The Meaning of the Authentic

When the student organizers of the Second-Year Council Dinner Series extended their gracious invitation to me to speak, I asked about the topic. I was surprised that they wanted to hear about me. Suddenly I had a chance at Andy Warhol’s dream of fifteen minutes of fame. After a moment of more serious reflection, I realized that the request was a fair one: as their teacher and dean, I ought to be an open book for them to read, one in which they might see a future that means something to them.

But before I turn to my past, let me begin with our present. We have a few more weeks of this brilliant autumn before the deep weeping red of the crape myrtle succumbs to the barren limbs of winter. There will be lots to remember from this October, beginning with the upset victory over twelfth-ranked Georgia Tech. Before the game, I worried that the Yellow Jackets’ sting would prove fatal to the Cavaliers. But as time ran out on Georgia Tech, I joined the cheers as a mass of orange and blue poured down the hill, the way that nature loves to fill a vacuum, right past those signs that say “No Spectators Allowed on the Field.” The team was engulfed by ecstatic students singing the Good Old Song.

That will be a fond recollection of October 2011. But this is also the month that began with the passing of Steven Jobs. I was riveted by all the commentaries and eulogies—not because I am a Jobs fan: I am not. I resent him for his iPods that intruded into the space and time I might otherwise have had with my children; and for his iPhones that have prevented any possibility of solitude from work; like so many of us, the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is read and write e-mail in bed.

New York Times columnist David Brooks used the passing of Jobs to underscore the worrisome slowdown in innovation in America. He cited Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Great Stagnation, Neal Stephenson’s essay “Innovation Starvation,” and Peter Thiel’s “The End of the Future.” For Brooks, Jobs’ death seemed to mark the end of hope. It does not, but I understand why he thinks the Promethean moment has passed. You second-year students, who had not even been born in the 1980s, cannot remember the very same fears of American decline and Japanese advance that dominated that decade. People in Detroit decided that they better start learning Japanese. They didn’t realize that the center of world innovation had not in fact crossed the Pacific. It was just three time zones away, in Palo Alto. Three decades later, America remains the world’s leader in high technology.

In other words, the fire of Prometheus only fades for a moment before it is lit again. And no matter how many thousands of universities are built in China and India, I will always bet that that flame will be kindled in this country, at a university like ours, a university that Mr. Jefferson founded on a model that, when all is said and done, hasn’t changed much over two centuries—it’s a brilliant flame that keeps on burning brightly.

Still, it must be said that Steve Jobs personified a great era in modern American history, the fortuitous synchronicity of cultures and sensibilities that were both original and time bound. It is always wonderful to be young and talented, but to be so in the penumbra of the 1960s cultural revolutions was quite special. Here comes a baby with a curious provenance (Syrian father, German-American mother, adopted by a machinist’s family with no college degrees), who dabbled in tie-died shirts, LSD, ashrams in India, and communes in Oregon. Steve Jobs became what he became by imbibing and personifying the spirit of the age, and then, through the force of his personality and his formidable talents, he transcended it.

He and Steve Wozniak began with a little personal computer in 1976, then the foundational Apple II in 1978, then the Mac, then all the i-this, i-that and i-other. There will be another Jobs, to be sure, and I hope he/she is sitting here in this room. That will be a person who comes out of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, takes full advantage of it, runs with it, and makes from this present a future that none of us could imagine.

Where does that leave me? When I was your age, I felt like I had just stepped off a spaceship, flying from my home planet of Seoul, Korea to a planet called Brunswick, Maine, with its Bowdoin College. I did not understand the country I landed in, let alone understand the zeitgeist, how it came to be, where it was going. I was an alien in a country where for people my age, popularity seemed more important than anything. When I wasn’t invited to join one of the ten fraternity houses on campus then, I spent most of my time in college shooting pool in the student union—or with the friends I found at the Afro-Am Center, listening to Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t really know who they were; I just knew they were cool.

America is an idiosyncratic country, a difficult country to understand if you weren’t born here—or perhaps even if you were. The founding documents of this country say that certain truths are “self-evident,” and I felt like a fool for not understanding what they are. But Americans can also be provincial, not grasping that these same truths are decidedly not self-evident in many cultures around the world.

I came from a country that went from very poor to very rich in my lifetime. It is a country that honors its scholarly tradition. I come from a sprawling clan, so many uncles and aunts that I never knew existed, and yet among all those cousins, I can’t think of anyone who didn’t go to college. I knew them all well, because they all showed up at our house in Seoul to be fed and housed when they came to college in the capital.

The country I grew up in was the antithesis of what we hold dear in this country. It wasn’t democratic; it was a dictatorship. Freedom was regulated rather than celebrated, night and day was separated by curfews—the sirens at midnight, and the dropping of morning newspapers in the dark courtyard shortly after the lifting of the curfew at 4 a.m. Why the curfew? Allegedly, to look for communists, but in fact to cow the population. Yet despite the absence of civil liberties, there was still a spirit of enrichment, hope, and a promise of their place in the sun. Koreans are a people who believe in their bones that theirs is one of the finest civilizations in the world, and that they could be great again if they could just make it through the twentieth century.

My father was an economic planner in a country where economic planning meant something, designing five-year plans for the industries that they wanted to encourage, with micro-economic planning to make it happen. He would leave home at 5 a.m. to visit the local market, for a spot check on the price of charcoal briquettes (used to heat most homes) and of squares of tofu. This would tell him how prices were fluctuating throughout the country. In fifty years, civil servants like my father took a country poor by every measure except education, set progressive goals and export targets—which were met year after year after year and which transcended anything in modern times to that point: double-digit growth in GNP from 1965 to 1997. (China has taken the same model and surpassed everyone.)

I remember the hardships. I remember showing up in school at 6:30 a.m. to sweep the streets with my classmates. Korea is a cold country and in the winter my fingers froze to the broomstick. In gym class, we learned to throw plastic grenades in case we had to throw real ones at North Korean soldiers.

I lived in Korea until I was fourteen; then I finished high school in Tokyo. No matter how harsh the environment we grow up in, it is still your childhood, it is who you are, it is the meaning of the authentic. I look back on my youth as a period of unprecedented hope and eventual accomplishment.

I have in my heart a complicated understanding about cultures and cultural authenticity that defies all principles and rules, that defies all the voices that tell you what you can’t do (and they were all over Korea in the 1960s). Steve Jobs, you and I are all creatures of the surroundings that we inhabit and make authentic; and it is when you are authentic—because you have imbibed the spirit of the age and its possibilities and hopes—that all the obstacles and differences melt away, and we seek what is genuine and confident and true.

Throughout my studies at Bowdoin and later at Columbia, I never thought of myself as part of the “mainstream.” But it never bothered me that I was on the outside looking in. By training and temperament I am a scholar—and by definition, a scholar is not a participant in the events as they occur—they are observers. There is a little-noticed advantage in not being in the mainstream—standing there, your nose pressed against the window, on the outside looking in. From that vantage point you can observe many things that active participants and mainstreamers do not see.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life, spoke of the contributions that the Jewish people have made to the modern world, a contribution so disproportionate to their numbers. Part of the genius that they brought to Europe and later to the United States was that they were outsiders—essential outsiders—seeing things that insiders often cannot. Over the course of American history, outsiders have brought so much talent to this country.

But outsiders don’t see and hear everything. I have to admit that thirty years later I am still deaf to the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Still, there are other aspects of American life that I have lived, imbibed, and thoroughly understood, to the point that they are in my DNA—things that have allowed me to continue to be authentic to myself as I was as a ten-year-old child, and to myself today, as teacher and dean to you. However, I don’t think I became an American on university campuses, reading philosophy and literature in a second language. I did so sitting in the bleachers at Little League games. My son was a first-baseman. Even though he was neither tall nor left-handed, as first-basemen are supposed to be, he was an excellent fielder. The trophy he won read, “If he can touch it, he can catch it.” I watched my son—an American son, or a son becoming American—in his “Arts’ Yankees” uniform, and little by little, as if through osmosis, I came to feel that I belonged, too. It is another kind of authenticity.

Early in 2008 someone called to ask if I might consider the position of dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. Virginia! I thought it was the most exotic word I’d ever heard in my life—but it also rang true. I remember coming to interview here in late February 2008, sitting in the back garden of one of the pavilions, and watching purple pansies in full bloom. There was sweetness in the air, sunlight spread through the garden: it was glorious, but it was just a beginning. Now that I am part of it, I have nothing but good will, high hopes, and such great good fortune to be part of a university with students like you—and that takes such great pains to remain authentic to its original meaning and purpose.

41 Responses to “The Meaning of the Authentic”

  1. Daniel Kirzane says:

    A beautiful reflection on innovation, on culture, and on family. Thank you for sharing!

    -Daniel, CLAS 2007

  2. Thomas Mitchell (CLAS '90) says:

    Beautiful. And thank you for what you have brought to the University.

  3. Trey Smith says:

    Wonderful piece!
    C.H.SmithIII ’87

  4. Randy Lewis COL'67 says:

    I am enthralled by your story and observations. They touch me deeply. Thank you for sharing your heart and soul with us all; an act of courage and intimacy. I love hearing about how wonderful your son was at first base, and how your feelings and observations have evolved in the United States and at the University. You have connected with me on many different fronts. My oldest daughter Karen is an assistant professor in the architecture school at Ohio State, and I relate to your vision as an academic and a scholar, qualities I see and love in her.

    I had wondered if I would attend my 45th reunion this coming summer, not being sure how much I liked prior reunions. I will now hope that you may be available in some capacity, and would make every effort to attend. You have wonderful things to say, and I want to hear them all.

    Very best wishes to you and continued success in building the College.

    Randy Lewis

  5. Margaret Daniel says:

    Another great blogpost – thank you!

  6. Francis Withers says:

    Dean Woo, Thanks so much for the insight into your life. Your command of your “second language” is quite impressive and I always read your blogs so I can run to my dictionary to look up certain words. Thanks again.
    Frank CLAS ’99

  7. Kathlyn Hyatt Stewart says:

    What a beautiful amalgam of appreciation for your roots and the past, hope for the future, and inspiration to all across the generations and geographies! Mr. Jefferson is smiling. Wish I were back on grounds to experience the inspired leadership you will certainly bring to the University. Kathlyn Hyatt Stewart CLAS ’78

  8. Walter Mallory, Ed.D. says:

    Thank you for brightening a Friday morning that was fraught with piles of dissertations to read. Thank you for reminding me that it is a scholar’s job to look from the outside with new eyes.

    Walt Mallory
    Asst. Professor, Va Tech
    College ’69, Educ. ’82

  9. Victoria Heard says:

    Having just visited Seoul this spring and fallen in love with your native land, as well as having lived abroad for some years, I find your piece particularly moving. Thank you.

  10. Brawner Cates says:

    Dean Woo, Regarding your thoughts on Steve Jobs I am reminded of the Russian Bear & Sputnik back in the late 1950′s along with the movie Rocket Boys about some youngsters from the West Virginia Coal Mines who were inspired by their teachers, Jack Kennedy and the space program. We all know how that American chapter turned out. Continue your inspirational work in C-Ville. It seems as though you’ve ended up exactly where you’re supposed to be. Very authentic indeed! Brawner”B”Cates 1967

  11. Jean Lightner Norum says:

    Wonderful to hear the value of being an outsider and observer laid out so well.

  12. James R. Brett, College '62 says:

    Dean Woo,

    This sketch of your migration from Korea to the United States touches our hearts, for we know–each of us–directly or indirectly–the experience of the immigrant, the courageous traveler seeking–yes, seeking! The University, to which you lend your intelligence and grace, is changing. It is no longer that small village of fewer than 5,000 young men that I knew. It is what none of us in 1962 imagined it would be. We are now more proud of our alma mater, and I believe we have safely put our trust in you to fashion from the meager resources this age of desperation provides a College of Arts and Sciences that truly serves the women and men of our country. Now, as my class approaches its 50th anniversary of graduation, the notion of being outside looking in takes on new meaning. Thank you so very much for your insight.

    See you in May!

    James R. Brett, Ph.D.

  13. Trula Wright says:

    Just Great!! Sending to all in SC Plus our 2 kids & quite a few in Cville. Trula & John

  14. David Peyton says:

    Dear Dean Woo, We shook hands at Larry Sabato’s 35th reunion party a couple of years ago on that gorgeous full-moon night, but I suspect there’s no way you could remember that in the middle of shaking several hundred hands that night. But, as a thank you for your great piece, l I have to tell you I just made my first trip to Maine, Brunswick, and Bowdoin late this August on vacation. The draw was the Hopper show at the museum — but then upstairs the permanent collection includes Gilbert Stuart portraits of Madison and Mr. Jefferson! I Blackberried 3 classmates right away, while looking at the paintings, including Larry, and got 2 replies in 30 mins. Then outside all the flags of the foreign students’ countries were lined up for the opening convocations — including your Korean flag and, not to be overlooked, that of my native Bermuda. I held it up for my wife Joy to photograph me. Then we saw the polar museum, the sled that made it to the North Pole in 1909, and the great photo of the U.S. flag raised in the snow bank. That was also the day that the Navy Blue Angels were roaring overhead in precise patterns. Not only that, it was the memorial day for Joshua Chamberlain, and we joined the Maine 20th regiment as we marched to his grave, where they fired two volleys overhead — followed by the jets’ roar. After that, we went to hear readings by actors at a small theater — Chamberlain’s letter to his wife the day after Antietam; her letter to him that Thanksgiving; his recollection of Appamattox; and his remarks at Gettysburg 25 yrs later. I’ve lived in America almost all my life, and it was the most patriotic day of my life!

    David Peyton, A&S ’74 (the first coed class)

  15. Eric Hodges says:

    Dean Woo,

    I always eagerly await your blog posts. I often find myself on very pleasant intellectual scavenger hunts while reading your posts, ranging from essays about William Faulkner, to the philosophy of Santayana, and today ending up reading an excerpt from Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” As an alumni of the College, I’m very happy to know that you’re at the helm. Thanks for sharing your story and keep up the good work!

    Eric Hodges (CLAS ’04)

  16. John Wright (Col '76) says:

    Dear Dean Woo: I continue to enjoy your insightful stories particularly “Forever Young” and this one, “The Meaning of Authentic”. As a student photographer at UVa, I was fortunate to have the Lawn as the first major location for my still photography. I later learned that Jefferson wanted the Rotunda and the Pavilions to be also drawn by his students.

    My fifteen minutes of fame you mention, came working as a production assistant on a feature film in NYC. Andy Warhol had a cameo in the movie and the crew took a break for lunch. The set was still lit and I walked up to him and said, “Mr. Warhol, I see you everywhere in NY taking people’s pictures. So do you mind if I take your portrait?” He looked directly at me and said, “well I don’t see why not.” He gave me a spontaneous photo session… interesting, every expression was identical. It’s the main image in my portfolio that people like to hear the story behind.

    Thank you for your kind writing contributions that so many of us enjoy.

    Awesome Autumn.

    John Wright

  17. Byunghun Yoo says:

    thank you for an open and truly ‘authentic’ sharing Dean Woo! May I, if it please you, translate this article into Korean and post on my blog? I am sure many people back in your home country would like to hear your story as well, including my parents who had gone through the same time period of great change.

  18. David A Gambill says:

    There is something disturbing in this little essay. “The Meaning of the Authentic” has the promise of a foray into the profound. Sadly it never quite makes it and leaves me wondering, as an outsider, what academia is up to.
    After the banalities of football and autumn, we come to an apparently obligatory homage to Steve Jobs. We are then treated to your musings about a “person who comes out of the “Zeitgeist”… takes full advantage of it and makes from this present a future none of us could imagine.” While you may have a brilliant and decent enough fellow like Mr. Jobs in mind, I can cite Lenin, Hitler, and Mao (omitting Genghis Khan) who also came out of their respective “Zeitgeiste” and gave us unimaginable futures with which we still struggle.
    I present these dystopian outcomes as counterpoint because your flimsy and fragile pipedream of a better tomorrow is hardly authentic, meaning genuine. It is a lie without historical context. It is a lie without moral grounding. To provide such grounding and context is a necessary role of academics from Plato to the present day.

  19. Damian B. Kim says:

    I am very much touched by your article. My daughter, a graduate of Dartmouth, forwarded it to me today. I have been an outsider since I came to the USA at age 30 and remaining authentic or forced to be authentic and I am happy to be authentic. I just returned from a trip to Seoul Korea. I witnessed a great achievement by being authentic there. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and an outsider in America from the same country, I can understand and identify with you well. Please keep up with your authenticity.

  20. Eugene M. Lee says:

    Thank you for your verbal paintings and imagery … both inspirational and a most dignified, heart-felt meaning of the authentic.


    Eugene M. Lee (Col. ’81)

  21. dori says:

    A wonderful blog. I read with delight, your years at Bowdoin ( my undergraduate life as well and now with a daughter at UVA). Your passionate eloquence and your frequent offer to UVA students to cultivate their minds, seek truth and meaning in their developing lives, is truely an actualization of the mission to promote the “Common Good”. Thank you for sharing!

  22. Morton Clark (Col'54, Law'60) says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    The University is very fortunate to have you as Dean of the College of Arts & Science, and we thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I would be very interested in your comments on the present confusion we face in the Western Pacific: Japan, North Korea, South Korea, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. We made a mess of things in Viet Nam. Must we still rely on our Pacific Fleet to “keep the peace”?


    Mort Clark

  23. Theresa Grizzle says:

    Thank you for sharing your soul with us.

  24. Christine Clark says:

    That was lovely. Some of the observations you made really resonated with me and others made me think about things I haven’t thought about for quite a while. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and thank you for all your work in the College!

  25. Archie M. Bolster says:

    Your thoughts were beautifully phrased and very relevant, particularly to people who grew up in this country. As a Foreign Affairs graduate (College ’55) looking back on a career in the Foreign Service that included service in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, I have reflected often how important it is to “see ourselves as others see us.” My family and I have experienced what Peace Corps volunteers termed their “re-entry” adjustment on coming back to the US, but, like those volunteers, living overseas has enriched our lives.

  26. Eric Croson says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on where you are now, and how much you have to offer UVA. I’ll look forward to more of your insights on coming to this little town of Charlottesville, and ths great university and all it offers to the the residents of Albemarle County. I wish you the best!

    Eric Croson (Col, ’94)

  27. Youjin Choi says:

    Thank you for sharing yet another beautifully written piece. Your posts always leave me with many thoughts to muse about, and I really admire your honest prose. Thank you always for inspiring many of us.

    Best wishes,

  28. Rodney Hopson says:

    Awesome, insightful, and inspiring reflection, Dean Woo! Thank you!

    We are indeed incredibly fortunate to have someone like you at UVa. I always look forward to reading your blogs and reflecting on the kernels of wisdom and depth of spirit that your experiences embody.

    Your post reminds me that it is just as idiosyncratic that you would grace us at this very institution with its background and bastion of white privilege and hegemony in a way that reminds me that the “truths” we so idealize need constant and critical thinking, imagining, and discovering. The places you occupy at our old dear Virginia were segregated, separate, and exclusivity not so long ago and that our society is hardly the place where we are all guaranteed the full benefits of what it means to be American.

    Our universities too need constant thinking about how they will serve the public good, how they will serve communities that are distressed, marginalized, and minoritized, many of them a stone’s throw from these same great institutions. It does us little to have great academic traditions and pantheons of intellect if those with whom they serve have narrow understandings of the world or the communities in which we live.

    With all good wishes,
    RKMHopson (’87, ’90, ’96, ’97)

  29. J.D. Hunley, '63 (College), '73 (Ph. D.) says:

    As an American born in this country with two stints at the University as an undergraduate and then a graduate student, I can tell you that I don’t understand Jimi Hendrix either. As for Steve Jobs, I think the lesson most young people can take from his life is a negative one. He was a genius and could be successful without a college education, but most of us need that education to succeed, as you did. More positively, he did not always succeed but he persevered, and that, along with genius, was his key to success, just as your father’s was apparently finding a quick test of market conditions to guide his economic planning.

    J. D. Hunley

  30. Elizabeth Vandenburg says:

    Dear Dean Woo:

    Thank you –this was wonderful.

    I wanted to share with you an article in Education Week written by my colleague, Laura Reasoner Jones, about Steve Job’s “vision for teachers.” I agree that the technology is a double-edge sword, but Jones’ experience with the benefits Job’s created for teachers is inspiring to me.

    Elizabeth Vandenburg (Col. ’82) Parent of Grace Bauer (Col. 2013)

  31. Lawrence Springer (College '71) says:

    Dean Woo, your blog, “The Meaning of the Authentic” reminds us that we are all immigrants to this country – even those of us who go back many generations as Americans. America, to me, is essentially a constant state of becoming, the joy is to be found in the journey. Our greatness is found in always striving for something that seems to be beyond us. The advantage of living in America is that there are few limitations imposed on those who try hard to achieve. You are living proof of that and we are fortunate to have you among us in the UVA community.

  32. Gene Barrett says:

    Always enjoy your posts — they are my monthly brain-enrichment exercise — and a great pleasure to read. And after reading all of your previous ones, it was during this reading that for the first time I reflected on your amazing ability to express complex concepts in a non-native language — which interestingly was also noted by several others. Bravo, on both counts.

    And as for Jimi Hendrix — well, no one’s perfect! Keep listening.

  33. Aziz Sachedina says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    I was deeply touched by the “aunthentic” portrayal of a life that shares so many common features with all of us who in some ways are searching to express what you have covered so eloquently in your explanation of “authentic—because you have imbibed the spirit of the age and its possibilities and hopes—that all the obstacles and differences melt away, and we seek what is genuine and confident and true.” This piece of your personal journey will be read by many like us who need to learn to “hear” and “observe” so as to leave a legacy for the future generations of immigrant children in this land of freedom and opportunity.

    Aziz (instructor, academic study of Islam)

  34. Molly Beauchemin says:

    As ever, your post is extremely well written and thought provoking. Thank you so much for enriching our University with your passion and intellect.

  35. Suzanne Frisbie says:

    Meredith ~ As always you are an elixir for the heart, mind & soul. May all the students for whom you are Dean know the special gift the University has given them in you.

    your lucky friend,

    PS I too have always been “deaf to the genius of Jimi Hendrix”.

  36. Chuck Nesbit says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. It is wonderful you are connecting with students in a personal way. One of the things I regret most about my time at the University was not engaging with faculty members outside the classroom. I’m sure my life would have been richer if I had seen my teachers as multidimensional. Who knows, a casual conversation on the Lawn might have opened up new possibilities I could not see at the time.

    I empathize with your feelings about the intrusion of technology in our daily lives. For busy professionals the iPads, computers, and Blackberrys we rely on should be productivity enhancers but can easily consume our free time and control the pace our daily lives. Exercising the self discipline to take a break from technology one day a week is remarkably liberating and beneficial to the soul. Not to mention extremely appreciated by family and friends. Remarkably, I find the business continues to perform even if I don’t process emails on Saturday or Sunday and my morning coffee tastes much better when I gaze at the trees behind my home instead of the screen of my MacBook. The faculty would do the students a great service by occasionally reminding them of the value of disconnecting once in a while for more than a few minutes.

    I was born in this country and never appreciated Jimi Hendrix either. Based on similar comments to your blog post you may have been further along in your cultural assimilation than you thought at the time.

    Chuck Nesbit ’77

  37. Bernie Kirsch says:

    You have touched us, you have caught us; we belong to you and you to us…you are indeed authenticity personified.

  38. simay okyay says:

    Dean Woo, words cannot describe how inspired and affected I am by your speech at 2nd year dinner series. Thank you. It is teachers like you who show us the day that inspire and enlighten us in our journey of self discovery, and help us love the place,this university, we are at, just to do that. Thank you.

    class of 2014.

  39. Curtis Tomlin, class of '70 says:

    Once again, I am enthralled and enriched by your words. As for David A. Gambill, I’m sorry he missed the point, but I am extremely grateful for the present of your presence at The University.

  40. David A. Gambill says:

    Please tell me what point I missed. I did after, all quote, Dean Woo verbatim in making my argument. If what I cited was tangential to the ‘point”, why castigate me?

  41. David A. Gambill says:

    “We” made a mess of things in Viet Nam? Why do you let the Communists off the hook? As to the Pacific Fleet keeping the peace, bravo!