Remarks at Symposium on the Future of the Liberal Arts, February, 2014
What a pleasure and honor it is to be here for Swarthmore's sesquicentennial celebration. Let me give my personal thanks to today's panelists.
I want to spend a few minutes commenting on the history of this college. When our alumni describe what they remember, it almost always begins with the faculty. Actually, not the faculty-it almost always is specific faculty members or coaches and what they were like, how they engaged and challenged the alum as a student, and what impact they had on the alum's life.
Here is one representative example, taken form the words of Clark Kerr, Swarthmore Class of 1932, who, like the speakers today, went on to become a leader in higher education:
R.C. Brooks hitched his fat little belly on top of the yellow oak desk and began his class for freshmen in political science. His first assignment was for each of us to write down our beliefs and how we thought we got hold of them or they of us. He then dissected and tortured these beliefs unmercifully yet kindly and even with mirth. We began to think for the first time in our lives.
Clair Wilcox began his lecture on the "purple passions" of Clara Bow. From there we went to supply and demand and human welfare and economic statesmanship-with wit, sarcasm, and insights thrown in. And we began to know what independent analysis meant.
Roland Pennock assigned Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau in the originals, and we nearly died; but later we found that a graduate seminar at a famous university had been turned into a "pipe" course by the detailed notes from an undergraduate seminar. We had learned to study on our own. (Swarthmore Remembered, p. 106)
Other things matter too. Most importantly, friendship and what today we call civic and social engagement. Clark continues:
It was a cold, rainy night. Clothier Memorial was to be dedicated the next morning. Five of us thought the event should not go unnoticed. So we climbed the tower and pulled up a sign to the very top. When the fog lifted the next morning as "Prexy" Aydelotte was beginning the ceremony, there at the top catching the first ray of sunlight was the designation "LIT BROTHERS." As the president of the Men's Student Government who should have known better than to go along, I was happy Dean Hunt valued me as a member of his debate team and was a tolerant man.
Two of us went out from Swarthmore as "peace caravaners," under the aegis of the American Friends Service Committee, to speak before Sunday schools, church congregations, boys' camps, Rotary Clubs, anybody who would listen, on the human cost of the "war to end wars," the League of Nations, the World Court, free trade-even in New England towns barely surviving, thanks to the tariff or the munitions industry. As "caravaners" we considered ourselves voices of reason on the side of Quaker causes.
Thought-tolerance-"concerns" came to mean Swarthmore and the "good life."
The Good Life indeed!
For 150 years, Swarthmore has offered an experience of and a journey toward a type of good life, always tailored in some fashion to the individual student.
In the beginning, the good life-not the easy, successful, or even always fun life, but the good life-was envisioned decidedly through Hicksite eyes. Martha Tyson and, later, her friend Benjamin Hallowell advocated for a school that would be liberal and equal academically to the best of the land. This school would be for Quakers, specifically Hicksite Quakers, preserving against the assimilation of the young into the general culture. Founded during the Civil War, it was important to the Hicksites to send their children to a school that maintained Friends' peace orientation instead of a school where there might be considerable pressure to enlist.
This education, envisioned for both secondary and college levels, would be egalitarian: open to both women and men, and, as funds permitted, open to students regardless of family wealth or status. Please note, an endowment for a full scholarship required $5,000 in 1869, and President McGill was very much on the road campaigning for scholarship funds! As Laura Talbot has noted after studying the history of financial aid at Swarthmore, "diversity, inclusion, access, and affordability have always been guiding principles at Swarthmore."
The College opened, actually, in 1869 with 190 students (they expected 75) who paid $350 per year. No fancy admissions process, no AP courses, and no college tours. The only requirement was that the students must be 12 or older and the child of stockholder or Friend. Twenty-six of those students qualified for the Collegiate Department, versus the Preparatory School. (One of those students, Helen McGill, would go on to be the first woman Ph.D. in the country, starting our very long tradition of sending graduates for advanced degrees.)
Edward Parrish, the first president, taught ethics, chemistry, and the physical sciences. Edward McGill oversaw the secondary program and taught languages. Helen Longstreeth served as surrogate mother and was the chief administrator of the staff. A few other faculty members taught, and many adjunct faculty members were employed. The required courses consisted of English, Latin, mathematics, natural science, chemistry, and ethics. Students could then pick two of the following four courses; Greek, German, French, or practical chemistry.
Never in doubt was the College's commitment to the liberal arts and academic excellence. Indeed, these words of McGill sound strangely applicable in our current debate regarding the public skepticism of liberal education:
To the Friends Social Lyceum of Philadelphia in June 1869:
One-half of the controversy that exists in the educational world to-day, as to methods of instruction, and the relative importance of the various departments of human knowledge, arises from an unfortunate tendency to prepare exclusively for the special work to which the life is to be devoted, thus narrowing and cramping the mind for the sake of an abnormal development in a single direction...."
Saying that he values "special training" and its ability to "ensure the highest degree of success," Magill urges that "unless we wish to become mere machines of very perfect construction, adapted only to a single end, let this special training be preceded by a generous and liberal culture, conducive to a harmonious and symmetrical development of the various faculties of the mind."
From the beginning, there was a tension between academic excellence and the social life of students. Parrish lost his job because he was liberal on the latter; McGill, his replacement, quickly put in place his "100 Rules." Somewhat later, in the 1880s, the Board abandoned these rules out of fear they hurt admissions numbers; still, later presidents may wish a bit for these to exist again.
Frank Aydelotte, certainly one of the greatest of all presidents, faced this balancing act as he petitioned the Board to, as Richard Walton describes, "assert that Swarthmore should be more 'a college and not a social club.'" (Walton, p. 37) Burton Clarke noted about Adeylotte's quest, "The life of study had to be supported; the life of play had to be brought under control." (The Distinctive College, p. 167).
But learning to live in association and learning at least some of the skills of democratic associative living is part and parcel of the college life. Alumni love to talk of the Hamburg Show, folk festivals, and lots of parties-and now the McCabe Mile, the Crum Regatta, and the Pterodactyl Hunt. 18-21-year-olds have to have fun. That, too, as Clark Kerr noted, is part of the good life.
Of course, there have been many changes through the years.
The Preparatory School was abolished in the late 1890s. In the 1920s the requirement that the Board be composed only of Quakers was changed. Particular sports have come and gone, most notably football in 1990, but equally important was the shift from a Division I type of athletics to a Division III type approach during the Aydelotte years. Disciplines have been dropped and added, and within disciplines changes occured as knowledge expanded and changed. Programs have been added-that is a constant. Please note that the very first Peace Studies Course in the country was taught at Swarthmore in the in the 1888-1889 academic year.
And certainly the addition of a music major, and later studio art, theater, and dance programs, supported by facilities made possible through Gene Lang, fundamentally transformed academics and campus life. The addition of the Black Cultural Center and, later, the Intercultural Center expanded support for students and contributed to the ongoing process of diversifying our campus. The first Study Abroad Program was launched in 1972 in Grenoble, France. The Philip Evans Scholars Program, founded by Jerry Kohlberg, brought students to campus to develop as critical thinkers, compassionate citizens, and engaged participants in local and world affairs.
Collection-what other colleges might have called chapel or assembly-is another program to see changes over the years. In the beginning, religious exercises were held daily, first at the end of the day and then to begin the day. The term "Collection" was first used in 1933. Collection was daily, then weekly, and by 1970 Collection was held three times during each semester, now being shaped as a series of talks delivered by the faculty and the president. Now we have Collections at the beginning and end of a student's career, though in recent years we have been hosting more and more collections on an ad hoc basis.
Throughout the years, Swarthmore has negotiated its share of controversies and, here and there, taken its difficult positions. The struggle of whether or not to have a compulsory military program for men in 1918. The controversy around inviting Alger Hiss to speak in 1955-56. Swarthmore renounced the disclaimer affidavit in the National Defense Education Act in 1958-59. In 1976 a class action suit was filed against Swarthmore alleging discrimination of women faculty. The struggle around divestment from businesses in South Africa in 1986 was long and painful, causing the Board to take a strong policy against the use of its endowment for any political purposes.
Swarthmore has soared, and Swarthmore has, at times, fallen short of its mission. Certainly one of the greatest faults was our slowness in enrolling African Americans. We were founded by abolitionists. As Chris Densmore, the curator of our Friends Historical Library, has noted, by the time we were founded, "probably no one could remember a time when Quakers weren't 100 percent opposed to slavery." Quakers, including many from Swarthmore, were involved in educating African Americans. Parrish himself lectured at what is now Cheyney University. And yet we failed to enroll African-American students at Swarthmore until 1943. And in the following decades, there were still periods without any African-American students. The admissions crisis of 1969 demanded that the College recruit more African Americans, create support programs for at-risk students, and hire an African-American assistant dean of admissions. Certainly this is not our only fault, but perhaps it represents to us that even in the excellence of our striving for the good life, we falter. But it also represents that we keep striving, evolving, seeking more and more the good life for our students and for us an educational institution.
Of course, much has stayed the same. To read (or at least selectively read) through historical documents of Swarthmore is to get the sense of academic restlessness and drive, of an interest in Quaker values, especially of simplicity, of the concern for access and support for students, and of the friendships, and marriages, formed. From the beginning, there has been incredible gratitude of our alumni for the College-a gratitude matched by generosity to support the future generations of faculty and students. Ours is a history of transforming lives time and time again.
We have stayed the same, and we have changed. That, undeniably, is what we must continue to do to serve our mission. Burton Clarke, already mentioned, once argued that Swarthmore, as one of the most distinctive colleges in America, preserved its excellence because it evolved by modernizing its traditionalism.
Clearly, the heart and center of our distinctiveness has been the commitment to, as all alumni call it, "academic rigor," but which some of us think of as "academic vigor." The vigorous quest for knowledge, the willingness to question everything, the pursuit of truth makes Swarthmore what it is. Last night we announced the Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of Liberal Arts. The mission of the Foundation strikes at Swarthmore's essence: to inspire the quality and inventiveness of Swarthmore College's liberal arts practices and to promote the understanding of the Liberal Arts in higher education, throughout society and around the world.
We have occasionally focused on the honors program as the best representation of academic excellence. This honors program, unique in American education, signifies, as our recent sesquicentennial book explains, "intellectual independence and responsibility, collegial relationships between students and faculty, peer learning, reflection on and integration of breadth and depth, and examination by external experts..." (41). But those words (minus the outside examiners) really describes the Swarthmore approach to excellence in education in all the many ways-across numerous majors and minors, in projects supports by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility to the Peaslee Debate Society to the Center for Innovation and Leadership.
This quest for intellectual independence, for rigor and creativity, for integration of breadth and depth is our tradition and our destiny. It is often said that Aydelotte took a not-very-good regional college and made it academically excellent. Perhaps. But he did so on the shoulders of many who went before him. My version of our history is not that Aydelotte brought a new idea to Swarthmore. Rather, he took the deep desire of our founders, the hopes of the faculty, the capacity of the students, and moved it forward in new ways, realizing the dreams and hard work of presidents before him, not only Parrish and McGill, but figures such as DeGarmo and Swain, and the faculties who served with them. And presidents who served after Aydelotte-Nason, Smith, Friend, Fraser, and Bloom-worked with the faculty, alumni, staff, and students to ensure the continuity and evolution of this soul of Swarthmore.
Swarthmore's focus on the life of the mind carries with it the need to use knowledge gained and created to improve the world. As our sesquicentennial book, Swarthmore College: A Community of Purpose, notes "the privilege of a Swarthmore education is wedded to the obligation to build the common good in all sectors of society: the arts, the sciences, education, the business world, politics, and more" (140). "Let your life speak" is a much beloved phrase of many on our campus. It describes so well the testimonies of our alumni, who have indeed used their education to improve the world, to work for a more just and human society, to advocate for those who are oppressed, and to make the ways of the world more moral, more right, more good.
There is so much more to say, but we have a year to talk and celebrate, to reflect and question ourselves. I want to conclude for now by returning to the Good Life, and "tweeting" a few memorable phrases. Our current generation is, after all, not the first to create the twitter approach of memorable phases.
Let me begin with one of my favorites, this one from the famous Dean Bond, "Use Thy Gumption." (Bond may well have been one of the first Swarthmore tweeters.)
Bereft of electronic devices, for many, many years our students tweeted their class mottos in stone:
1892: Being Rather than Appearing to Be
1893: All Things by Means of Effort
1895: By Means of Deliberation and Spirit
1902: Let us Be Seen Through Our Actions
1918: Not for Us, But for All
1928: Stand for Truth
And my favorite: 1927: Use Well Thy Freedom
Thank you all for coming and for being a part of this great day, honoring this special place in such a wonderful and appropriate way.