Defining a Year

Remarks at Convocation - August 28, 2013

Our annual fall convocation marks the purest moment in the academic year of “starting fresh.” The concept of starting fresh can, I am reminded, devolve from philosophical space-time questions into semantic ones. At The New Yorker about 70 years ago, E. B. White was annoyed that an editor had changed a sentence from “starting fresh” to “starting afresh.” So, William Shawn received a peevish letter from White the next day: “Some of my best friends lie abed and run amok, but they do not start afresh. Never do.” (EBW, Letters, 2006, Feb 1945).

I will side with White in this matter, so by starting fresh this day, we mostly, if symbolically, jump right into the main business of the next two semesters. And it’s some of that business I would like to put before the assembly for a few minutes.

In the wider spectrum of books I read this summer, one title in particular may transcend the differences in taste among us to be a worthwhile recommendation as a common text. It is called The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter by the clinical and teaching psychologist Meg Jay. She argues convincingly that there is a developmental sweet spot of “consequential experiences” that only come in our 20s, which can be a perilous determinant if disregarded, missed, or underplayed.
Since half our student population is at the beginning of this formative decade and all of our most recent graduates are in the middle of this great “inflection point,” we who are their teachers, mentors, supporters, and friends need to take fresh stock of why it may be different this time, for this generation. They are in the middle of a “defining” salient point and may not know it.

Crossing disciplines into my own familiar territory, historians have also used a similar device to study individual years as defining watersheds, such as 1776, 1865, 1945, and 1968.

Pulling this organizing principle from the outside in, I would not dare let our high-minded ambition name this a defining year before we have lived it through. Rather, I want to rearrange the terms, not to discuss a defining decade or a defining year, but to understand how a good academic year at St. Lawrence will be defined. What are some of the themes, impulses, and forces that will define the months and days ahead?

In the long human history of mathematical thinking, going back to Euclid and Pythagoras, I’ve always been attracted to the golden ratio. Architects, musicians, and painters have all used it as a framework to express a correlating proportion in nature and human expression. So, I imagine the academic year as a pentagram, five lines of equal length that are often drawn in the shape of a star, a visible representation of the golden ratio. T. S. Eliot (“The Dry Salvages” V: l. 8)) has somewhere the phrases “riddle the inevitable” and “fiddle the pentagram.” What are the five “inevitable” defining lines in the year we begin today?

I mention first the presence of adversity. While ideas will inevitably bump and collide in an intellectually alive campus culture, often in the most constructive adversarial methods of gaining knowledge and new insights, I do not believe that the worst adversity ahead of us is from within the St. Lawrence community. Rather, in the world of private liberal arts colleges we are now flying into some heavy turbulence of public opinion. It is not only the low-volume, high price model that is receiving critical scrutiny, it’s also, for some popular skeptics, a prior question of necessity—is a liberal arts education worth it? It’s a question with the wallop of encoded negativity.

For the last five years, the job and graduate school placement rates at St. Lawrence have been a steady 95%. In this difficult recent economy—but even in the most prosperous economies of the last 40 years—it has never been higher here than 95%. In fact, we can be fully confident, it is not higher anywhere else in American higher education. And yet, we are facing a potentially hostile audience, influenced by pundits and politicians, who have grown adverse to our liberal arts tradition. I wish I were talking about a straw man fallacy, but this is a fact of life that is relatively new.

Let’s give the skepticism its due for the sake of argument. There are four themes at work against us—that St. Lawrence and its peers exist only to serve an elite; that the comprehensive fee is out of reach and unaffordable, except for the affluent; that the debt load for graduates is extreme and unconscionable; and that a liberal arts degree is not marketable in the workplace. These turn out to be myths and each one of them is manifestly bogus.

In a hasty word about elitism, cost, and debt (since we’ve already dispelled the question about career viability): St. Lawrence is among leaders in the nation with 20 percent of its students receiving Pell grants. Moreover, the amount of private scholarship resources committed by St. Lawrence averages for each student receiving financial aid about half of the total cost for one year of study. And let’s do put a fine point on the matter—the total cost to educate one student for one year is about $14,000 more than our “list price.” It is a fact that nothing in all of American education has advanced the social capital of first generation graduates faster and higher than liberal arts colleges. Maybe I’ll concede privileged, but not elitist.

The student debt picture at St. Lawrence is also reasonable and generally manageable. We are on the bull’s eye of the national average in debt balance at graduation, which is $26,000 per student with debt. I invite you to ask your North Country neighbor about the note he carries on the Ford F-150 pick-up truck parked beside the barn, America’s most popular car. The biggest difference, however, is the St. Lawrence diploma will appreciate in financial value, while the truck is worth less the instant it leaves the dealer’s lot.

A second line that will define the year is something intrinsic that we must cherish and never take for granted. This is a good place. And we have good jobs. Further, this is a good time to be at St. Lawrence in terms of its strength and vitality. A former provost at Yale used to talk about “the good of the place” whenever he welcomed new students. For our purposes, however, I prefer to expand the meaning of these terms to include goodness not just “the good.” Although I wish to avoid the precipice of hubris, at St. Lawrence we have habitually practiced the virtue of goodness. The year ahead will require that we continue to do so.

I make a moral distinction here for a reason. Persons and communities, particularly at other colleges, are capable of doing real good in the world. And they can make a good living and have a good life in their doing. The difference between St. Lawrence and other good places, however, is this goodness factor. Here there is a genuine commitment to the make the lives of students better, but, more than that, we are good at contagious goodness that makes our students better people.

There are countless daily examples of goodness in our midst. Honestly, it’s our reputational antidote to toxins of doubt; perhaps it’s the ultimate remedy to our hardest challenges. A few days back, a family called hoping to obtain a scarlet and brown banner for a recent graduate and Army officer about to be deployed. The bookstore was sold out. At many good places, that’s the end of the story.

At St. Lawrence, we have a way of rewriting the narrative’s last word. A staff member in the bookstore went right after it. And without pause, a St. Lawrence banner was found elsewhere on campus and shipped within the hour. Thank you, Terri Davey. The mother, herself a Laurentian, wrote me, “I knew when I attended St. Lawrence that it was a magical place with a dedicated and caring community.  It is [so] heartwarming to know that these qualities continue to be… exemplified…”

When I was a St. Lawrence student, I was in a seminar led by Merrill Young called “Good Books, Good Talk.” It was a break-through experience in broadening my command of bibliography and it gives warrant to the terms of “good talk” in the coming year. Conversation is such a vital part of what we attempt to achieve. With all our times together, with all the chatter by text and e-mail, we face the irony of a potential conversational insufficiency. In other words, we may need to give Facebook a rest and remember the power of face-to-face conversation each day invites. The Commission on Diversity picks up the threads of its work with today’s fresh start. We will have a report in February to consider and discuss. Then and meanwhile, we will define this year with good talk, some of it in difficult conversation. From this campus conversation, we must read and redraw the strategic map in newer lines and hopes of inclusivity.

The year will continue to be shaped by a familiar theme of my annual opening reflections. The virtue of prudence is not anyone’s favorite among the cardinal seven, but it makes possible so many other prized requisites at St. Lawrence. Our prudent management of expenses and revenues has been applauded by outside credit rating agencies, independent auditors, and also our accrediting association. David Ward, the former president of the American Council on Education, has recently observed about higher education that “the old pendulum swing between good times and bad times is in a new arc—the irreversible change that the pendulum has fallen off its pin and is stuck in the mud.”  (Educause Review, July/August 2013) In other words, abundant, adequate public revenue isn’t coming back. And yet, at St. Lawrence we’ve consistently supported quality by every measure, invested in innovation, and gone to new markets for the most promising students. Prudent measures keep us sharp and nimble.

Finally, intellectual and creative vitality will define the year, as it must every year, in this rarified mix of scientists, humanists, social scientists, and artists working with each other and sharing many of the same students. The Princeton literary scholar R. P. Blackmur used to call this vague medium of learning “the stock of available reality.” How we use and trade and remix this stock, perhaps “a riddle of the inevitable,” will be the test of a defining year.

In Mark Helperin’s 20-year-old novel Soldier of the Great War, we will find a condensed lyrical definition of our liberal arts way of life, equally applicable to every department and discipline on campus. About the main Odysseus-like character Helperin writes, “he had never approached an important question in any way but to ask everything…He had learned very quickly, not merely by devoted study but by some natural sympathy, to enter so fully into a painting or a song that he could cross into a world of harrowing beauty and there receive, as he floated on air, the deep, absolute, and instant confirmation of hopes and desires that in normal life are matters only of speculation and debate.” (767) At St. Lawrence, our normal life encompasses real and defining moments, not just in memory from a reservoir of tradition, but in a day of starting fresh.

William L. Fox
Convocation 2013