September 2, 2013
I’ve been asked to say a few words about how Colorado College prepared me for my career and life, with a view to offering some useful advice to the new class of students about how to make the most of their time at CC. I can already hear some of the groans: not another speech that dispenses yet more advice about how to navigate one’s liberal arts experience! Having taught at a college very similar to CC, I know that you have already heard many such speeches over the course a fairly lengthy orientation period and that you are champing at the bit to just get started. So I will try to be brief.
I could, in fact, be very brief. How did CC prepare me for my life and career? Well, I went to CC almost 40 years ago and studied intellectual history and political philosophy. I now teach intellectual history and political philosophy at a small liberal arts college in Maine. The line of causation seems pretty direct. I could end this talk right now. Such brevity would no doubt please many of the students in the audience, but I have a sense that the people responsible for inviting me here and bestowing this incredible honor would feel a bit cheated. So I am going to have to delve a little deeper into my experience at CC and the path that led me to where I am today.
I arrived at CC in the fall of 1974. It was a pretty dramatic moment in American political history. President Nixon had resigned a few weeks earlier, bringing to an end the Watergate scandal that had dominated the national consciousness for almost two years. The Vietnam War was in the process of ending—the last American troops left in 1973. The Sixties were still very much in the air, though there was a certain anxiety among me and my classmates that they were quickly fading and that we had missed the boat. I myself remember feeling particularly uninteresting when I arrived at CC because I had traveled all of 70 miles from Lakewood, Colorado. Indeed, I was so self-conscious about my bland point of origin that I began to tell people I was from Fargo, North Dakota. That was a pretty exotic place to be from, and there was little risk that anyone would call me on it. Then I met someone from Fargo. My fraud was easily exposed when I had trouble remembering which high school I had gone to, what the bowling alley where everyone hung out was called, and indeed the name of a single inhabitant of that fair city. After that, I went back to being from boring old Lakewood, sometimes slightly embellishing my biography by hinting that my father was an ex-convict.
In only one respect was I at all unusual when I arrived at CC: I had the most unrealistic expectations of what college life was going to be like. Being of a somewhat bookish nature, I anticipated that my days would be spent in unending Socratic conversation about great writers, great books, and great ideas. My most faithful interlocutor would of course be my roommate, whom I was particularly eager to meet on that first day. I entered my room on Loomis Ground West, and there he was, a lanky fellow from Idaho. I was anxious to find out what his intellectual predilections were — did he like Dostoevsky? Had he read Kerouac? Was he an existentialist or perhaps even a Buddhist? So I asked him what made him choose CC. He replied that he was particularly attracted by the intramural hockey program. Thinking he was being ironic, I laughed. Then he said, “No, seriously, that’s why I came.” I was close to weeping. As it turned out, he became one of my best friends in college. He was also a brilliant physics student and, needless to say, a heck-of-a good intramural hockey player. Which brings me to my first piece of sage advice: don’t judge your roommate too quickly. He or she may not be what you expected, but that’s the whole point: to get to know and learn from people who are different from you.
Two weeks into my first block at CC, I had my first intellectual epiphany, although I did not realize it at the time (which means that, technically, it wasn’t really an epiphany). It was the centennial year of the college, and to celebrate the occasion the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott had been invited to give the big lecture. I had no idea who this was, but because it was still the heady first days of college, I decided to attend the lecture, which was entitled “A Place of Learning.” I can’t say that I understood much of it—it was quite abstract and delivered in a highly academic English accent—but somehow I sensed that Oakeshott was saying something of the utmost importance about the nature of liberal education, which he described as an initiation into the great conversation between the various modes of understanding and interpretation that make up our civilization. What I did not realize at the time was that I would end up studying with Oakeshott at the London School of Economics after graduating from CC and that I would eventually write a dissertation and a couple of books on him. This brings me to my second piece of advice: go to every lecture, performance, and exhibition that you can, even—indeed, especially—if it is not required or immediately relevant to your academic program. This is how serendipitous discoveries are made, and one of the great things liberal arts colleges like CC provide is multifarious opportunities for such serendipitous discovery.
Okay, I’ve spoken for almost ten minutes and I’m only to the second week of my college career. At this rate, it will be Block 5 before I get to my graduation. I am going to have to abbreviate. Sophomore year was the crucial turning-point in my academic trajectory at CC. I took two remarkable classes from two remarkable professors: Susan Ashley’s course on the French Revolution, and Tim Fuller’s introductory survey of political philosophy. The first course led me to become a History major, and the second led me to graduate study and eventually a career in political philosophy. Professor Fuller, by the way, was the person responsible for inviting Oakeshott to CC and for urging me to go to London to study with him. I of course took many more courses with Professors Ashley and Fuller during my time at CC, and to this day I continue to draw upon their insights, inspiration, and example. Fortunately, they are both still teaching, and you too can take courses from them. But my broader piece of advice is: connect with the amazing faculty here at CC. To have that close working relationship with a professor is why you come to a place like this. At the end of the day, education is a highly personal transaction between a teacher and a student. Despite what enthusiasts of online education promise, nothing can take the place of that personal — and costly — relationship.
I would be remiss if, in addition to my inspiring teachers, I did not mention my equally inspiring classmates. Your classmates are the people you eat with, study with, have philosophical conversations late into the night with, go on block-breaks with. They are an incredibly important part of your education at CC, as at any residential liberal arts college. I was particularly fortunate during my time at CC to be surrounded by an extraordinarily interesting and talented group of students. In the wake of the Sixties, CC, with its Block Plan and its mountains and its western openness, was something of an alternative to the traditional, ivy-covered colleges of the East, and it attracted an unusual number of free spirits and academic risk-takers. Many of them went on to become distinguished poets, novelists, journalists, scientists, and scholars. Two of them actually became professors at CC: David Hendrickson in Political Science and David Mason in English. I could tell you many inappropriate stories about these two individuals when they were students, but I will leave it at you should put them on your list of must-take professors, along with Ashley and Fuller.
I left CC a better thinker, a better writer, a better speaker, and yes, maybe even a better partier. I left with the sense that the world was even more interesting, ambiguous, and mysterious than I had ever imagined. Above all, I left with a love of this sort of place, this sort of intense learning community. I went off to some wonderful universities for graduate study—the LSE and the University of Chicago—but I always knew I wanted to end up teaching at a liberal arts college like CC. Luckily I got a job at Bowdoin, which is exactly like CC except that there is an ocean instead of mountains, and students take four classes at a time instead of one. Teaching at Bowdoin for almost 25 years has given me a certain perspective on liberal arts education in the United States, and especially on the challenges facing liberal arts students today. I would like to close with a few reflections on these challenges.
First, let me say that I think the challenges confronting today’s liberal arts students are greater than they have ever been, certainly greater than when I was in college. When I look back at the world in which I went to college—and I hope I am not now succumbing to the sort of nostalgia that signals incipient senility — it strikes me as an unbelievably simple, naïve, and even carefree world in comparison to the one we live in now. Some of this has to do with economics. As students back then, we didn’t have to worry as much about getting good jobs after college, and therefore we spent little time on resume building, hustling for internships, or networking. Or maybe that was just me. Technologically we lived on a different planet. We typed our papers on typewriters, we listened to vinyl records, and we sometimes had to walk to the library to check out things called “books.” There were no CDs, DVDs, computers, email, cell phones, Internet, Facebook, or Twitter.
Why are these things necessarily obstacles to liberal learning? My drastically simplified (but I hope not overly simplistic) answer to this question is: because they increase the velocity at which we live and experience the world, and such velocity makes it increasingly difficult to experience or feel anything very deeply. This of course is not an altogether new phenomenon in the modern world: more than 130 years ago, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was complaining that “haste and hurry” had become universal, destroying the possibility of genuine reflection, spirituality, and passion. But things have gotten much worse in this regard. What Nietzsche considered haste and hurry now looks like tortoise-like deliberateness. Which leads me to my final—and most curmudgeonly—piece of advice: slow down; take your time; don’t try to figure things out too quickly; emancipate yourself from your devices; take long hikes in the Garden of the Gods; have marathon conversations at dinner; fall in love (which can be quite time-consuming); go to the library and actually browse in the stacks; find a few good books and read them very slowly. One of the great gifts of a liberal arts college like CC is time and leisure (what the Greeks called scholē, from which our word “school” comes). Take advantage of this gift as the busy world outside hurtles heedlessly forward.