Something I love about academic life is the permanent possibility of forging deep, fruitful intellectual links with people who want to learn from the experience or wisdom of their professors. When a student comes to me to ask me to be the director of her doctoral thesis, I discuss two qualities—probably learned from my teacher, Prof. Alejandro Llano—which must always guide a relationship of this type: truth and freedom.
The first criterion, that of truth and transparency, is about eliminating all “diplomatic” false appearances from the student-director relationship. One the one hand, it demands of the director that he always speak openly about everything he thinks is appropriate, and to correct—as many times as necessary—the defects of the doctoral student. On the other, it demands from the student that she tell the thesis director about all the errors that he has—at least in her judgment—fallen into. Therefore, the two must agree on some system for tracking progress, a periodic conversation, during which the doctoral student can simply and openly tell her director about the progress she has attained, and they can talk about her weaknesses and the difficulties she has run up against.
The second criterion derives from the totally voluntary character of this relationship, on the part of both the director and the student. Both the reciprocal acceptance, as well as the choice of the topic or methodology that will be used, must always remain open to later revision over the course of the calendar of progress they have established. Anyone who begins a thesis must feel truly free—and must in fact be so—to later change directors, department or even university.
Since I frequently speak about these two criteria of truth and freedom, I was impressed a few weeks ago when I read in the memorable “Banquet Discourse” by Albert Camus, that the two responsibilities that constitute the greatness of the office of the writer are “service to truth and to freedom”. The Banquet Discourse was given at the final banquet which, as customary, was offered in the Stockholm city hall on the 10th of December of 1957 in order to bring to a close the award ceremonies for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus explained: “[w]hatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.” And a little later he added “Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road.”
Truth and freedom are great words: we need them as ideals that preside over our lives, over even the tiniest details of the daily work of living together. This won’t make us able to remake the world or create an entirely new one, but we will at least —as Camus defended in the same discourse— “prevent the world from falling apart”.