Proctor is not one of those schools that can afford to swagger. We don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars in an endowment; we have about twenty-nine. We don’t have fifty applicants for every opening in admissions; we have about six. We have had to hustle as a school for a long time, and we will have to hustle for years to come. I hope we never lose the hustle. Even if the endowment does become as large as some of our peer schools and we have as many applicants as some of our southern neighbors, we can’t lose it. Hustling keeps you humble, It keeps you competitive. It keeps you evolving. It keeps you from slipping into hubris.
The best work I have ever read on hubris is The Odyssey. I used to love teaching it, likely much more than my sophomore students enjoyed reading the epic poem. Would it never end, they wondered. The Lotus eaters, the sirens, the cyclops, storms and wrecks...a long journey home and weeks of discussions about the wily one and his hubris. We spent at least a class block on his escape from Polyphemus and his arrogant taunting of the cyclops he had blinded. By shouting out his name, which Polyphemus passes along to his father Poseidon, Odysseus ensures misfortune for himself and his crew. It’s Odysseus at his hubris best, and subsequent misfortunes go on to prove there’s more than a bit of truth to the statement “Pride cometh before the fall.” It was a good lesson for sophomores, and was a good lesson for life.
We all have our own personal accounts of hubris, and if we are smart the episodes stretch farther and farther apart as we age. Still, we have our favorite anecdotes and one of mine is from when I was in college and worked one summer on a boat that fished out of Portland, ME. In those months I experienced a level of tired I never knew existed, saw wilderness that to this day remains some of the wildest, and culled and cleaned mountains of fish. I thought I was pretty rugged working the decks of a sixty foot dragger a hundred miles out to sea in the Gulf of Maine. I remember standing in my oilskins and boots one day and watching cat’s paws of wind dart across the water, gentle swipes against a darkening sky. “Oh, just bring it,” I said. My deckmate and I laughed and hosed the scales and the blood off the deck from the last haul back. We were headed to port, the trip had been good, the checks would be fat. It was a moment of hubris I still regret. The gale that blew in and the seas that pounded the Kelly Hope Drew made me rethink my words that long night when I wondered if we would ever see port. Call it superstition, call it tempting fate, or call it coincidence if you want, but I still see that as a moment of hubris.
We all have to come to this place of humility in our lives, but the line that crosses into hubris isn’t always clear. Self-confidence, self advocacy, and poise are qualities we want our students to develop, and sometimes that can look like hubris. It is not the same. Many students develop academic, artistic, and athletic skills through hard work and much practice and some, not all, become supremely self confident. That’s not hubris. I believe self confidence crosses the line and becomes hubris when we stop listening; we stop listening to that voice of conscience and we stop listening to others who are trying to offer us advice or wisdom. We become closed-off cocky, as I was decades ago standing on the rolling decks of a Portland dragger, daring the weather. And as it is with individuals, so, too, is it with institutions.
Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, disguises himself as a beggar, and dispatches the suitors of Penelope who have been loitering in their own states of hubris, sloth, and gluttony during his ten-year absence. Students always like those final pages, not only because they relished the wily Odysseus’s feat with his bow, but equally so that they could finally push the epic poem aside. I knew that when they finished the work they knew about hubris, which is exactly what good literature can do: reinforce some of the life truths that are around us but that we need the mirror of literature to see. Ah, hubris, it’s a lesson no individual or institution should forget. (And weren’t my sophomores surprised to see Macbeth on the syllabus for the next week!)
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School