The cherished St. Lawrence Quad is curiously undivided, tracing no paths, labyrinths or walkways across its plane geometry. This square field is also notably different from the equivalent flat places on other American campuses for its unadorned interior and exclusive greenness. Its simplicity is exceptional. The Quad features no fountains, statues or structures. There is no monumental gate or obvious entry point, which makes sense because there is no brick wall or iron fence defining its perimeter. It is just an expansive main lawn, slightly tilted to the sunrise. Its unusual subtlety, nevertheless, is loaded with moral significance and community meaning.
Many American colleges were intentionally placed on the edge of the rural wilderness, often before there were good roads to get there. St. Lawrence’s history took root in this venerable tradition. On the surface of this frontier heritage, these choices of location seem prudent because land was cheapest there and the ideal of undistracted learning was best accomplished when students stayed at impossible distances from denser, hurried populations.
There is much more to this story, however, than older economies can explain. In fact, the St. Lawrence Quad reflects a deeper and longer perspective about the workings of a college, something more than a once-quaint remnant of pastureland.
In the earliest years of building American colleges, the founders always aspired to the conditions of paradise. In their design and purpose, the builders wished to leave bold statements to their posterity, though usually without the means of grand architecture. No matter what building ambitions were imagined, the first colleges reserved in their plans some untouchable, unbuilt ground as a central educational necessity. They gave priority to their green spaces.
The dream that a wilderness contains within it “paradise” is very old, actually traceable linguistically and mythologically to Assyrian and Persian sources; the word “paradise” itself is derived from an ancient tradition of setting aside a park-like royal enclosure. The idea of paradise as a garden later emerged in the more familiar narratives set down in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. The belief that in the midst of an incomprehensible wilderness there can be a garden, a place of sanctuary, was a powerful physical and metaphysical theme of unexpected variation; it gave hope through centuries of inescapable, hard human experience in the chaos of a wasteland.
Paradise seems a far country, yet never far from home. From desert monasteries to medieval universities, the quadrangle, the cloister, and the close were ways of remembering the quest for meaning in the wilderness. To find the serenity and freedom of a garden, the richly explored premises of both Dante and Milton, brings together a thematic coherence that is our institutional extension of paradise, a place as simple as a lawn but also a place to find a reliable corner of one’s mind.
W. H. Auden’s 1931 poem “O Where Are You Going?” reminds me of what we believe St. Lawrence students may apprehend as they come casually into the Quad from stone steps or a sitting wall:
“O do you imagine,” said fearer to farer,
“That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,
Your diligent looking discover the lacking,
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?”
They are indeed wayfarers, of mind and dream, passing with diligent looks “from granite to grass.” And the grass becomes a consulate of paradise.
College courtyards and university quadrangles perpetuate the green imagery found in the oldest conviction that an academy of learning requires a time and place of ample leisure. Only in a fleeting moment of paradise is it possible for the mind to strive for freedom and, ultimately, to have a chance of surpassing the mind’s limits. The motive of the Quad in all its activities today—whether frisbee games or chairs in a circle—is freedom; and once we have known that, we ought to fear its loss. I know this from an office window overlooking the Quad, for there is no more beautiful sight than a student sprinting across the grass, hands outstretched under a long-tossed ball. The young legs run as if the earth has no end and the land is forever green. The unbound, measureless free play of intellect still matters.
The Quad expresses its paradise motif in which students dream of themselves as better than they are. The Quad is a beloved memory for us of other years and for no better reason than it recalls a freedom that for the rest of our lives we are somehow trying to regain. The memory of walking across the Quad in sunshine or moonlight, of heeding the horizon line of the Adirondack hills, is akin to what Josiah Royce once described as the pause in the day given as “a principal glimpse of the homeland of the human soul.”