Returning to campus, renewing civilization
The annual return to campus is an inspiring time of new commitment to discovery and learning. It is also a time of renewal as we impart norms of civilized discourse and inquiry to students in ways we have done in the university for centuries, enabling the progress seen ever since people emerged from the Dark Ages.
We commence a new cycle in troubled times, which makes it vital to recall why it is we do the work of the academy and how it contains philanthropy at its very core.
Many of our nation’s founders created universities as their philanthropic legacies. Thomas Jefferson, who was particularly allergic to inherited wealth and privilege, bequeathed us not only the University of Virginia, but the books that formed the basis of what is now the world’s largest library, The Library of Congress. Benjamin Franklin started the University of Pennsylvania. As the states multiplied the establishment of self-government and a constitutional order was accompanied by the formation of colleges to help assure the future of such an order. Our own great public university will celebrate its bicentennial in 2020, only four years after the state of Indiana.
Our institutions of higher learning were started as gifts to the future, first to reproduce the learning that was needed by the new republic and then, as our colleges became universities, to seek discoveries that would accelerate our capacity to make all kinds of “improvements” to our commonwealth.
It is apparent that this cycle of discovery and renewal cannot be taken for granted. When founded, academic institutions were aligned with the seasons and the agricultural economy that was then dominant. But the academy is not inevitable like the seasons. We cannot assume that its continuation is guaranteed by nature. It requires constant cultivation, advocacy, and whenever a new generation enters we have a critical juncture for the future of our civilization.
As we now return to campus we see the norms of civilization under assault, often by those who have not yet had space in our universities. We have failed those who have not been included in our communities of discovery. We have not paid the full cost of civilization and the bill is now due.
We see this in the uncouth presidential contest in the United States, killings in our streets, and in the extreme, in the despondent regimes that attract the energies of lost generations to the morbid fantasies of terrorism.
It is in this frightful context that we commence another cycle of learning and discovery, overwhelmed as we are by its limited reach. And yet, it is precisely in our troubled times that we should be even more aware that what we now begin holds the seeds of our future.
Our faculty as teachers are indispensable to the civilizing mission. Their interest in engaging and nurturing the curiosity of others generates community as it seeks to understand and discover solutions for a better world.
Our students, by choosing to study philanthropy, are committed to finding ways that generosity can help us navigate the waves of resentment that batter our institutions. They learn how voluntary acts of creative engagement, by individuals and by many in concert, have helped us cooperate and transcend animosities that once seemed as inevitable as the seasons. We will need their help to get us through our turbulent times.
As so much of the world clamors for relief of injured dignity, we need to find ways to include them in communities of learning. Whether the offense is found in diminished material conditions, national identity or religious prerogative, one way of engaging the depth of these dissatisfactions is to ask what we can give to salve their wounds.
Those who see the academy as the problem do not see us as keepers of a civilized future and yet we move into the future together with them. If we do not bring them along, they may well keep us back.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean