Winter 2008: From Center Hall

April 9, 2008

The Entrepreneurial Spirit and the Liberal Arts

Although Caleb Mills may not have seen the men in his first classes as entrepreneurs, he knew them to be pioneers.

What if we were to go back 175 years and visit the classroom of young Caleb Mills in Forest Hall at brand new Wabash College to discover what he intended for his charges?

What if we were to ask him this question, "Professor Mills, do you intend that your students become entrepreneurs?"

Now, Caleb Mills was a bright man, but the question might baffle him. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word entrepreneur appeared in English for the first time in 1828. If he knew the word, its meaning at the time encompassed a narrower range, designating a person who produced musical entertainments, closer to our word impresario, perhaps. In fact, Wabash College was more than 30 years old before the word entrepreneur evolved into something close to its present meaning; the College had celebrated its centennial before the adjective entrepreneurial was in currency. Only in the last decade or so have programs and departments of universities been given over to fostering students’ entrepreneurial skills and habits.

Still, I can imagine Professor Mills, always a step ahead when the conversation turned to education, responding something like this: "I do not intend for my students to become any one aspect of humanity, to serve one
position, but to serve the larger world as educated men in a free society."

For although Caleb Mills may not have seen the men in his first classes as entrepreneurs, he and the founders knew them to be pioneers. How could they not be, studying in a college at the edge of the country, ready to change and develop in response to the wants of the country, as the founding documents promised?

From its founding then, Wabash infused men with a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit through its curriculum, through its geography, through its condition—small, sometimes embattled (Wabash Always Fights)—and even now increasingly a distinctive place, a small college for men.

Wabash’s special character attracts young men who are independent thinkers, who are pioneers, or have the potential to be. In 1832 and even more so now, Wabash men could choose other colleges, but in selecting Wabash, young men select a community and an education in which independence, courage, confidence, risk, action, innovation, and playfulness can thrive, qualities contained in what we might call the entrepreneurial spirit.

The act of independence—even courage—in choosing to come to Wabash breeds in Wabash men a kind of confidence. Caleb Mills’ contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson would have praised it as self-reliance. From my Yiddish-infused education at the University of Chicago I have called it chutzpah, a confidence joined to an eagerness to act, a confidence that seems to some a reckless arrogance. As I talk to the current students of Wabash, I see in them this chutzpah, which creates an openness to experience, and a readiness to take on risk. I see this in sport, in study, and in student leadership. Not all come to Wabash with this confidence developed. But by graduation, most have achieved this self-reliance and courage. This courage is more than a good in itself. It is the ground out of which entrepreneurial action rises.

As the alumni featured in this issue make clear, entrepreneurial spirit is nothing without action. When Pat East ’00 notes the most important thing he knows about being an entrepreneur is "Just do it," he marks a preference for action and an embrace of risk.

That entrepreneurial embrace of risk is not foolhardiness, but a confidence driven by self-knowledge, courage, and what I see as a love of the game. When I got to know Bob Charles ’59, he told me about his stepping out of the security of graduate school and a potential academic career into an entrepreneurial life with McDonald’s. I asked him, wide-eyed, "Bob, weren’t you afraid of taking a risk. Didn’t this move scare you?" He looked at me calmly and said, "No, I didn’t think about that." He was not thoughtlessly leaping ahead, but he was more attracted by the interest, excitement, and potential fun of the new experience than the fear of failure.

For many years I coached summer baseball, and that love of the game is what I tried to encourage in my players. I hoped to transform the boy who is playing outfield and praying, "Please don’t let the ball be hit to me," into the confident fielder who says, "Hit it to me, I’m ready." I tried to instill a "bring it on" attitude, like that which we saw in Adi Pynenberg ’08 this fall as he set new tackling records, or in Jim Kilbane ’84 and Jay Hermann ’61 before him—men who wanted every play to come their direction. This is the spirit of the athlete or scholar at the top of his game; this is the spirit of the entrepreneur.

What is it in Wabash that encourages this entrepreneurial spirit? It is at least in part a community of teachers and students who strive for excellence and demand that the game be played at a high level. The Wabash experience has little patience with mere success. There is a restlessness in the entrepreneurial spirit, a desire to embrace and understand the next possibility. As Jo Throckmorton ’87 writes, Wabash guided him to increasing responsibility. "Within weeks of coming to campus I began participating in the campus radio station," he writes. By the time he graduated he was running the organization.

Kelly Pfledderer ’96, after working for a time for Wabash information technology, had a plum job working for Xerox, then found that he did not like this work and so set off to find something else to do. That led him to found
a company—Apparatus—that now has more than 50 employees and is the 16th fastest-growing company in Indianapolis. That is the entrepreneurial spirit at play. When I asked him how he had the courage to take this on, Kelly responded that he just thought it would be fun.

As the men in this issue testify, Wabash has long been fertile ground for the breeding of the entrepreneurial spirit. Wabash has stretched these entrepreneurs and they have in turn stretched the College.

Some will debate whether the entrepreneurial spirit is an innate propensity of character or something that can be taught and developed. As an educator, I come down on the side of learning. I have seen students who start college fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of what they can accomplish, who graduate self-assured, self-reliant, change makers, in a word, entrepreneurs. Sometimes that spirit has found its manifestation in the creation of new businesses; sometimes in the transformation of social, cultural, scientific, and medical structures and ways of thinking; sometimes in careers spent in large corporations but enacted with an entrepreneurial verve and creativity.

We know Wabash prompts these transformations, but exactly what is it about Wabash that shapes this entrepreneurial spirit?

What if we brought Caleb Mills to our time to explore this question? A great educator and a founder of the public school system in Indiana, he would, I am convinced, be interested in the intentional experiments in entrepreneurial education at colleges and universities. But I think he might be a bit skeptical. He might wonder—Why all these special courses—when education in the liberal arts prepared his students for a rapidly changing world?

We might smile at this quaint refugee from another time, as we try to explain the Internet and the changes that have evolved in human culture and communication. Then he might remind us that his students in his time went from roads to railroads, from communication only happening as fast as a horse could run to the speed of the telegraph, from slavery to emancipation, from tension through a civil war in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives, to the creation of modern America, including the modern business world and the corporation.

His point would be that the liberal arts provide the ground for the grandest game of all—the play of the mind. A young man does not become an innovative thinker unless he learns to think critically about interesting problems. He does not learn to be courageous without understanding the slings and arrows that have been thrown at other courageous men and women in times past. He does not learn to be a taker of risks unless he hones his imagination to be able to see possibilities where others see only barriers.

The liberal arts of Caleb Mills’ time fostered the pioneering spirit. The liberal arts today retain that capacity for the entrepreneur. The liberal arts education at Wabash develops men who are polymorphously talented and, what is even more important, polymorphously interested, curious about many aspects of society, the natural world, the arts, and literature. One such man, John Wheeler ’70—the former Mall of America manager who has now turned his attention to non-profit endeavors—says that what is essential for an entrepreneur is "a mixture of caring, understanding, and acting." I would suggest that within that trio is embedded the imagination, the play of the mind that lies at the heart of the liberal arts and makes all things possible.

It is that play of the mind that leads Wabash men like surgeon and medical entrepreneur Dr. Frank Kolisek ’82 to say, "The most important thing I know about being an entrepreneur is that you must never stop questioning. We can’t be satisfied with the status quo. We are all responsible for trying to make things better for the future."

It is that play of the mind that Bob Knowling ’77 exhibits when he quotes Aristotle: "The soul never thinks without a picture," then adds, "Entrepreneurs can paint that picture."

It is that play of the mind that stirs award-winning film producer Richard Elson ’69 to say, "I believe that what I do is a reflection of the value of a liberal arts education."

Isaac Asimov was fond of saying that all science fiction begins with the question, "What if?" Indeed, all literature, all imaginative acts begin with the same question. The entre-preneurial spirit is animated by the questions that are at the heart of the liberal arts: What if? What if we addressed the problem in this way? What if we reorganized this human endeavor in any number of new ways? What if people did not think it was a good idea? What if we could come up with something better?

As Caleb Mills would be quick to point out, we have enormous challenges as a culture, a society, and a College going forward. As we look to the near future, we need all Wabash men to act with independence, courage, and confidence, with an eye to innovation, risk, and imaginative playfulness. In short, we need all the pioneers and entrepreneurs Wabash can produce to meet the wants of the country, the world, and this College.

Contact President White at: whitep@wabash.edu

 


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