Winter 2011: From Center Hall
May 6, 2011
From the Fields of Maine to the Moroccan Plain
In a profound way, finding one’s voice is at the heart of what a liberal arts education should be.
A long time ago when I was in graduate school ina course I loved taught by a professor I admired, I got my first paper back. The grade was reasonably good, I vaguely recall, but the professor’s comment—that I will never forget:
“This is NOT in your own voice. Next time, write in your own voice.”
I was discouraged and angry. How could Professor Sherman Paul—author of books on Thoreau, Emerson, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams—know what my voice was? Who was he to tell me I wasn’t writing in my own voice? And who cared whether I was, anyway?
Of course, Paul did not know the voices of the students in his class, at least not at first. But while many professors were still in a test-or-two-and-one-major-paper mode, Paul had us writing 15 to 20 personal essays every semester. By challenging each of us in this way, he forced us to separate ourselves from grad-student-speak, to seriously reflect upon and take ownership of our own ideas, to ask ourselves, “Is this voice authentic? Is this voice mine?”
Like many great teachers, Paul was playing a mind game. He knew that if he put me back on my heels, I would have to confront my own true voice. And when I finally earned his accolade—“Now that is in your own voice,”—I felt affirmed. I felt as though I mattered. For in recognizing my voice, I became a grown-up, a person of consequence, and someone with a responsibility to use that voice.
No matter how raw or unformed it was, the voice I came to own was at least my own, and I could shout it like Whitman sending his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
In a profound way, finding one’s voice is at the heart of what a liberal arts education should be. No liberally educated person springs like Athena full grown from the head of Zeus. Wabash men do not come to college with their voices fully formed. Like babies learning a new language, most Wabash men begin by adopting the voices of others, of their teachers and older students. In residence halls and fraternities, younger men begin to sound like their professors, their pledge fathers, their coaches, or their roommates. When they come home at Thanksgiving, their parents and their high school friends hear that their Wabash man is talking funny and sounds different, older, changed. This taking on of a Wabash voice is taking on a voice of maturity, an adult’s way of speaking about and to the world.
This does not mean that Wabash men sound alike—far from it. There is no one Wabash voice, there is no one way to speak Wabash. Wabash voices are comical, exuberant, and extravagant, and reticent and reserved; but they have in common one thing: They are voices of men, not boys, voices that have become mature.
The Latin origins of the word education mean to lead out, or lead forth. Education is not merely about pouring information in, but about fostering and leading out a student’s true voice. That voice is one men do not easily or immediately display. In our culture, the individual voice can easily be drowned out, not only by silence, but also by sheer noise. In this cacophony, a young man may hear that the only way to talk like a man is to be nasty, brutish, crude, and stupid.
At Wabash, however, the many voices of Wabash men are honored and heard, nurtured and developed. Thus are the voices of Wabash men taken seriously, drawn out, led forth, and given an audience.
As I write this, I’ve just learned that The Bachelor was again judged the No. 1 small college newspaper in the state of Indiana, with the staff collecting 20 individual awards including 10 firsts. By the time you read this, close to 20 students will have competed in the 136th Baldwin Oratorical Contest, the longest running event of its kind west of the Alleghenies. While we are justly proud of our rhetoric and English departments and the speakers and writers they mold, an even greater badge of honor is earned by the majors from every part of campus who win Bald-wins, master the Moot Court, receive commendations at the Peck Dinner, and garner other awards, all in part because they have spoken and written and led by their voices raised in question, explanation, challenge, respect, love, and caring.
Finding one’s voice is never easy. We all stumble and make mistakes—we learn our own voices in times of stress and difficulty, filled with misunderstanding and challenge. Yet the Grand Conversation of the liberal arts only happens when we persist in our struggle to speak to one another in authentic ways, taking on the hard work of speaking against the ease of silence.
Bryan Stevenson, this year’s recipient of the College’s David W. Peck Senior Medal for Eminence in the Law, spoke on campus about his advocacy of the forgotten in his work with death-row prisoners in the Equal Justice Initiative. He noted that the central question when confronting injustice is, “Who will say something?” Stevenson urged Wabash men to “say something,” to be those who will speak. For to have a voice and not speak is not only to deny help to the innocent, but ultimately to deny one’s voice, to deny one’s self.
I was in Morocco earlier this year—a time of great change in that region of the world—for a meeting of the Global Alliance of Liberal Arts. This small group of presidents from across the globe hungers for the opportunity to provide in its colleges and universities the kind of life-transforming education that liberal arts colleges like Wabash and others of the Great Lakes College Association offer. They yearn to know how to help their students discover their own voices and raise those voices to “say something,” to declare at the very least, “I am here, I matter, I will make a difference.”
Or, as I say in the words I invite prospective students to voice, “I will be a hero in my own life.”
After the conference, Chris and I traveled with a new friend to Rabat, where we met a graduate of Al-Akhawayn University at the Bank of Morocco, where he holds an important position in international affairs. After our conversation, he showed us out, and we saw protests in progress in the boulevard before us. We asked the bank official what we were hearing. He cupped his hand to his ear and turned to the crowd on the left and said, “These people are supporting the people of Egypt.” Then he turned to the crowd on the right and said, “These are calling for jobs.”
There on the streets of Rabat we witnessed the desire for freedom springing from the voices of many and fueled by the desire of each to have a voice, to be heard. The worldwide interest in liberal arts education is not just driven by a desire to educate a population, but by a need to create a citizenry—free men and women who learn to hear their own voices anew and to speak those voices in the public sphere.
My former old teacher Sherman Paul would see a Wabash education as springing from a proud American tradition, for as we help our students take their rough and unformed voices and shape them into the voices of free men in a free society, we are carrying on the best ambitions of our culture. No one is born speaking Wabash, and there is no one dialect for Wabash, but we learn that just like every voice raised to sing “Old Wabash” has its own timbre and richness, each Wabash voice—as this edition of the magazine demonstrates so richly—sounds out distinct and clear, and together we make a beautiful music.
Contact President White at firstname.lastname@example.org