They Did It All by Themselves [Part II]

Several weeks ago, an article appeared in the local newspaper, an interview with the new artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  He’s a product of the local university, where he learned his craft from, among others, Fred Adams, the legendary professor who established and ran for decades the Festival [which has won, among other honors, a Tony for being one of the best regional theatres in the United States].  The new director is an accomplished and effective actor, and there’s no doubt about that.  But what bothered me about the interview was that not a single word appeared about those who mentored, taught, inspired, and hired him, including Fred Adams.  Everything was about the new director, his talents, and his aspirations.  I can’t honestly say whether this was because he never mentioned those who had helped him every step of the way or because the interviewer left any such remarks out of the final story.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter, because, as the story ran, it’s all too symbolic of American culture today.  No one owes anything to anyone.  In fact, it’s even worse than that. Part of this change lies in an attitude that everything important exists only in the here and now, a change in what was once a core American value.  Southern Utah University, for example, exists only because, more than a century ago, a handful of local citizens mortgaged everything they had to come up with the funds to build the first building of the school – the building being required by the state legislature.  They did so because they felt that would offer a better future to their children and their community.  None of them ever received any financial reward, and their act is largely buried in history… except for a few older residents of the town and some university faculty.

Another symptom indicative of this change in public attitudes is reflected in the content of those largely useless student evaluations.  As a senior faculty member, my wife serves on the committee that reviews tenure and promotion applications for faculty. Since faculty members are now required to include all student evaluations and comments, she sees the comments from students across all disciplines in the university, and what is so incredibly disheartening is that there is virtually no real appreciation for professors at any level. The overwhelming majority of the comments – even of professors who have demonstrated incredible teaching effectiveness and who have gone out of their way to help students for years – deal with complaints, often insanely petty.

Part of this trend may be because all too many students don’t seem to know what’s important.  One student praised a professor because he once brought in soft drinks for the class!  Another faculty member was praised for bringing donuts. Exactly what does this have to do with education? Over the years, my wife and other members of her department have done such quiet deeds as paid student medical bills out of their own pockets, created student scholarships with their own funds, and personally helped students financially, offered hundreds of unpaid hours of additional instruction – the list is endless.  Once, say fifteen years ago, students seemed to appreciate such efforts.  Today, they complain if faculty members don’t smile when the students perform [yes… this actually happened.  Twice!].

In the interests of full disclosure, as the saying goes, I probably haven’t offered enough gratitude to those who helped me – but I have offered it, in speeches, in book dedications, and in interviews… and I didn’t forget them, visiting and writing them over the years.  And certainly there are notable exceptions, some very public.  One noted Broadway singer and actress, in giving a concert last week, paid clearly heart-felt tribute upon several occasions to her undergraduate singing teacher.  The problem is that these are exceptions… and becoming more and more infrequent every year.

The noted Isaac Newton once said that he had accomplished so much because he stood “on the shoulders of Giants,” but all of us owe debts to those who preceded us.  We didn’t do it alone, and far too many people who should know this fail, time and time again, to know that, to appreciate it, and to acknowledge it, both privately and publicly.

3 thoughts on “They Did It All by Themselves [Part II]”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    My views of the world and my writing have both been affected by encountering The Magic of Recluce while in high school. It’s made a difference in my life, so thank you.

  2. Wes tower says:

    Mr. Modesitt,
    I can’t thank you for inspiring me, but I can thank you for many hundreds of hours of enjoyable reading. Those many nights in the Sandbox passed with much less stress and boredom thanks to your many fine books.

    Wes Tower

  3. Ian says:

    There are some that say that Newton was being modest and some that he had a wider intention?

    “Two writers think that the above quote, written at a time when Newton and Hooke were in dispute over optical discoveries, was an oblique attack on Hooke (said to have been short and hunchbacked), rather than – or in addition to – a statement of modesty.”


    But in essence sir, you are correct, people become enveloped in their own brilliance and forget the help they have received along the way.

    But then, for he who is without sin cast the first stone!

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