Being there

I have been trying to figure out why I found Her so compelling. I mean the recent Spike Jonze movie by that title. Then I heard a recording of the Beatles singing their simply perfect 1960s hit single “If I Fell,” and it all became clear to me:

 If I give my heart to you
I must be sure
From the very start
That you
Would love me more than her

 John and Paul understood the big difference between “her” and “you” when it comes to giving your heart away. “You” are the person who is here with me at this moment. “Her” refers to someone who is not, and is not able to love me as much as you can. And that’s the point about the love interest in the movie: The “her” of the title isn’t “you,” and never could be.

If you haven’t seen the flick, I can see where you might find its premise incredible. The story takes place in the very near future and focuses on a pretty smart guy (maybe a little geeky) who has a pretty nice wife (from whom he is unfortunately divorcing), and he falls in love with a newly introduced (and amazingly powerful) computer operating system (OS1) that speaks to him with the voice of an angel (actually, it’s the sultry voice of Scarlett Johansson). OS1 assumes the name “Samantha” for her interactions with her client, our hero, and he soon ends up giving his heart to her completely.

It’s as if the guy falls hopelessly in love with an advanced version of his iPhone. Samantha turns out to be a kind of “Siri,” with impeccable conversation skills and uncanny insight into the “user.” She quickly perceives (and adapts herself to) your particular preferences, your habits, your desires. She knows what you want and gets it for you, insofar as any powerful computer program could. She knows you.

An interesting twist: Our hero’s profession turns out to be a copywriter for a business that provides an extraordinarily popular service. It creates customized, ghostwritten, personal handwritten letters for you (for a fee) and sends them on your behalf (on your own personalized stationery) to your loved ones on significant occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s days, breakups, reconciliations, engagements, etc. We are led to believe that since such intimate writing (and by implication the capacity for sustaining intimate relationships) has become a lost art in the always-plugged-in hypertext world of virtual reality, the demand for such a service is high. And our hero is very good at it.

But he’s not so good with real people in real time. That’s why Samantha (Her) is so attractive to him. As an operating system, she (Her) has no body. So, no heart. No strings. No hand to hold. And there’s the rub. Though ubiquitous (and almost omniscient) in the wide world of the Web, she (Her) can’t really be here, there, or anywhere.Anywhere real, at least. “She” can never be “you” or like “you”—an embodied person experiencing and being shaped by events, emotions, perceptions, hopes, fears revelations, surprises, smells, tastes, textures, intuitions, ideas. She (Her) can get upgraded, go offline, but can never be fully there. The fact is, she (Her) is really nothing more than him, the voice of his own desires telling him what he wants to hear. You following this? “If I Fell” and Her are both really about the capacity for being there—or not.

“Being there” (it seems to me) in very real places and gradually becoming a fully developed “you” in the company of other people like you (and unlike you) is, finally, what an education is about. Higher education, that is. Education is not about information, ultimately, or knowledge alone, or even ideas. It’s about how those things can connect you in a more profound and meaningful way with the world and with other people.

This is why university campuses around the world have sustained themselves and proliferated and grown so dramatically throughout human history, emerging as they did in the ancient world, spreading in the Middle Ages, taking on new form during the Renaissance, and then continuing to modernize in the neoclassical period, the Industrial Revolution, the Space Age, modernity and post-modernity—and even into the digital era. It’s why college campuses are still springing up like mushrooms in developing countries like China and India, and why we find extensions of the NYU campus in places like Abu Dhabi, for example, or Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, or Boston University in Dubai.

A campus is not a system. It is a particular place, where people come together to engage with each other through the great ideas, art, culture, and science of the human experience in order to understand the past, navigate the present, and conceive a future. Like a relationship. The word “campus” comes from the Latin for “field,” a site where people gather for a project—for agriculture, entertainment, competition, instruction, or even for battle. It’s important to be there. It always strikes me as curious, when doomsayers pronounce the end of the brick-and-mortar college campus in a digitized world, that the most elaborate and most expensive campuses being built today are for innovative companies with names like Google and Microsoft and Facebook and Apple. Really. You can Google it.

Which brings me to the Pacific Rim. Stay with me here. Many of the students who come to our campus at Puget Sound leave it for a short time to study abroad—more than 40 percent—because they want to learn deeply about another culture. And they know that “being there” is by far the best way to do that—living with the people who have emerged from the history of a particular place, speaking their language, consuming the cuisine that sustains them, being enveloped in the places they consider sacred, appreciating the art that defines beauty for them, the ideas that give their lives meaning. These students understand that to really know a place they need to give their heart and mind to it, by being there.

Among the most distinctive of the more than 200 such opportunities our students have is the PacRim program, which takes about 25 of them to eight Asian cultures over the course of nine months. It’s intense. It’s life-changing. It takes their breath away. They come home to campus different people from the ones who left us, inspired and transformed by the stories they live through: They might practice the ancient art of Bökh wrestling with Mongolian ranchers at dusk on the high steppes, fashion 1,000 origami cranes in Kyoto and deliver them to Hiroshima’s peace shrine, assume the lotus position in the Vipassanā meditation practice in Sri Lanka as smoke fills their lungs, get barked at by an army of geckos in the darkness of Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park, or gasp for breath in a Buddhist temple on a Himalayan mountainside miles above sea level. They are learning by being there. And they are changed as a result.

When Mary and I met up with our PacRim contingent a few years back in the city of Hanoi (buzzing as it was with the energy of a complicated past embracing a complex future), we took a side trip to Cambodia to visit the great temple complex of Angkor Wat, a place we had always imagined visiting but had never had the opportunity to be. We came home transformed by it, as our students had been the week before when they were there. The largest religious monument in the world, fashioned to resemble the habitation of the gods in the heavens, it was at once a vast palace of kings as well as the eternal home of deities; a work of art and an act of worship; Buddhist and Hindu; a spectacular architectural marvel and an inexplicable feat of engineering; a sacred religious text and a pictographic narrative of political conquest carved in stone. Generations built it and sacrificed their lives for it. Volumes have been written about it. Millions of photographs depict it. But being there, giving your heart to it: That’s something else. It changes you.

As I reflect back on that trip, it reminds me of Her, of the Beatles, of the magic of a college campus, and of Walt Whitman, and that cool new Apple ad that quotes Whitman on the importance of being there.

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

 “What will your verse be?” the ad asks us to consider. To whom, or to what, will you give your heart while you are here?