Table Talk

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Spring 2011

 

When Peter Gomes, professor and university chaplain at Harvard, visited St. Lawrence last year, he was naturally eager for me to show him the campus. After our lunch we took a walk that, as it turned out, did not extend beyond the Quad. Once we entered Gunnison Memorial Chapel and I showed him the clerestory windows, we lingered to discuss the design and themes. The total affect of the stained glass “story board” had seized his interest and his first impressions of St. Lawrence. On the way out, he summarized, “You’ll never run out of things to talk about in this chapel.”

There are hundreds of names, human faces and symbols in the chapel windows, each tied to a larger theme, but each also carrying a little mystery that ought to prompt wonder. I am constantly discovering gems of fresh surprise about the significance of the motifs and what they continue to express decades after they were installed.

Just recently, I discovered in one of the western windows the figure of Origen, an important intellectual leader of early antiquity in the Roman world; he lived, studied and taught in Alexandria, Egypt. Two hundred years after he lived, scholars were still talking about him, his ideas, and his “professorial” personality. Jerome (who translated and compiled the first Latin Bible) wrote a famous letter that mentioned Origen’s influence in very memorable terms: visitors to Alexandria, whether from Athens, Jerusalem or Antioch, “never took a meal in Origen’s company without something being read.”

If we remember only one thing about Origen, I suggest we not forget his insistence that serious conversation may accompany food and drink. The tradition of “table talk,” while never appearing in any university’s catalog, remains an informal educational benefit we have truly preserved at St. Lawrence. Many universities and colleges separate faculty, students and staff from each other in organizing meal plans and dining options. At St. Lawrence, we all stand in the same line, eat from the same menu, and enjoy the level opportunity of holding conversation about issues of the day or books we are reading.

Although we have an immensely rich array of annual lectures, forums, workshops, seminars and small-group meetings, each and all an indicator of intellectual vitality, the campus conversation as “table talk” strikes me as our most effective form of discourse, particularly about St. Lawrence itself, its essence and values, its direction and future. As the strong headwinds of the recession diminish, though turbulence and chop are still in the air of higher education, the St. Lawrence table talk, probably the truest central campus conversation, also is shifting.

A philanthropic foundation leader asked me recently a provocative question, which translates with near perfect equivalency to a university setting: If you were leading this foundation, what do you imagine we should support in the future that will be different from what we have always done, such as traditional endowed or capital projects? He invited me to dream out loud, no strings attached, once he clarified that scholarships and buildings will continue to get proper consideration. So, while we both generally understood that resources will be finite as far as the eye could see, he and I talked openly for an hour about the new moment we seem to be entering, when imagination will be minting different coins.
The St. Lawrence table talk must now shift in a similar direction. What should St. Lawrence do differently in the next few years, even for a full decade, that will open fresh avenues to a relevant liberal arts education?

This question joins all aspects of operating a university, all dimensions of our efforts to develop solid institutional plans: recruiting students of the future must focus many of our innovations on our ideal size coupled with the theme of “affording the opportunity.” Our academic program must also extend itself as a testing ground for enhancing liberal education with more “carry-out” features in our diet, that is, off-campus experiences and wider opportunities for special research with our faculty or alumni practitioners.

Further, our best thinking must ultimately point toward the splendid future, but not one of just counting the number of accomplished graduates in successful careers. Rather, our purpose must reaffirm a renaissance principle of building lives of consequence; lives that sit at our campus tables for a while and, even against the din of clattering plates, somehow begin to consider how to improve the world. That’s the point of what must be done.

The great mind of Origen can remind us of many things. In the end, his lasting thought that good food and good books go together is enough. Table talk matters. —WLF