Fall 2008: From Center Hall

November 26, 2008

Summertime and the Liberal Arts Quest

Summertime. Dreamtime. A time for that essential activity Walt Whitman advocated, to "loaf and invite the soul."

When I was in seventh grade in Dixon, Illinois—when summer stretched before us as a time of infinite possibility —my friends and I spent our long, restless days playing out all kinds of crazy ideas. We invented weird variations on whiffle ball, or dug up yards to turn croquet courts into elaborate miniature golf courses. We even built a gym in the second story of Coop’s old barn garage until Mr. Cooper came home and reached the conclusion that our idle minds and not so idle hands made a devil’s workshop.

We were not bored, exactly, but we were hungry for something more.

We wanted adventure.

To that end, Paul Kopeck and I decided to get out of town. We thought about taking the train to Chicago, or the bus to Rockford. Rockford? Hardly El Dorado or the Golden Isles. We really did not know what we would do there, and our plans floundered on the Scylla and Charybdis that has wrecked many young adventures: we did not have any money and our parents would kill us if we took off.

So instead, inspired by Twain’s Huck Finn, we built a raft with the intention of sailing it down the Rock River to the Mississippi and on to Hannibal, Twain’s hometown. Lucky for us, our raft sank as we poled it out of a stagnant lagoon, before we even made it to the river. We were better dreamers than we were naval engineers.

When I got old enough to work, summer became a time of labor, but still a dreamtime. My jobs were not exciting—baling hay, camp counseling, occasional odd jobs. But I had steady work into my college years from my father at his Red White Ornamental Iron Works. I swept up, ground welds, cut steel, and spray-painted railings. Not particularly tough or mind-engaging work, it left me plenty of time to think and wonder what it would be like to be doing something else. As a young man in the first fervor of intellectual adventure, I often wondered, Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of my doing this, someone paid me to read books during the summer?

I never forgot that dream, and 25 years later as associate dean of faculty at Saint Mary’s College, I secured the funding and established grants for students to work closely with faculty members in summer reading and research.

At Wabash, we have achieved an even more comprehensive form of summer engagement for students. Through summer internships, students do research with faculty, work in new ways with companies led by alumni, take on business tasks for local nonprofits through the Business Immersion Program, and travel and study in the Wabash Ecuador Program. In all these summer experiences, students learn alongside our faculty and enjoy the rich interactions that the Wabash National Study of the Liberal Arts has found most effective for teaching and learning.

In so doing they discover their own ways of making the summertime a new and challenging adventure, enacting their own dreams, turning summer into a quest, into a new imagination of the self and the world.

Among some indigenous peoples, the vision quest is a rite of initiation that takes the young man outside his community and his own understanding of himself to discover the new worlds around (and within) him. The fabled walkabout of the aboriginal peoples of Australia is a time of testing, not only of the body, but of the heart, spirit, and imagination—an education in which a young man is given the chance to know who he is and who he can become.

At Wabash, summertime is the season for this quest. A summer internship with a law office in Washington, DC may not seem as dramatic as the quest for the Golden Fleece, but they share the same trajectory and may yield equally valuable prizes. Summer travel, an internship, or research takes the Wabash man outside his comfortable community. He listens to new conversations and hears his own voice in new worlds. He learns in ways that are impossible to replicate in the classroom.

Our young men make this quest not to run away, but to leave and return home. The quest is forever circular. The man comes out of himself and his community to learn and grow in order to return home with the new gift of knowledge. Even Paul Kopeck and I wanted to float to Hannibal not so we could run away from home, but so we could return somehow transformed by the experience, so that we could come home new, wiser, heroes of an adventure.

PEOPLE ARE SOMETIMES SURPRISED to hear that the Wabash student does not pay extra for immersion trips and our summer internships. They ask, "Doesn’t that cost a lot of money?" I answer, "Yes, it does." Wabash even allows our financial aid to travel with students in their dream quests of foreign study to Spain, the Netherlands, China, Germany, France, Scotland and other countries.

Sometimes people respond, "Isn’t that funding a little extravagant?"

Extravagant is an interesting word. Literally, it means "wandering," walking outside the usual paths, and our generous and extravagant support makes the wandering of our students possible. Why do we do this? Because it is an essential part of the Wabash education not only for the questors who take advantage of this opportunity, but for all in our community.

FOR AT SUMMER’S END, when the faculty and students return from their quests, they tell their stories in class, in public presentations, in published articles, and in the late- night, long conversations that have been going on among friends, between students and teachers, since language began. Thoroughly modern at the same time, many students and faculty use blogs on the College Web site to tell their stories long before they return. But the impulse to tell of one’s adventures and the gift to the community in such telling are age-old. These professors and students teach us of their travels so that others may find the courage for their own adventures and the directions for their own quests.

Summertime. Dreamtime. At Wabash, summertime is not three months on the calendar, but the constant season of our spirit, a time marked by our readiness for adventures of the mind and heart. In the going out and coming hither of students and faculty engaged in actual travel and in journeys of imagination and discovery, in the experience and learning that bonds all the adventurers who study and think together at this College, we model the quest that is at the heart of the liberal arts—the liberal arts as quest for knowledge and understanding of self and world, of self in world.

At the end of his wanderings after many years, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca. That’s where Homer leaves him. Alfred Tennyson, though, in his poem "Ulysses" has his hero in his old age looking for one more quest, one more journey of discovery. It is Ulysses’ avidity, his hunger for learning that we see again and again in the young men of Wabash who have been transformed by their summer quests, whether near or far. As Tennyson’s Ulysses calls his men once more to the journey of discovery, he praises them for their "heroic hearts" which remain "strong in will," hearts ready "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Tennyson wrote these words in 1842 and, as far as I know, he was unaware of Wabash College, but he knew of the quest that lies at the heart of our liberal arts education, and an equally eloquent evocation of "Wabash Always Fights" would be hard to find.

Contact President White at whitep@wabash.edu

 


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