To all outward appearances, Lewis Gordon is a success. The Temple philosophy professor’s resume boasts universities like Purdue, Brown, and Yale. He finds time to be a part of Temple’s religion department and direct institutes of social concepts. He is a force in African thought and has had a number of books published, including one in 1997 that the Myers Center awarded the Most Outstanding Human Rights Book in North America.
A conversation with him goes in circles, as one might expect of a philosophy professor. When I asked him about definitions of success, Gordon laughed.
“There’s ambiguity in that question,” he said. “Society looks at success, and here it’s connected to fame. Obsessing about popularity, reality TV – it’s all about appearances. Implicit in America’s view of success is that everyone wants to be special.”
It seems important that we all take a hard look at our own definitions of success. If history and culture can so drastically alter local meanings of society’s preeminent motivations, definitions of success may not be far from arbitrary.
These broad-based terms of achievement do not always coincide with individual ambitions. Professor Gordon sees the relationship between societal and individual goals as a test of a culture’s triumph: “A healthy society’s public view of success affirms individual views; unhealthy societies squeeze out personal conceptions.”
Gordon said his own professional experience taught him that very lesson. After achieving what many in his field consider the apex of education, a professorship in the ‘Ivy League,’ Gordon left and found himself a home at Temple – by many standards, a world away.
At Brown and throughout higher-priced, top-level universities, Gordon said he encountered many people who wanted the degree, not the education. ” I came to Temple and found more students who genuinely wanted the education,” he said.
Gordon explained that in our often materialistic society, educational degrees are just one of many things to be had, a means to acquire some physical end. To some, a student at Brown University may already be considered a greater success than a student at Temple. Whether we like it or not, most of us have been conditioned enough to feel that someone living in Rittenhouse Square is more successful than someone calling Nicetown, north of Main Campus, home. Of course, the individual’s goals have far more to do with his success than where he hangs his hat, but our culture’s images of success often take control of our thought.
Gordon said that in the United States, “personal life is reduced, and the images of success for public life have to be fulfilled first.” That means when we give in to the definitions of success that popular, greedy America feeds on, we often chase dreams that aren’t our own. This leaves too many of us with money to spend but not necessarily a feeling of true accomplishment, which Gordon calls “a complicated thing.”
“Everyone has to remind himself that fulfillment is dependent on our own happiness or sense of achievement and success, not what the television says,” he said.
Before I offered my thanks to Professor Gordon and hung up the phone, I asked if he considered himself a success. For the first time in our conversation, he stammered. After he composed himself, Gordon returned to his professional exterior and responded. “I have to think I am. I am living how I want. … The question everyone has to ask is ‘are you doing what matters most in the world to you?'”
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.