WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON COLLEGE
Good evening. What a pleasure to welcome you all home to your alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College. It is such a joy each year to see so many alumni return to renew old friendships and to see how W&J has grown and changed.
I am about to start my sixth year at the College this January, and, as each year passes, I am more honored to be associated with it. Tonight I want to take a minute to talk a bit about what makes W&J special. It is, of course, a liberal arts college and that makes it uniquely American. I am reminded of this every year when our international exchange students, exclaim, "This is so different from my college in France, Germany, Spain, Japan, wherever-I've never had to think so hard before." Our international students are surprised by our small classes, but even more than that, they are surprised that they are expected to do more than memorize facts -- they are expected to think. They have to form educated opinions, based upon evidence, and they have to defend their conclusions. We call this kind of learning liberal education, a phrase which has nothing to do with political leanings but refers to the education required for citizenship -- it is a liberating education that prepares free citizens to vote. Without this kind of training, how could we make decisions about the allocation of taxes, the issue of stem cells, or the advisability of war? Liberal education is the bedrock of our American democracy.
And today this kind of education is more important than ever. Where else can our young people learn how to engage in civil, reasoned discourse, especially on contentious issues? Certainly not from the media where emotion replaces reasoned argument as politicians and journalists on the Sunday morning talk shows try to out-shout one another. In the news media, opinion polls are given more column inches than in-depth analysis of proposed legislation. The differences between fact and opinion, assertion and evidence are blurring. And in the midst of this confusion, we are losing the ability to discuss important topics as a country. We are losing the ability to talk across line of difference from a position of respect.
But young people can learn this important skill in the college classroom. Discussions in college are not about shouting each other down, not about "winning an argument." At W&J, we teach students to listen to all points of view, weigh them, consider their logic, and so seek the truth.
Of all the colleges that I have known -- and I have known a large number -- W&J does the best job of promoting reasoned argument because it combines small classrooms with unmatched ideological diversity. Most colleges are dominated by either a liberal or a conservative point of view. When I taught at Brown University, for example, the liberal point of view was so dominant that conservative students were afraid to speak up for fear of being ridiculed. The resulting community was a comfortable one-everyone agreed with everyone else--but it was not intellectually rigorous. Students never had to interrogate their own points of view because no one ever challenged them. The same is true at colleges dominated by a conservative point of view -- opinions go unchallenged. But W&J is a special place-our student body is fairly well divided between Democrats and Republicans, students who argue for and against abortion rights, for and against liberalizing immigration policies, for and against environmental protection over industrial development. That means that W&J is not always a comfortable place for students-their opinions get challenged -- but it is a place of learning.
This kind of ideological diversity has deep roots at W&J. Before, during, and after the Civil War, for example, Washington and Jefferson Colleges (for they were separate then) enrolled both Union and Confederate sympathizers. Even the fraternities were divided. One of the founding members of the Fijis, James Elliott, served in the Union army but a man he recruited for the fraternity, W.B. Crews, left to fight for the Confederacy. The Betas sent 4 to the Confederacy and 19 to the Union side during the war. Perhaps one of the strangest encounters must have occurred at Fort Delaware where Bishop Crumrine, a Jefferson College student and a Union soldier, was in charge of guarding Confederate prisoners of war, including one of his own classmates, Duncan Cooper, a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army. When John Brown was condemned to die at Harper's Ferry, it was a Jefferson graduate who defended him and argued for sparing his life, while a Washington College alum, the governor of Virginia, denied that request and put Brown to death.
And, as an aside, if you saw the movie GLORY, the character portrayed there by Matthew Broderick was a Jefferson College graduate, Thomas Sickles, the lieutenant who worked with the US Colored Troops.
When these Civil war soldiers returned home and resumed their studies, they came back to a newly united college (W&J) that now enrolled veterans from both sides. Students found themselves sharing rooms and classrooms with those they had previously tried to kill during the bloody battles of the Civil War. Tempers flared. There were sword duels on campus-no one was killed, but blood was shed. Gradually, however, the country and the college healed. 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. And because those individuals worked so hard to find a way to live and learn together, despite their disagreements, we have W&J today.
It was this diversity of voices at W&J that actually drew me to the College. When I was visiting the campus as a candidate for the presidency, I met two young men who introduced themselves as two of the most politically active students on campus-one said he was the most politically liberal and the other identified himself as the most politically conservative. And they were roommates. Now, this was October 2004, at the end of the Bush-Kerry campaign when the swift boat arguments were raging and the atmosphere was highly charged. So, I asked them if they watched the presidential debates together. "Oh no," they said. They watched them in separate rooms, but once the debate was over, they would come together and discuss it. And it was true -- you would see them arguing in The Commons, talking heatedly over a cup of coffee in the Ski Lodge. I asked one of them, "Do you think you will ever convince your roommate of your point of view?" "No." he said, "but I have to keep trying . . . because I respect him." At that moment, I knew that W&J was a special place -- a place where people with truly divergent opinions could engage in reasoned discourse. That's when I knew that W&J was the kind of college where the essence of American democracy -- the ability to talk across lines of difference from a position of respect-would be taught and practiced daily.
And so for over 225 years this college has proved true to its motto, forged in 1865 when the two colleges joined, just months before Appomattox. Our motto is Juncta Juvant: Together We Thrive. It is embodied in the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson outside this building on the corner of Lincoln and Beau. Although these two men did not really like one another, they worked together nevertheless and so created a country. Look carefully at those statues. The two men have their arms behind one another's back, but they are not in close contact. Washington looks in one direction, Jefferson in another and, somewhat grudgingly, they collaborate. No wonder that the statue is named Juncta Juvant: Together We Thrive.
Today, when many different groups vie for government and individual support, I hope we do not lose sight of the vital importance of small colleges like W&J where the skills essential to democracy are honed. I worry that the public too often assumes that small colleges are places of privilege where only the wealthy gather. But did you know that 28% of W&J students are the first in their families to go to college? Did you know that, in the state of Pennsylvania, private colleges enroll a higher percentage of students whose families make less than $40,000 than the large publics do? While the publics have a higher percentage of students whose families earn more than $100K/year? And our students actually graduate in four years -- not six, making education here a pretty good deal. So W&J helps to ensure that all our citizens -- regardless of their socio-economic background or their political leanings-- are prepared to be thoughtful participants in our democracy.
Now you can see why I am so glad to be at W&J. As you wander around campus, cheer on the football team, and see your old friends, I hope that you, too, will be proud that you are part of W&J. W&J is experiencing remarkable success and momentum, with 16 new buildings and growth in our freshman applications from 1000 to more than 6000 in the past few years. When the new Science Center opens this spring semester, it will be striking evidence of our continuing commitment to excellence in education. And many of you in this room have helped to make that remarkable building possible. We cannot thank you enough. W&J is on the move. And you have helped to drive this progress. We build our reputations on you. If you live more than 50 miles from Pittsburgh, when someone meets you, you may be the only person they know from W&J. For them, you are the college. Thank you for embodying the remarkable achievements of Washington & Jefferson College. And welcome home.