Spring 2011: From Center Hall

August 24, 2011

This month I will have the honor of ringing in one of our largest classes in recent memory. In the Class of 2015 are men from all over the world who will come to Wabash to live and study, to learn and play, and to grow into Wabash men. They will be transformed so that they might think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively and live humanely, so that they might now and in the future make a difference in the world.

Make a difference in the world: What a bold promise for a small college in a small town in the heartland of America. But like many bold dreams, Wabash delivers. The students, faculty, staff, and alumni of this great College learn here to expand their vision and their understanding of the world so that they can become actors in a larger world than they have known before.

As this issue of the magazine shows, Wabash is mounting new initiatives in Asian Studies and fostering through the global initiatives of our Challenge of Excellence increased student study-abroad opportunities and new immersion learning experiences.

Colleges and universities all over the United States and Europe are looking east to Asia. Like American businesses, American colleges recognize the growing economic and political clout of China, India, Singapore, and Vietnam, who join more established powers like Japan and Korea on the horizon of American students. Practically every alumni magazine you read these days is touting new initiatives or bragging about recruiting efforts in Asia, replete with pictures of students at the Great Wall or at the Imperial Palace, travelers who exemplify the outward glance of American education.

What do we make of this new and widespread interest? Is it analogous to the rush to study Russian and science that gripped American universities and high schools after the launch of Sputnik in 1958, or the smaller but emphatic splash of Arabic language study or courses in Islam that followed the 9/11 attacks almost 10 years ago? These impulses and many others over the last 60 years are not mere fads: They show the agility of American education, the way in which seemingly stolid and unchanging institutions can react to changes in the world.

Yet not all responses to the new are created equal. Some colleges and universities may simply be responding to a new market or to the interest of donors and business. As the articles in this magazine reveal, Wabash’s look to the East is grounded not in expedience nor temporary trends, but in the deepest impulses of the liberal arts—our commitment to help our students know themselves and the world around them so that they might live lives of engagement in the world. Wabash men travel, study, and learn in Asia for the same reason that Thoreau went to Walden Pond—to learn to live deliberately.

There are many ways to study a culture. A quick workshop can prepare business people with the rudiments of a culture so that they might travel and conduct business with minimal embarrassment. But the embrace of another culture from a liberal arts perspective demands an awareness of philosophy, art, literature, music, politics, and economics that is different and new. 

Of course, as Wabash men who have lived in Asia tell us, this is the task of a lifetime. And although a liberal arts perspective may not require mastery—an impossible task, as there are many cultures within a culture—the Wabash way demands attention, an awakeness to complexity and beauty. Anthropologists call it a “thick” reading of culture: In diving deep into one aspect of a new world or trying to achieve a broad understanding, one recognizes the many layers of meaning that make up a new world. Simplification is not the solution; understanding and appreciation of nuance, complexity, and richness are the goals. 

Wabash looks to the East guided by the pioneer impulse that founded this College on the edge of the frontier. We welcome students from around the world and invite the best and the brightest young men of Asia to study at Wabash not because we need to swell our admission numbers. And we look to the East not only because of the new economic power of China, India, and Southeast Asia, but because the variety of complex cultures enriches our understanding of the world and who we are. 

In doing so, Wabash men travel in a grand tradition of American thought and culture. For even as a 19th-century Terre Haute editor was penning the injunction, “Go West Young Man,” which Horace Greeley echoed famously later, the best minds of America were becoming attentive to the East. Emerson studied the classics of Chinese literature and was influenced by Chinese philosophy. Thoreau incorporated Indian thought into his understanding of the world and tracked in his imagination the actual journey of ice from Walden Pond to drinks in India. Whitman imagined in “Passage to India” the American imagination reaching California and finding another place to look beyond the Pacific for the adventure of the mind. The Pequod, the three-masted ship of Melville’s Moby Dick, was a small but multicultural society, a mixer of peoples from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. And in the 20th century one-time Wabash professor Ezra Pound turned American writers to Chinese models and rewrote our understanding of what poetry could mean and be.

Remember the full phrase of the Greeley command: “Go West Young Man” was followed by “and grow up with the country.” At the heart of Wabash is an experience in education where young men learn to take themselves seriously, to embolden their courage for a life of change and growth, and to live an expansive life with energy and action amid constant change. In this, Wabash men remain the pioneers that our founders were, and Wabash must remain both grounded in our highest understanding of the liberal arts and awake to new possibilities of learning and experience.

Many years ago as a high school runner in Dixon, Illinois, I set myself the task to run 500 miles one summer before cross country season. I did this in basketball shoes, Converse All Stars, and along country roads and rural highways. One frequent loop sent me north of Dixon to a tiny village five miles away. As I turned around at the village sign, I spoke the village’s name—Woosung. It was an odd and strange sound in the Illinois countryside, but a name whose story I knew even then. Woosung was founded in the 1850s by three clipper ship captains who made a small fortune in the China trade and settled here because the area reminded them of a favorite part of China on the Yangtze River, the town of Wusung.

The resonances are everywhere if we are prepared to dive deep and understand our connections. As in every aspect of a Wabash education, our new initiatives in Asian Studies embody the richness of a liberal arts perspective. We say, “Go west young man, look east young man, find your world and be awake to the very old and the very new. Understand that you are growing into a world thick with promise and possibility. You cannot know everything, but you can know much and learn more. And as you grow, you will be an engine of the growth and development of your community, of your country, and of the world.”

This has long been the way of Wabash men.

Contact President White at whitep@wabash.edu

 

 


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