H. Hersh Inaugurated
"This is the moment when we need to revalue the
concept of civilization, of what it means to be fully human,
of a commitment to tolerance and freedom,
of an awareness of world-wide interdependence."
-- Richard H. Hersh, president
Richard H. Hersh was inaugurated on September 22, 2002, as the 19th president of Trinity College. More than 1,500 alumni, students, and guests gathered to celebrate the occasion, during which Hersh was welcomed by dignitaries, alumni, and educators and outlined his vision for the future of the College and of liberal arts education.
The inauguration was preceded by an academic procession that included Trinity faculty members and 95 delegates from other colleges and universities, and included a welcoming address by former Trinity Trustee William C. Richardson ’62, president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation. Richardson also introduced all six living, former presidents of Trinity College, who were present. Following greetings from parent, student, faculty, and alumni representatives, City of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez ’96, welcomed Hersh and his wife, Dr. Judith Meyers to “the Hartford family” and wished them success.
Representing delegates of colleges and universities in attendance, Douglas J. Bennet, president of Wesleyan University noted, “It is a great honor to celebrate Richard Hersh’s accession as president of Trinity College. It is already clear that he brings strong personal leadership. His directness and vision would strengthen any institution and any community.”
This place and our time
by President Richard H. Hersh
We left the cold war in the spirit of promise yet the 21st century has hardly begun and a sense of peril has returned. We have been told that there is a “new world order,” a seemingly arrogant extension of the just-completed, so called American Century. But this label may have been premature. There is a new world but order is not its nature—indeed just making sense of it is the most urgent and confusing task. Where there is “order,” it is not at all new but rather the same old oppressions that rightly offend the moral sensibilities of humankind. And the hope that a new world order could be achieved, pivoted violently on September 11, 2001, when we began to understand that nothing less than civilization is at stake.
I do not speak of an Armageddon—in which forces of good and evil battle—each earnestly believing that one is good and the other evil. Nor is this about East-West confrontation, in the sense of armed missile standoff, or totalitarianism versus freedom, or capitalism versus communism, or even Jihad versus McWorld.
The power of the moment is noteworthy, not because the media tell us, over and over and over, but because of the powerful forces, emotions, and fundamental beliefs in play. The murderous events of the past several years in such places as Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and New York City discredit moral relativism, but with them also comes the great danger of mistakenly discrediting the essential urge and need to understand each other, especially the foreign and the alien-to-us. Students come to campuses today understandably bewildered by all this, a mood that matches their adolescent time-of-life and their innate curiosity, awakening, quickening, and questioning.
This is the moment when we need to revalue the concept of civilization, of what it means to be fully human, of a commitment to tolerance and freedom, of an awareness of world-wide interdependence. I am talking about our need to empower a new generation with what it means to be civilized.
The playwright and Czech president, Vaclav Havel, foretold this need in a speech to the United States Congress more than a decade ago:
The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable. (Havel, 1990)
Havel reminds us that in all economic, social, political, or moral issues, it is consciousness, reflection, caring, humility, moral sensibility, and the fullness of the human spirit that matter. These, as it happens, are the outcomes of what has historically been meant by liberal education and to accomplish this, America must reclaim liberal education, and—if we hope to accomplish the civilizing task before us—affirm the character of its liberal arts colleges. Yet we face in American life today a crisis of legitimacy in which liberal education and liberal arts colleges in particular are increasingly perceived as irrelevant.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States, having come triumphantly through the ravages of World War II, was at its apex of influence. Americans could and did imagine that the goal of higher education was ideologically and economically to sustain the status quo. Each succeeding generation of undergraduates would receive essentially the same education, but for the purpose of assuring greater material and social success than their parents had enjoyed. Teaching was conceived basically as transmitting received general knowledge to students. Learning was conceived basically as absorbing that knowledge. This was the culmination of the 500-year academic history since the Enlightenment, the triumph of Erasmus, and the near-fulfillment of the “dream-of-reason” conjured by Newton and Descartes.
The 60s brought the dream of universal higher education, a massive increase in access to colleges and universities, and a questioning of those nostalgic and static curricular and pedagogic assumptions. This access, for all its significant advances in enfranchising growing numbers of Americans with the benefits of a college degree, led to anonymity on too many large university campuses. With that anonymity came lost opportunities to educate students effectively. Phil Ochs, the folk-protest singer, put it to lyric,
Oh, I am just a student, sir, and only want to learn . . .
Oh you’ve given me a number and you’ve taken off my name
To get around this campus why you almost need a plane (from Gonna Say It Now, by Phil Ochs)
From the dream of accommodating literally millions of new students in universities, we awaken now to the same 19th-century English work-house and factory model on which our elementary and secondary schools were built. Moreover, higher education has turned to a narrowed conception of itself as a mechanism for pre-professional and vocational training. In its effort to make the best education accessible to the many, America has, in effect, turned away from the liberal education ideal it once valued only for its elite—the provision of the foundational knowledge, intellectual, ethical, and civic abilities that democracy requires from its leaders and citizens, and the demanding, albeit more costly, handcrafted education necessary to attain those ends. In a very real sense, we have defined excellence down and mediocrity up!
Most undergraduates rarely if ever experience an alternative to the mass education and mass culture through which they have been “processed” since childhood. As a result, higher education is at risk of losing its soul just when that soul needs most to be strong. The double tragedy is that too few inside education have actually noticed and too few outside education understand or value liberal learning enough to care.
If liberal education finds itself in a crisis of legitimacy, it is because the impersonal McVersity approach to education, with its emphasis on overly specialized research, use of graduate students as undergraduate teachers, and large classes exacts a huge toll. Less than 48 percent of students graduate. Yet, paradoxically, these are the campuses of choice for the large majority of college students because in addition to perceived lower cost, they and their parents are attracted to what is essentially job training masquerading as education.
Others suggest that the way to solve cost and efficacy problems in higher education is to increase the use of technology. Students, they say, no longer need classroom interaction. There is a better way, a brave new virtual reality university now available through the wonders of technology!
I am no Luddite who would deny that technology can be useful in teaching. But many such proponents have become unthinking enthusiasts—we face another sort of high-tech bubble that cannot meet expectations before bursting and getting everyone wet. In a world that is increasingly fragmented by fear of difference and by specialization of knowledge, in a world that has lost a sense of connection between the individual and community, and in a world of learning malls catering to the whims of its customers, there can be little hope of achieving what Havel called “a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness” if we feed our students the intellectual equivalent of Happy Meals.
Many young people today are fearful and come to campuses in a state of anxiety about the future of this country—after all, they have been taught that we were once the indispensable nation without which freedom and the world economy could not survive. They are bombarded with masses of information but can construct little secure meaning from it all. They feel a lack of direction.
Our challenge is to inspire young men and women with the confidence that they will be able to construct a future intelligently and to use power for good as they steer a course in the world. We can inspire only if we nurture in them the kinds of intellectual, imaginative, and ethical responsibility and responsiveness they will need. Doing so requires the kind of education that cannot be left to graduate assistants or computers. Literally and figuratively, what we need is the polar opposite of “distance learning.”
What our society should expect from higher education in the 21st century is a level of excellence that historically has been the province of small liberal arts colleges. The sole mission of such colleges is to teach students the best of human thought and feeling and to help develop in them both a secure sense of their own voices, enough mental toughness and resourcefulness, and enough humility to seek out the wisdom of others. These colleges demand of students that they become accountable for and articulate in their thinking, their writing, their speaking and their behavior. Here a liberal arts education is ultimately an education in the use of one’s imagination, judgment, and compassion—of the ethical and emotional intelligence required to live life responsibly in a diverse and complex world.
The Socratic teaching that characterizes small liberal arts colleges, in which there is close interaction among students and faculty, is not some antique method thought to exist in the mythical ideal academy. It is a hands-on vital and rigorous methodology; it forces the questioning of oneself and others. It also requires respectful consideration for the views that others express. It is immersion in a very real and vibrant way of life twenty-four hours a day. In this sense, small liberal arts colleges are not ivory towers; they are crucibles of learning for all that Havel reminds us “lies in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility.”
If higher education loses its grounding in liberal arts, that consciousness is in danger of being lost and with it our students’ ability to appreciate the complexity, the wonder, the dangers, and the sheer poetry of the human condition. That will not happen at Trinity College. I promise you.
Trinity embodies the true value of liberal arts traditions and we understand that to continue to do so at the dawn of the 21st century requires that we apply the intellectual, ethical, and civic skills historically associated with liberal learning in ways that respond intelligently and effectively to the changing needs of today’s undergraduates. Indeed, the Trinity faculty has begun an intensive and extensive review of our curriculum and teaching practices. I can assure you that whatever the outcome of that review, we will demonstrate both the intellectual and the practical advantages a liberal education can offer in our world today.
Trinity is already recognized as a leader among American liberal arts colleges. Let us say that without false modesty. But our outstanding faculty and students are not satisfied—we are exploring how best to raise the standards of academic excellence, explore new ways to engage each other inside and outside the classroom, to more fully convey why the examined life is the only one worth living. We will:
1. demand more of our students as we engage them with the best ideas across cultures, geography, and time.
2. provide more opportunities for student research with faculty.
3. offer more innovative assessment of learning to provide feedback to both students and faculty while teaching and learning are still taking place.
4. deepen and expand our work in the community.
5. enrich our international programs.
We are going to do all this, in fact, with the aid of a new, state-of-the-art library and information technology center—that is indeed appropriate technology—and Hartford, the city that helped found Trinity in 1823 and now offers students opportunities to experience and practice the best of what they learn—the creation of genuine, authentic and moral communities.
We seek nothing less than to inflame our students’ imaginations. It may seem rhetorically easy to say we ask that students fall in love with the idea of membership in a vital and vibrant intellectual community. We intend to allow it, encourage it and make it happen—to generate extraordinary, unique, and astonishingly creative graduates who consider nothing in the world beyond the grasp of their mature gifts, students who are fearless in remaking the world when they enter it.
Trinity is a special kind of place, especially in this time. We will be successful because we understand that the lesson for the 21st century is this: we are on stronger educational and moral ground if we embrace diversity—different ideas, perspectives, people, and places because that is the best way human beings learn to live with each other. Diversity is a crucial ingredient to help students face the contradictions central to learning how to think and to develop the personal ability to work with people from a spectrum of backgrounds on common ground for common but important goals. This is not about affirmative action or political correctness, but rather a purposeful and powerful educational strategy to best prepare students for the places that await them in the modern world.
We will be successful because we understand the importance and nature of moral education. However entangled the individual strands of morality are in practice, there is a difference among them that we understand. All models of moral education refer, directly or indirectly, to the separate processes of caring, judging and acting. Morality is neither good motives, nor right reason, nor resolute action; it is all three. That is why learning for us must take place on and off the campus, through study at home and study abroad.
And we will be successful because we understand the need for passion. We know we can teach students organic chemistry. We know we can teach them Keynesian economics or the history of the Italian Renaissance and sort through conflicting concepts of Reformation. But we understand that if that is all we do, we will have failed our students, our community, and ourselves as an institution. We are not talking about mindless passion. That kind of passion is dangerous—as is demonstrated every day in the murderous violence loose in the world.
We are talking about passion with a conscience, passion that has an ethical component—a brain, a heart and a spine—and eyes that see beyond the easy advantages of an Enron moment, to ultimate consequences. If we don’t teach students about passion in that process, we leave them dulled. They will have all the knowledge and skills they need to act, but not the focus or the motivation or the profound caring that will cause them to use their skills, and to use them well. If the way we teach brings students to the intellectual and emotional flash point—of that kind of passion—then we have not merely graduated them but transformed them.
I am talking about what endures. I am talking about a commitment to a special kind of education—that which produces graduates who remember what and who made the difference in their lives. Graduates who enter the world with fiber, compass, and grit, with a set of sustaining values wed to the highest competence and standards, and fired by passions that can illuminate their own lives and light up their own times.
This should be the character of small, liberal arts colleges. We carry that standard and banner. It is the age-old promise of this place called Trinity College. And we are needed, in our time, more than ever.
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