Back to Community
Sam Newbury '67
When I first started work for Fred Rogers' production company, I was surprised to learn that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood generated a small but consistent stream of correspondence from college students even though its intended audience was preschoolers. I asked the program's consultant, Dr. Margaret McFarland, why this was happening, and she replied that it made perfect sense. "You see, going away to college is all about the same issues that occupy preschoolers-autonomy and separation. Preschoolers are struggling to separate themselves from almost absolute dependence on their parents and to understand themselves as separate and unique individuals. They are moving outside the small orbit of home into a wider world." Then it was easy to see how the process was being repeated on a larger scale with the move to college. Thinking of Dr. McFarland and her deep understanding of children reminds me of another saying she often quoted: "Character is caught, not taught." If we learn from the models around us far better than the lessons taught us, then the values and culture of that wider world into which we enter during important times of transition have a significant impact.
I had grown up and gone to school in a suburb of Boston. Concord, Mass., had a great history and high standards for education, although in the 1950s it was more a suburb than an independent town. It had lost some of its economic diversity while holding onto its dominant mainstream culture of New England Protestantism. When the time came to think about colleges, the only real qualification for me was to be outside of New England. I must have felt that some geographical separation would help me gain a chance to define myself. Swarthmore, with its location in Pennsylvania, qualified. But I wonder whether a sense of the Quaker heritage wasn't also a factor. I'd been to several college interviews, all pretty standard, but when we stopped at Swarthmore, the interviewer didn't ask for my list of accomplishments. Instead, he opened a discussion on my impressions of my private-school secondary education. He listened, and probed my answers. I came away very impressed, and it was a first taste of some important things about Swarthmore.
What that interview showed me was a keen interest in ideas and open discussion, a respect for an individual's thoughtful opinions, and an embrace of the possibility of learning something new. I felt engaged as an individual with something to offer and invited to enter into the give-and-take of learning. It quickly became the basis for my decision to make Swarthmore my first choice.
When I arrived on campus in 1963 in the middle of the Chester civil rights actions, it was quickly apparent that people were expected to consider seriously the issues of society and to take action, if that was what they thought appropriate. Many classmates seemed far ahead of me in this; my classmate John Lewis was arrested one day in Chester, and I had to substitute for him on very short notice in a production of Death of a Salesman. Acting in that role was the beginning of what would turn out to be a major part of my life at Swarthmore, although it was also a lesson to me that John had done something I hadn't even considered. It was an early introduction to the Quaker tradition of taking responsibility for oneself and one's actions.
But there was also apparent in the civil rights demonstrations, and the reaction to the Vietnam War soon to come, a sense that this was serious business. Decisions deserved a thorough investigation and thoughtful consideration. Also interwoven was a strong sense that different individuals might come to different decisions, based on their own experience and conscience. This was heady stuff for someone breaking away from the haven of childhood and family. To me, it felt deeply based in the environment of faith and intellectual rigor that informed the Quakers. The respect for each individual's capacity to consider and decide went very deep and, I believe, infused much of what happened at college, whether formally or informally. I'm sure I didn't always succeed in emulating this, but it was a goal, and it was mourned when I ignored it in the exuberance of being freed of childhood restrictions or when the desire to conform overcame a commitment to decide for myself. The environment of this new, wider world was surely shaping me. Some important values were being "caught."
The forums and "teach-ins" about the Vietnam War also contained within them a basic optimism about the impact of knowledge and the importance of engagement in the community. Again, it seemed part and parcel of the Quaker tradition, which militated against cynicism and hopelessness. All of this was part of a love of learning-and a deep respect for what it could offer-that was very much a part of many academic courses at Swarthmore, too. Now, in my 50s, I've found a chance to return to being a part-time university student. The delight and excitement of learning, awakened at Swarthmore, are still very much alive.
However, it is that other element of the College community's reaction to the war for which I am most grateful. The sense of responsibility for being engaged with one's own community and the wish to make it better-more just, more compassionate, more open to a wide range of people and ideas-leads me now. With the underlying optimism, tempered with the acknowledgment that change takes time, it has been a powerful goal toward which to strive.
Looking back, Swarthmore not only helped me to define myself and to see myself as capable and responsible, but it turned me back toward community. Knowledge, as attractive as it is, is in the service of the larger group-a whole "neighborhood" of people who live together and care for one another. I remain profoundly grateful that I was given the opportunity to leave the tunnel of self-absorption that so often characterized my adolescence and discover myself at Swarthmore.
Sam Newbury was the producer of the PBS children's television series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.