August 25, 2005
Olin Fine Arts Center Lawn
It is a real pleasure to welcome you all here today for the 2005 Convocation of Washington & Jefferson College, the occasion that marks officially the beginning of the academic year. This is the first time in many, many years that Washington & Jefferson College has held a convocation ceremony, but I wanted to reinstate the practice because I think it is essential to take time at the beginning of the year to mark our return to W&J, to think about the community we create here, and to recommit to its important values and mission. Thank you all for participating.
We're going to talk a lot about community this morning, and on this platform you see a microcosm of that community. In addition to our distinguished honorary degree recipient, Lynn Swann, we have W&J trustee Dr. Lyn Dyster ’80, Deans Jan Czechowski and Dana Shiller who shepherd academic affairs, Dean Susan Yuhasz who oversees student life, our faculty marshals Dr. Stuart Miller, and our faculty secretary Dr. David Schrader, and two of our students, Catherine Fisher and Michaela Kimbell. Our community, of course, also includes many other groups—the librarians, the coaches, the administrative assistants, the business office, the physical plant, and food service workers—all of whom work to make W&J a truly special place. And, speaking of community, we are not alone, but together we thrive with the communities who host us and who have supported us for 224 years, the City of Washington and the Borough of East Washington. Mayor Westcott sends his greetings (he is attending a relative's funeral), but we are honored to have Mayor Gerry Stebbins of East Washington present. We look forward to continued prosperity through our joint efforts.
I also want to thank those individuals who devoted hours and hours to putting this event together—Dr. Jim Sloat, who spearheaded the operation; Professors Patrick Schmidt and Dan Shaw who helped create the convocation banner along with the help of Jason Parkhill and many students; Dr. Susan Woodard, who guided our musical selections; Dr. Michael Sakash, who is leading our brass ensemble; Ryan Booth, Caleb Leonard, and Dr. John Zimmerman who rang the bell this morning; Deborah Gates our sign interpreter; and J.J. Lendl who was my research assistant this summer. I appreciate your time and effort very much.
For the past few months, the campus has been relatively quiet. Some of you have been traveling, some of you toiling in restaurants and laboratories, some of you caring for family members and friends. Now we reconvene as a community and it is appropriate to reflect momentarily on values that we espouse—the things that hold us together as more than a group of discrete individuals but as a true community.
Why is community so important to learning? Why is that word on every college's Web site? At first glance, the idea of tearing 18 and 21 year olds—hormones racing—away from their families and friends to bring them together on a college campus seems peculiar at best. Why do we do this? Why not just plug in to our home computers and type away, exchanging files and video clips to learn about atomic structure or Romantic poetry or why Socrates was condemned? What is the relationship between community and learning?
First, it's worth recognizing that there are many different kinds of learning. Learning facts (How do I drive from Chicago to Detroit? When was Martin Luther King born? What is kalkitoxin?)—this can be done by reading a book or consulting the Internet. Many mechanical skills (how to dance the tango or change a tire) can be learned by mimicking the actions of a videotaped expert or following written directions. But most kinds of deep learning—analysis of complex problems, such as What should America's policy be in the Mideast? Is the death penalty ethical? How do you define beauty in art?—these require the resources of a community of learners, working together, raising diverse points of view, pooling their expertise, asking each other hard questions. For these tough questions, a community is essential. With all due respect to hermits, the path to truth is not a solitary one. We travel it together because alone we are all limited in our points of view.
And community is important in another way, too. Learning can be painful, it can be disorienting. We need comrades around us as we lose our bearing in familiar, tried, and true answers and strike out through the troubled waters to try to find new answers. To bring this flowery language down to earth, it's painful to learn that what you have always believed in may not be true—that the earth is not flat, that people are not all good-hearted, that our heroes have flaws. And to weather this learning process, we need each other. We need others in the community to buck us up, to convince us that multi variable calculus can be conquered, to help us appreciate the humor of Renaissance satire, to encourage us to keep going, keep trying, keep learning, to teach us patiently and well. Dealing with really hard problems requires a community of individuals mutually committed to seeking the truth.
But learning is also joyful. There's nothing quite like mastering a skill or a subject that has been elusive. Finally, your tennis serve goes just where you want it to, you read a Shakespeare play and it comes alive for you. Suddenly, calculus is easy. When this miracle happens, we deserve to celebrate—and to do so with others who have made the same journey. For this, we need a community that supports us as we struggle and joins us in celebration when we master a subject. For this we need a college.
But we need each other for more than psychological support. To learn in a deep and meaningful way, we need to meet and talk with others who have different experiences than we do. We need to leave the comfort of our home communities and to learn with and from those who see life differently. A college is a conversation, and it is enriched by conversations held across lines of difference but from positions of respect.
Many of you have heard me say that I knew I wanted to come to W&J when I talked to two seniors here who were fraternity brothers and roommates but who held completely opposite points of view—one the most politically conservative and the other the most politically liberal student on campus. When I talked to them a few months before the election last year, I asked them how they managed to room together. "Do you watch the debates together on TV?" Oh, no, they assured me, they had to be in separate rooms. But they did debate the issues—over and over and over again. "Do you think you'll ever convince your roommate of your point of view?" I asked. "No, I don't," one of them replied, "but I have to keep on trying because I respect him." Conversations across lines of difference from a position of respect. That is a college campus. That is a place of learning.
As you look around you, you may not see a lot of visible diversity, but that does not mean that this is a homogeneous community. Some of the most important kinds of diversity are hidden. Some of you are politically conservative, some are politically liberal. Some come from rural backgrounds and others from the heart of the inner city. Some of you read Rousseau for relaxation, others go to football games, others take a bicycle ride, and still others dismantle and recreate computers—all for fun. Some of you are religious, some are not. Some define yourselves by athletic prowess, others by logical ability. Some of you are straight, some are gay, some come from multi-racial households, some have traveled or lived abroad, some are the first in your family to go to college, others have fathers, grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers who were professors or college presidents. Some of you want to be doctors, some teachers, some have no idea what you want to be (and I'm not just talking to the students here). We are all different, and yet we are bound together by our membership in the W&J community.
The history of Washington & Jefferson College is a testimony to the importance of community. Washington and Jefferson Colleges were founded because George Washington wanted to push American civilization westward, and he knew that to do so required spreading learning and education westward as well. For education is the most basic building block of civilization. So, he sent three Presbyterian ministers, all graduates of Princeton, out from Philadelphia to start the first colleges west of the Allegheny Mountains. He had been out this way early in his military career, and he knew the land was beautiful and bountiful.
The three ministers established their three academies in cramped and drafty log cabins. One school failed rather quickly, but the other two struggled and grew into colleges, Jefferson College in Canonsburg and Washington College here in Washington. It's hard to imagine what the lives of those early students must have been like, six of them to a small room that served as both sleeping quarters and classroom. Indian attacks, the threat of starvation if the local crops failed, no running water, no electric lights, and one copy of a book for the entire school. Despite these challenges, those early students left their families and came together to study the Greeks, to learn mathematics, to think about the lessons of history, to master the art of writing. And those early colleges fulfilled their missions. The founding president of Ohio University and Miami of Ohio graduated from these schools, as did more than 85 other men who went on to college presidencies as places like Princeton, Penn State, Muhlenberg, and the University of Michigan. No wonder our college athletic teams are known as The Presidents. Washington and Jefferson Colleges truly did help to spread higher education westward.
By the time of the civil war, however, there were not enough young men to keep both colleges financially solvent, and the two decided to join. But this was not a comfortable marriage. The two colleges bickered for years about where the new school should be located. The decision was finally made by auction. The town of Washington put up $50,000 to support the new College, while Canonsburg only offered $10,000. Although this disparity was quite large, the two towns continued to wrangle over the issue for more than six years, taking their dispute all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the current siting of W&J was finally upheld once and for all. Even so, for many years, the men of Jefferson refused to call the new College W&J—instead they called it "The United College." When the president's piano was moved from Canonsburg to the new site here in Washington, one workman reportedly complained, "I'll do this for Jefferson but not for Washington."
Jefferson was a largely southern school, and Washington had sent most of its boys to fight for the Union. Within a month of the two colleges' joining, the surrender at Appomattox was signed and Lincoln was dead. The country was still deeply divided, and in this environment, the boys of Washington and Jefferson returned to share rooms and classrooms with those they had previously tried to kill during the bloody battles of the Civil War. There were sword duels on campus—no one was killed, but blood was shed. Gradually, however, the College healed and a new community was born, a community where you can be sure that there were lively debates, bitter arguments, and searching discussions, but gradually there was also respect. Because those individuals worked so hard to learn together, we have W&J today.
There have been other wrenching moments in the College's history—moments that changed our definition of ourselves—the admission of hundreds of GIs in the 1950s when the boys returned from WWII and the admission of women in the 1970s certainly stand out. But for 224 years this college has proved true to its motto: Juncta Juvant: Together we Thrive. As testimony to that motto, twin towers were added to Old Main when it was renovated at the time of the union. The two towers represent the two proud colleges who learned to live and learn together. Today for the first time in many years, we heard the bells from one of those towers ring out over the campus, giving voice to the spirit of Juncta Juvant that brings us together—a community of many voices, joined out of curiosity, out of common cause, and out of respect.
One of our faculty made an interesting remark to me this summer. She said, "The students that the faculty know are not the students that student life knows." This comment has haunted me. She talked about discovering that her favorite student had been accused—rightfully it seemed—of sexual assault. She could not imagine that this delightful student was capable of this horrible act. And then she had to write his recommendation for graduate school...
This year, I want us all to work together to ensure that the lessons we learn in the classroom shape who we are outside of the classroom. We must all commit to creating a deeper sense of community. This is not to say that we all must agree—far from it. But we cannot speak of tolerance in philosophy class and practice intolerance in the residence halls. Let us build a coherent community together. What we learn in the classroom must also be a part of the way we act in the residence halls, on the athletic field, and in our places of work. We must provide for the larger community an example of the kind of civilized society that this college was founded to represent.
And so we are a community that is dedicated to pursuit of knowledge and to pushing back the frontiers. We are a community dedicated to a rich conversation, respectful of many different voices, and we are a community that takes care of its members, both individually and collectively.