Fall 2006: From Center Hall

December 11, 2006

THE THEME OF THIS ISSUE OF Wabash Magazine has been on my mind for more than a year, long before I knew of Wabash Magazine, long before I knew I would have the wonderful opportunity of serving as the 15th president of this great College, and certainly long before I knew the theme of this issue would be "Essential."As the root of the word, the Latin verb esse (to be) suggests, to think about "essential" is to think about identity, the necessary quality of a thing, what makes it one thing and not another.

Since first contemplating the wild dream that I might become president of Wabash, I have wondered what is so special about this special place. Like all great questions in the liberal arts tradition, the seemingly simple question, "What is special about Wabash College?" seems at first to call for a simple answer. "Well, it is our character as a college for men." Or, "It’s essentially that we are a small liberal arts college." "It’s our commitment to learning inside and outside of the classroom, in our fraternities and residence halls, in our athletic programs." "It’s the close connection of faculty and students and the friendships made here." "It’s the deep engagement of alumni in the lives of the students, in the life of the College."

All these and more are true. Like all great questions, the question, "What is the essence of Wabash?" becomes richer, more complicated, and more wonderful the more we learn and the more we know. That is why the liberal arts are not an activity of a few years of youth, but a lifelong participation in a grand conversation, in which all questions are rich, and all questions lead deeper into understanding.

In this grand conversation, we constantly learn from one another. Teachers are learners and learners are teachers, sometimes switching roles 20 times in an hour. Isn’t this essentially the nature of our best conversations, when engaged with one another in thinking through, around, and over an issue? We find ourselves coming to an understanding that we could never attain alone; even in solitary study, the quiet time of thinking through a problem, reading a difficult text, organizing for an important presentation—even drafting this column—through imagination the work becomes a conversation with audiences and speakers, voices and lives, minds and hearts distant in time and place.

Sometimes the conversations we have had and will have with one another are difficult. Sometimes people will disagree, will misunderstand, will hurt one another’s feelings. There are risks. I recently asked in my first Chapel Talk, "What do you call the person whose opinions you cannot abide, who is wrong about most of the major issues of our time, who absolutely drives you nuts, who is a real pain in the neck?" My answer was, "I have called that person my teacher,my student,my colleague,my brother,my sister, my friend."

Why do we talk to people whose ideas are different from ours? At times, of course, we are trying to get them to see the light as we see it. But sometimes we know that is not going to happen. So why do we persist? Because in life, art, sport, and conversation there are more important questions than who wins and who loses. In the grand conversation of the liberal arts there are a lot more essential questions than "Are you with me or against me?" That is the question of the mob, the rabble rouser, not the question that animates the lives of men and women in a free, civil, and open society.

FOR MONTHS I HAVE BEEN LISTENING to the stories of Wabash, some told to me by men and women who have a connection to this great College that goes back generations, and others by those who have just arrived on campus. I listen to these stories (and tell no few of my own) in order to learn about Wabash and to see the delight and the wonder of discovery as people describe a story that to them gets at the essence of what makes Wabash College Wabash.

On a recent Sunday night I was working late in my office. It had been raining hard, and I had opened the window at my back. I heard Jeremy Burton’s voice saying, "Dr. White, what are you doing in your office this time of night?" I came to the window and answered, "The better question, Jeremy, is, ‘What are you doing standing out in the rain talking to me at this time of night?’"

He laughed and said he had been over to Professor Hadley’s home for dinner, and now he was putting out fliers around campus for a discussion on the U.S. Constitution, part of a new series of conversations the students have organized.We chatted for a few minutes, then he went on to his work, and I returned to mine.

But, essentially, the work of this College, of any college, is the work that is done in conversation, in face-to-faceencounters like this one.

Our little chat was made possible by other conversations Jeremy and I have had. In this conversation, we honored the great talk Jeremy had experienced at David Hadley’s house as we looked forward to putting out the word about conversations to come, creating opportunities for students, faculty, and all in the community to come together to talk about matters of importance.

THE CONVERSATIONS THAT ANIMATE our lives often live long in our memories and hearts. I love listening to alumni of the College as they describe life-changing experiences that happened sometimes many years ago. What is often recalled is a dialogue, or a few words said by a classmate, fraternity brother, professor, dean or president that, no matter how funny (and many are comic!), mark a life changing conversation that continues to resonate through the years.

This fall I have greatly enjoyed meeting with alumni groups, including the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men, the Class Agents Forum, the National Association of Wabash Men Board, and a very special reunion of Wabash men of the V-12 program.

V-12 brought young men to campus during World War II to gain a liberal arts and science education before going on to more specialized military training. The V-12 men often were on campus for as few as two semesters. As these then young men spent time in military drill on a campus made Spartan by wartime rigors in its sports, extracurricular activities, and even course offerings, their thoughts could easily have been elsewhere, leaving them with few stories or memories of life at Wabash. But each of these no-longer young men—men who saw sometimes horrifying combat and endured privation and disruption, confusion and pain—recalled their time at Wabash College as a central experience of their lives. The friendships formed then, the stories from that time, the memories of professors and friends long gone continue to enrich their experiences.

It is always a great pleasure to talk with alumni from any era. It was a great honor to spend time with these men from the V-12 program and to see reflected in their stories and in their eyes their love for Wabash College.

ONE MORE CONVERSATION. I was walking across campus after an art opening a week ago and fell into step with Kevin Pazour, president of the Student Senate. I asked, "How’s it going?" He responded that he had taken up a little campus beautification project. He said that he had noticed there is a lot of brass on campus, and that he had bought a bottle of brass polish and begun to shine that brass.

"This is a wonderful story," I said. "But Kevin, you are a busy guy.Why not just fire off an email telling the president or someone else to make sure the brass gets polished?"

He said, "Well, I thought about that, but you are a busy man.You have a lot to do and so do the folks who work in Campus Services. This is something I could do for my college. And besides, it’s fun."

When we parted he also told me how brass polishing is like the liberal arts.When he started polishing, he was only thinking about the particular door handle in front of him. But then, because he was focusing so closely, he began to see brass all over campus. When you start studying the liberal arts, he said, the work at times seems disconnected from real life and from other learning.Yet the more you stay at it, the more everything seems to connect; everything seems, like polished brass, to shine.

In these conversations and in dozens more I learn of the greatness of this College, of the power of the work that we do, of the rich legacy of conversations that have gone before.

I have mentioned in various venues William Butler Yeats’ line, "In dreams begins responsibility."As I rang in the Class of 2010, I asked the freshmen to dream big dreams for their own lives and for Wabash College. It is through our dreams and the stories that reveal them that this community keeps alive and vital. I invite you to share with me and with one another your stories that reveal the essentials of Wabash College and your dreams for what we can become by working together, by talking together, our wits and our imaginations polished to a bright shine by our conversation, by care and laughter, by the deepest human commitments of love, trust, and loyalty.

Sincerely yours in Wabash,

Patrick E. White

Contact President White at whitep@wabash.edu

 

 


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