"Earth Shall be Fair and All Her People One"
Inaugural Address of Peyton Randolph Helm
Eleventh President of Muhlenberg College
October 19, 2003
Chairman Heffer and members of the Board of trustees, I am more honored than you can know by the responsibility you have bestowed upon me today. Faculty and staff colleagues, I am grateful for your confidence and your support as we begin our work together. Students, alumni, and parents, members of the Muhlenberg family and the Lehigh Valley community, thank you for your friendship. Colleagues from so many other distinguished institutions, thank you for your good wishes. Lorene, my old friend, thank you for your kind words about me. Members of the extended Helm family, thanks for being here this weekend.
Earlier today a number of you attended a celebration of faith and learning in Egner Chapel, conducted by our Chaplain, Peter Bredlau. Some months ago, Peter invited me to recommend music for this morning's service and I immediately suggested the old hymn that I sang as a choir boy in Louisville many years ago: "Turn Back O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways." In making this choice I did something that I almost never do. I ignored the advice of my wife Pat, who thought my choice of this title might be perceived as flippant at best, or, at worst, might signal ambivalence about my new responsibilities. Similar objections were doubtless responsible for her rejection of this same musical choice when I suggested it for our wedding ceremony, more than 23 years ago.
And yet, I assure you my selection was not an ironic one. I have always been stirred by the words and cadences of this old anthem, and I think it is particularly appropriate to my theme today - the heroic work that Muhlenberg and other colleges of our sort embrace. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece, let me share some of the verses that I think are so germane. The second verse begins:
Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Perhaps the evocative phrase "tragic empires" first attracted me to this hymn - after all, I was destined to become an ancient historian. But why are they "tragic"? and why are they "built while we dream"? I think that Clifford Bax, who composed these words in 1919 to 16th century music from the Genevan Psalter, wished to remind us that most of the ambitions and desires that impel us through our daily lives are of only illusory value, that the tangible manifestations of success with which we surround ourselves ultimately do not satisfy us. That we pursue an ephemeral happiness in a state of nightmarish trance. That most of us most of the time neglect the paths that lead to wisdom and, ultimately, fulfillment. That if we were to dedicate ourselves to this path, "earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise."
But what draws me back to this anthem, even today, is something quite different: the courage required to seek perfection, even as we know it is unattainable; the persistence to seek truth, to seek peace, to seek justice and harmony and knowledge, and to remain "undaunted" in the face of setbacks; the conviction to remember always that these ideals are elusive, but not illusory.
How, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Muhlenberg College and the occasion we celebrate today. Well. I believe that this courage, this persistence, this conviction are the very qualities that our times demand of all of us who labor in the fields of higher education and particularly liberal arts education of the sort offered at a college like Muhlenberg. I believe these are the very qualities that characterize our faculty and staff. We are determined not only to transmit to young women and men the knowledge our species has acquired and valued, but also to nurture their intellectual capacities as producers of new knowledge. And - yes, we are not embarrassed to say it - we are determined to impress upon them the importance of spiritual life, of faith, of honor, of ethical awareness, of character. We do all these things here at Muhlenberg because we believe quite simply that they are essential preparation for lives of leadership and service.
This sort of teaching demands extraordinary idealism. Whatever clichéd image of us may be cherished by those outside of academe, we do not live in an ivory tower and we are well aware of the brutality, selfishness, and cruelty that so often and so sadly characterize the so-called "real world." We understand the impatience of a society that is so frenzied that it usually cannot pause to understand why we teach the things we teach and the ways in which we teach them. We wince when our enterprise is mocked by those who oversimplify, ignore context and complexity, focus relentlessly on some narrowly defined "bottom-line," and remain doggedly and dogmatically oblivious to the life-enriching study of philosophy, art, dance, music, literature, languages, theoretical mathematics, and all the other arts and sciences that represent our species' richest and most precious legacy to our descendants. "You are impractical," these critics say. "You are expensive and inefficient. You are irrelevant." Or, as one critic recently jibed to a Muhlenberg student "What are you going to do with that major, open a philosophy store?"
Because we value free speech and open minds, we often listen to these voices and ask ourselves, "are our critics right?" This is why colleges and universities are among the most self-critical communities in existence. We are always questioning ourselves, always pushing ourselves to be better. And we should. But we must also make the case for what we do and why we do it. If there is one criticism I fear the most, because it has an element of truth to it, it is that small, private liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg may be becoming "irrelevant." Not because we have strayed down the wrong path or failed to teach what is important, but because we have not defended our mission vigorously enough or eloquently enough.
A shrinking percentage of our country's college-going young people - the Annapolis Group estimates it currently at only 3% - graduate from small, residential liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg. Increasingly, it seems, our country's youth fail to understand that the short-term benefits of narrowly focused training do not outweigh the long-term intellectual and analytical firepower of a broad-based education that has the potential to provide context, a wide array of problem-solving skills, and deep roots in the values and traditions of this and other cultures. They and their parents are apparently unaware that though we produce only 3% of our country's college graduates, this tiny minority is disproportionately represented in every corner of our country's leadership ranks. This meager 3% produced approximately 20% of all Pulitzer Prize winners, and 20% of scientists inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a disproportionate share of our country's physicians. In fact, 19% of our nation's presidents, and 11% of Fortune 700 CEOs have been educated on the campuses of small liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg. 1
Yet despite this overachievement in so many leadership fields, the liberal arts are more embattled than ever, are mocked and derided as tangential. Enrollments continue to shrink. This trend should give all of us pause. It is not good for our children. It is not good for our country. We need to recommit ourselves to making the case for what we do, for explaining its value and importance.
It is not simply that we want our doctors and lawyers and our presidents to be well and broadly educated. My concern goes far beyond those important needs. I, for one, do not wish to live in a world where no one has ever read the poems of Sappho, gotten lost in the vibrant colors of a Van Gogh painting, explored the complexities of the human genome, reflected on the ecological impact of our behavior, explored the implications of Far Eastern religions, or enjoyed a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V. I do not wish some future St. Crispins day speech to refer to "we few, we happy few - we liberally educated few." I do not want to live on a planet that, intellectually speaking, is Bedford Falls without George Bailey.
And so, I believe, we must balance constant self-critique and a passion for self-improvement, with pride in what we do and what we stand for. Each time we challenge students to reject received wisdom and re-examine the intellectual underpinnings of dogma, each time we labor to help a student bring forth prose of clarity and grace from the muddled thoughts and phrases of a clumsy first draft, each time we reveal to our students the glories of a Brahms concerto or the subtleties of a Faulkner novel, each time we entice our students into research, exploration, and discovery, each time we show them by our personal example that faith and spirituality are complements to intellectual acuity, we are recommitting ourselves to a heroic task. We are working toward the essential if unachievable goal of waking our students from their haunted sleep and striving for an earth which might be fair - or at least fairer than it was before.
In his Histories , Herodotus recounts the story of a Spartan soldier who fought among the 300 heroes facing the combined might of the Persian Empire at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. Xerxes, the Persian king, leading a force of more than a hundred thousand warriors2, looked contemptuously at this tiny Greek contingent standing in his way, and demanded its surrender, boasting "I have so many archers that their arrows will blot out the sun." The Spartan leader replied, "Then we will fight in the shade."
This fall, Muhlenberg College, which has not only endured, but prospered for more than 155 years begins a new planning process which will chart its course through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Our aspirations and creativity are sure to vault far beyond our available resources. As we make difficult choices among facilities projects, curricular innovations, extracurricular programs, financial aid, and compensation we will often, I suspect, feel that we are "fighting in the shade." But, unlike the Spartans, we have allies far beyond the boundaries of our campus. Our alumni, our students' parents, our friends, will help us choose the right path and will band with us in achieving our goals, however audacious they may be.
And those of us fortunate enough to work here on this beautiful campus every day, will recommit ourselves to the mission of educating the next generation for leadership and service, inculcating in them an unquenchable curiosity, the skills of lifelong learning, and the character to lead lives that enrich and improve the world we share. And together, I like to think, we will send up from this campus not only a light for our world, but even, perhaps, to quote again from Clifford Bax's hymn, we will "peal forth in joy man's old undaunted cry - 'Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!'"
In concluding, I want to acknowledge the presence of two remarkable women. First, my mother, Nell Hoge Helm, who with my father bred into me and my brothers a love of learning and of people. And second, my wife Pat, who took over the arduous task of training me from my mother almost a quarter century ago. Thanks Mom, thanks Pat.
And Thanks to all of you.
1http://www.colegenews.org/x66.xml; http://www.chiefexecutive.net/depts/routetotop2003/186.htm Thanks to Ken Butler and Kelly Cannon for research support.
2Herodotus reports a Persian host of approximately 1.7 million, but most authorities agree that this a tremendous exaggeration, and suggest that Xerxes' invasion force numbered between 150,000 and 210,000 men. See Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars , pp. 58-59 for a discussion of the issues involved.