Your Cabinet of Curiosity | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Your Cabinet of Curiosity

Matriculation 2019

In bringing the class of 2023 together for the first time, in the simultaneous presence of faculty and families, this occasion becomes a distinctive hour in St. Lawrence history. This magic moment of your matriculation traces an unbroken line to the year 1856, and every year since, when the whole College of Letters and Science originally gathered, lived, and studied inside Richardson Hall. We meet today, as St. Lawrence classes before us have done, including my own St. Lawrence class many years before you were born, “to believe the future in,” as Robert Frost would summarize the purpose of our assembly.

We are acutely mindful that this first day is not the first time you have entered a new community of experience. Maybe in your life you once moved to a new neighborhood. Maybe you remember the smells and rhythms of a new school at the ages of 5, 12, and 15. Maybe you feel practiced at being a newcomer because it’s not really so new by now. And yet, this time is and ought to be different for a variety of both shared and personal reasons.

This day draws a line of demarcation between before and after because it is packed like a stuffed duffle bag with a bundle of feelings, many of which are unfamiliar and uninterpreted. I am not overstating the reality that this is a defining instant for all of us, particularly the individuals in the class of 2023.

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It may have gone unexpressed in your conversations this summer, but this transition point triggers powerful, deeply sentimental memories for your parents. And it exposes each of you to the excitement born of a new, ultimately positive, uncertainty. I say this with all the confidence of a college president who has observed many first days of college classes over numerous years; but I also speak with the authority of my own lived experience in an identical moment as a father.

An adaptation begins today that is sometimes harder than expected, though sometimes it’s even better than the script in draft form sketched over the summer. At the very least, it will likely hold some interesting surprises or insights about ourselves. It may also help to hear about other families in equivalent days of past years.

Predictably, if your experience follows my own in delivering a child off at college, there will be the cardboard box that your student packed, but, in haste, had failed to reinforce its seams with tape strong enough to hold the weight of the contents. As the bottom of the box gives way on the second flight of stairs, with one more left to climb, the wisest strategy, based on my personal first-hand drama, is to cut the kid some slack and claim that the spilled mess is all your fault. It’s perfectly normal for dad to lose his grip. After all, it’s better if the transfer of mere stuff is fumbled, miscellaneous possessions scattered, retrieved, and laughed off, than it is for dad to lose his composure when he thinks about how quiet the house will feel on Monday night. So, today is a rite of passage for parents, too. We understand those deep feelings here at St. Lawrence.

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I came across a poem this summer, new to me, one that was written a hundred years ago by a world famous medical scientist who was born in India during the Victorian era of the British Raj and, coincidentally, in the first year of St. Lawrence University’s existence. Ronald Ross was the doctor who discovered the vector connection between mosquitoes and malaria. For that significant achievement he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and that is how he is mainly remembered in history.

Ross, however, also had a modest literary career and is sometimes included among the “war poets” of 1914-1918. Readers of both Ross’s biography and his poetry could easily miss the footnote fact that his son was among the first officers killed in August 1914. The poem I brought with me today, owing to its context, holds special meaning as something both exceptional and relevant because it is composed entirely in the future tense.

Come with me then, my son;

       Thine eyes are wide for truth:

And I will give thee memories,

       And thou shalt give me youth.

 

The lake laps in silver,

       The streamlet leaps her length:

And I will give thee wisdom,

       And thou shalt give me strength.

 

The mist is on the moorland,

       The rain roughs the reed:

And I will give thee patience,

       And thou shalt give me speed.

 

When lightnings lash the skyline

       Then thou shalt learn thy part:

And when the heav’ns are direst,

       For thee to give me heart.

 

Forthrightness I will teach thee;

       The vision and the scope;

To hold the hand of honour:—

       And thou shalt give me hope;

 

And when the heav’ns are deepest

       And stars most bright above;

May God then teach thee duty;

       And thou shalt teach me love.

 

These lines about the complementary bonds between parents and children may favor the perspective of mothers and fathers on first reading. And yet, there is the opening affirmation in the poem that the young men and women in the class of 2023 will find themselves described as a generation whose “eyes are wide for truth.”

 

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Let me spend a moment on the importance of that assumption as you enter this university. This is not a place of narrowness or darkness. It is, rather, a community that stimulates the desire of happiness and unfettered openness. In other words, curiosity counts for everything in your success as a Laurentian.

 

The word curiosity has a very long history going back to ancient languages, but its main meaning has remained consistent. It has always suggested eager inquisitiveness, careful attention to detail, and a diligent habit of seeking new or unusual objects of interest. This summer my wife and I were tourists in Europe for a couple of weeks and on one afternoon of unplanned rambling we explored a very old museum in Europe, older than the Metropolitan in New York or the Smithsonian in Washington by at least 200 years.

 

The plan of the museum was familiar, the display of portraits, antique jewelry, and medieval furnishings were exactly what we expected. And then, we entered a gallery that instantly felt different because it was dedicated exclusively to curiosity. Now this was something completely unexpected and it drew us in for a long time.

 

The room contained the most eclectic and elaborate set of display cabinets I had ever seen. They were filled with items gathered from all around the world, some natural, some hand crafted, and some historical: rare sea shells, exotic coral necklaces, relics of distant cultures and samplers of archeology, preserved butterflies and reptiles, miniature feats of art, and exquisitely tooled, thumb-sized mechanisms.

The shelves filling each of these showcases were neither random nor precisely ordered; and none of the objects were labeled or described. Each exhibit was called a cabinet of curiosity. The Philadelphia portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale displayed his diverse curiosities and acquisitions this way in the 1780s. People paid to see how he filled his cabinets. These surviving compacted collections were the forerunners of the modern museum, but to me they remain the perfect metaphor of building a college education.

The attraction of this image is first its human scale, something any one of us, particularly on a college campus, can imagine doing. You are here for this single purpose of finding and collecting objects and ideas that have stimulated your curiosity, while also storing them in some mentally visible place for further consideration and reflection.

We cannot teach you curiosity, but we will share our passions and powers of wonder with you as possible inspiration. We offer you today an unfilled cabinet of curiosity. In a subliminal way, our entire campus is built as such a piece of personal furniture with shelves and nooks. When you walk by the geology department, for instance, there are specimen rocks from St. Lawrence County to admire, some found in no other place, but here; when you visit a professor’s office, you will surely see something on the wall, the book shelf, or the desk that will attract passing interest—and you’re supposed to ask about such things when you’re curious;  when you enter the library, the chapel, common spaces, or the athletic center, there are portraits and old photographs to make you curious and their purpose is to make you feel attached to a deeply rooted tradition.

When you stroll the campus, you are in an arboretum with over 300 varieties of trees to enjoy. Even the plant life may be more exotic than you expected. Undoubtedly, you will be curious about familiar topics of study, but more likely whatever you have in mind now, I assure you it will be cross-linked to some new, unforeseen matter of interest. Do not resist curiosity—your personal cabinet will hold more than you know.

Curiosity at St. Lawrence is not limited by attention to physical objects or the conceptual framework of your courses. Your cabinet must not only keep space for knowing, but also for doing, for socializing, for bonding. Your curiosity about people, particularly people who are not like you or anybody you have ever known, must also be a priority as a Laurentian.

The range of backgrounds, identities, and family histories among you and your classmates, a breadth of close human contact to understand more deeply, and ultimately to cherish as you discover lifelong friends, insists on the premise that your “eyes are wide for truth.” That truth, if it is to be valid, will come into your life in a way that passes over passing judgment. Inclusion and acceptance is what every St. Lawrence student deserves and it is gained when every St. Lawrence student is genuinely curious and courteous.

In filling your cabinets of curiosity over the months ahead, as you build a more secure confidence in the college experience, as you connect to new friends, new circles of shared interest, and yet untried activities, there is an implied transaction to help you along the way. Matriculation creates a three-party deal involving your family, your university, and you. To explain, I return to the text of my reflections.

The poem by Ronald Ross expresses a parallel structure of receiving and returning, one virtue for another, in the exchange of one generation getting the next generation ready. For this is our most essential purpose as a university, the forever ancient and always invaluable rare coin found in the cabinet of curiosity. It would be both a mistaken and false assumption to deny this rate of exchange, one that couples your parents and your university in order to give you our memories, our wisdom, and our patience. And with that, you must give this community youth, strength, and speed. You have all that it takes, so long as you are curious; you have immeasurable support, so long as your “eyes are wide for truth.”

 

When lightnings lash the skyline

       Then thou shalt learn thy part:

And when the heav’ns are direst,

       For thee to give me heart.

 

Forthrightness I will teach thee;

       The vision and the scope;

To hold the hand of honour:—

       And thou shalt give me hope;

William L. Fox
August 25, 2019