Thursday, August 31, 2006
Olin Fine Arts Center
It is a real pleasure to welcome you all here today for the 2006 Convocation of Washington & Jefferson College, the occasion that marks officially the beginning of the academic year. It is essential that we take this 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. I am also proud to note that this is the 225th year that people have gathered in Washington, Pennsylvania, to mark the beginning of a college school year. 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, Dr. George Kuh, we have W&J Trustee Gretchen Gockley, Deans Jan Czechowksi and Dana Shiller who shepherd academic affairs, Dean Susan Yuhasz who oversees student life, our faculty marshal Dr. Stuart Miller, and two of our students, Catherine Fisher and Michaela Kimbell.
This ceremony exemplifies our community in many ways, not the least of which is the way that so many people from different areas of the campus work together to produce it. From the academic side, Jim Sloat, Viet Ha, Beckie Keenan, and Catherine Sherman. On the artistic front, Dan Shaw, Angie Parkhill, Bob Reid, Patrick Schmidt, and Jason Parkhill. Mike Sakash, Katie Keckler, Susan Medley, and Susan Woodard lent a hand from the music department, and Heather Orstein is our bagpiper. Erin Sevcik, a junior, assisted on all fronts. In the tower of Old Main ringing the bell were John Zimmerman, our math chair, and Terry Sattler along with Katie Hannon, a senior, and Dan Mason, a freshman. From student life, Michelle Martelli and Billie Churma oversaw both Convocation and Matriculation, while the President's Office effort was led by Valerie Belford and Debbie Morris. From ARAMARK, Katie Golding and Jim Miller handled the details of raising the tent and keeping us dry. From the community at large, we thank Deborah Gates, our sign language interpreter. And these are just a small number of those whose hard work went into this ceremony. Of course, this kind of collaboration happens every day at W&J, but Convocation gives us an opportunity to take notice of it.
I would like to take this moment to remember as well the members of this community who have died during the last year. The most recent death was the tragic loss of Matt Puckett, who graduated last May from W&J and died in a car crash on August 21. He is remembered for his ever-present smile and his generosity in helping others. May I ask for a moment of silence for Matt and the other members of our community who are no longer with us.
For the past few months, the campus has been relatively empty. 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 the 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 18-21-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, 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 like whether the death penalty is ethical and how one defines beauty in art—these require the resources of a entire community of learners, working together, raising diverse points of view, pooling their expertise, asking each other hard questions. 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 individual points of view.
And community is important in another way, too. Learning can be painful, it can be disorienting. 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. Last year, I had an interesting conversation with a Hispanic student at W&J who came from Miami. She said that she was so much more comfortable at home, surrounded by her friends, most of whom were Hispanic and most of whom attended University of Southern Florida. She said that her friends could not understand why she did not join them at USF. And, she said, "Maybe I should. I think I'm losing my identity here. I go to parties with my black friends and I think, 'But I'm not black' and I go to parties with my white friends and think, 'But I'm not white.'" I said, "You see, you aren't losing your identity. You are defining who you are and what you believe in a different and, I would argue, more profound way. Instead of begin surrounded by people who are like you, you are finding your identity by discovering the ways in which you as an individual are similar and different from others who are 'sort of like' you."
Being in a diverse community allows us to learn about others, but also to define ourselves. Whether we are talking with someone who holds different political views, practices a different religion, defines themselves as an athlete or a computer geek or a poet, or comes from a different socio-economic or racial group or a different part of the country, when we speak across lines of difference from a position of respect, we learn about others and about ourselves.
The history of Washington & Jefferson College is a testimony to the importance of this kind of community. Last year, I focused on the Civil War period at W&J, and this year, I want to focus on the World War II period. But, for the sake of context, let's begin at the beginning.
Washington and Jefferson Colleges were founded by two Presbyterian ministers from Philadelphia who set out for an unknown land to start a school. 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. Washington and Jefferson Colleges admirably fulfilled their early missions: to spread education westward. The founding presidents of Ohio University and Miami University 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.
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. Most of the boys of Washington were Northern sympathizers and most of those from Jefferson supported the Confederacy. The merger of the two schools occurred on March 4, 1865, Lincoln's second inaugural, and the country was still deeply divided. In this environment, students of the newly united college 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.
Less than a hundred years later, war once again greatly impacted this school. When the news of Pearl Harbor shattered the preparations for exams and Christmas in 1941, W&J was home to about 500 students. As young men rushed into military service, colleges nationwide saw their populations drop. By 1943-44, when Italy was declaring war on Germany, there were only about 125 students total on the W&J campus—only 10 in the junior class. Two years later, only nine students remained in the senior class. Imagine—you are the only Biology major, the only history major, the only one on your dormitory floor. About 1000 soldiers who were not W&J students took night classes here and some lived on campus, so the College was not completely deserted, but it must have been pretty lonely.
Suddenly, with the passage of the GI Bill in 1944 and the end of the war, colleges across the country swelled with returning soldiers trying to finish their college educations. In 1945-46, the enrollment at W&J skyrocketed from 143 to more than 1100 in one year. Can you imagine the changes on campus? The housing limit was reached and many men had to sleep in the gymnasium (now the Swanson Wellness Center) in double-decker bunk beds. (And you thought the quads in Mellon were bad now . . .). Suddenly football games and dancing lessons reappeared on campus. The faculty doubled in size to meet the teaching needs, and the chapel in Old Main was converted to a cafeteria where, for the first time, students had to purchase semester-long meal plans rather than buy individual meals, so that the cooking staff could reasonably plan how many students might eat at any given time. Before the return of the GIs, when W&J had about 100 students, classes met only three days a week. Now classes met six days a week to allow the GIs to complete their education in half the time.
Think how the conversations in class must have changed when theoretical discussions of politics, business, ethics, medicine, and law were altered by the addition of students who had seen their comrades killed and maimed, who had spent sleepless nights wondering if they would be alive at dawn, and who had been forced to confront the gut-wrenching knowledge that they had killed another living, breathing human being.
On a lighter note, there had been no cheerleaders on campus for three years, and many of the cheers and songs were lost. As a result, there was a renewed effort to teach students "Whichi Coax" and fight songs like "Good Ole W&J." Freshmen were once again issued student handbooks with cheers and songs that they had to memorize. Upperclassmen could stop a freshman and ask to have a song sung or a cheer yelled. If the freshman did not know the words, he would have to wear a large sign announcing his inadequacy or stand on a dinner table and sing. Dinks returned to campus—these were caps worn by all freshmen and had to be tipped whenever a freshman passed a faculty member. The most lasting physical reminder of this period was Splinter Village, a shanty town built where Henry Gymnasium now stands that housed married veterans and their families.
The campus did not settle back into a more familiar routine until about 1950, when the enrollment returned to 800 students or so, and most students once again were aged 18-21 and most, once again, were blessedly ignorant of the horrors of war in the muddy trenches of Europe or the jungles of New Guinea.
This period in the college's history speaks to our strengths: diversity and initiative. With the federal government paying veterans to go to school, coal miners' sons and steel worker's sons mingled with sons of bankers and industrialists on the campus. Education was no longer just for the well-born elite. And these veterans brought a renewed sense of urgency to W&J. They strove mightily to prepare for careers that their parents could never have dreamed of. They took charge of their lives and their educations, and they transformed themselves through W&J. Having survived horrific conditions on the battlefields, they knew how precious it was to be able to take time to learn, to debate issues, and to build a life and rebuild a country. They are models for us all.
There have been other wrenching moments in the College's history-moments that changed our definition of ourselves, and we will talk about those at other Convocations, but for 225 years this college has proved true to its motto: Juncta Juvant: Together we Thrive.
Of course, we face challenges, new ones every year. One of our faculty told me something shocking last summer. She talked about discovering that her favorite student, a bright young man who wanted to be a teacher, had been accused—rightfully it seemed—of sexual assault on another student. 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.
We cannot speak of ethics and respect in the classroom and act unethically and disrespectfully in the residence halls. As each of you takes charge of your education, take responsibility for your life, both inside and outside of the classroom. If the faculty were to wander into a residence hall at midnight on a Saturday, let us hope that they would recognize the bright, responsible students they had encountered that afternoon in their chemistry, history, French, or psychology classes.
This year, let us work together to build a coherent community that is dedicated to pursuit of knowledge and to pushing back the frontiers, a community in which what we learn in the classroom is related to what we do in the residence halls, on the athletic fields, and in our places of work. Let us renew our sense of ourselves as a college dedicated to rich conversation, respectful of many different voices, a community of individuals who take initiative and take responsibility, joined out of curiosity, out of common cause, and out of respect.