran into Lise as she was coming out of the Biology building after the morning session. We walked into the town a little ways and found a deli.

“So have you thought any more about how singleminded you are?” She asked me as she unwrapped a turkey sandwich.

“Yeah. I kept coming back to microwave ovens.” I said sarcastically.

“That’s a start. But tell me, what class were you taking this morning?” She had folded the brown paper from the wrapping into a flat square, resting her sandwich on top of it.

“It was political history, with Clark.”

“Is that something you’re interested in?” She took another bite. I peeled back the corner on my sandwich. It didn’t look as good as hers.

“It’s really fun, and I’m good at it, but psychology is really more my area.”

What came next was inevitable: “You could always study both…” She had finished the first half of her sandwich.

“I could…”

“And why don’t you?”

“It’s like Kern said, ‘no one can be fluent in all the languages of the universe.’ I can’t master more than just one!”

“Really, Leo? There’s quite a lot of space between one and everything.” She laughed, but she had a good point. I still wasn’t wholly convinced, but I was starting down that road. We finished our lunch and talked about a few other, unrelated things, but soon enough it was time for the afternoon classes.

She and I left the deli; she went to a course in calculus, and I went headed off to medieval literature, which I was only slightly drawn to. It was going to be a long semester of this experimentation, with one of the few consistencies being the Seminar on Fluency, at least until I settled on my subject.

Kern lectured every Monday at the Weir Hall, the largest auditorium at Pickwith, and by the time the next Monday rolled around, Lise had convinced me to at least go into the lecture with a skeptical eye. I did.

“One can best serve the nation and the world by dedicating him or herself to a single subject, and excelling. Think of Van Gogh, who dedicated his life to art, or Bohr, who dedicated his to physics. The world remembers these men because of their achievements, which assuredly would not have been nearly as remarkable if they had been distracted with other whimsies. I will ask you, students, if you want to be like Curie or Shakespeare. Or would you rather cover more ground without reaching those great heights? You could spread yourselves thin, learning pieces of Italian, bits of Chaucer, tastes of astronomy. In a few moments I will field questions. You might want to consider asking about how to decide on a path, whether you should follow your desire or your class scores. What will it mean for you to become dedicated to a certain craft? It is only the second time we’ve met, so don’t hesitate to seek answers, though you will find many as the course continues.” He tapped his papers into order almost unconsciously, and after adjusting his thin, silver rimmed glasses: “You, in the purple turtleneck. Yes, you.” He pointed at a boy in the front somewhere with his pen.

“Dr. Kern,” the student was given a microphone, “I’ve always wanted to be a chemist, but I’m finding myself more and more unable to comprehend its complexities, and more and more drawn to poetry.” He stopped talking, and it took Kern a moment to cut in.

“So what’s your question, young man? Whether to become a poet or muddle on through chemistry? I think the choice is clear. If you can’t make heads or tails of it, you might as well spend the coin.” A self gratifying chuckle was heard, and he continued, “You may become renowned for your poetry, letting verses flow from your lips at every opportunity, or you may end up as an assistant to a more notable, more capable chemist. Choose your own path, but do it with fervor, knowing you have made the right decision. Next?”

A girl I couldn’t see spoke next, she was somewhere behind me. She wanted to know what to do if she discovered later she had taken the wrong path. Dr. Kern assured her that with his help she wouldn’t.

“Maybe you should ask him something,” Lise whispered to me.

“Like what? It’s a pretty simple concept.”

“What if you’re equally interested in two fields?” She smiled at me, giving me a little nudge. I felt as though I were slowly being led off a cliff that I would never be able to climb again.

“Okay.” I raised my hand. After several others, I was called on.

“What if you’re equally interested in two fields, Professor?” As usual, Kern’s response was deliberate and convincing, but Lise knew what she was doing when she gave me that question.

“It won’t be as difficult as you think it will, young man. Making the decision, that is. Eventually, hopefully by the end of this semester, you will have found that one shoe fits better than the other, and that will be the foot you put down first. Since you enjoy both both equally, then you will be equally as fulfilled dedicating yourself to either, and you will undoubtedly provide a great service to this nation and to the world in doing so. Out of curiosity, which fields would those be, young man?” His gaze penetrated me from across the vast space of the hall, and I almost faltered.

“Psychology and political history, Professor.” He fielded several more questions, and soon the hour was up. Lise had sketched Escher-like patterns around the edges of her notes, which this time did have to do with the lecture, though math was visible on the next sheet down. She hadn’t grown out of being multi-talented like so many others had.

After the seminar Lise and I again found ourselves walking along the pathway toward Wayde Hall. This time, we weren’t alone; Kern himself had caught up to us as we left the patio in front of Weir, his grey overcoat flapping conspicuously in the cool wind.

“What’s your name, young man?” He strode up next to me; Lise and I both stopped.

“Leo Maine, sir.” I extended my hand. He didn’t take it, his large hands resting in his pockets. “I’m enjoying your lecture, Professor. It’s making a lot of sense.”

“I’m glad, Leo. It doesn’t take much to understand a concept as simple as this one. Come, let’s walk. I already know Lise.” We walked. “She’s been trying to convince me since the beginning of the semester that my concept of singular focus is misguided, and I couldn’t help but notice her next to you when you spoke. I’d like to ask you this straight, Leo: Who would you rather follow, this brazen, untempered freshman, or me, a seasoned doctor with years of experience and years of results?”

“You, of course, Professor. It only makes sense.” I looked up at him, trusting the words coming from my lips. We had reached Wayde Hall, and Lise turned up the path more unhappy than last time.

“I must leave as well, but I’m glad to have you on board.” Kern strode up the path, pulling his overcoat around him; it was getting colder.

The next day I didn’t see Lise, nor the one after that. On Wednesday night I lay awake, cool September air seeping into my bedroom. Had I chosen the wrong path? Even here, at a crossroads between one and many, there was a binary choice. In the morning I nuked a bowl of oatmeal.

Biotech. German Literature. Meso-American Culture. Physics. Choice after choice passed by as the week steamed on. I had enrolled in psychology for the following semester at this point. I had even considered taking a physics, or possibly a political history, course but I was still dedicated to a single focus of study.

A week passed; Lise avoided me at the seminar. And afterwards. The following Friday I headed over to Wayde Hall to see Lise. She lived on the second floor, I found out, and she let me in without speaking. Once we were seated on her small couch, she turned to me.

“So you’ve had plenty of time to reconsider, are you going to be a slave to a single task your whole life, or are you going to live?”

“I’m going to take two courses. Psychology and something else, probably physics or political history. You were right all along, Lise.” We both laughed then, but then her face turned serious again.

“Think of how long it took me to convince you that you need more than one thing to focus on in this life? How are we supposed to convince everyone else? How will they ever see?” She looked at me defeatedly, and her palms fell open on the couch.

“We could always ask the Professor another question,” I said. “Remember, he thinks I chose his path, not yours.” The two of us talked for several hours as the grey clouds accumulated outside; when I finally returned to my dormitory, it was dusky, and pouring rain.

I sat up the next two nights thinking. Why had it taken me so long to come to my senses? Why had I fallen victim to this relentless propaganda? On Monday Lise and I walked into Weir Auditorium equipped with what we thought would be the perfect question. Of course, a man with an intellect like Kern’s was intelligent enough not to call on us. Either of us.

After the seminar, the two of us pressed our way to the stage, and, literally catching Professor Kern by his coattails, asked him to stay for a minute or so.

“Only a minute.” He faced us, his dark eyes set like cannons upon us.

“Dr. Kern, have you considered that you might be wrong, and that following more than a single path could benefit a person, and society, even more than just one? Leo and I, here, believe it would.” Lise spoke with confidence, but Kern’s powerful rhetoric was a wall that was pointless to siege.

“I would hope, Miss Cramner, that you aren’t hoping of persuading me that my life’s work is all folly. Have I mentioned to you Einstein, or Picasso, or Julius Caesar? Have they shaped history by dividing their concentration among many interests? Or have they become central figures because of their prowess in a single art, namely physics, painting, and politics? I would say the latter, Miss Cramner, and as for you Mr. Maine, I thought you were with me. Et tu, Brute?” He was angry; his eyes burned.

“I was, Professor, until I realized that life would be more fulfilling and useful if we shared our expertise among several outlets. Einstein wrote many books, professor, as I’m sure you know, and the others you’ve mentioned both here and in your lectures have done more than just what they are most famous for.” I was intrepid in my statement, but I felt shame in addressing a man I so admired, even if it was for the right reasons.

“You’re young still, Mr. Maine, and you can learn much from a man like me. You’re right that those I have mentioned have done more than what was in their line of work, outside of it, but also mark that they were dedicated to that line of work, and without that dedication they would have been nothing. Good evening.” With that he checked the clips on his briefcase and strode from the hall.

The following Monday Kern instructed freshmen to bring notes from all their classes, and though he didn’t himself arrive, we were to talk amongst ourselves to help identify which path we were each best suited for. This opportunity allowed for Lise and me to discuss in detail multiple fields we were interested in. For her, that was renaissance art and higher mathematics, but my case was as of yet undecided, though physics and psychology seemed quite attractive to me, along with political history, of course.

“Look at this, Leo: all these people, our classmates, just buying into this ridiculous ideology. Only this, only that. They’re going to regret it later on.” How did the entire college — its faculty, its students — just completely go for Kern’s philosophy of fluency? It seemed remarkable to me that in thirty years he had built such an impregnable barrier between his ideas and reality, yet managed to convince ordinary people, year after year, of its logic. He had met with criticism in the past – the class of 1995 in particular – but he had moved forward, always leading Pickwith with a voice of power and supposed reason.

Lise and I walked around the campus the following Wednesday, wondering if we might be just another minor obstacle for Kern, or if he would take us seriously. She argued that he was getting older, and having met with so much resistance over the years, he might listen. Remarking on how defensive he was after the seminar two weeks prior, she made a sound point. By this time of the year it was chilly in the evenings, and by the time we parted that day I wished I had brought along a pair of gloves.

It was October. Lise and I had both received a note from Dr. Kern inviting us to lunch at his residence:

 

Students Leo & Lise

I’ve met with much dissension from the academia in regards to my philosophy of fluency. You might say that yours was the last straw. Do me the kindness of meeting me for lunch on the 15th at my residence in Wayde Hall. I am a prideful man, so do not take offense yourselves when I tell you that I still resist this change, though it is inevitable. I can see the Goths will soon come for my Rome.

Kern.

 

“About thirty years ago, when I began teaching here at Pickwith, I came up with the idea that if each person were to focus on a single field, then when they entered society, they would be tremendously more efficient than if they had spread themselves around. I suppose that a few years into the seminar I realized I had made a mistake. As I have mentioned, I am a prideful man, and despite my folly I stuck with it instead of reversing my philosophy. I had chosen a path, and had dedicated myself to it. That was truly my biggest mistake.” He actually paused to rub his eye; a tear had formed. “Have some tea,” he said, before continuing his history. “For twenty five years I have plowed forward, telling young people like yourselves to dedicate to a single field of work. I am sorry that I misled you, and thousands before you, but I am willing to right that wrong, if you are willing to help me.” He paused again, “Seriously, take a cracker, some coffee.” We were in his living room in Wayde Hall. It was decorated in the Victorian style, with neat little couches with curved legs, accompanied by spindly end tables and gaudy wallpaper. “All I need is for you to help me with the transition. I can’t do anything this year, of course, it would damage my pride, my reputation. But next year, I promise, I will teach my Seminar on Fluency in a different way; I will teach them to be fluent in more than one of the universe’s languages, whatever they may be. Will you help me?” His eyes told that he meant it. He truly wanted to change.

“We’ll do whatever you need us to do, Professor,” Lise said.

“We could always begin by mentioning to other students that they should consider taking more than one course, and since you’re the president of the college, you can put new policies in place for next year,” I followed up.

“You both are admirable, but remember that it is not you alone who have initiated this change, but years of pressure from many sectors. There are professors at this institution who resent me and my philosophy. They call me closed minded. Seek them out, and open the gates of Rome.” The professor sat back, not having touched the coffee, tea, or food that he had brought for lunch. He looked beleaguered, tired, even defeated.

We finished lunch, and then Lise had to hurry off to a swim meet. I walked alone through the college halls, along the terraces. Leaves fell from the trees, and cold wind nipped my ankles. Of course we had done the right thing, but as the straw that broke the camel’s back, we were to bear the most guilt for Dr. Kern’s emotional state, which, as he was a strong man, he concealed well, but the shrewd observer could see that he was deflated, and less upbeat than usual.

When Lise returned, we talked late into the night, agreeing that we had done something noteworthy. She had won her swim meet, but was much more animated about the success we had won on the home front.

When I left for my dormitory that night, the stars were visible in a navy blue sky, because after my one lesson in astronomy, even I now know that the sky is never truly black.

The following year, Lise and I met for coffee on the day before college officially began. We were both going to attend Kern’s lecture on fluency on the first Monday, just to check in and see what had changed. Lise was studying fine arts and higher mathematics, while I, on the other hand, would continue to study political history and psychology, being equally interested in the both of them. We talked for a while on what we planned for our futures, deciding that come what may, life is what you make of it.

On the first Monday, we sat together in the back of Weir Hall, looking down over the heads of hundreds of freshmen. Professor Kern began, his rhetoric steadfast as always.

“No one can master all the languages of the universe, for there are those of the arts, and sciences, of math, and literature, man, and animal, politics, and music. It is not beyond his or her capabilities to try, however, to master as many of those languages as he or she can. Expertise does not have to be a narrow spyglass by which to see farther than any other, but can just as easily be a window overlooking a beautiful vista, wide in its scope. For some, it may be easy to achieve mastery in a field, and for others it may be a journey, but I will serve as your guide. Your fluency in the languages of the universe can depend on that.” He noticed us at the rear of the auditorium, and gave a quick wink, and he continued the lecture. The stars really do come out when the clouds go away.

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(Copyright 2015 Tys Sweeney)

Tys Sweeney

Founder & Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Tys Sweeney ’17 founded the Blair Oracle in April 2015. He wrote news, fiction, poetry, and announcements for the publication until he graduated in 2017. He served as Editor-in-Chief until 2016 and was succeeded by Seth Kim.