Laurentian Virtue | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Laurentian Virtue

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Fall 2011

The Adirondacks draw all sorts of people to their waters, peaks and valleys. People with paddles, skis, fishing waders and hiking boots are the typical visitors. People traveling with books and ideas have also taken to these woods, even Freud and Einstein. In the 1890s, a small group of philosophers used to gather in the majestic Keene Valley on the western slope of Hurricane Mountain at a camp called the “Glenmore School.” William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey and Charles Peirce all “lectured” around the campfire to test their ideas against the refiner’s fire of other minds.

Josiah Royce was clearly different from the others, in both his intellectual sources and his personal roots. He was a Californian who “pioneered” by coming East. His Cambridge house was later owned and inhabited by Paul and Julia Child. He filled it with Hegel, the Childs with French wine and nouveau cuisine.

For Royce, the highest human ideal, one he surely defended in his Adirondack interlude, was loyalty. He defined loyalty many times and many ways as “the will of some fascinating social power.” Its affect is to invite a perspective outside ourselves to a “unified cause” that will also bring inside ourselves a deeper strength, dignity, value, opportunity and fulfillment.

From this long-ago mountainside scene and from books philosophers seldom read anymore, there is an insight about the St. Lawrence experience that I am often asked to explain. It is the phenomenon of the alumnus and the alumna; perhaps it should be called the Laurentian genome. It is noticed by others, often with their own tight college affiliations, and jealously described by them as distinguishable, as if our graduates are joined by the rarest connective tissue, binding each to a place, and to each other, with something physicists have not yet discovered.

Why do St. Lawrence graduates, by their very nature, contribute so readily to annual funds, special memorials, campus projects or scholarship endowments? Why do they drive hours to reunions, hockey games, or the weddings of children whose parents they have not been seen in decades? Why do they put decals on the rear window, build a wardrobe of “logo gear,” and give up weekends to reconnect with fraternity brothers and sorority sisters? Why do so many secretly dream that a son, daughter or grandchild might, in their own independent exploration, someday become a St. Lawrence student and walk the familiar brick paths of the old campus? Royce still answers for us. Loyalty is the reason; loyalty is the best human expression of a willing, practical, trustworthy belonging to something greater than any single individual could ever develop alone.

Many are loyal because their truest self was first revealed to them in some large way by the whole experience at St. Lawrence in a friend’s admonition, a coach’s hug, or a professor’s life-changing question that begins, “Have you ever considered being... a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur?” Staying connected to that anchor point of life is perhaps tied to the riddle, “Have I been over the years a consecutive and consistent self under the terms of those formative, long ago yesterdays?” Introspection, so far from giving us reassurance, usually tends to frighten us. And yet, you have to take the self that is you back to some point in time that has an enduring objectivity, a moment when you have defined yourself, a place known well and loved. You have to go back once in a while to check on this mental second nature that shaped you as a student, the way Wordsworth returned to Grasmere in 1799. He was loyal to that place because when he came away from it he could say, “So was it when my life began;/So is it now I am a man;/So be it when I shall grow old.”

For some Laurentian alumni the feeling of loyalty is tied also to a sense of debt and the problem of repaying it. No one, even the most financially self-sufficient student, ever pays the total cost of a St. Lawrence education. We didn’t pay for the education of our teachers; tuition did not build our classrooms and playing fields. We perhaps go to college wondering in the exuberant confidence of youth if it is good enough for us; we look back on it all and must wonder if we were good enough for it. Very few of us, especially if endowed with a sensitive conscience, can go through the years after college without trying to repay at least some portion of the balance in the account still marked “outstanding.”

When Owen D. Young, Class of 1894, was interviewed by the famous muckraker reporter and biographer Ida Tarbell, he told her that when he hired people, “One of the things I like to know about a man is whether he is loyal to his college, or whether he forgets.” Laurentians are typically marked by the virtue of remembering; it is a deep stamp upon them, upon us, that is more vivid than almost anything outside the personal traditions of family. We may have ample pride in our St. Lawrence acclaim, particularly in the public achievements of an alumnus or an alumna. But we all know the St. Lawrence truth and its fidelity…To be loyal is enough.

—WLF