Winter 2009: From Center Hall

March 23, 2009

Our College, Our Calling

This is a defining moment for Wabash College, and we will judge ourselves, and the College we love so well, by how we respond to this moment, how we move to a full understanding of who we are as Wabash.

In these trying times, it is good to remind ourselves of who we are, what we want to become, and what we might be called to do as individuals and as a College in this time and in this place.

This fall was a hard time at Wabash. In early October, the death of freshman Johnny Smith brought sorrow, loss, and a deep self-examination enacted in much campus discussion and questioning, in letters from alumni, and in conversations in living units on the Gentleman’s Rule. At the end of November, the sudden death of Bill Placher ’70— Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and iconic Wabash teacher, scholar, student, and alumnus—caused us all to wonder, How can we go on without the leadership and humble presence of this kind, wise, and brilliant man?

In addition, throughout the fall, the erosion of wealth in the financial markets brought one of the crowning strengths of Wabash, our nationally ranked per-student endowment, into decline and under continuing threat. We wonder who we are if we are not as rich as we once were, if we must find new ways to accomplish our mission and to build up weakened resources.

So these hard events, like the tough times in all of our lives, take us back to the fundamental questions: Who are we? What do we value? Who do we want to become?

We must not fear these questions because in asking them as a College community we stay true to our mission and re-enact the essential pattern of each Wabash student’s journey, a quest for self-discovery. The questions that come to them as they grow, mature, and transform mirror the questions of their college: Who am I? What do I value? What do I want to become? These are not just questions for times of crisis, of course; these are the questions at the heart of the liberal arts at Wabash.

Wabash does not address these questions from a tabula rasa. We know that these questions have been considered and discussed throughout the history of Wabash. In our mission and tradition, in our core values, and in the example of many men and women who have gone before us, we find not only some of the answers to our questions but, perhaps even more reassuringly, we find throughout our history a habit of asking these questions. Our historical answers bind us together; our shared questions invigorate our search and bring vitality and humanity to our teaching and learning.

I started this column with the words, "In these trying times." I can hear Wabash’s first president Elihu Baldwin saying, "You think these times are tough. We had to fight to keep this College going in 1834. Diminished endowment? What I wouldn’t have given for any endowment. How bold was my pledge then ‘never to rest while Wabash College shall lack any advantages for the student, which are offered by the highest class of American colleges.’"

Or President Frank H. Sparks: "Trying times? You have had two years of record enrollments. During World War II, we lost a third of our students to the draft. Without the V-12 program that I brought to campus, we wouldn’t have had any enrollment."

Or even, as I think over my recent conversations with President Andy Ford and appreciate his kindness and friend-ship, I am reminded of what the College went through during his first two years as president following the commitment of Wabash to remain a College for men.

Yet these are trying times. I write this on New Year’s Day without knowing what new threat or new success might come to the College or our world in the time between now and when you read this. But I write with hope in the New Year and heartened by two e-mails that I received last night from current students: one a cheerful greeting of encouragement, a hearty and friendly note of goodwill; the other, a thoughtful, questioning missive wondering whether I have communicated well in the recent months and promising a further appraisal.

I cherish both these notes because they come from Wabash men speaking with a high estimation of their promise and potential. When many students throughout the country could not name their institution’s mission, Wabash students and alumni know it, quote it, and seek to define it in their lives. I welcome this passion and honor its depth. Disagreement is not our enemy; apathy and lack of love for Wabash would be.

When I look out in Ball Theatre at the assembled young men on an admissions visitation day like Top Ten Scholarship Weekend, I see young men of high achievement and considerable confidence. But when I look in their eyes, I realize that they have not yet discovered the greatness within them. Yet these young men seek in their heart of hearts a College that will call forth a kind of greatness from them. When so much of the culture of youth is telling young men that a prolonged adolescence, a feckless continual boyhood of getting by and postponing growing up is not only okay but desirable, Wabash calls men to adulthood, to a true adulthood as gentlemen and responsible citizens. Wabash men want to be heroes in their own lives, and Wabash is unique in responding to this often unspoken desire for greatness, in calling forth young men’s hunger for the heroic.

We cannot see Johnny Smith graduate. We will not see all that he might have become. We mourn that loss, even as we know that all Wabash men stand ready to make the most of their education and their lives.

We cannot imagine another Placher, but in the men and women now on our faculty there are those who will be Placher to another generation of young men—those who understand the lovely and sometimes terrifying intimacy of faculty who are committed to engage with students at the deepest level. Bill Placher, I am sure, would not have wanted it any other way.

We must continue to call young men to greatness. As Bill Placher wrote so well in the introduction to his anthology, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, the sense of calling comes from a reach for meaning: "We wonder if the bits and pieces of our struggles, disappointments, and successes will add up to a significant whole."

Wabash calls men to discover their own path, their significance, and their potential greatness. That greatness may come in many shapes and forms, but we must never underestimate our students’ capacity to respond to that call.

Part of that greatness must manifest itself in the stewardship and care for this great College. The life of this College is not just the calling of faculty or administration or president, it is the vocation of all who have been touched by Wabash. As I told the students at my Chapel Talk in October, "To be Wabash has never been easy. The Gentleman’s Rule has always demanded from all of us vigilance, care, and hard work. Wabash Always Fights to be true to Wabash, to one another, and our best imagination of Wabash College. Gentlemen, this is a defining moment for Wabash College. We did not ask for this moment, but it is here. We will judge ourselves, and the College we love so well, by how we respond to this moment, how we move to a full understanding of who we are as Wabash."

There have been many defining moments for Wabash. Ours is but one, but as we call our students to shadow forth all the good they hold within themselves, we call our College once again to greatness.

Contact President White at whitep@wabash.edu

 


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