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“Dust in the air suspended”

— Very little in human experience, either joyous or tragic, is unique. One of our roles as educators should be to show students the commonalities of human experience—from person to person, from nation to nation, and from age to age.

[A man escapes from the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001]Teaching students about the commonalities of human experience is best done with-out the curriculum, because the boundaries of the curriculum itself are usually too inflexible to permit the long reaches that are needed. A residential college environment is ideal, where people come to know each other well and where opportunities for teaching with-out the curriculum can be fit easily into the established rhythm of the college household.

One of the iconic images of September 11th, 2001, was the photograph of “the dust-covered man” making his way out of the World Trade Center area after the buildings had collapsed. The picture appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine and was reprinted by thousands of news outlets around the world in subsequent months. He was later identified as Ed Fine, a businessman from Watchung, New Jersey, who had been in the north tower when it was struck and who had made it down the stairwell 78 floors to safety.

During the London Blitz in the Second World War, T.S. Eliot served as an air-raid warden, responsible for patrolling the streets after the bombing raids and then sounding the all-clear. He drew on that experience in his poem Four Quartets, recalling what the ruined streets were like “after the dark dove with the flickering tongue”—the German bomber—“had passed beyond the horizon of his homing.” If I were overseeing a residential college newsletter or bulletin board this week, I’d put up a photo of the dust-covered man from 2001, and next to him this section of Four Quartets from 1942:

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
     This is the death of air.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021