spr ing 2013 | st. Lawrence Universit y Magazine
n a distant day on the St. Lawrence campus,
in a course held in Richardson Hall, I was
introduced to the writing of Matthew Arnold.
He made four words, “he never spoke out,” the
theme of his famous critical essay about the 18
century “graveyard” poet, Thomas rey.
These wo ds invite consideration of how we learn
to speak out at a liberal arts college
today, when the volume of coarse
chatter often drives civil discourse
to polemical absurdities. Or the
cacophony gives valid reason for not
risking one’s private sanctities, thereby
hushing a person into a residual
At St. Lawrence, our best intention
is that students will learn to speak out and to speak
well. A life merely filled y the example of doing
capably or achieving much, of which very little has
been expressed, is not self-explanatory. Young peo-
ple, and their teachers, should know how to speak,
plainly and without posturing, about what they
think and wish to do. Frankly, a failure to find on ’s
own answer to problems of the day, even intensely
controversial matters, and then give it in good faith,
is a signal of an imperfect intellectual life. In passiv-
ity, there is the danger of forming an anti-intellectual
attitude bearing the name of ignorance.
The academic disciplines in esearch graduate
study, the eventual trailhead of all college courses, are
always steeped in debate, controversy and disputa-
tion. The friction of learning implies the takin
of sides. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his history of
cancer research,
The mperor of All Maladies
discusses the three possible main causes of cancer
genetic, viral and environmental) by declaring,
Great science emerges out of great contradiction…
a gaping rift slicing its way through the center of
cancer biology.”
This kind of competition and scholastic ub is es-
sential, though it also has the potential to intimidate
the newcomer or take on a “politically” charged
character. And yet, this excitement about ideas and
diffe ences must become translated into a liberal
arts college education in such a way that it gives
students something more than a knowing awareness
about schools of thought. Students must attain an
important freedom from inhibitions and repressions
about speaking out.
As wise teachers already know, false modesty or
scruples of caution which abet silence may actually
cause a vital harm in a student’s development. Th
inability to speak out, not knowing your mind or
your words, is a damaging thing in life, for it leads
to a state of loneliness. Without a companionship
of thoughts, a speechless solitariness leads people to
become apprehensive, despairing and caustic.
One of the great joys in my work is following the
formative development of St. Lawrence students
as they gain confidence about what to think an
how to express those thoughts. We emphasize this
sequence of learning, from oral presentations in
the first ear to sophisticated conversations with
faculty mentors. We’ve become known
as a place whose students learn to speak
out. I see their progress at poster sessions
when a piece of complex science requires
smooth explication for the passerby. I hear
their papers delivered after a summer of
collaborative research and admire their deft
responses to questions. I observe their stage
presence in University ceremonies or in
performing arts programs.
Discovering the importance or truthfulness of
a thought, no longer unframed or unspoken, is
a tremendous moment of personal assurance. It
is the secret and psychological warrant of being
unburdened by isolation, of being understood by
a confidante, such as a fell w student, professor or
counselor. Emerson explained it this way: “A friend
is a person before whom I may be sincere.” And it is
in such a friendly spirit that we create the conditions
for learning how to speak out.
Students must grasp other precepts as they round
the turning point of finding a oice and head toward
the shaping of a long, sustainable argument. I have
been provocative intentionally when admonishing
students that “facts are very precious, truly sacred,
because they are so rare.” In other words, beware of
half-truths tricked up as facts; there is always more
to the story and one data point or one anecdote will
not bear the whole truth.
Learning to speak out effecti ely also transcends
the ready habit of speaking against. When I was
a graduate student myself, seeking and find
ing a vocabulary that admitted me to wonderful
conversations with even the most strong-willed, I
took special note of something Professor George
H. Williams told our classes about the “other” side
of an argument. We had been studying the great
intellectual controversies and clashes down through
the centuries, often the very causes of war and lasting
geo-political divisions in the aftermath. George, who
was himself a 1936 St. Lawrence graduate, would
often say with a knowing glimmer, “Choose well
your enemies, for in the end…you will be just like
Nevertheless, at St. Lawrence, we dare to speak
out, but the wisest teachers and best students also
learn the imperative of knowing what others say,
even their silences.
WI LL IAM L . FOx ’ 75
Voice Lessons
a word fr o M the president
tom evelyn
neal s. Burdick ’72
University Writer
Meg Bernier ’07, M ’09
tara f reeman
Class Notes Editor
sharon henry
News Contributor
Macreena doyle
Design & Art Direction
Jessica r ood
Class Notes Design
a lex r hea
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