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"Life of the Mind, Life of the Spirit"Inauguration Address
March 2, 2002
Reverend Adams, Poet Ward, Chairman Collier, trustees of Eckerd College, faculty and staff colleagues, students, worthies and divines and all others of the Presbyterian Church, distinguished visitors, friends and family, thank you for coming to make this day a great occasion for Eckerd College and for me.
While recognizing the limits of the modern temperament for the rhetoric of ceremony, I want to tell you a little about myself, and about the wonderful college this ceremony honors today.
First, let me introduce, and ask to stand and be recognized, a few of those whose works and days have most shaped mine.
- My wife, Christine, who lights up a room simply by entering it: The trustees at Eckerd have made it clear that I was hired primarily because it was a necessary condition for assuring that Chris would move to St. Petersburg.
- My three sons, Zack, Andy and Bryan, and my daughter-in-law, Aynsley, of whom I am excessively proud and to whom I am completely devoted.
- Two of my six brothers and sisters, Gerry and Frank, and their wives, Kay and Betsy.
- And finally, two of my mentors:
The first is my major professor in graduate school, my dissertation director; he taught me that writing with clarity and grace made thinking with clarity and grace possible; he then taught me how to write: Please welcome Ward Hellstrom, now professor of English at Western Kentucky University.
And the second is my great friend from our days together at Cornell University, John Burness, now Senior Vice President at Duke University.
Eckerd College welcomes as fellows to the high calling of higher education those of all faiths and of none, to whom nonetheless the pursuit of learning and knowledge, of understanding and wisdom, is a noble, indeed, a sacred calling.
Eckerd College, whose 1600 residential and 1400 adult students come from 50 states and 63 countries, is related by covenant (that most Presbyterian of words), by history (brief as it is), and by the devotion of many, to the Presbyterian Church, many of whom call this Church, and this Presbytery, home.
Conversely, and this may be the more decisive vector, the Presbyterian Church is related by covenant, by history, and by the labors and love of many to Eckerd College, the single institution of higher education so related in Florida, the nation's fourth largest state. When church and college meet in Florida, in the name of the Presbyterian faith, they meet at Eckerd College.
The polity of churches and colleges has ever been uneasy, and no more so than in the past half century, during which it was more often our colleges and universities rather than our churches that led the way for so many of us to seek the moral high ground, whether the issue was civil rights, or women's rights, or Vietnam or more recently multicultural values, gay rights, and the validity of what William James called "Varieties of religious experience," for many of us leadership has come from our institutions of higher education, and our churches have followed at a safe distance.
Today we celebrate and renew, through our panoply and ceremony, our bagpipes and tartans, and our very presence here, we commemorate that connection as not simply historical, but as the mandate that calls Eckerd College to teach and to celebrate not only the life of the mind but the imagination and the spirit, wherever they may be found and in whatever form.
That is to say, our intellectual community is dedicated not simply to training the mind but to the building of character; Dedicated to St. Paul's proposition that intellect without love has no value.
Those Pauline aspirations for such an education, at the very intersection of what Matthew Arnold called the Hebraic and the Hellenic are achieved here, against all odds in this paradise of palm trees, on thin soil and shell-crusted fill, abundant with sand spurs.
In my mind's eye I see, as I look back at Florida Presbyterian College, all those righteous, serious, pious Presbyterian men in skinny ties and heavy, black-framed glasses, all those black-and-white images and emblems of the 1950s, launching a college with a grand high moral tone...
And by the time the first class graduates the world has changed, almost beyond recognition: pony-tailed, pot-smoking, tie-dyed, anti-war, pro-civil rights, activist and shoeless: My colleague, Kathy Watson, says, "I took my shoes off when I got to campus, and put 'em back on four years later."
This intersection (some would say clash) of cultures remains the very marrow of the Eckerd experience: a combination of spiritual and intellectual ambition to build a better world for all of God's people.
A handful of the original faculty are here today, to celebrate with us this new beginning of their dream to build a great college by taking a different tack from the mainstream. It is their dream and their vision that we are entrusted to carry on: Would you, Eckerd College faculty of the 1960s, please stand so that we can thank you for your vision and your trust?
Eckerd College's very survival for four decades is a remarkable story; and its accomplishments and national reputation as a first-rate academic institution, established in the blink of an eye, is even more remarkable. The College's extraordinarily innovative structures, such as the "all faculty" teaching approach to the core curriculum, that curriculum itself, Autumn Term, Winter Term, the Academy of Senior Professionals, and the Program for Experienced Learners are nationally respected and widely imitated.
Five essential values define the Eckerd College experience.
First, Eckerd is one of the few colleges in America that still regards residential life as an essential part of an undergraduate education for young men and women.
Second, Eckerd is global: Few colleges or universities in America have a higher percentage of international students, or a higher percentage of their student bodies that study abroad during the undergraduate years.
Third, Eckerd stands proudly for its relationship with the Presbyterian Church in order, as Eckerd's own Charter puts it, "to give the Christian faith a vigorous and fair hearing in a setting where students are free to accept or reject but not ignore it." Eckerd College is passionate about creating a college experience that demands powerful, challenging encounters with life's primary questions, including those of spirit and belief.
Fourth, Eckerd focuses on the environment through study and scholarship. Favored by our location on the tip of the Pinellas peninsula, we are especially suited to examine the marine and estuarial ecology of the global environment.
Finally, and most importantly, Eckerd's greatest strength is the personal relationship between teacher and student. Students at Eckerd don't simply have teachers, or advisors; they have mentors in every sense of that magical word. The quality of personal attention and concern for undergraduates is, simply, the glory of Eckerd College.
Residential, global, spiritual, environmental, personal: These are the values of Eckerd College. They may be, in the intensity of their combination here, in this place, unique. These are values that, we believe, engender intellectual, imaginative and spiritual freedom. Among the freedoms they engender is the freedom not to live a wholly secular life. A wholly secular life is defined by the distinguished theologian Stanley Hauerwas as "just one damned thing after another," in other words, a life without teleology, without shape or purpose -- ultimately, a life without meaning. A wholly secular life is simply not enough for thoughtful people, regardless of how successful we are, or how financially prosperous we are, or how articulate we are in excoriating the manifold failures of religion in any and all its forms.
The tragedies of September 11 have underscored a new longing for experience of the sacred, a new longing for a reconnection with forces which seem, even temporarily, divine. Educated men and women continue to long for what the Irish writer William Trevor calls an "awareness of the holy world that was lost."
Our inaugural lecture series includes presentations by an African American Anglican, a Jewish prophet, a Muslim scholar, a female Presbyterian minister, a Lutheran theologian and social ethicist, and a poet: Men and women of the spirit all and all included not in the name of diversity or ecumenical ambition, but to embody and illustrate the manifold spiritual paths available to citizens of the 21st century.
It is clear to me, and, I suspect, to many of you, that the life of the Spirit will take new forms in this new century: The motive for environmental stewardship is essentially spiritual; the growing sense of global citizenship and community is equally so. We may be at the very brink of a redefinition of world religions and how they interact with each other, and that redefinition may well result in a "theological explosion," one that rivals and even overshadows the liberating effects of the last great theological explosion, which we call the Protestant Reformation.
Eckerd College is one of those rare institutions that is willing and able to develop successful new approaches that teach undergraduates to think profoundly and imagine purposefully about the deepest dimensions of human existence. It is one of a handful of places truly educating its students not simply for the "workforce" (a word you would think only George Orwell would make up, or use, in his darkest moments), but educating its students for global citizenship, global leadership, and the new theologies of the 21st century. This is a liberal arts education, an education defined by the late John Kemeny, former president of Dartmouth College, as "preparing students to answer questions we don't even know yet."
Such a place is, as so many in the Eckerd community have so nobly and recently demonstrated, a place where people can come together to ensure first the survival, and then the continued success of an extraordinary institution, a place well worth working for, caring for, sacrificing for. It is a place worthy of your affection, your support and your sustained commitment.
All best wishes to each of you at this new beginning of our work together, to build, and to live, Eckerd College's unique vision of the life of the mind and the spirit, where, in Scott Ward's memorable image, dreams rise from the palmetto scrub.