Look to the stars, there are
more important things than
personal problems.”
George Bernard Shaw*
n a Sunday
morning in
or around the
year 1910, William Wisner
Adams, a New England
divine approaching the age
of 80, ascended his pulpit
in a prosperous mill city to
deliver his annual report
on the latest developments
in astronomy. He had been
updating his congregation on these matters for
years, perhaps decades. The people in attendance,
however, were mostly unsophisticated factory hands
and clerks. There was no pretending in that hour of
devotion: a great distance equivalent to light years
existed between desk and pew.
On Monday morning, Dr. Adams was asked by
his much younger colleague and associate minister
what use was such a sermon on the study of
galaxies when the people hearing it were so severely
underpaid in the making and selling of cotton.
My dear boy,” he twinkled, “it’s no use at all, but it
greatly enlarges my idea of God.”
While it may seem remarkable today that a
Victorian-era preacher found nothing in science at
all unsettling to religion, it actually should embarrass
us that we assume a deep intellectual divide was
taking root then between humanities and science.
Rather, the divestiture has happened, sadly, more
in our own era than his. Old Dr. Adams may seem
unconventional at this distance, but his scholarly
bent was expected by his listeners (and affirmed
as a charter member of the American Economic
Notwithstanding the fact that many fewer people
were going to college a century ago, there was a
broad, popular liberal arts culture of learning in that
era represented in the crowds at the World’s Fair,
Chautauqua camps, Athenaeums, Carnegie libraries,
and the countless small-town opera houses. I would
argue the other way, historically, that the continental
drift of disciplines (that one must be educated either
in the sciences or the arts, but not both) is a more
recent and ironic breach.
While St. Lawrence continues to build a wider
reputation around the world for the immense variety
of what its graduates usefully do in life, the very idea
of a liberal arts education faces a fresh uncertainty.
This troubling resistance comes now after centuries
of accepting that the best life of the mind is mapped
and wired in length and breadth to create the most
interesting internal circuitry. Instead, an education
designed to “enlarge” one’s ideas of knowledge,
creation and the human experience faces popular
Why? The concentration of highly
specialized scholarship perhaps places
a barrier between major fields of
intellectual activity, forsaking the effort
to make connections. So much to do,
so little time, so, therefore, know only
one large thing. Isaiah Berlin would
still caution us about the perils of the
hedgehog that is exclusively single-
Another question mark presses today
on the liberal arts: is it worthwhile or
simply too expensive? Hasty, sell-
short assessments of financial return
will disregard the tremendous gain
in human capital and intellectual joy. Economic
disruption often hastens a faulty logic: that
entrepreneurs, inventors, technologists, business
creators, innovators, managers, scientists and
engineers can readily forego “humanistic” reflection
on the more sensitive issues of life. If their starting
point is expressed as the immediacy of maximizing
profitability, they are already predisposed to a
bargain life of the mind. Hopping fences into the
meadowland of arts, philosophy, literature and
history is not a philosophical frill. It’s the available
territory of human beingness.
Clearer, more compelling voices call from the past
and present. Seventy years ago, Harvard president
James B. Conant, once a wartime chemist involved
with developing poison gas in 1917, who was also
present at the Trinity nuclear test site in 1945,
prophesied the inevitable threat to “the continuance
of the liberal and humane tradition.” He concluded
that in a free society all students should come into
continuing contact with those fields in which
value judgments are of prime importance…and be
concerned…with the words right and wrong in both
the ethical and mathematical sense.”
In our own day, Aileen O’Donoghue, who has
been teaching the stars and planets to St. Lawrence
students for 25 years, has also given larger thought
to humanity encountering astronomy. She reflects
that “there is a comforting completeness in knowing
that our [human] physical substance, forged in the
core of the stars, shall become again a part of the
interstellar dust from which new stars will be made.
But we are more than our physical substance, or so
we’ve always thought….” And so, at St. Lawrence we
have scientists who still read Dante and know that
the last phrase of the last canto is “other stars.” And
we have English majors who turn their faces skyward
and ask, “What are we seeing?”
WI LL IAM L . FOX ’ 75
Seth R. Brooks ’22 wrote out this sentence on an
index card and kept it tacked to the back of his office
door for most of 40 years.
Seeking Big Enough Ideas
Vice President for Communications
Tom Evelyn
Neal S. Burdick ’72
Assistant Editor
Meg Bernier ’07, M ’09
News Editor
Ryan Deuel
Class Notes Editor
Sharon Henry
Tara Freeman
Design & Art Direction
Jessica Rood
Class Notes Design
Alex Rhea
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University Magazine
Vol. LXII | Number 4 | Fall 2013