2009 Convocation Address
Frontier Pragmatism: The Importance of Place in an Undergraduate Education
by President William G. Durden '71
Welcome to the official opening of the 2009-2010 academic year of Dickinson College—the 237th year in our history. I extend special greetings to the members of the class of 2013 and transfer students who are about to begin engagement as lifelong Dickinsonians.
At the end of our opening ceremony, our incoming students will participate in one of Dickinson’s most treasured traditions when you ascend the Old Stone Steps of Memorial Hall to “sign in” to the College. Several years from now, you will reverse this symbolic action when you descend these same steps to receive your diploma and move beyond these limestone walls to engage the world as Dickinsonians. For the seniors who have joined us today, this rite of passage will occur in just eight short months.
When you ascend the Old Stone Steps, be sure to glance to the right at the statue of our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. You will hear much about Dr. Rush over the next four years. Dr. Rush—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—serves as a constant reminder that Dickinson College is linked inextricably to the founding of our nation.
Just consider the following:
- Dickinson was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania just five days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolution in 1783;
- That charter was written by James Wilson, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a resident of Carlisle, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court and a member of Dickinson’s first board of trustees;
- The College is the 16th oldest institution of higher education in the nation;
- Our first building, Old West, was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. capitol, and those who contributed financially to its construction included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, and John Marshall; and
- The College’s namesake, John Dickinson, was called “the Penman of the American Revolution” and later signed the U. S. Constitution.
This is, without doubt, a most impressive list of early benefactors who have left us with a revolutionary legacy that continues to provide us with daily inspiration and guidance.
One of the most interesting and even puzzling aspects about the founding of Dickinson College is its location. Why did Dr. Rush—a resident of Philadelphia, world traveler and graduate of both Princeton University and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland—choose to locate Dickinson in Carlisle, a small town on the edge of what was then the nation’s western frontier—although today squarely situated within what is known as the country’s East Coast?
Let’s start by looking at what Rush envisioned when he founded Dickinson. Far from just another college, Rush intended Dickinson to be the bellwether for a new kind of higher education that would be distinctly American. He specifically rejected the idea of the orthodoxy of “learning for learning’s sake” that dominated European institutions for centuries and America’s initial colonial colleges, advancing instead the concept of a useful liberal arts education appreciative of inherited knowledge but also receptive to what had yet to be discovered. That “usefulness” was directed to one purpose and one purpose only— higher education following the American Revolution was to meet the comprehensive needs of the new republic. According to Dr. Rush, “The form of government we have assumed has created a new class of duties to every American” and thus it is imperative “to adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government.”
This was to be first and foremost a pragmatic education with a civic purpose. Dr. Rush states, “…I consider it is possible to convert men [and, of course, now women] into republican machines. This must be done, if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state…That republic [must] revolve upon the wills of the people, and these must be fitted to each other by means of education….” This was a “scrappy,” intentional education where inherited ideas were rigorously challenged and new ideas encroached. Rush instinctively knew that the young democracy would require active, engaged and ambitious citizens if it were to survive
For Rush, access to higher education for all citizens was so fundamental to the success of American democracy that he intentionally located Dickinson on what was then the western frontier of the nation. He also selected Pennsylvania, a state that was being established by a unique mix of people and ideologies and was a center of critical activities that formed the new government. As the first American college or university founded west of the Susquehanna River, Dickinson represented a national commitment to extend the sources of formal learning beyond what was already established along the Atlantic Coast while still remaining a part—an evolving part—of the East Coast.
It was a bold, symbolic move imparting through a liberal arts education a sense of what I now call “frontier pragmatism”—a notion that acknowledges the vast uncertainty and boundless opportunities that accompanied the founding of a new nation, and the need to give citizens the useful skills and knowledge to ensure its success. Rush’s choice of location for Dickinson, then, was highly intentional. Borne of revolution, the College was rooted in America’s formative past and, at the same time, welcomed what was to become the most inventive and entrepreneurial achievements of the future. From its very inception, Dickinson reached outwards into the world to build a nation from a firm, yet creatively volatile intellectual base.
What made Rush’s vision so workable was the fact that it benefitted in varying degrees from at least two intellectual traditions that had already converged to leave a lasting mark on Pennsylvania’s culture.
The first of these was the Scottish Enlightenment, a school of thought that influenced many of our founding fathers, including Rush. This approach to knowledge was driven by a keen sense of utilitarianism and common sense. It advanced the optimistic belief in the ability of humans to effect significant changes for the betterment of society and nature. It was an activist, cosmopolitan outlook on life that welcomed diversity of opinion and engaged community for improvement in life and livelihood. And it is this Scottish Enlightenment influence that provides the “useful” in our notion of “frontier pragmatism.”
The second tradition emanated from the German immigrants who had settled in Pennsylvania. Motivated by a clear sense of purpose and a strong work ethic, these settlers were committed to the sharing of talents and resources to build cohesive communities in a rugged and untamed environment. This commitment to enter into a continuous effort to create and sustain communities in a new world demonstrated the democratic potential that existed on the nation’s frontier.
There is a third tradition that figures prominently in the intellectual inheritance of Pennsylvania—the tradition of 18th century Philadelphia Quakerism. Although Rush counted many Quakers among his close friends—his best friend and the namesake of the College, John Dickinson was of a Quaker tradition—his ambitions for Dickinson College did not absorb this influence.
Why is this? I suggest that Dr. Rush believed that Quaker doctrine would not permit a college or university to adapt readily to the new directions in knowledge and practice that were required in a rapidly emerging democracy. He feared that the Quaker disposition would not support his high ambition for Dickinson—a college for which he sought fame, reputation and distinction not for himself (he was an acutely modest man) but for the institution’s ability to build a democratic nation through its graduates. Rush wanted his college to be “First in America”—first in reputation based upon the contribution of its distinctive liberal arts education to the well being of the nation and its evolving democracy.
In a provocative book titled Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979), E. Digby Baltzell explores the “deeply rooted tradition in Philadelphia” of the Quakers “reading out of meeting” those Friends “who took the lead in Philadelphia’s Golden Age in the eighteenth century.” The Quakers were a community dedicated to the humble and accessible to all humankind. While this disposition can be most virtuous, in some cases it is problematic. It can be argued, as Baltzell does, that humbleness can result in the tendency to shun fame and those who have ambitions for strong leadership. He references the Quaker practice of “outing” those who demonstrated leadership to advance a bold, progressive community that heralded its contributors. “This Quaker policy of disownment eventually became a Proper Philadelphia habit,” Baltzell concluded, “highly visible in the class habit of disparaging exceptional talent [as well as visible and heralded public leadership].”
According to Baltzell, Dr. Rush was “certainly the most distinguished Philadelphian of his or any other time, both in medicine and civic leadership.” We can assume, therefore, that Rush felt alienated from anything that thwarted pragmatic leadership for democracy and excellence of achievement for the public good. He was particularly troubled by what he perceived to be a tendency to limit people from the collective identity and pride necessary to do anything “out of the ordinary” for the improvement of community. In the last year of his life, he wrote to John Adams, “…You do me great injustice in supposing I possess a single Pennsylvania or anti-New England prejudice. I know my native state too well. It is a great exchange filled with men of all nations who feel no attachments to each other from the ties of birth, education, and religion, and who from that circumstance are incapable of STATE character….Had it not been for what are called newcomers and strangers I could not have retained my standing in Philadelphia….There have been times when I have been ready to say of my native state … ‘I am not of this vile country.’ But these times have been transient in their duration and the hectic produced by them has soon passed away….”
The historical consequence of this aspect of Quakerism upon Pennsylvania stands in stark contrast to what occurred in New England which was shaped by different early influences. The initial years of higher education in New England were set in the prevailing context of Puritanism and its emphasis “on ‘calling’ and the civic duties demanded of the ‘elect’” as a powerful source of human motivation and definition—“a sense of achievement and of having done one’s duty in exercising authority in community affairs” (Baltzell). Such service was praised widely and honored publically. As a consequence, New England promoted fiercely the fame of its institutions of higher education for readying its students to pursue leadership in public service. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, to this day has not advanced to its full benefit the excellence of its colleges and universities.
These early influences—the Scottish Enlightenment, the Germanic tradition, and Rush’s insistence on embracing all peoples and viewpoints—coalesced in the founding of Dickinson College. Today, they define for me the notion of “frontier pragmatism”—that commitment to building democracy through the useful skills afforded you by a Dickinson liberal arts education.
I suggest that, especially in recent years, Dickinson College has identified more than any other institution this combination of influences that shaped Pennsylvania’s distinctive culture for learning in democracy.
We are once again asserting what Dr, Rush wanted us originally to proclaim for Dickinson College and its place in Pennsylvania. We today appreciate what even Dr. Rush’s colleagues on the original Dickinson Board of Trustees and the first president failed to understand. Rush’s vision was so unorthodox for the time that the college leadership altered severely his “Plan for Education” at Dickinson College, editing out all progressive ideas contributing creatively to the building of a new nation and returning to a course of study that had been inherited from England where “learning for learning’s sake” alone was paramount.
By choosing to study at Dickinson, you have chosen wisely to be influenced in your education by this particular sense of place and the habits of thought and action that accompany it—by “frontier pragmatism.” This is the “Dickinson’s Edge”—your singular advantage in being a Dickinsonian. Its full benefit and distinction to what you might have received at other colleges and universities will only be most completely felt once you graduate and engage the world. You have chosen to pursue in and out of the classroom at Dickinson the knowledge and skills that will permit your informed participation and leadership in this nation and throughout the globe.
Today we assert Rush’s vision proudly and without historical timidity. We unabashedly encourage you, our students, to engage democracy in all forms of participation and leadership—a commitment inherent in Dr. Rush’s 18th century wishes for students in Pennsylvania and the new nation. We understand that all attempts to “out” that which is different and protect what has always been just because it is that with which we are familiar is problematic and, in fact, runs counter to aspects of democratic growth and economic viability. We join Dr. Rush in believing that it is “newcomers and strangers” who make our community and its democratic process exciting and productive. That is what this ceremony today is all about—welcoming new students and faculty from around the world into our community and being “jolted” by new ideas and perspectives. It is our annual celebration of receiving that which is new and advancing that which is essential for a more vital future.
You are now a participant in an activist, pragmatic approach to a liberal arts education that traverses the world near and far for sources of knowledge and embraces the diversity of cultures --“the newcomers and strangers”—that combine to create our vibrant campus community. As such, Dickinson is a place that confronts and questions unequivocally existing and emerging knowledge and asks students to develop an informed “voice” to express their positions about issues that matter. It can, at times, be a “noisy” community of learners unafraid to discuss that which other college communities relegate to silence. This outspokenness and candor can be most unsettling to the uninitiated as it can seem that we have more problems and in greater degree than the rest of America and the world. Honesty has its risks, but these are, in our judgment, far outweighed by its benefits. Dickinson is, however, a cohesive community, bound by a commitment to honest discourse and the constructive resolution that emerges from such lively, open debate.
We must, however, acknowledge that with “noise” comes responsibility. Civility cannot be assumed or simply inherited. Every cohort of students, faculty and staff has to reinvent and recommit to civil discourse not only in words, but also in deeds. Listening in a sustained and focused way is an indispensible part of speaking out responsibly. It is foolhardy merely to prepare in your mind your response to a person while he is speaking to you and in so doing, disregard understanding his position while you blithely assert yours. It is foolhardy to bring to a conversation a pre-determined ideology that you attempt to force –loudly and disruptively—upon another person simply to remain the last person talking—never growing in perception or understanding. It is foolhardy to assert that a person is not listening to you—not valuing you as a person—when what you really mean is that she is not agreeing with you. It is foolhardy to perpetuate rumors before proactively investigating their origin and accuracy or their particular context—a most common malady on college campuses that is both destructive and dangerous to you as an individual and the community of which you are a member.
You will be able to stand firm in your convictions and find the courage to be tenacious in the face of adversity if you have taken the time to validate the foundations of your views. If you have not made sure of the distinction between what is true and what is not—if you lash out rashly with accusation against or about others—if you like to be cynical and incorrect for the sake of merely being so—you will at the very least discredit yourself and most likely advance needless alarm in the community, as well as potentially malign another person or group.
Let us commit today to create collectively a community that demonstrates the value of civil discourse through our actions. When you “sign in” to the College in a few minutes, you are agreeing to join a community of diverse individuals who will find a way over the next several years—as we have done over the span of four centuries-- to coexist in close proximity and create an intellectually stimulating, enjoyable and safe community. In this way, your years on campus will serve as a laboratory for the life you will establish as a member of communities beyond these limestone walls.
Never forget that you are joining a community that ardently believes a Dickinson liberal arts education is intended to be useful for advancing democracy in every possible way. Rush expected every citizen—no matter where they resided or what walk of life they chose—to be an active public servant. “Patriots … come forward!” he wrote. “Your country demands your success … in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals and in her manners.” For Rush participation in public or community service defined American patriotism.
It is this long “red line of service” spanning four centuries that you join today. For generation after generation, Dickinson graduates have validated the wisdom of investing in a Dickinson education. This is our accountability to the nation and its people we serve. This exercise in democracy is what we proudly offer as our legitimate accountability matching our historic institutional mission with contemporary performance to those in Washington and elsewhere who would now convert our university classrooms across the nation into mere repositories of empirical pre- and post- testing without greater ambition. From the basis of a useful liberal education, our alumni have engaged in virtually every conceivable occupation that contributes to the advancement of democracy, often assuming key leadership positions. Those who have gone before you include a President of the United States, a Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, members of the U.S. Congress and state and local legislators, federal judges, engineers, military leaders, religious leaders, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, artists and writers, sports executives, research scientists, teachers, environmentalists, policy makers, professors and even a few university presidents. We rest our case when we speak of accountability defined as it should be by mission validated through corresponding results!
This commitment to democratic engagement, moreover, is not simply the work of a select few. Indeed, we recently gathered evidence in an alumni survey that verifies how active and involved the vast majority of our graduates are. The survey revealed that:
- In the past two years, nearly 90 percent of our alumni have engaged in community volunteer work;
- In 2008, 85 percent of respondents voted in a national and/or local election—a rate at least 50 percent higher than the national average; and
- Last year, 95 percent of the alumni respondents made a financial contribution to a non-profit organization.
These are the Dickinsonians who have preceded you, those who have set a standard not only for you to follow, but also to exceed. By signing into the College, you avail yourselves of the benefits of this special community—but you must also agree to assume certain responsibilities. Those alumni who have walked down these same steps at graduation—including yours truly—have made the College what it is today for you and your time. It is their contributions, their continuing involvement, their ongoing aspirations for their alma mater that have brought distinction and honor to Dickinson.
As you walk up these stairs, think of the revolutionary heritage that led to the founding of Dickinson College. Reflect on the idea of “frontier pragmatism”—that sense of place that pushes you into an exciting but unknown future armed with the useful knowledge, ambition and skills to participate and lead in the world. Realize that, as Dickinsonians, you will be expected to embrace a commitment to our mission of engaged citizenship that values lifelong learning, useful employment in the full range of professions, dedication to family and others beyond yourself, and full participation in the myriad obligations of the democratic process. Acknowledge that you now join with all Dickinsonians to preserve your College’s distinctiveness, to secure its future and to ensure that the Dickinson community remains ever present in your lives and deserving of your financial support beginning in senior year and throughout a lifetime (last year’s senior class, for example, achieved an astounding 90 percent participation rate in its class gift). In walking up these steps, begins responsibility.
And now, with the ringing of this exact miniaturized replica of the Liberty Bell which symbolizes our revolutionary heritage, I officially pronounce the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year. [RING BELL]
I now call Juliana Burdick ’11 who will lead us in the singing of “The Alma Mater.”
Return to the podium after “The Alma Mater.”
New students, I invite you to follow the directions of the marshals as they guide you up the old stone steps to “sign in” to the College to begin your lives as Dickinsonians. Find your own frontiers to explore and conquer. Capture your idealism and make it pragmatically productive. And remember, as Dickinsonians, you will carry a unique historic legacy into the future as the engaged citizens and leaders of your generation.