Skip to main content

The Stone in the Courtyard

T. Alexander Aleinikoff '74

I know a person who tries to make sure that when she climbs stairs, she always takes the last step with her right foot. She has no explanation for this; it's just the way she likes to climb stairs. Each of us has a ritual or two like this one-a certain way we put on our shoes or drink a cup of coffee.

My ritual at Swarthmore I will disclose here for the first time. The courtyard in front of Wharton is made up of large flagstones. There was one stone, just a few steps outside my entryway, that rocked a bit if you stepped diagonally from one corner to another. As I returned to my dorm room each night, I made sure that I stepped on that stone. I am not sure exactly what it was about that gently rocking stone, but to tread, rock, and then move on gave me the feeling of a certain, secure knowledge. Perhaps it made me feel that the Wharton quad was my home, holding a secret that I shared with it.

Taken as a metaphor, the ritual of the stone leads in many directions. It portrays the security Swarthmore provided (even as it challenged us); it reflects the sense that Swarthmoreans have of belonging to a secret society; it can stand for the idea that one "comes home" when one possesses certain knowledge. I believe all of these things, but it is the physical theme that I want to pursue. The stoneness. I have always thought that the Swarthmore alma mater began with an unduly dour phrase: "Staunch and gray thou standst before us." But I must concede that the words capture something deep about the College. The institution can appear forbidding, stern, judgmental.

Other words carved on a stone in the wall of Parrish Hall (located on the side closest to McCabe Library) convey a similar impression: "Use well thy freedom." But is not freedom exactly for not using well-for experimenting, for trying and failing, for getting outside oneself, for perceiving beyond knowledge? "Use well they freedom" raps our knuckles, calls us to our senses.

And yet, and yet . . . It is that message from Swarthmore that most remains with me. Read in a different light, it reminds us that the shortness of life is not inconsistent with the fullness of life. In fact, it doesn't really even caution against reckless abandon, if that's what the moment calls for. What it does demand of us is that we continue to ask ourselves the kind of difficult questions of which a Swarthmore education consists and for which a Swarthmore education has prepared us. Self-reflection-without self-absorption-is, to my mind, at the core of Swarthmore.

But Swarthmore is also more than this. It demands a looking in so that we may better go out. The College's Peace Collection signified this double sense for me. I liked to sit in the quiet of the collection and wander through its books and pamphlets that spoke so movingly of individual and collective action for peace. In some alchemical way, the calm contemplation forged iron-like commitments to seek to make the world more just.

I have tried to pursue the values that Swarthmore values-hard work, public service, intellectual curiosity, integrity-in my work as a law professor and as a federal-government official. In one very particular way, Swarthmore has directly influenced my academic career. In a seminar on American Intellectual History, taught by Professor Robert Bannister, we read an essay by Randolph Bourne titled "Trans-national America." Bourne was a brilliant, radical social critic who decried the support that the intelligentsia lent to American war fever during World War I. Bourne also fought against those who viewed immigration as a threat to "American" values. Bourne argued that America's future would be multicultural, with each new immigrant group contributing vibrant new threads to a national fabric forever in the process of being woven. Bourne's essay speaks to modern readers with the same freshness and urgency with which it confronted readers several generations ago. And so, I found myself rereading Bourne as I worked on a book that examines constitutional-law issues relating to Indian tribes, the treatment of immigrants, and the status of U.S. territories. My book, Semblances of Sovereignty (published in 2002), ends by quoting the Bourne essay that I first read more than 30 years ago at Swarthmore.

Swarthmore is not all cold and gray stone. The newer buildings display rosier tones, giving way to the playfulness of the exterior of Kohlberg Hall. And there is real beauty in the campus's gardens and trees, its long lawns and shaded walks. I would like to think that as a student I appreciated the careful placement and constant trimming of flora, but if I did so, it was only in a subliminal way.

The implicit impact of the natural beauty of Swarthmore is recalled by another stone that I remember from my days at Swarthmore. Located above the amphitheater, it is engraved with a line from a Wordsworth poem: "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her." Here is a whole different side of Swarthmore.

I have always liked the poem that these words come from, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." In it, Wordsworth recalls scenes from his youth when he "bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers." He writes, however, from the perspective of age-aware that his memories of nature have sustained him through more difficult times and that his life is closer to its end than its beginning. In his more mature mind's eye, the "groves and copses" take on a more subtle and sublime form. Nature is now "the anchor of my purest thoughts" and the "soul / Of all my moral being."

In a similar way, staunch and gray Swarthmore today yields up softer memories. The long reading assignments; the difficult paper topics; the anguished, existential late-night discussions are now recalled as the joys of learning and the source of the abiding importance of close friendships. These remembrances have surely helped sustain me in difficult days of adulthood, and they continue to attach me to the College. Though the wobble of the stones in Wharton's courtyard has now been repaired, for me one stone still gently rocks.

Alex Aleinikoff, an expert on constitutional law and immigration law, is on the faculty of Georgetown University Law School.