Of Schools On Hills Aegean, Irish, and Otherwise
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mayor, members of our Board of Trustees, members of the American academy, colleagues on the faculty and staff of Trinity College, members of the student body and their parents, family and friends from far and near, guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I am deeply grateful to all of you, more than I could possibly state, for your sharing this signal moment both in Trinity’s life and in mine and that of my family on this October morning, here on this hill overlooking the city of Hartford. I wish to say a special word of gratitude to all those from our past who have joined us on this occasion: to family from many states of the Union, to former students of mine from our years at Washington University who long ago became the closest of friends, to colleagues and very dear friends who have come here from our five years at SMU in Texas and from our eight years at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Indeed to all of you gathered in this quadrangle on this hill at our new academic home, I say both welcome and thank you for sharing this moment with my wife Jan and me.
I must extend a particular word of thanks to all who have worked so hard to make this day and this wonderful occasion in our lives a reality: to Megan Fitzsimmons who over the course of the last six months masterminded the planning, to all the other members of the Advancement Office who have helped so generously, to the Building and Grounds staff for the scores of hours of hard work they have put into the preparations for today, to the Chartwell’s team for their equally hard work to prepare all the various meals and the dinner last night. Jan and I will long remain in the debt of a great many new friends and colleagues here at our new academic home that is Trinity College.
There is a wonderful story about a new college president that goes something like this. The new president enthusiastically takes office. He has myriad appointments, attends myriad receptions, holds myriad meetings, pores over myriad documents and reports. The days fly by; then the weeks. There is never time for a single day off. Finally, after the first six months, he announces to his now exhausted staff that on the following Saturday he is going to take the entire day off to go fishing. No appointments, no telephone conference calls, no reports, no speeches, nothing. A day off for the first time in months. He is going fishing, come what may.
Then the editor of the local newspaper, perhaps even The Hartford Courant, calls and wishes to speak only to the new president. It seems that a front-page, lead article would be devoted solely to the new guy on the block. The editor has assigned her best reporter to cover the story, but the reporter could do the interview on one Saturday morning only. The new president realizes, to his dismay, that all his hopes for a quiet, uninterrupted day off just vanished. “Very well,” says the new president, a bit of resigned regret in his voice, “but we will have to do the interview while I am fishing out in my little boat.”
Saturday comes. At long last a whole day off…., well almost a whole day off. He dutifully meets the reporter, they motor out to the deepest parts of the lake, he answers question after question while casting away and reeling in. All of a sudden, he snags his lure on a sunken log. Without losing as much as a single beat while responding to the reporter’s questions, he calmly steps out of the boat, walks slowly across the water, unsnags the lure, walks slowly back across the water, and climbs into the boat.
They end the interview. He lets the reporter out on the shore, and he continues his Saturday off quietly fishing. Early Sunday morning, he wanders out on his front walk to retrieve the local newspaper, only to see in huge 48-point font letters, there on the front page, the banner headline glaringly proclaiming, “New President Cannot Swim.”
Then, to make matters even worse for the poor chap, that next Monday, the new president overhears two professors in the faculty club discussing the article on his jarring lack of swimming prowess. One turns to the other and remarks in a loud voice, “I suspected as much all along.”
It is indeed true that presidents cannot walk on water, but most I have had the privilege of serving with and knowing over the decades could in point of fact swim reasonably well, even if at times we may look like we are drowning.
The presidency today, at this particular time in the history of American higher education, is both challenging and frustrating: challenging because of the spate of often intractable issues on one’s desk day after day and frustrating because ofttimes the solutions to problems seem both unconvincing and unrealistic. Yale’s late president Bart Giamatti was wont to say, as he told me himself decades ago, that being a college or university president is no way for a sane human being to earn his or her daily bread. There are of course days when that is true, but for me over the course of the past nine years, those days have been in a decided minority when compared to those when I have watched with admiration and pride as my colleagues on the faculty and staff and as our students accomplish wonderful things.
The American system of higher education is today the envy of the world and by any measure the most astonishing system of education in the history of humankind. In this country, we have some of the most distinguished research universities in the world, some of the most distinguished vocationally driven institutions in the world, and more than a few stellar examples of that distinctively American academic invention, the residential liberal arts college. The GI Bill following World War II was the single most transformative event in the history of education in the entire world, save perhaps only for the invention of the printing press. Other federally funded initiatives, the National Science Foundation for one prominent example, have contributed to the span of human knowledge in ways its earliest proponents could have never foreseen. Little wonder, as we sit on this beautiful campus this lovely fall Sunday morning, that scores of thousands of eager students all over the world wish above all else to study in America. It is the most desired hope of their lives.
And I wonder if we, surrounded as we are in this country by such intellectual riches all our lives, take these academic opportunities for granted. I wonder if we take the peculiarly American invention of the residential liberal arts college for granted. And I wonder if we take Trinity College for granted.
Not long ago, I heard a very moving account of something that apparently occurs often at the Aetna Center for Families, part of Trinity’s Learning Corridor initiative for which the College is rightfully known. The parents who frequent the Center are in the main new to the United States, non-speakers of English, not representative of any higher socio-economic strata. Periodically, the Center sponsors day trips to Boston. Before they go off on their trip, the parents are routinely surveyed: “What would you most wish to see in the Boston area?” What would each of you gathered here assume to be the answer: Boston Harbor, Old North Church, Fenway Park? No, none of these. Harvard, Dean Kirby, Harvard. Why? Because to the world, Harvard equates with excellence in education. These newly arrived parents to our community do not take education for granted; nor should we.
We at Trinity are today sitting on our hill, Bishop Brownell, our founder, looming in large stature above us, overlooking our city of Hartford, gazing through the fog of the future and wondering what our future will be. Later this semester, we will dedicate a tree to the memory of John Winthrop, American settler and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This tree-planting will occur as a consequence of our “Reacting to the Past Seminars,” recently featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, where in true serendipitous fashion one of the segments recreates the debates in ancient Athens using Plato’s Republic as the basic text. In Winthrop’s famous, eloquent sermon from 1630, entitled Christian Charity, a Model Hereof, he writes of a “city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are on us,” a line that the late President Reagan was fond of quoting. We are a college upon a hill, and today not a few eyes are upon us as one of the very few, highly esteemed residential liberal arts colleges located in a major urban landscape in the United States.
Trinity’s being prominently located on a hill appropriately points to an important topos that harkens back in history to our earliest forebears. The School of Athens, after all, sat upon a set of hills in Greece of ancient days. One of its most illustrious students and then teachers, Plato, about whom Professor Drew Hyland of our faculty just last month brought out a fascinating book, provided what we now think to be the first endowment of any school when he deeded part of his farm to insure the future of his cherished School of Athens. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia a lifetime ago, or perhaps no further back than last Tuesday, I spent many days not paying due attention to lectures in the old Cabell Hall Auditorium because a huge copy of Raphaël’s magnificent portrayal of the School of Athens took up the entire north wall of the room. I would lose myself time and again in the copy by the American realist George Breck, wondering what Plato was really saying to Aristotle as they stood, deep in conversation, right in the middle of the painting, wondering what Socrates was relating to the group of intensely focused students around him, what systems of the universe Ptolemy was then contemplating, what manner of geometrical theorems Euclid and Pythagorus were then proving. A school on a set of hills, for me the idealized prototype for all schools thereafter, a spate of conversations between older, more knowledgeable teachers and younger, ever-eager pupils, enshrined in a beautiful place, walls existing only to allow ideas to permeate them and to take flight with the mind. Raphaël’s masterpiece hangs in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, as students in Trinity’s thirty-five year old program in Rome know well. The famous painting itself is not enormous in size, yet in its significance, its import truly is for those of us born genetically predisposed to wear chalk dust on the sleeves of our souls.
The idealized model of the School of Athens disappeared, however, from history during the bleakest centuries of the Dark Ages. As hard as it is now to envision, learning itself in Western civilization seemed to have stopped. Literacy, never of high importance, even among the more fortunate socio-economic classes at the end of the Roman Empire, became all the more rare. Schools as we know them simply ceased to exist, the great texts of Classical antiquity to remain lost in their original tongues to Europe until after the Moorish invasion of Spain in the eighth century.
However, upon the barren and wind-swept hills of Ireland, small bands of monks kept literacy alive, painstakingly copying and illuminating the Vulgate. Little did they know that they were at the time the sole protectors of the flames of knowledge, the passing of teaching and learning from one generation to the next, a torch in the darkness of those barbaric times when learning, reading, and writing took refuge and solace in those few dedicated defenders of the life of the mind working patiently away on the hills above the Irish Sea. Before the start of the Middle Ages, those monks kept kindled what the French still today call “le feu sacré” (“the sacred fire”), no matter how dark and foreboding the intellectual landscape in which it sought to shine forth.
To be sure, no one could justly call our present intellectual landscape dark and foreboding, but I do think that liberal arts colleges like ours, particularly upon hills like ours, do harken indeed to those days when monks devotedly labored over their manuscripts against the societal pathogens of their own era.
In our time, education is just as critical as it was then, on those Irish hills when the idealistic model of the school on the Aegean hills had been lost, apparently then forever. In our time, the pathogens are ignorance, poverty, and prejudice. In the time of those Irish monks, the societal pathogens were ignorance, poverty, and prejudice, all within a context of an almost total breakdown of values and boundaries within the social order.
When we were just a few months older than our students are here today at Trinity, my wife Jan had her first teaching assignment in a downtown public high school in my hometown of Atlanta. Jan used to come home discouraged in the late afternoons, wondering how she was supposed to teach children their mathematics when those same children did not know where their next meal might be coming from, got high drinking cough syrup in the school’s bathrooms, were moved from one substandard public housing unit to another, reared by individuals often not their family, and, when by their family, almost always by young single mothers. Not the Dark Ages in Europe, but the Dark Ages for far too many of our nation’s children in the inner cities of America in the twentieth century.
But we must never think that any one of us, no matter our background or station in life, is beyond the reach of the pathogens that weaken our society. When we look around us today, what societal contexts inscribe our students’ future? Corruption in corporate America faces us nearly every day; as do the sad story of scandals in institutional religious circles and the lack of confidence in much of our political system, certainly in our own state of late. Clearly there is a dearth of places where today’s students find positive values upon which to center their own futures.
I would suggest, and strongly, that education within a small community is the most important tool we have at our disposal to equip our students for a future in which they capably and knowledgeably step forward as leaders in the struggle to live by the enlightened values we have inherited from the past. Think how badly we all need education in order to understand why so much of the world both envies and at the same time loathes America, exemplified by those young men and women who rejoiced at the fall of the Towers on 9/11 while the shoes they most want to wear are Nikes. Or think of the children in Hartford, such a huge percentage of whom live in poverty, and some of whom I meet from time to time on the Long Walk, as they look with interest and hope at our students, the very children our Mayor is determined to prepare for entry into institutions of higher education such as Trinity.
I do not know about each of you here today, but I worry, and worry a lot, about how we are going to find peaceful ways to live with each other, all of us passengers on the little Spaceship Earth, in Adlai Stevenson’s memorable turn of phrase borrowed from Buckminster Fuller, without an understanding, and a deep one at that, of why we each think the way we think and react the way we react. Where better than on the campus of a small, residential, liberal arts college to practice and impart permanent, transcendent values such as respect, responsibility, and accountability—our three watchwords here at Trinity? Where else to nurture an environment of civility wherein our students will learn to be better stewards of their world than in a residential, liberal arts college set on a hill overlooking a major urban landscape, not separated as Timon of Athens was in Shakespeare’s magisterial play, hurling misanthropic epithets down upon the city, but a vital part with, and a good neighbor to, the city itself?
This particular new beginning today allows all of us at Trinity to look both at ourselves and, from our own hill, at our surrounding city, with which Trinity has shared a long and mutually enriching history. On this day of rededication to the future of Trinity College, let us be mindful of our most ancient of forebears, of those who formulated the model of the academic community of the School of Athens on the hills of ancient Greece, of those models of dedication to the intrinsic worth of the life of the mind, of that everlasting conversation between teacher and pupil, of common purpose and common striving. But we should also not lose sight of our other forebears, those scattered monks on the hills beside the Irish Sea, keeping lit those torches of learning against the pathogens of their own times whereby ignorance had joined hands with poverty and prejudice to numb the mind into acquiescence and to still the waters of hope.
Schools upon hills, seen from afar, holding fast to their respective stations in history, with the eyes of many upon them. Trinity College holding fast to its mission since its founding in 1823. All of us associated with this noble place are but the stewards of Trinity’s future, sitting today in the antechamber of that same future. Let it be said of us in 2023, upon the institution’s two-hundredth anniversary, that we serving here today were faithful to our responsibilities, that we worked civilly together, all of us, and that we were ourselves worthy of the confidence that has been placed in us to safeguard this wonderful College and to pass it on to future faculty, staff, and students even stronger than it is today, our own School of Athens that is in Hartford.
Thank you again for sharing this momentous occasion with Jan and me, and Godspeed to our Trinity.