by Esther Freinkel Tishman
Esther Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D, BCC is an ordained Zen teacher, a full-time interfaith chaplain, a scholar of archetypes and religion, and a certified mindfulness instructor. She is also a former dean, department head and professor, having given up her tenure at the University of Oregon in 2018. Under the name “Lisa Freinkel” she received her AB from Harvard, her MA and Ph.D. from Berkeley. In 2020 her book Mindful Tarot (Llewellyn) was nominated by the International Tarot Foundation as best tarot book of the year. She is founder of Calyx Contemplative Care, a mindfulness-based coaching business.
Plato was my gateway drug.
I was 16, impressionable, and in love with a lanky young man. My parents were horrified, and determined to preserve my innocence. And so, that June, they shipped me off to summer school across the country. They were a little too late to save my honor, but just in time to introduce me to the history of philosophy.
That summer, I read Plato for the first time, and found myself encountering the burning question at the core of my being: How do we know what we know?
This was new for me – the very idea that I might have questions burning within. But that particular question, about the origin and reliability of human knowing: that question would become for me the reverberating hollow at the center of my life’s bell.
Plato’s question, after all, is the question of the liberal arts. It is the question of the academy, that institution to which I would dedicate more than three decades of my life. How do we know what we know? Moreover: what good is it, our knowing?
Plato teaches that we know what we know because we have always known it. We can only seek what, in some manner, we already possess. Simply by dint of being human, we already hold the keys to wisdom.
I became a professor to wield those keys — to open the door for myself and for others. I wanted to live, to its fullest, this Life of the Mind.
And… I left the academy to save that life.
In the academy, it was death by a thousand cuts – or more accurately, death under the crushing weight of continual evaluation. Each term I encountered ever more students who were ever less equipped to thrive in the classroom. Each term, the stacks of student essays would begin to tower on my bookshelf. I couldn’t bear to grade any of them. The stacks would get higher, my self-loathing would begin to boil over.
Each paper felt like an indictment: what the hell was I doing? What did these students really need? The closer I read, the less certain I was. What makes this paper a “B” and not a “C”? I could feel the lively mind or at least the living heart, beating just out of reach, obscured by mangled grammar and butchered logic.
What saved me for years was the Shakespeare class I taught each summer. Shakespeare “bootcamp.” Living with thirty students for seven days in the dorms in Ashland, Oregon. Watching plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Constructing theater games and playwrighting exercises. What REALLY matters about King Lear? Let’s check it out together with our bodies and our hearts and our minds!
Each summer I approached that week with trepidation, still exhausted from the school year. And each summer, still depleted and drained from a year of towering term papers, I once again fell in love with teaching and with my students. My students and I would be swept away by word and image and the sheer force of intellectual companionship. Each summer, we would be dazzled by each other’s innate and sparkling brilliance.
And indeed final grades for Bootcamp curved very high, reflecting each summer’s renewed faith. Each of us were giving all we had — even if, sometimes, giving our all simply meant three hours of eating pizza while debating whether Shonda Rhimes is a Shakespeare for our day….
Eventually, of course, the administration banned weeklong summer courses like mine. Pizza and Scandal do not a scholar make. Grades matter. Grade inflation is real.
And then – I became the administrator in charge of such concerns as grade inflation. Dean of Undergraduate Studies. I worked to design new curricula. I even spearheaded an initiative for “student success.” I met expectations with all the energy and innovation I could muster.
After all, like so many of us academic types, shapeshifting is my superpower. We learn this during grad school. Give us a question we can’t answer, and we’ll find a hundred ways to revise the very stakes of the argument. Give us an impossible assignment, and we’ll craft a 15,000-word critique of the discipline itself.
To the ends of the earth, we’ll seek acceptable solutions to the problems we’re posed – without once considering the possibility that there is no solution, or that we ourselves have simply come up short. Sometimes – often – growth requires the simple acknowledgment: “I can’t.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t want this.”
I was a good shapeshifter. I was a respected scholar, an award-winning teacher, a successful department head, a collaborative and inventive dean. And then, with the sure irony of a Shakespeare play, I foundered on the question of metrics.
What had led me to administrative work was my skepticism about grades and evaluation. But my very zeal to reform education brought me to the attention of our university’s new president. He wanted nothing more than metrics. He wanted to see measurable gains in student achievement.
Over time, he decided I wasn’t his gal. I was too soft – too idealistic. For the first time in my academic career, I lost the stomach to shapeshift my way further.
“The truth of all things has always existed in the soul,” Socrates tells us. He was no monk or Zen master, but I think he would have appreciated the Buddhist path. As one Chinese ancestor puts it, in meditation we “take the backward step and turn the light around.” When we sit upright and still, we withdraw from everyday activity – we take the backward step – and instead, we turn the beam of our awareness back on to Awareness itself. Such self-illumination is nothing less than what Socrates would have called the “love of wisdom”: philo-sophia.
Take the backward step and turn the light around.
I was done with shapeshifting. I left the academy to turn my light, and my life, around.