In His Own Words
April 11, 2013
William G. Durden
October 30, 1999
Thank you, John, for the honor you bestow on behalf of the College. Thank you, Dean Weissman and Student Senate President Ward, for your very kind words of welcome. And Kendra, your words mean a great deal to me, and I promise to continue to walk diagonally. To the trustees, faculty, and students—thank you for the trust you have placed in me to come back to Dickinson College and to assume the 27th presidency. I commit myself wholeheartedly to the responsibility, the challenge, and the opportunity.
To the distinguished delegates, friends and members of the community: thank you for honoring by your presence this college and the office of the presidency—the 16th-oldest college in America—a college born of a revolutionary spirit and an entrepreneurial disposition. And to all those watching these proceedings on the Internet from Belgium to Australia—thank you for joining us electronically.
And you, Scott, I thank you for your most generous, and as always, poetically infused words that grow from your unflagging dedication to two songs—that of nature—that is your longstanding search for meaning in the deeply mysterious, lyrical song of the whale and that of the richly complex human song witnessed through poetry. I praise your most recent effort to celebrate the power and pleasure of poetry: The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the Woodstock of Poetry-a dazzling array of sounds, insights, images, metaphors and emotion—and the associated book, Fooling with Words, by Bill Moyers. You have given, Scott, words a place, a space—Waterloo, New Jersey—where for days they can freely cross, collide, confront, and collude.
It is of space and my prolonged conversation within it about things that matter of which I speak today. Space and my sense of engaging it through movement and conversation have defined my professional life and have been the unifying factor of all of my efforts while at St. Paul's School (Baltimore) and at Johns Hopkins University, serving the U.S. State Department, or in corporate America at Sylvan Learning Systems and the Caliber Learning Network. It is this story of space that I now bring with me to Dickinson.
My first published articles in German literature all forwarded the youthful notion of what I then introduced as ''the spatial-ontological approach." I thought that as critic I could trace the actual patterns of a character's movement through a fictional world and, further, that the resulting geometrical configuration yielded important insight into the psyche of that character. Those who essentially walked in circles forever looking inward were of one mind, those who walked in straight lines looking ahead were of another, and those who moved not at all were of another sort altogether.
As my academic interests in German literature and language fused into the field of education, I continued to converse within space. I spent considerable time in my career advancing and defining a concept known as the Optimal Match-a dynamic space to me in learning where a student is challenged just enough to be stretched intellectually but not so greatly as to suffer defeat and disappointment. This tension represented a delicate, mysterious space that matters a great deal to me and for which I persistently sought definition. I then moved to another spatial approach to learning-what I called "contextual" education. It was here that I attempted to abolish any artificial borders to and within the traditional classroom and give testimony to those constructive experiences outside the classroom (the contexts) wherever they might exist and however unproductive and inconsequential they might first appear. I found great value in the 18thcentury notion that established the distinctiveness of an American education opposed to that of Europe-a spatial concept actually and a bold, revolutionary one at that. In America, learning was to take place not just in the classroom but "anywhere and everywhere—in the home, the workplace, places of worship, museums. It was here that I committed myself through the appreciation of multiple contexts to the rich diversity of the space I inhabited. It was here that I developed in my space a sense of "peripheral vision." I sought and continue to seek what matters not just in the obvious, but perhaps even more importantly, in that which occurs by chance and from which meaning might be granted out of the corner of the eye—hence "peripheral vision."
This last observation quite naturally led me to my most recent writings that represent yet another conversation within space. I fixed on the space in which those who are ultimately highly creative must spend some time and live, as I call it, "in the connective tissue," rather than those who live "in the bone." Those in the "connective tissue" associate disparate elements not often juxtaposed by others and thus gain their creative distinction and contribute what matters to them and ultimately others.
And now today I return to this space that is Dickinson College to converse again for that which matters within it. I say "again," of course, because I am returning to where I was some 30 years before. I am resuming conversation. There is some natural order here. Three decades ago I moved through this space in at least two ways. Firstly, I engaged in a rich intellectual movement through the space that is the liberal arts—the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences. I walked—mostly ran—from one to the other only stopping briefly to concentrate a bit more on philosophy and German. And I moved in Dickinson's extended physical space. During my junior year, I studied in Freiburg, Germany, and this began my obsession to find what matters not just where I am but always ultimately in what is out there. A pattern of meaning emerged for me here in the space between the what was out there—in Germany.
Here in Carlisle, from my first year in 1967 to the spring of 1971, I walked the streets daily—often in the early morning. Some of you here today did this with me; others here walked with me elsewhere—in Albany, New York, in Freiburg, in Basle, or in Baltimore. It was actually in Carlisle that I believe I first discovered my fascination with space and with movement within it. I also recognized space as indeed the source of what matters and perhaps, more importantly, I realized that much like a useful concept of architecture, space is a generator of events. I, of course, initially walked the main streets of Carlisle. But then one day I veered off and discovered the alleys—the "avenues" as they are called here because for many the alleys offered the front entrances to their homes. I learned from the avenues that space yields differing stories—one much different than those with entrances on main street. I saw that space is filled by a variety of conversations—some more visible than others just by mere placement. I've been an alley-goer ever since Carlisle.
Actually the paradigm of main street and alley distinctively defines Dickinson. The College is well known in part for its extensive international engagement-its language instruction and its academic programs throughout the world. When Dickinson picks a site for a program, it does so with deliberate pedagogical intent. Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, London, Tokyo, Cairo, Mexico City—these are not our sites. These are the main streets—if you —they are crowded with others, especially other American students. This density permits our students neither the possibility to see the ground clearly nor distinguish well the native voices. We seek in contrast—whenever possible—the site that is several hundred miles from the well-trodden. We visit easily the world cities—they're not far away and we're comfortable there—but they are not where we spend most of our time in movement and conversation. We seek places like Bremen, Malaga, Norwich, Bologna, Toulouse. If you will, we persistently ask our students to walk the alleys mostly, not the main streets. We seek the less traveled—that space that most readily brings us daily into unfiltered contact with the local patterns of movement and conversation. Of course, the placement of Dickinson's main campus in Carlisle, also fits this defining paradigm. Here in Central Pennsylvania we engage the daily microscopic challenges, aspirations, and hours away from the macroscopic complexities of a state capital, Harrisburg; a nation's capital, Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York City.
I am quintessentially a Dickinsonian in my movement through space and by my conversation. I am comfortable engaging at once America and the world. For me, as for all Dickinsonians, there is little paradox and much advantage in embracing both. For 30 years I was grounded in the exhilarating, yet highly diverse, complex community that is America. For those years I trust that I served the only city in which I resided—Baltimore, Maryland—by an active, useful citizenship—by chairing several all-city Task Forces on the beleaguered school system and by chairing the Advisory Council and by serving on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Maryland with a commitment to youth in the heart of what is known as the "inner city." At the very same time I traveled and worked all over the world, touching down repeatedly and often adventuresomely in at least 60 countries from Europe to Africa to Asia to South America. It has more than once been reported to me that I was seen on several different continents having lunch at the same time. And it could have well been true.
Carlisle and Dickinson College also are spaces that have critical life-giving associations for me. About 10 years ago, I discovered that on the evening of June 29, 1863, my great grandfather, William Napoleon Durden, who was then a 19-year-old farm boy who could neither read nor write, walked up the Walnut Bottom Road with the 6th Alabama Infantry Regiment-Autauga Rifles and camped just beyond town. In all likelihood, he was moved back by wagon to these very grounds—where we are now—this academic quadrangle—to be laid out as severely wounded on the evening of July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He survived; I'm here.
I have a very special relationship then to where I now walk, and it is from these grounds that I look forward to walking this space again. I come at a different age, with a set of different skills, with a more complex vision and having walked through and conversed with many, many more spaces than some 30 years ago. But I shall continue what I began: a conversation within a space that matters deeply to me-Dickinson College-to be conducted with commitment, discipline, energy, and passion. I shall use my voice to advance Dickinson College as a distinctive community of intellectually useful learning—held to the highest standards and demanding of all its students, faculty, and alumni. I shall advance the notion of Dickinson College as a liberal-arts college with attitude—confident of the future, appreciative of the past, entrepreneurial, revolutionary in thought and deed. When all is said and done, all these years of moving and conversing in space that began in 1967 yield ultimately what I bring to you now—a well traveled, disciplined, and determined voice to speak about what matters for Dickinson College. There is a certain quixotic symmetry in all this.