Today around lunchtime there will be a reception on campus celebrating the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the Ruane Center for the Humanities–the reception will be held in the center’s Great Room, my favorite spot on campus. I’m on sabbatical and avoiding campus as much as possible, but I’ll be dropping by. It’s my building, after all.
At least that’s how I’ve always thought of it. As the director ten years ago of the interdisciplinary, team-tuaght program that this building was designed to house, I was part of the committee that listened to various architectural firms pitch their vision and poured over bluprints from the winning firm. I wore a hard hat and held a toy shovel along with other dignitaries at the groundbreaking. I frequently went to the second floor of the library next to the construction site to watch the building rise from its foundation, shrinked wrapped for inside work during winter, then revealed in all of its glory in the spring. It was like watching one of my children grow up.
As the program director, I was asked to give a few remarks from the faculty for the auspicious dedication event in October 2013. As I reread my remarks this morning, I was grateful to be reminded, in this challenging and confusing times for teachers (as well as for everyone else), why we do what we do. Here’s what I said from the front steps to several hundred people gathered on the green in front of the building that cool October morning:
My father, an itinerant Baptist minister, once told me about a plaque on the preacher’s side of the pulpit in one of the many churches in which he sermonized during my growing-up years. The pulpit plaque challenged the person giving the sermon directly by asking “What are you trying to do to these people?” As director of the Development of Western Civilization program that has just finished its first month in this glorious new building that we are dedicating today, I frequently ask myself this question and bring it regularly to the DWC faculty. “What are we trying to do to these people, these students who have chosen, along with their families, to make a Providence College liberal arts education a central part of their plans for a flourishing future?”
Just as I usually start DWC faculty meetings with “Here’s what we are not talking about today,” a good answer to “What are we trying to do to these people” might begin with understanding what we are not doing as well. In DWC, for instance, we are not conducting a four-semester long museum tour, spending last week in the Homer wing, this week in the Herodotus wing, and next week in the Sophocles section, bemused by how quaint and how different things were back then. As I often tell my students, if we can’t find something directly relevant to us in what we read and discuss, something of importance to twenty-first century people, we’re wasting our time. So how do we make the connection between the past and the present in such a way as to shape a better future? Brief passages from two different authors, a Lutheran pastor and an Anglican bishop, have recently helped me frame this question anew.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that You have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. A liberally educated person knows where she comes from. Athena may have sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head, but a liberally educated person is shaped, molded, and formed by continual and intelligent immersion in the greatest works and ideas of the past. A liberal education is not a museum tour. It is a deliberate and extended engagement with where we come from; such an engagement forms the foundation a well-lived and creatively expressed life.
Rowan Williams writes that To read means to reread. If we are to gain any meaning out of the past, we must energize it in terms of the present. Contrary to a favorite phrase among Rhode Islanders, liberally educated persons are never “all set.” The ultimate purpose of a liberal education is to establish the tools and habits of lifetime learning, tools and habits that will help shine a new light on everything, even things you thought you already knew. The past, whether my past or a text from several thousand years ago, becomes new each time it is considered, shining a new light on possible futures. Two weeks ago in a seminar on the Odyssey, I came to understand a text that I thought I knew thoroughly in a brand new way as a student compared the challenges faced by Odysseus and Penelope once he makes it back to Ithaca with similar challenges faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
This beautiful new building has been in full pedagogical operation for a month, and the early returns are wonderfully positive. Students and faculty walk the halls with smiles on their faces. There are students already studying and conversing in the Great Room when I arrive at 7:30 every morning. Several colleagues have reported that they are having the best seminars of their lives. The faculty has not become smarter, the students aren’t necessarily better, but we are teaching and learning in a building whose beauty and elegance matches the beauty and elegance of what takes place inside on a daily basis—preparation for a life of learning and excellence. Since the DWC offices were moved into the Ruane Center two months ago, I frequently find myself wandering the halls alternating between smiling and pinching myself to make sure that this is truly our building. To take the Apostle Paul out of context, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” On behalf of the Providence College faculty, I have two words to say to all of those on the stage and all those out there who contributed to making this dream a reality: THANK YOU.