Thursday, February 17, 2011

Don't look down

This is not a good story to tell. But we have to tell it anyway due to some unexpected turn of events at various quarters of our academic norms and practice.

One day, storyboard receives a strange phone call. The caller happens to be a very recent appointee at senior level from a certain academic department of the University of Papua New Guinea.

“Yes, sir, this is storyboard speaking. How may I help you?”

“Do you know Mona Lisa?” (Real name withheld.)

“Yes, I do. In fact, Miss Mona Lisa is a very bright student of mine.”

“When you see her today, instruct her to come to my office immediately.”

A little baffled, since the department was far removed from the discipline of literature, storyboard said: “That I can. But begging your pardon, sir, may I ask what this is in regard to?”

Thereupon the caller embarked on a lecture about his status and qualifications as compared to storyboard’s, and should he, storyboard, choose not to heed the caller’s instruction it would go down on record as an act of insubordination. Would storyboard be willing to risk that by questioning the caller’s intent in summoning the said student up to his office?

Of course, storyboard ignored the caller’s threat and decided upon warning Miss Mona Lisa that Dr. So-and-So wanted to see her on matters that might not have been work-related.

To which the student asked what storyboard’s advice would be if she did venture up to the caller’s office out of curiosity. Storyboard, after studying his good student’s smile and the mystery surrounding her eyes, pointed out that the university was a liberal environment as much as any other democratic setting and that as individuals one ought to exercise a certain amount of precaution regarding personal conduct and safety.

Since that incident Mona Lisa went missing from the Waigani campus. The co-supervisor of her honours program along with storyboard went through all worry and trouble trying to find out where she was. Has she gone home to her home province? Has she rather migrated to another country? Relatives from her home province also wanted to know. Even her appointment as a temporary tutor in Literature was beginning to become redundant and subsequently a new wave of honours students came on board to fill up the student’s position.

When Mona Lisa did re-appear some two years later she deposited a three-hour drama script at storyboard’s office, and that play was noted to be revealing – indeed a replica of a very intelligent young woman who had for one reason or other decided to take an existential type of departure that only creative literature itself might best explain the stress and worry she might have encountered during her brief sojourn as an honours student.

What storyboard failed to realize there and then was the unscrupulous attitude of the caller albeit appointee as a departmental head. Within a matter of semesters, not years, that caller would lose his position and in the following year become jobless. What followed thenceforth was that the university could barely manage human tolerance in having him re-instated somewhat but this time as a lecturer like storyboard. But even that position seems too small today to fill the incumbent’s shoes. So what does he do? He starts pushing and shoving, staging coup after coup to get into power – an activity hardly fitting for an academic environment where oratory, research and publication, including churning out the very best of manpower for the nation count more.

At this stage we must point out that where there is a threat apparent to place the reputation of a tertiary institution in jeopardy, such individuals must be dealt with accordingly through the media. Storyboard is only too glad to do so here on behalf of his well-meaning and highly respected colleagues, who no doubt have exercised that human sentiment of tolerance so much even that human quality can get well and truly expended.

Looking at this particular aspect of human conduct from a philosophical point of view reveals to us that what we are looking at is indeed the story of human failure in the raw. We all strive for that ultimate state of perfection in our lives but very few of us reach the top eventually. Those who succeed turn around and start mentoring the young who come after them. They become models worthy of following. But it is sad for this lot that fails even with such academic decorations as PhDs. What they mentor turns out ruthless and violent as evident in the life of our incumbent in question.

Now when parents spend thousands of kina to send their children along to us, they have in mind people who will nurture their young in the best way possible. But when these generations of young people are entrusted quite unwittingly by parents to the care of such unscrupulous individuals who revel in power more than human values, we are indeed staring at the face of social decadence point blank.

Even parents themselves must become actively involved in the workings of a tertiary institution, not just their terms as committee members at high school level only. The likelihood of our young walking away into oblivion without any hope of getting a job after four years of academia is enormous and needs to be quelled with the parents’ vigilance as well. As the song by B.B. King has it: “better not look down, if you want to keep on flying; put the hammer down, keep it full speed ahead; better not look back, or you might just wind up crying; you can keep it moving, if you don't look down.”

Thus, entertaining such unscrupulous individuals to the point of taking full power to control our lives can be tantamount not only to B.B. King’s idea of bringing ourselves down to their level but also as Shakespeare would put it: “anything from the neck up is heaven; anything from the neck down is hell.” 
Photos above by Ekar Keapu of The National newspaper showing over 1,000 new intakes of undergraduates during orientation week at the University of Papua New Guinea. A majority of these will be streamed into the School of Humanities and Social Sciences which houses the Literature and English Communication department.