Earlier this month, Eckerd President Dr. Donald R. Eastman delivered remarks at the College’s Convocation, which celebrated the opening of the 53rd academic year. Eckerd College is located in St. Petersburg, Florida and is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Eckerd College Convocation
September 5, 2012
Remarks by Dr. Donald R. Eastman III, President
“Pity the Beautiful,” writes Dana Gioia, in his new book of poetry by that
Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.
Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.
The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.
Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.
Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.
Liberally educated readers will at once connect that initial verb, “pity,” with Aristotle’s maxim that tragedy inspires fear and pity and they will recognize that its classical meaning goes well beyond “feel sorry for” and is much more closely linked to “identify with.” Those with knowledge of Latin will hear among the antecedents of “pity” the words “piety,” “pious,” and “pieta” – the name given to Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece.
Readers conversant with poetry will recognize the long tradition of English verse to which this poem adds its notes. They may recall the closing lines of Robert Frost’s daunting, “Provide, Provide”:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
Or, perhaps you may remember the harsh and gloomy early lines of Gerard
Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,”:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs
and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
But all meticulous readers, with or without specific knowledge of how Mr. Gioia’s poem compares with the traditions of poetry in English, will be struck by the imperatives of this poem to pity not only the beautiful, the gifted and the lucky but also the aging, the ugly and unlucky, and even the gods and the night, each and all of whom, along with each of us, are at this very moment succumbing to the decay of entropy.
And, it is that very quality of pity – now often called “empathy,” a word less fine, less forceful, less threatening – it is that quality, more than literary parallels, more even than Aristotle and his immortal classical colleagues, that a true liberal arts education seeks to inspire.
The prolific writer, cultural critic, and Kentucky farmer, Wendell Berry, says such an education provides “the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, or David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. By it we may ‘see ourselves as others see us.’ It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in.”
While poetry is the door into the essential perceptions of identity and comparative understanding for Berry and many others, there are also other doors. Indeed, at this college we believe that each of our disciplines can open such doors to perception and that it is our task to use those disciplines for that essential end.
The sciences, for example, are less about the final physical realities of life than the current state of play of our understanding and imagining of the nature of the universe, which is why so many of the most powerful images of our time have been created by scientists: black holes; quarks; string theory; and now, not “the universe,” but “quantum multiverses.”
The most memorable expression of the experience of pity in the classical sense that I heard in a long time was from a freshman who had just completed Jeff Howard’s Winter Term class in Leadership. Part of Jeff’s course, as many of you know, involves small groups of students developing and carrying out a service project in the community. When I asked this young man, “What is the most important lesson you learned in your work at St. Vincent’s food kitchen for the poor and the homeless?” his answer was that the difference between the people on his side of the food line- serving the food-and the other side-those being served, filing by for what was likely to be their only meal of the day, “was about this much” (holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart).
Aristotle would be proud.
Not only the academic disciplines, rightly taught, instill this fundamental human value; so also does the community. “Not I, but the city, teaches,” says Socrates, and there is nothing like a residential college to prove that claim. If the classroom is theory, the rest of what we do is praxis – action – and the community demonstrates what we really believe by what we habitually practice.
I think that we have all learned in new ways in the past few years what an academic community actually is – that is, everyone, not just John Sullivan and his staff, is in the recruiting business. Everyone, not just Matt Bisset and his staff, is in the development and fund-raising business. All of us, not just Jim Annarelli and his staff, are in the student support business.
This deeply interconnected academic community is demonstrated by John Duff and his IT staff who, without being asked, set up an Autumn Term help desk at the first table in the cafeteria. It is illustrated by Dave Eubanks, himself a newcomer to our community, showing up early Friday morning at registration to help freshmen move into their residence halls.
It is Janette Santodomingo, a housekeeper in Byars House, helping a distressed family during move-in.
It is the UNICCO staff doing all they knew how to make our 1951 Nash Rambler of a physical plant look like and perform like a Rolls Royce-at least for a time.
This is the ethos of community that teaches not only that we are all in this together, but that what we are in together – being fully, truly, and deeply invested in a community – can be a grand humane enterprise, perhaps even a spiritual one. This is the highest calling of the liberal arts college.
William Carlos Williams, the great American poet, put it this way:
“It is difficult
To get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably every day
Of what is found there.”
As you know, I gave my annual address at the Ceremony of Lights early in August to the freshmen and their parents. I told them what we expect of them and what we expect of ourselves. I told them that what they will find here is a learning community, and I emphasized both words. I told them that you will change their lives forever.
Afterwards, I talked with many of the parents and freshmen as they made their way from McArthur Gymnasium to Hough Quad for dinner. They were all polite and complimentary and pleased-and that’s always good-but one father took me aside and said, “I have been wondering for two years why I didn’t just send my daughter to a community college for a year or two, let her live at home, and then maybe send her to a state school. Save a ton of money. Why let her come here, a million miles from home, and where it will cost me a fortune?”
He paused and then he said, tears in his eyes: “Tonight I know why.”
On your behalf, at the Ceremony of Lights, I once again extended the bright promise of a liberal arts education, the promise that only a community can keep. Faculty, of course, foremost – but also staff, fellow students, trustees, alumni, and all who love and support the special mission and high purpose that is Eckerd College.
Welcome, once again, to our great work together.