Notes From Center Hall
We live in a world with ever fewer boundaries, where cultures often peacefully embrace one another but at times collide recklessly. What assurances have we that, as our world becomes smaller, we shall be able to maintain a level of trust, understanding, and civility?
Countless books, articles, and op-ed pieces have been written on the subject in recent months, most of them suggesting that our public discourse has become rude and self-serving. I just finished reading Stephen Carter's new book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. In it, he argues for trust, generosity, respect, and understanding, while painting a troubling picture for our society if it continues down the path of incivility.
We have no guarantees that Carter's call for manners and morals will be heeded. That's why colleges like Wabash are needed more than ever. We develop the type of leaders who can engage in dialogue and sustain the necessary conversations that will preserve communities as international and cultural boundaries dissolve.
At Wabash, we have proven that we can sustain an exceptionally high level of civility even during the most difficult of disputes. In his May 1998 letter from the Board of Trustees to Wabash alumni and friends, Chairman of the Board Charles Goering '51 described a series of events that demonstrates how this College continues to function as a laboratory for debate, research, and creative compromise--precisely the tools a healthy society needs to tackle its most difficult problems.
At the center of a recent Wabash debate was the faculty's desire to add new minors in gender studies and multicultural American studies. What transpired over the course of the year was a remarkable example of a first-rate faculty and dedicated trustees working together to sustain a dialogue that would benefit the entire College community. Both groups, as well as students, fashioned passionate arguments, and, true to Wabash's tradition, the discussion remained at a high and productive level. Had the debate occurred just about any place other than Wabash, I'm sure it would have disintegrated into a politicized, polarizing wrestling match.
But it did not. When the Board of Trustees met last May, it not only approved the substitute proposal to strengthen areas of concentration across the curriculum, but also saluted the individuals who worked so selflessly to keep the discussion focused and constructive. In our case, a year's worth of discussion produced neither winners nor losers, just a stronger College for future generations of Wabash men.
I thought about the many critical moments when the discourse could have been far from cordial while I sat on the stage during the 1998 Commencement ceremonies. We have this wonderful, rare tradition of allowing only students to speak at Commencement. I had no idea what Ben Deufel '98 and Luttrell Levingston '98 would talk about when they took the podium, but I fully trusted them as our most recent examples of the Wabash success story. Midway through his speech, Ben grabbed my attention and in many ways summarized our year-long faculty-trustee discussions when he said:
"I believe that in our pluralistic society, tolerant of difference and intolerant of fear-inspired hate, we must also support the institutions that promote coherence and community. Wabash College is one of those institutions. As products of such an institution, we must promote the philosophy of Wabash that builds community, while safeguarding free thought and action. If I'm right in believing that the world needs thinkers, communicators, and dreamers. And if I'm also right about Wabash being an institution that routinely provides such people, then I have faith that many of those sitting in front of me will be leaders in communities and businesses nationwide. I hope our leadership changes people's lives. In contrast to simple stewardship, as Wabash men, we should promote an elevated way of thinking and acting. We must be sensitive to other people's needs and values. At the same time, we must employ our own vision to persuade others to reach higher and act together with new insight, vitality, and enhanced capability."
Ben is correct when he asserts that this world needs the
confident, capable, and thoughtful leadership that Wabash men are able to
provide. Wabash men are indeed qualified to be the bridge builders the next
century will require, because they have been taught to think, reason, and
keep a conversation moving forward. Our rapidly changing society couldn't
be in better hands.