Thoughts After Hours

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Spring 2012

Thoughts After Office Hours
Of all the hundreds of tasks I perform as a college president, my favorite, really most privileged, is the time I spend with students. I reserve “open office hours,” only for students, throughout the fall and spring terms. Usually, it is late in the afternoon; sometimes, long after all the other offices have closed for the day, the lobby of Vilas Hall looks like the crowded waiting room of the family doctor I knew as a child. He managed his entire practice with a sign-up sheet and a black medical bag kept in his car. He would stay into the night until the last person was seen.

These occasions with students can sometimes keep me awake until dawn, thanks to a peculiar pairing of friendly demons combining worry and satisfaction. The conversations may begin with a problem to solve, the usual range of academic “misunderstandings,” or campus relationships in difficulty, but they often, secretly, are about the future—where to live, what to do, what to live for.

When I listen to how thoughtful and knowing  these students are, how much they have seen and heard, I am firmly confident that we are doing an excellent job of giving them the space and time to think deeply and to translate those thoughts into the ideas that form principles, desires and directions. In accord with Aristotle’s ambition for his students, I believe they will become “great-souled” persons. 

I also listen for the gaps that that hard kind of in-your-face reality, the experiences of life requiring untapped measures of courage to see through, shall and must fill. Will they be ready?

***
For the hundredth anniversary of Thoreau’s Walden, first published about the time St. Lawrence was founded, the American essayist E. B. White gave some practical advice for people in my walk of life. He said, “If our colleges and universities were alert, they would present a cheap pocket edition of the book to every senior upon graduating, along with [a] sheepskin or instead of it.” 

The first chapter of Walden is named by one word: “Economy.” Here is a loaded term packed with hard meaning, especially today, especially for seniors and recent graduates.  Thoreau offers two inter-related economic precepts, really acts of faith, that have the power to restore the spirit of a college president in the darkness before dawn, that silent stillness when he worries about current students and recent graduates in a difficult economy. 

The story famously begins, “I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond.” He reflects how difficult it is to begin anything worth doing “without borrowing” in some form.  He also expresses the complementary corollary in a word about altruism: If some day you return the favor or contribute money, then “spend yourself with it,” make it part of your personal credo. These two ideas are joined by Thoreau’s larger observation that people “hit only what they aim at,” and though they must struggle, borrow and sometimes fail, “they had better aim at something high.”

Uncertain markets still hang over us. An economy, and a generation living within it, will ultimately stand or fall on the proposition that a young person advancing confidently with a dream, a life imagined, will possess enough to succeed. Our kind of education is equivalent to a borrowed axe. When it returns a profit to the hands that bear it, I am convinced, more and more, that the students stopping by my office already know how to “spend” themselves. They will do so steadfastly, grateful to be Laurentians who take aim at something high.