Lewis Leary, in a 1972 gathering of Henry David Thoreau’s work, writes of Thoreau and his many imitators:
“Thoreau was an artist, not a thinker; he was a see-er, not seer. And those who take his thought too seriously are not thinkers either, certainly not see-ers; they are simply imitators, disciples, smudged carbons. Wake up, Thoreau said, and that is virtually all that he said, and that is enough. Do it yourself. Get off my back. Live your own lives, not mine. He is wild, this Thoreau; and he is eccentric – off the beaten path.”
There is something about that text that speaks to what it means to be a liberal arts student, and, more specifically, a St. Lawrence student. Wake up, he said; do it yourself, he said; live your own lives, he said. Each of these sharp phrases echo, sometimes quietly and other times brashly, around this campus. We are, at St. Lawrence, individuals who come together to form a community – we come from homes that are different; we believe in different things and think different thoughts; we speak different languages and come from different nations; we vote for different parties and study different subjects; we call God by different names and we may not call God at all. When Dr. Leary writes of Thoreau’s imitators, he writes of them with distain and disappointment. For when you try to take on a persona that is not your own, the world is losing something so very special – the world is losing you.
Here at St. Lawrence, we encourage you to be yourself. We do not promise that St. Lawrence will make you the person you want to be, nor do we promise that you will “find yourself” here. Those are empty promises. What we can promise, and what we have done for the last 161 years, is help every member of our community develop their own story; drafting, writing, and re-writing, their story, here.
Dr. Leary, in his writing of Thoreau, used the phrase “off the beaten path,” In Thoreau’s book Walden, he also used the phrase as a metaphor to show just how easy it can be to fall into a daily routine of mundanity. He wrote of how much you could miss by living life without a search for innovation or critical thought. At the root of his claim exists the value of change. Not change for the sake of change, but change in the name of what is right, change in the name of what is necessary, change in the name of revolution. When he says move off the beaten path what he really means is move in the way of exploration, move in the way of the future. There is much to be learned from the past, but it is the future that you will find leadership and innovation.
There’s an old Abenaki phrase – Awasiwi Odanack – which means “beyond the village." I believe St. Lawrence is off the beaten path and beyond the village, in more ways than one. It is, unapologetically, located in the middle of nowhere. It is quite literally off the beaten path and not only do we embrace our location beyond the village, we thrive there. More importantly, it is our attitudes, philosophies, and guiding principles that are, off the beaten path. We do not, nor will we ever, conform to the expectations and norms that surround higher education and private universities. We do not believe there to be one way to teach students, one way to learn, study, or graduate. We are, because we choose to be, different. So, when I say we are a community of individuals striving to uphold Thoreau’s notion of moving off the beaten path, what I am really saying to you, is if you, too, want to be a part of this place that encourages bold ideas, new ways of thinking, and difference, then St. Lawrence can be for you what it has been for me – home.