Karen R. Lawrence
Tenth President of Sarah Lawrence College
Delivered Friday, October 5, 2007
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumnae/i, parents, visiting dignitaries, friends, and family, I am honored to speak to you today as the tenth president of Sarah Lawrence College. And I am proud to join the list of speakers who have addressed a Sarah Lawrence audience at important occasions marking the beginnings and endings of campus life—inaugurations and commencements. In preparing to meet this assignment, I relied on my training as a scholar and teacher of literature—I went to the College archives in the Esther Raushenbush Library to read what my predecessors have written. For a college president, spending hours in the library is not likely to be a frequent occurrence. With what I would call "anticipatory nostalgia" for these moments of quiet study, I read the words of my predecessors, as well as some of the distinguished commencement speakers who have addressed the Sarah Lawrence community: William O. Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, and a very witty Paul Newman on the occasion of his daughter's graduation. To be successful, an inaugural speech must both observe the conventions of the genre—you would think it odd, indeed, if I, like my friend, Mark Strand, suddenly recited a poem and sat down—and it should also convey the individual voice and passion of the new president being inaugurated.
My topic today is the emergence of the individual voice in relation to tradition, convention, and community. A focus on the individual is a foundational principle of Sarah Lawrence, this bold, independent, and humane liberal arts college we celebrate today. As the campus community knows well, the philosophy of John Dewey, one of the most important American philosophers and public intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century, greatly influenced the College's progressive model of education. Dewey believed that learning takes place best when the interests and capacities of the individual student are the starting point. But Dewey's view of the individual could be considered to be "ecological"; that is, he sees each person as embedded in a specific environment, drawing on, and contributing to, the resources of that environment. His pragmatism orients theory toward practice in the world—and individuality toward the search for meaning and value in society.
In the first decade of the 21st century, scholars are questioning whether and how Dewey's philosophy of education remains relevant, as evidenced by a recent essay entitled "Dewey's Limited Shelf Life: A Consumer Warning."(1) Today, I'd like to reaffirm the importance of Dewey's legacy for liberal arts education, and for Sarah Lawrence College, in particular. At a time when "spin" and preprogrammed thought is ubiquitous, it is crucial that a liberal arts education continue to foster the individual voice or signature. At a time of rapid demographic and technological changes in America and in the world, it is crucial that progressive education stay progressive in its definitions of both individual and community.
So, let me offer some words about John Dewey and his ideas. According to Dewey, the self is not a fixed, ready-made essence just waiting to be released, but a capacity for development. In his essay "Education as Growth," Dewey flags the double meaning of the word "capacity": "Capacity," he says, "may denote mere receptivity, like the capacity of a quart measure." But, "we also mean by capacity an ability, a power...."(2) In Dewey's view, a liberal arts education best provides the conditions for active, engaged learning rather than the passive consumption of knowledge, the filling of a waiting vessel. Both science and art provide models for Dewey: science the model for observation and unimpeded free inquiry, and art the model for transformative experience. The goal of a liberal arts education, which includes the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and the arts, is to develop the capacity for asking significant questions and a recognition that the questions, as well as the answers, will change over time. Echoing Dewey, Constance Warren, the second president of Sarah Lawrence, said in 1931, "the test of this College is not whether we have given you an education, but whether we have started you on a life of education."(3)
Of course, there is no one model for successful teaching and learning, and no one model that fits all students. I am certain that the fine institutions represented here today all seek to instill this habit of inquiry in their students. But Sarah Lawrence College has been in the forefront of educational philosophy based on the continuing development of the individual. At Sarah Lawrence we promise our students an education "in the singular," both focused on the individual student and distinctive. The College has a personality, an ethos that is not easily mistaken for that of another institution. Small seminars, a six-to-one student-faculty ratio, conferences between professor and student where intellectual risk and rigor are nurtured in tandem—these elements form the core of our pedagogy. The intense communication between teacher and student and the mentorship provided by the faculty "don," or advisor, place the process of inquiry squarely on the table (and, as insiders know, the table is always round). As the College's sixth president, Esther Raushenbush, pointed out many years ago, this method is impossible either in a curriculum entirely prescribed in requirements or one with totally free electives and no designated faculty guidance.(4)
If you were graphing the trajectory of learning in students at Sarah Lawrence, you would get a positive slope, but probably not a continuous straight line. The model allows for serendipitous intellectual formations and connections that lead to sometimes unanticipated pleasures and rewards. Of course, Sarah Lawrence does not have a patent on encouraging these fruitful intellectual detours. In a commencement address delivered at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs, who briefly attended Reed College, credited a calligraphy course he took at Reed with inspiring the typographical adventurousness of the first Mac computer.(5) Ironically, Jobs's intellectual detour actually extended to his approach to college—he quit school so he could stop taking required classes and sit in on only the classes that interested him! Now, I am certainly not suggesting this approach to our students in the audience. My point is that the model of education at Sarah Lawrence makes ample room for such academic forays. Indeed, it is tempting to think that if Jobs had attended Sarah Lawrence, he might not have dropped out. It is also tempting to think about our endowment had this particular scenario occurred!
The signature of this College is a boldness, independence, and resistance to the routine. In his 1956 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, Robert Frost spoke to this imperative. He challenged the graduates to find their individual voices and to claim their right to be heard. Frost said, "There is no time when I talk or when you talk when we ought not to introduce ourselves with the expression 'I make bold to say.'"(6) This is an injunction, from a poet of great originality, to resist the pressures to conform, in language as in life—to tell the truth. Grace Paley, our distinguished colleague at Sarah Lawrence for eighteen years, was such a truth teller in her fiction and poetry. President Harold Taylor displayed such outspokenness during McCarthy's inquisition in the 1950's. In a different key, so did President Michele Myers when she led the challenge to U.S. News and World Report's ranking system.
But the bold gesture of "saying" is only half the story of discovering one's individual voice. The gesture of "unsaying" is part of the battle, for the individual voice is hampered in its use of language by what philosopher Francis Bacon, in the 17th century, called "the idols of the marketplace." An individual voice, after all, is born into a language that has been worn into grooves by all the other speakers who have used it before and continue to speak. "Unsaying" involves a dedicated effort to refuse language on automatic pilot. It seems increasingly difficult to find people in public life who truly "make bold to say" amidst the wash of predictable phrases. It is difficult to find people in life who do not abuse language in this way. The novelist Flaubert was a master at revealing how the pressure of conformity, particularly in the language of what he called "received ideas," is exerted on human beings struggling to carve our something—an idea, a statement, a way of life—that they can call their own. His novels show how people strive to use the tools at hand to transcend the ordinary. Think of Emma Bovary, drowning in small provincial French life, reading romantic novels and trying desperately, tragically, to turn her life into art. Flaubert captures this poignant struggle in a haunting metaphor: "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars" (Part II, ch. 12). Flaubert wrote these words in 1857. But the struggle for and possibility of authentic expression is never obsolete. Only a few months after 9/11, I attended a conference in Las Vegas and was reminded of Flaubert's words. In front of the hotel, New York, New York, with its simulated Manhattan skyline, hundreds of tourists were attempting to express their own words and feelings by placing tee shirts with the numbers of New York City firefighters on the fence encircling the hotel. In the midst of arguably the most glaring example of imitation, both individual grief and emotional solidarity were conveyed. Critics sometimes fault Dewey for a too-optimistic faith in an individual's capacity to break through curtains of conformity, bureaucracy, or the marketplace. But without underestimating the power of social forces, education, by its nature, is profoundly optimistic about an individual's capacity to develop a voice and be heard.
For Dewey, the creative arts provide a model for transcending routine. For this reason, art is at the center, rather than the periphery, of his philosophy of liberal education and is one of the distinguishing features of Sarah Lawrence, where the creative arts are integral to the curriculum. Rudolf Arnheim, a beloved teacher of psychology at Sarah Lawrence for over thirty years, put it this way. He said, "Every day there is the agonizing fear that this time certainly you will no longer be able to summon the inspirational forces that make the difference between a routine product and something fresh and moving.... It takes much forceful sweeping if you want to uncover, at the clean core of an occupation, that attractive challenge to human ability."(7) My close friend, Leslie Pintchik, a musician and composer, calls it playing music instead of playing notes. It is the goal of a Sarah Lawrence education to train "musicians" of all sorts—actors, painters, scientists, doctors, business owners—who uncover that "attractive challenge to human ability."
In its almost 80-year history, the College has kept faith with these ruling passions. In establishing the College in honor of his wife, Sarah, William Van Duzer Lawrence sought the advice of Henry MacCracken, president of Vassar College. It was MacCracken who realized the relevance and significance of Dewey's philosophy for the establishment of a school for women that would depart from the existing models. But, realizing that he could not implement his experimental ideas about education at Vassar (at Sarah Lawrence, we owe much to this acknowledgment!), he understood that he could shepherd his ideas into being at the new college he helped his friend establish. The College would be a laboratory for testing Dewey's progressive ideas about teaching and learning. Now, it is one thing to "test" a hypothesis in a laboratory, or to "prove" a thesis in an essay or book, but it is quite another to found a college as an embodied educational ideal, an actual community of individuals.
And here is where I want to dwell on the question of community. As an experimental, progressive college, Sarah Lawrence is known for its activism on behalf of social justice as well as its emphasis on individuality. When the individual matters, the individual can make a difference in the world. Dewey believed that individualism need not be narrow or selfish. The question is, though, how is developing the capacity of the individual related to the capacity for community and contribution to community? How are connections forged within this campus of individuals and between the campus and the wider community? It has been said that developing community at Sarah Lawrence is like "herding cats," a cliche often applied to academic communities. And it is true that the vocabulary of "difference" that is so abundant here has sometimes obscured, even inhibited, a sense of community on campus.
One response is that the imagination plays an important role in the development of both capacities. Just as the individual voice requires the imagination to freshen ordinary existence and make and remake the self, so community involves imagining the lives of others, being able to stand in the place of another and feel what it is like to live inside that person's skin. William James, another important American pragmatist, bemoaned narrow individualism and what he viewed as an inability to understand "the sources of delight for individuals other than ourselves."(8) Novelists understand the exercise of such sympathetic imagination when they establish characters from words on a page. After reading Joyce's Ulysses, one of my favorite novels, readers probably know Leopold Bloom's "sources of delight" almost as well as they know their own.
And yet, in our contemporary local and global societies, Dewey's faith in the ability of individuals to know each other—to make themselves legible to one another and to "read" each other—is being tested in a much more heterogeneous society than Dewey experienced. It is tested by the changing demographics of college communities, where students and faculty of different backgrounds come together in a learning environment. It is tested by the expansion of community through technology, where individuals from radically different cultures can enter each other's living rooms and where identity and community can take on "virtual" existence. These are "tests" we must welcome if we are to form communities of individuals who understand people with different likes, dislikes, backgrounds, preferences, and ideologies—people on our campus, in our neighboring communities, and in the world. Our colleges and universities must encourage the deep study of languages and cultures at home and abroad if we are to avoid our own parochialism. Both locally and globally, we have a responsibility to others, to make a difference in their lives without succumbing to ill-fated attempts to export our system of beliefs.
Earlier, I mentioned Paul Newman's commencement address. In it, he spoke eloquently of the various communities he had belonged to in his life, communities in which he felt that a group of individuals could make a difference in the world. Community, he said, "inspires, supports, demands, extracts all I have, keeps me in the process, keeps me honest. The community is the demand that creates my supply. I need its invitation to remember that I am responsible, that I long for fellowship, that I have any generosity at all. Individualism needs, for its own moral comfort, to be tempered by community."(9)
As I eagerly begin the work of stewarding the College, I believe that Deweyan optimism, pragmatism, and experimentalism are alive and well and living in Westchester. As I begin my term as president, I am committed to fulfilling our mission of fostering the individual voice and helping the community of individuals to imagine, and contribute to, the lives of others. But in order for future generations to enjoy the same transformative experiences that our alumnae/i and students have had, Dewey offers further instructive counsel. First, a learning community, like an individual, must grow. Esther Raushenbush said it best, I think, when she reminded the constituents of Sarah Lawrence that the College was "created to be a continually experimenting college."(10) It "was indeed established to bring to life a particular educational philosophy, and experimental in the sense that it put into practice new ideas about learning, about human development, about designing a curriculum. But more important was the commitment it made to continual examination and inquiry into education, and into how education in an institution based on such principles would function."(11)
I agree. The title of the panel this afternoon, to which you are all invited, is taken from Heraclitus and it is: "'You Can't Step into the Same River Twice': Reimagining the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century." A progressive, experimental college must adjust to the changing intellectual, and social, demands of the 21st century.
Second, Dewey's philosophy of community offers an instructive message to the "cats" in our Sarah Lawrence community. In the year since being named president-elect of this extraordinary college, I have met alumnae/i from all over the country who attribute their sense of individuality to the unique Sarah Lawrence environment for learning. The most typical expression I have heard is that each person became the person he or she is, through the intellectual and social partnerships forged at Sarah Lawrence with a don, other faculty, and fellow students. Yet some seem to feel little overt identification with the College as an institution. The individuals of Sarah Lawrence are skeptical of tradition for tradition's sake, skeptical of hokey forms of association, and skeptical of phony invitations to the club. To members of the Sarah Lawrence community gathered here today, particularly our alumnae/i—our best advertisements for the Sarah Lawrence education—I would ask you to remember that the College nurtured your individual voices and met your "demands" to be heard as individuals. It taught you, and is teaching others today, to know how to "say" and "unsay." Now, however, to use Paul Newman's terms, supply and demand are reversed. Now, community is the "demand" that needs your "supply." So my final message is made with a sense of joy and possibility at the sight of all of you comprising one audience today at this occasion. My message to the Sarah Lawrence community is the following: "Iconoclasts Unite." The College and the world need you.
As I look at members of this Sarah Lawrence community, alongside the individuals who have played such important roles in my own life—my family, friends, and former colleagues—it is an incredibly inspiring feeling. I look forward to working with you all. Iconoclasts unite!
1 Michael Eldridge, "Dewey's Limited Shelf Life: A Consumer Warning" in In Dewey's Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction, ed. William J. Gavin, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003, 25–38.
2 "Education as Growth," in Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, New York, N.Y.: The Free PRESS 1944, 41.
3 Constance Warren, Sarah Lawrence College Commencement address, 1931
4 Esther Raushenbush, "The Teacher and the Student" in Essays in Teaching, ed. Harold Taylor (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 31.
5 Steve Jobs, Stanford University Commencement address, 2005
6 Robert Frost, Sarah Lawrence College Commencement address, 1956.
7 Rudolph Arnheim, "...what you want to do... what you have to do... what you ought to do...." Sarah Lawrence College Commencement address, 1974.
8 James T. Kloppenberg, "Cosmopolitan Pragmatism: Deliberative Democracy and Higher Education" in Education and Democracy:
Re-imagining Liberal Learning in America, ed. Robert Orrill. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1997, 69.
9 Paul Newman, Sarah Lawrence Commencement address, 1990.
10 Esther Raushenbush "Tomorrow: A New Place For the Liberal Arts College," 1965.
11 Esther Raushenbush, "Some Remarks on Becoming a President," Inaugural address, 1965.