Editor’s note. As the Spy was researching biographical material on an upcoming essay on the role of Libby and Douglass Cater at Washington College, we came across the extraordinary address made by Douglass at his presidential inaugural in the fall of 1982. Beyond making an elegant case of the importance of that 240-year-old institution, it remains a timely national call of action to save the liberal arts education for the sake of thoughtful citizenship in the United States.
In September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris ratified the independence of the Thirteen American Colonies. The Revolution was over, yet such was civil unrest that more than a year passed before General Washington could safely resign his command to the Congress convened in Annapolis on the eve of Christmas, 1784.
Even while the war dragged on, the Reverend William Smith, Rector of Emmanuel Church in the town of Chester, declared that “lasting provisions must be made … for training up a succession of Patriots, Law Givers, Sages, and Divines; for LIBERTY will not deign to dwell but where her fair companion KNOWLEDGE flourishes by her side.”
It was still “A time of desolating war,” and Maryland’s population had shrunk by 30,000 souls. Hard currency was exceedingly scarce; only £200,000, it is estimated, circulated within the State. In less than six months, more than €10,000 – 1/ 20th of this total – was pledged for building the College. It was to be dedicated, as Reverend Smith wrote General Washington, to “instructing and animating the youth of many future generations to admire and to imitate these public virtues and patriot-labours which have created a private monument for you in the heart of every citizen.”
Think of it! Even as the country struggled against chaos, the first citizen of our land gave his name and fifty guineas for this first work of democracy – the education of the young. Washington later served on the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors and, after being elected President of the United States, consented to become an honorary alumnus.
What manner of College did William Smith hold in his vision? Five months after its beginning, Washington College held its first Commencement with a graduating class of five. The intellectual rigors of that ceremony are intimidating in retrospect: A Latin Salutation, a French Oration, and a Syllogistic Dispute in Latin, Num Aeternitas Paenarum Contradict Visinis Atributis? (“Do the Eternities of Punishment Contradict the Attributes of the Divine?” or, in contemporary idiom, “How can a loving God permit so much human suffering?”) This was followed by a Forensic Dispute in English, “Whether The State Of Nature Be A War?” Philosopher Mortimer Adler, who is with us today, would have gloried in the occasion.
But William Smith was a practical man in his vision. Frederick Rudolph has written, “Provost Smith’s program of studies was the first systematic course in America not deriving from the medieval tradition nor intended to serve a religious purpose.” Smith believed that “peace and abundance in America would require a special effort in forming a succession of sober, virtuous, industrious citizens and checking the course of growing luxury.” W. R. Peters has written, “Smith began by viewing the full body of current knowledge from a fresh viewpoint, one that did not focus on the constrained schedules set down by tradition … It was a concept centered on the student himself. Smith was centering higher education on humanistic rather than on classical traditional values.”
What is the idea of a small college? Is small really beautiful, as speakers at Washington College ceremonies have announced time after time? Is small really relevant when most of our institutions grow into ever larger conglomerations of enterprise, when the multinational corporation grosses bigger revenues than all but a handful of nation-states, and when the multiversity has far outstripped the large university of the past?
We are aware of the iron laws of statistics. We read the prognosis of education associations that “the decade of the 1980’s may see as many as two hundred small independent colleges close their doors.” We can appreciate the conclusion that “many educators in these institutions are motivated more by fear of closure than by prospect of advancement.”
We also know that history records a long tale of imperilment; that only twenty percent of the small colleges founded during the 19th century have survived. At Washington College, we can take a modest comfort that we have a longer head start in the hard race against extinction.
But we are among the endangered species. Survival for the independent small college will not be won by betting the odds. Instead, we know that we must win our way by distinguishing ourselves from the other small institutions, by demonstrating that our vital signs are more enduring than the predicted death tolls. We tell ourselves that we must distinguish ourselves by excelling, by the continuing pursuit of excellence. For there is already overly abundant competition among the mediocre.
But can the small college, however excellent, stand against the battalions of the great university? We are assisted in answering this question by expressions of discontent among many university leaders. Steven Muller, President of the Johns Hopkins University, who shares this platform, has declared, “The modern university is rooted in the scientific method, having essentially turned its back on religion. The scientific method is a
marvelous means of inquiry, but it really doesn’t provide a value system. The biggest failure in higher education today is that we fall short in exposing students to values.”
Other thoughtful educators point to a dilemma of our times. The scientific method nurtured in the university has been confirmed again and again by its concrete results. Organized knowledge has split the atom, put man on the moon, deciphered the genetic code, manipulated the genes of the human fetus. Deification of the scientific method extends beyond the hard sciences to the social sciences, to the humanities, to philosophy itself. Knowledge grows ever more specialized, ever more quantified, ever more dazzling in its discrete discoveries.
Hiroshima provides the metaphor of our times even as the Tower of Babel did in ancient days. Knowledge, overly driven by the scientific method, has reached the fission point. Specialized, fragmented knowledge can destroy the human race it was meant to serve.
I believe that the highest goal of higher education during the coming era must be to bring into meaningful relationship the fragments of man’s knowledge rather than to press ever more relentlessly on the frontiers of specialization. I also believe that in this quest to restore knowledge to human dimensions the small college can stake a valid claim.
Founder Smith said it well: “What chiefly has been aimed at is to teach youth to think well and justly.” Our curriculum has changed markedly over the centuries, but this commitment remains constant. Washington College puts faith in the value of general education in the liberal arts and sciences. In this swiftly changing age of disposable products – and disposable skills we hold that one sure protection against obsolescence is the mind trained to think anew, deeply and rigorously. This is essential for career, for citizenship in a democracy, and for the creative pursuit of leisure. It may even be essential for human survival.
From my own learning experience, I am attracted to the idea that general education should provide three quite distinct approaches to learning:
• First, the acquisition of organized knowledge, for which the classroom lecture and the textbook are the appropriate means.
• Second, the development of skills of learning,which requires not the instructor but the coach, with regular exercise and supervised practice. Reading, writing, speaking, and even listening demand this approach to learning.
• Third, the deepened understanding of ideas and values, which requires the Socratic approach, discussion around the table not across
the lectern. To stimulate judgement and wisdom demands this approach. There/is no teacher, simply a moderator who poses the question and evokes the dialogue. Professor joins student in the exchange, recognizing that no one has the answer to the fundamental issues of justice, freedom, equality of opportunity, survival.
Our institutions of higher learning, in their quest for specialized and quantifiable knowledge, have sorely neglected these latter two approaches to learning. We expect our athlete of the playing field to be drilled repeatedly in the movements of the sport. Yet we accept as final the first draft of the student’s essay and wonder why there is growing evidence of illiteracy among the graduates of our schools and colleges. We wring our hands over the declining percentage of voter turnout, which indicates political indifference especially among the young. Yet our institutions of education fail to foster the round table, the seminars, and the forums which encourage students to develop and debate their own ideas and values as they mature toward citizenship.
Washington College has other claims to stake for its third century. During this decade, we commemorate a bicentennial more important even than the celebration of our war for independence: those constitutional acts by which an independent country built itself into a nation. Here in the very heart of Constitution land,Washington College has a rich heritage for studying the lasting lessons of governance.
We must reach out more energetically to our environs. We must examine the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula as an interdisciplinary case study of a fascinating yet fragile ecology. We must reach out to great educational and cultural centers-_to the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Winterthur.
We plan a special relationship with the Aspen Institute at Wye Plantation, only twenty miles away, where faculty and students can serve as
rapporteurs and interns as well as participants for seminars held there. We must explore establishing a consortium of small colleges to work with the Aspen Institute on faculty enrichment programs. We must establish ties with the international communities in Washington and New York to attract promising foreign students and lecturers.
Our good can only be measured by our best. We must seek greater numbers of gifted students from the high school who provide yeast to the ferment of the student body. We must establish an honors program to challenge and stretch our stronger students to the limits of their abilities while encouraging others to excel.
Finally, we must take seriously our obligation to be part of the world. We plan to create a President’s Forum to attract leading persons from politics, government, business, the arts and journalism to participate in the campus dialogue as well as provide career guidance for our students.
If founder Smith and patron Washington were here today, I believe they would approve this vision of our third century. They might even propose that we close by reenacting a ceremony which took place at the laying of the foundation stone for the first building: Three of theT youngest scholars wore shepherds’ dresses and delivered a triumphant ode to the College’s future. But I dare not suggest this to our freshmen.
Instead, I will close by quoting from the Kent County News those sagacious words addressed by Trustee Felix Morley to President Gibson. That was thirty-one years ago but no less relevant today:
“It is your amusing opportunity to make a small college great by keeping it small. In doing so you will be swimming upstream. You will have to struggle against the trend of the times. Fortunately, on the Eastern Shore, that is not so difficult … Shoremen are conscious that the tide flows in, as well as out. Here, at Washington College, I think that one might work back to the wellsprings of our greatness as a people.”
Douglass Cater was president of Washington College from 1982 to 1990. Before he arrived in Chestertown, Cater had been a journalist for The Reporter magazine. Beginning in 1964, he became a Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, where he led that administration’s successful efforts to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, and other major initiatives. Cater later joined the Aspen Institute as a senior fellow and vice chairman of The Observer in London. He died in Chestertown in September.,1995 at the age of 72.