President Eastman's Remarks
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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
August 16, 2004
Freshmen of Eckerd College; parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and friends of freshmen of Eckerd College; faculty and staff colleagues; and honored guests: Welcome and good evening to each of you.
A few years ago, a movie entitled "A Beautiful Mind" won the Academy Award for the best movie of the year. How many of you have seen that movie, "A Beautiful Mind"? You may remember the scene in which the main character, John Nash, a schizophrenic mathematical genius at Princeton University, begins to repair his madness by becoming a teacher again. You see him slowly come alive as his students reassemble around him. In that pivotal scene, when John Nash gets his students back, his sanity begins to come back, too.
Well, we don't quite lose our minds in the absence of students during the summer at Eckerd College, but we are glad when students return to the campus. And we are glad for the same reason that John Nash was glad. The presence of students gives meaning to our lives, and we believe that at this College we create meaning in the lives of our students. We believe that it is the job of a teacher and a college to create meaning, and so many of our students and our former students tell us this is precisely what happens here.
The greatest pleasure I have as President is to hear the stories of students, their parents, and alumni who tell me their lives were changed by their experience here.
Freshmen of Eckerd College, Class of 2008: By being admitted to this institution you have demonstrated a high level of achievement and promise. Each of you has significant potential to explore, to experience and, ultimately, to live the life of the mind and the imagination and the spirit. You have demonstrated, by your selection of Eckerd College, that you recognize that your experience here will reflect the core values of this institution. Let me highlight for you the five core values that characterize the College community you are joining.
First, you have chosen one of the few colleges in America that still regards residential life, which has been the hallmark of a college and university experience of the highest quality for nearly a thousand years, as an essential part of an undergraduate education for young men and women. Your out-of-class experiences here will be as important to your education as those inside the classroom.
Second, you have chosen a college that endorses in all of its programs the inclusivity of national and international cultures. Few colleges or universities in America have a higher percentage of international students and no college has a higher percentage of their students who study abroad than we do. Eckerd's students come from 49 states and nearly 70 countries, and from families from nearly every walk of life on the planet. We will do everything we can here to help you develop a global perspective on matters great and small.
Third, the openness of this College to the plural nature of contemporary life does not mean, however, that it stands for nothing; indeed, it stands proudly for its relationship with the Presbyterian Church, not in order to encourage an exclusive creed, but, as Eckerd's Charter puts it, "To give the Christian faith a vigorous and fair hearing in a setting where students can accept or reject but not ignore it."
Most of you know that the greatest and most venerable of America's colleges were founded as Christian, church-related schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Penn, and many others all began this way, just as Eckerd College did 46 years ago. In the intervening centuries, those schools have become, like so much of modern life, secular in all but historical reference.
I don't know what Eckerd College will be like in 368 years, when it is as old as Harvard is today, but for now I am proud that it is passionate in ways few colleges still are about what the best kind of college experience should do: It should demand powerful, challenging encounters with life's primary questions, and foremost among those questions are the questions of spirit and belief.
Fourth, you may have recognized that many in the Eckerd community believe that the most pressing social, economic, political, and moral issues of this new century have to do with the environment; our particular location here on the tip of the Pinellas peninsula, on the very shore of a principal bay of the Gulf of Mexico, especially enriches our focus on the marine and estuarial ecology of the global environment.
You are now living in one of the great places on earth, a tropical paradise blessed with a rich diversity of cultures and peoples. But paradise is by definition, in our human world, ever fragile, as our experience this past weekend demonstrated so dramatically. Only education and commitment will sustain the fragile beauty and natural riches of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay.
Finally, and most importantly, you have no doubt recognized, explicitly or perhaps intuitively, Eckerd's greatest strength, its primary and fundamental characteristic. This strength is the great omission in most institutions of higher education in America, the thing most often lamented while also the most frequently absent: and that is the personal relationship between teacher and student.
It is this you will most enjoy while you are here and most remember and revere after you leave. This kind of personal attention and concern for undergraduates is the missing element in nearly all of American higher education now, and it is, simply, the glory of Eckerd College.
Residential, global, spiritual, environmental, personal: These are the values of the College you have chosen, and which has chosen you. They may be, in the intensity of their combination here, unique.
Under the arch of these core institutional values come each of you - young persons of extraordinary potential. You come, no doubt, with great excitement and anticipation, and with fear: excitement about living and learning in paradise - and fear that you will disappoint your parents, your teachers, yourself. This combination of excitement and fear is healthy, and the Eckerd College Autumn Term experience is meant to help you learn to use and to deal with both emotions productively. Because the truth is that you are now adults: The responsibility for your successes and your failures now lies with you. While we will do everything we can to support you and your ambitions over the next four years, the fact is that your own intellectual and personal development and academic success depend less on us than on you.
Most of you will find a whole new world of freedom and independence as college students, and you will be asked by your college to display a whole new level of personal responsibility. These core values present both those of us who work for Eckerd College and you as entering students a substantial challenge - because they are each so complex and so demanding of our full attention and resolve. But if you who are students have the resolve, the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, and the ambition to grow into the full experience of the life of the mind, you will leave here not simply with a diploma of which you will always be proud, but changed.
Not changed because you are a stronger Presbyterian, or Baptist or Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or Muslim, though that well may happen; not changed because you have so richly reveled in life and love in this magical world by the sea - though that is very likely to happen, too. No, changed because from the experience of these collegiate values - residential, spiritual, environmental, global and personal - you will develop a new degree not only of education, but of character - proven by your seriousness of purpose, your high regard for other people and other cultures, and by your commitment to service in the affairs of the world.
In a very real sense, while you have put yourself in our hands for the next four years, we are much more in your hands than you are in ours. We will work to be worthy of your trust; we will try to clarify your questions and respond honestly to them. We will share with you what we have learned about things that endure and things that pass away.
We have chosen you to inherit our estate and determine our future. As students and then as alumni, you are both the reason for being and the future of Eckerd College. Without your success as men and women of learning and high principle, we can have none.
A few years back, Stanford Professor John Gardner wrote:
"Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties . . . out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in . . . The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life."
There is much wisdom in Professor Gardner's words. College is the time when many of us build meaning into our lives in indelible ways. You will have much work to do in the coming four years, and much to read, but I encourage you to study, early on, the canonic texts of western culture: the epics of Homer and the King James version of the Old and New Testament, for they together form the moral and intellectual substructure of western civilization, and the unequalled quality of personal and institutional freedom and accomplishment achieved by it. I emphasize together because, while separately they are canonic texts, only taken together could they have framed the high achievement of the West. Our culture is built, for better and for worse, on the examples of Achilles and Jesus; on Helen and Mary; on Odysseus and Abraham.
In his wonderful memoir entitled Tour of the Hebrides, the 18th Century writer James Boswell remembers his fabulous mentor and hero, the great essayist, poet and lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, quoting the Greek poet, Hesiod:
"Let youth in deeds, in counsel man engage;
Prayer is the proper duty of old age."
"That," says Dr. Johnson, "is a very noble line: not that young men should not pray, or old men not give counsel, but that every season of life has its proper duties."
As freshmen, you now begin a new season of your lives. You enter the climate of the educated world, to take up your "proper duties" - and you do so not simply to learn, but to construct a meaningful life, to prepare yourselves for the service your talents make possible - for the service and leadership your country and your world so badly need.
Welcome to Eckerd College.