One Last Lecture
A departing scholar holds forth on truth, injustice, and the epidemic of ignorance.
By Adam Langer
Shortly after it was announced that Duke professor Stanley Fish would take over as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Preston Browning, who was retiring after 33 years of teaching at UIC, cleared the last boxes out of his cramped little office in University Hall. Fish and his wife, Jane Tompkins--who together will reportedly be paid in the neighborhood of $300,000--have been hired to boost the commuter school's national reputation. Fish has boasted that his salary is higher than that of the president of the United States and has said he wouldn't condescend to read a poem unless he were paid to do it.
"How far we've come from an earlier image of the scholar as a disinterested intellectual in search of truth and willing to sacrifice wealth and comforts in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom," remarked the 69-year-old Browning. "Fish may keep administrators at rival institutions awake at night pondering how to match UIC's latest coup in the quest for prestige, but one might be forgiven for asking whether this lust for prestige isn't one more sign of the university's succumbing to the national pathology, whereby image and external luster are mistaken for inner substance."
In April Browning delivered his last UIC lecture at the Agape House, the campus ministry center. Many had promised to come, but barely 20 attended--a few students, a couple of colleagues, some friends, and several homeless men who'd been lured by the promise of free lasagna, the smell of which lingered in the air.
Slight and frail, Browning spoke softly but firmly. "I perceive no rigid wall of separation between my academic responsibilities and my civic responsibilities. I care passionately about democracy, and while I have never consciously set out to teach democratic values, I think that we in the humanities do, willy-nilly, teach such values."
I took a seminar Browning taught last spring on 20th-century political drama. He was far from the most scintillating speaker I'd ever encountered, but he spoke with conviction about the connection between literature and politics. When he talked about Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, for instance, he described American and multinational corporate support for the brutal Pinochet regime. And he had an odd air of spiritual calm about him. It was the last course he taught at UIC. He said he was physically exhausted.
Preston Browning was born in 1929 in Culpeper, Virginia, the son of a onetime car salesman who'd moved into real estate. Browning's description of growing up in the Depression is right out of Huckleberry Finn--trapping animals for fur, running down to a swimming hole, playing checkers at a general store, sneaking a peek at a traveling carnival's hoochie-coochie dancer.
At an early age Browning acquired a zeal for social justice from his parents. "My father had a passion for integrity and honesty," he says. "My mother was a kind of unpaid social worker at a time before paid social work had arrived in the rural south. She'd grown up in a family that really did believe in noblesse oblige and practiced that. Hoboes would stop at our house for a handout, and my mother would take me with her when she went to the homes of extraordinarily poor people to carry them food and clothing and a little bit of money." Browning's ancestors had been slave owners. "My parents were southerners, but they were somewhat different. They didn't approve of integration in the 60s, but they were not vicious in their southern views about race."
Culpeper wasn't an intellectual town, and Browning wasn't much of a scholar. "My adolescence was really painful. I was a really screwed-up young person during my teens, thoroughly rebellious and feeling a lot of hostility toward my father and feeling alienated from both of my parents."
He went to college at Washington and Lee University, where he became a typical frat boy--drinking, carousing, gambling, and driving to the local women's schools. He wound up with a degree in history but was no better than a B or C student. He says, "I considered myself the most uneducated BA in America."
Drafted into the army after graduation, he worked a counterintelligence desk job during the Korean war, logging the cases of army staff being investigated for anything from marital disputes to drinking to communist beliefs. "Basically I would type up these reports about people and note anything that might make them susceptible to bribery or blackmail, and I spent a lot of time reading some of the more salacious parts. I hated every minute of it. I thought it was the absolute epitome of waste and stupidity."
After he got out of the army, he worked in San Francisco running credit checks on people who applied for insurance. "I was really spinning my wheels and wasting my time," he says. "I came home in the fall of '54 feeling utterly bankrupt--morally, spiritually, economically, psychologically."
A hitchhiker he'd picked up had told him about Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. He checked the book out of the local public library but didn't finish it. "The despair that I detected in some of those characters was so close to my own condition at the time that I found it upsetting." Yet Browning, who'd gone to work in his father's office, started plowing through other books in his spare time. That same year he became a born-again Christian. "I'm not much of a believer anymore, but at that time it was critical for me to have some religious and psychological and theological structures that enabled me to make sense of my life."
He went back to college, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hoping to get a degree in religious studies, but he came away in 1957 with a master's in English lit. For the next two years he taught English composition at the University of Missouri.
He met his future wife in 1958 and proposed to her three weeks later. In 1960 they moved to Chicago, where Browning entered the University of Chicago's divinity school. "It was a very heady intellectual environment at the divinity school, being taught by people of world-class status as church historians and theologians," he says. "I found it utterly enthralling. It was the happiest time of my life."
Browning remembers being greatly influenced by one of his professors, Alvin Pitcher, who taught a course on religion and society. "He was a man with a deep passion for social justice, and he probably did more than any other white person in the 60s and 70s to bring about some healing between blacks and whites. He introduced me to the complexities of city life and city politics and to the complexities of race relations in a city like Chicago."
Browning joined the faculty of UIC in 1965. "I think it's fair to say I loved it from the very start. Even teaching composition was exciting and challenging. It wasn't always just dealing with commas and paragraphing--you could deal with ideas. And from the very beginning I liked students." That same year Browning went to Selma, Alabama. "I was responding to a call from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a call for people to come to Alabama to be in solidarity with blacks who were struggling for civil rights."
Browning's political beliefs found their way into his teaching. "I always brought those beliefs into the classroom with a certain trepidation, with a serious attempt not to turn my literature class into a political science class. I have tried not to be partisan. I try to do it in an intellectually responsible way." A class once had to be canceled because he'd been arrested for blocking the entrance to CIA headquarters. "I told my students why I was doing that. When I went to join a group of people being arrested at the House of Representatives protesting against aid to El Salvador, I told my students that. Year after year the Reagan administration told lies about Nicaragua and El Salvador and the death squads. So my general feeling was, let us teach Shakespeare and John Donne and Milton and Joyce and Faulkner and Toni Morrison with as much passion as we can, but let us also inform our students a bit about the nature of the world in which they live."
In the mid-80s Browning and his wife made two trips to Nicaragua. "We went through villages that were burned and destroyed," he recalls. "Talking to people in Nicaragua about the suffering they were experiencing because of the embargo and the contras, and knowing that my government and my taxes were responsible for so much pain and suffering, I became more and more convinced that we as a nation had committed outrageous acts of robbery and violence against people of this hemisphere. I felt some obligation to try to make some contribution, however tiny it might be, to the recovery of that country."
When he returned Browning went to work in Washington for a small social-service organization dedicated to ending world hunger, but two years later he returned to UIC. "I had to come back," he says. "We were living this idyllic lifestyle, and my son could go rambling out into the woods with his friends and catch tadpoles as I used to do as a child. I loved it for him and for myself, but I finally realized that I'm a hybrid. I love the city too. I missed the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony and the availability of drama. I also missed the classroom."
Browning has written a play about a disaffected southern academic who's radicalized by his country's activities in Central America in the 80s, which he's titled For Love or Country. "One of the things that writing has done for me is create a character who rants, so my wife and children haven't had to be subjected to so much of my ranting," he says, and laughs. He hopes to see the play produced in Chicago, and has shown it to several theater people. No one bit, and he's now finishing up a rewrite that he'll shop around again this fall.
He says that as he leaves UIC he's worried about the direction it has taken. "Over the years I have won a reputation for being a sort of crank," he says, chuckling. "But I'm disturbed that we graduate each year students who unless they are history majors know no history, who unless they're English or Spanish or French or Russian majors know no literature. I had a student recently who told me she didn't know who Moses was. The ignorance of students coming to a university like this is overwhelming, and many leave here still ignorant. We make assumptions about what students know, and then we leap over those areas that we don't want to teach, those areas we find boring. We are a culture so enamored of the quick fix, so enamored of distraction, so debauched by cheap entertainment that we simply can't be bothered with things that aren't amusing."
Browning is now ranting, but his voice has barely risen. "American higher education to a degree is both corrupt and corrupting. It's corrupt in that it engages in this delusion that we are educating when so many of our graduates are hardly educated. It is corrupting in that it misleads students to believe that they've gotten an education simply because they have passed a number of courses. And it's corrupting in this whole business of grades--it's depressing and demoralizing for a teacher to deal with students who are only interested in the grade. If I had anything to do with it, I would fail from this university a little over 20 percent. This will not endear me to some of the people at the university, but I hope I speak the truth--if you debase the currency of higher education, what does it mean to have a degree from a university?"
But this isn't Browning's fight anymore, though he will teach a couple of courses this fall as a guest professor at DePaul University. "I have expectations of continuing to teach into the foreseeable future, but it will be much less demanding of time and energy," he says. "I won't be sitting on the front porch and rocking, but I want to guard against being too overwhelmed by demands. Both my mind and my body say slow down." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Preston Browning photo by Dan Machnik.