A Word from the President

A Point of View is not a Worldview


William L. Fox '75

History is more immediate than ever before. In just the last few years, the ready-access to public documents in massive archival collections and the inexpensive, reliable DNA probabilities of ancestral heritage fill out the missing footnotes of family legend and lore. This spring in Washington, D.C., a St. Lawrence student had an internship doing research with the United States World War I Centennial Commission. He wrote a few of us on campus to inquire if we, by any chance, knew of relatives in the U.S. military during the years that a former college president was then the Commander in Chief. I offered him the name of my grandfather, who was not the first, nor the last to be called “William” in my family line.

By the end of the week, I had in my possession, a document otherwise unknown and unseen by anyone in my family—my grandfather’s registration card for the U.S. Army, signed in Columbus, Ohio, June 7, 1917. At the age of 23, he listed his occupation as “gradial physician,” and even though most of his life was spent on a farm, he had completed his first year of medical school. Nevertheless, he entered as a private and was assigned to the cavalry. In time, he became an officer in the Army Medical Corps, but when he first joined, the importance of understanding horses—as he had known their traces and reins behind a plow—still held priority. Afterall, this  was a time between mechanized battle and the kind familiar to Napoleon. Great Britain, for example, sent over one million horses to the Western Front (only 60,000 returned).

At the same time my grandfather was becoming a soldier 100 years ago, St. Lawrence students and young alumni were also joining both military and civilian services, many of them registering in Canton or nearby towns throughout the North Country. Over 1,000 Laurentians had some involvement in World War I, which is especially noteworthy for its disproportionality because the size of the St. Lawrence graduating classes in those years numbered around 70. The university lost 13 of its graduates in the year 1917-18, but the St. Lawrence record also has the curious inclusion of one commissioned officer each in the Russian and Austrian armies.

The war that had marked the actual beginning of the 20th century (because Western society before 1914 had not yet concluded the Victorian, Imperial, or Gilded Ages), was arguably the first instance of an expansive, comprehensive world consciousness for people everywhere. It was not originally called a “world war,” though Great Britain, France, and Russia controlled directly or indirectly about 80 percent of the earth. 

Wealthy American families attempting to escape the provincial for the worldly had been sending their young people on the “grand tour” of European cities since the 1820s. Some of these travelers also made their fortunes in international trade (which is the origin of numerous 19th century American villages being designated “Canton”), or perhaps they sponsored religious missionaries to offset the burdens of conscience. It was, however, at this juncture of summertime 1917, that farm boys like my grandfather might eventually experience “Paree,” and in realizing a much bigger, longed-for world, never return to the drenching sweat of their own bread, the planting of row crops, the ceaseless milking of cows.

The question, “what is your worldview?” was not at all common a hundred years ago. As a result of encompassing historical circumstances, it is today a constant curricular driver in a liberal arts education. The modifier “world” added to the incomprehensibly brutal event of multinational warfare changed the lens of commonplace perspective. This modifier was a forced change when it came in 1917. Until then, a worldview had been a slow-moving philosophical idea eloquently propagated by the scientific explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who once argued with Thomas Jefferson at The White House that there were no superior or inferior human races, that “all are alike designed for freedom.” 

Humboldt is the intellectual source of all the best nature writing in 19th century English prose, whether in the poems of William Wordsworth or the essays of Henry David Thoreau. Charles Darwin, as another example, kept Humboldt’s work with him as an indispensable resource during the almost five-year voyage in the cramped 90-foot Beagle. Humboldt’s most recent biographer says he “saw the earth as one great living organism, where everything was connected” in what he called the world’s “inner correlation.” His legacy was not a list of major scientific discoveries, but the ability to draw a big picture and take a worldview.

Acquiring a worldview, what scholars call the “fundamental cognitive orientation,” takes years of practice, but where else in life can such a view find its most probable chance of clarifying itself than the liberal arts college experience? In order to develop such habits of mind and emotional responses throughout life, a worldview depends on a predisposition to have one. It must constantly remind us of how one’s identity of map and moment, one’s beliefs formed by family and community, and one’s outlook drawn from observation and imagination will all rest upon the larger ground of human existence. My advice, as someone who has specialized professionally in the humanities, is to start with science. 

It is perhaps telling, though surely symbolic of my needs, that among all the utility apps installed on my smartphone, the most inspiring one is from NASA, which now includes an interactive feature called “Worldview.” You can look at the earth comprehensively within three hours of real-time satellite images beaming back, picturing the “real” world as a masterpiece of abstract art. The continental shape and color of the deeps are forever fascinating; wispy currents filtering the ever familiar, ever new as a means of wondering if our home will persist as we have always known it. The Worldview panorama allows one to zoom in and drill down into the big data called the “human dimension” with inexhaustible measures, such as boundaries, economic resources, natural hazards, environmental impacts, public health, and social behavior. Each of these considerations give cause or explanation to large themes, even matters of war or interludes of peace.

Whether it is the horrible history of war, now as then, or the wide-angle capacity to think with a sublime worldview, I remember a sentence from the City of God, a thought that I suppose my grandfather saw first-hand as a recent college graduate in 1917: “The only joy to be obtained had the fragile brilliance of glass, a joy outweighed by the fear that it may be shattered in a moment.”

—WLF