Since, before Homer told the stories and sang the songs that made up the Iliad and the Odyssey, the telling of stories has animated human lives.
So, too, the telling of stories has been a tradition of Wabash men since the founding of the College. In these stories of lives lived at Wabash, we hear over and over again of adventures that matter.
Take this semester’s freshman tutorial, Fly Fishing: The Liberal Art. The immersion journey of Professor David Hadley’s tutorial, which took 12 freshman to Wyoming and Montana, has already begun to recede into history. Not long after Professors Hadley and David Krohne joined their students in a celebratory leap off a bridge into the Yellowstone River, we were reading about it on the College Web site. Two weeks later, the event found its way into my first Chapel Talk of the semester.
For some, the fact that two professors nearing retirement couldn’t resist joining their students for a heart-quickening plunge in celebration of a remarkable week of learning makes an interesting anecdote. For those who know Wabash and those professors, and certainly for the freshmen on the trip, that act is a metaphor for teaching and learning in this place.
So it was that before these freshmen had even stepped into a Wabash classroom, their tutorial had become part of the Wabash story. How quickly yesterday becomes the past, the past becomes history, and history forms itself into the stuff of legend.
Legend is a potent form, carrying the force of a myth. It is instructive that the word “myth” can mean both the powerful stories of any culture and something that is not true.
A myth can both animate a place and contribute to a dangerous misunderstanding.
Over the last year, I think we have seen one of the College’s most tried and true stories become a myth of the latter kind. Time was, one of the first things one heard about Wabash was the declaration of what a great endowment we enjoy. More an affirmation than a story, the assumption of the endowment’s power led Wabash perhaps to misunderstand our excellence.
As a sign of our strength and donor loyalty, the story of our endowment has power, but Wabash is not a great college just because it has a large endowment. Now that the endowment has lost value, has the greatness of the College gone away?
When Odysseus loses his ship, does he become any less of a hero? In fact, he becomes greater.
While the endowment has enabled Wabash to do some wonderful things, the College’s greatness has never been about the money.
The story of our excellence is not about the dollars we have raised, but the adventures in spirit that the College has embarked upon. It is about young men learning, growing, and ultimately achieving greatness in close engagement with faculty who care about their subject and their students. It is about a faculty willing to stick their hands up to their elbows into the lives of these young men (or, in the case of Professors Hadley and Krohne, plunge with them into unknown waters real or metaphorical). That is where the heroic adventure, the true legend of Wabash resides.
Stories are made of history, but they are made for the future. We tell stories to remember and to honor the past, but we also tell stories so that we may teach, we may model for one another how to live in the present and in the future. The great joy of our work at Wabash is the profound hope embodied in the incomplete story of the lives of Wabash men.
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield begins with a wonderment that starts every new beginning, as the title character writes: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.”
Will I be the hero of my own life? This is the question the brave young men at Wabash asked themselves on Freshman Saturday.
One week earlier, the freshmen in Professor Hadley’s tutorial had learned to “read the waters” to find the best place to cast for cutthroat trout. On a whitewater rafting trip they put that attention in motion; suddenly, reading the water became the method to assess risk and danger, where a misread might mean an injury or worse.
The stories that stretch out before them as they begin their Wabash careers are even more hidden than the difficult-to-read waters. What will be the study that earns my passion? How will I distinguish myself at Wabash? Who will be the boon companions of my adventures here and for the rest of my life?
Just as these freshmen find themselves at the beginning of their own stories, the entire Wabash community over the last year has started anew to look at the future story of Wabash with care and courage. We do not know what that future will bring Wabash. We may have thought we were impervious to some of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that befuddle other colleges. We have found that not to be true. Our story has become an adventure we did not foresee, one we must shape in the telling.
Our ship may not be as capacious as we once thought, but it is still a strong one; and the crew of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends still exhibits the stalwart hearts of heroes ready to find in our future a greatness, an excellence worthy of the grandest stories of our past.
We do not know, in H.G. Wells’ phrase, “the shape of things to come,” but we know that we will not be passive before these events. We must plan for the future and imagine our way of being Wabash no matter what the waters bring us. This is hard, even scary, work. But like the whitewater rafters, we paddle on, constantly reading the waters ahead, constantly adjusting.
And we do know the most important aspect of our narrative: We know the character of the Wabash men who will join us in this adventure. In our Strategic Plan we call for men who want to be taught by the Wabash faculty and whom the faculty want to teach. This seemingly circular statement is prescient, for there is no better way to speak about the special match of young men to teachers—teachers who want to be here and for whom the motivation and excellence of these young men and their experience is absolutely paramount.
It is tempting to read history from the point of view that what happened must have been inevitable. But if we consider the American Revolution at the point of the First Continental Congress or the winter at Valley Forge, it was not at all clear that out of that struggle a great nation would rise.
The men who knelt in the snow scarcely 50 years later at the founding of Wabash College could have prayed over the establishment of a short-lived and now forgotten prairie college. Ancient buildings and dusty plaques mark hundreds of failed colleges all over America, many of which were started with as noble goals and powerful ambitions as Wabash.
The challenges that face Wabash now are not challenges of survival, but challenges of excellence. We must now ask, “What will be the story that we imagine telling in coming years about these days of 2010, about our choices and our commitments that led Wabash to a new level of achievement and greatness?”
We have a Strategic Plan, a broad outline of goals. Our task now is to dream our story into existence in the most practical dreaming possible. “Impossible,” one might say. “We don’t know enough to make our choices. We have to wait and ride out the waves.” In whitewater you lose control of the raft if you don’t keep moving faster than the current.
We must be sure of our purpose, confident in our integrity and core values, and we must paddle on fortified by the courage of alumni, friends, students, faculty, and staff who are Wabash’s crew.
We are ready.
I am confident that out of the dreams and courage of every Wabash man, out of the imagination and bravery of faculty, staff, and alumni, we will keep the course, paddle bravely on, and together write the story of the excellence of a Wabash education. I know that the men of Wabash are ready to be the heroes in their own lives, heroes in the stories that will ring through and define their families, their communities, and their College for years to come.