Sesquicentennial Book to Tell the Story of Swarthmore’s Values

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When students return to McCabe after winter break, they will be greeted by a large cake in the shape of Parrish Hall, with a “beach” of green cupcakes in front of it. The display will be part of an exhibition in McCabe on the history of Parrish, the first in a series of events celebrating Swarthmore’s 150th anniversary.

Next year’s sesquicentennial events will include the premiere of a documentary film about Swarthmore and an orchestral and choral performance of a piece composed by an alumnus. Vice President Maurice Eldridge ’61 said that he hopes the events will show the school’s community how “the major arteries of our history allow our life’s blood to flow through.”

Eldridge said he believes that throughout its history, the College has stayed true to its core set of values. He said these have mostly been developed on “an evolutionary path more than on a revolutionary path.”

The 2014 sesquicentennial year will kick off with the release of Swarthmore College: A Community of Purpose, a 200-page book being written and edited by Jeffrey Lott. Lott edited the Swarthmore Bulletin for over twenty years before stepping down to work on the project.

He said the purpose of the book is “to relate present-day Swarthmore to some fundamental values.” In this vein, it will be organized by themes, rather than by decades or presidents. A history book, Swarthmore College: An Informal History, was written in the ’80s, and is organized in the more like a timeline.

“There was no point in doing more of that,” Lott said. “Swarthmore isn’t just its history.”

Lott explores the college’s central values by looking at how its values of intellectual curiosity and intentional community have stayed constant from its very beginnings until today. The book also features an essay by President Chopp on the Liberal Arts.

The book will be distributed to all alumni, faculty, current parents, and the sesquicentennial class of 2014.

“In a way, it’s a gift from Swarthmore to all the people who care about it,” Lott said.

All the costs involved in the production of the volume are being underwritten by an alumnus who works in book publishing – this same alumnus also underwrote The Meaning of Swarthmore, a collection of essays published in 2005.

“It will be beautiful,” Lott said of the book, which is nine by ten inches and features high-quality color photographs. “The design evolved side-by-side with the writing.”

In addition to presenting Swarthmore in stunning fashion, Lott hopes the book accomplishes something even more meaningful – giving people a greater sense of appreciation for the college’s faithfulness to its history. Christopher Densmore, the curator of the Friends Historical Library, agrees.

“I find that students in general don’t know much about Swarthmore’s history,” he said. “All these buildings are named after people with very interesting histories.” For example, Edward Parrish, the first president of Swarthmore, was a major figure in the movement for ethical standards in pharmacology.

Densmore said that the history is very interesting, but “it also gives perspectives.”

“Institutions don’t spring fully formed. Swarthmore makes mistakes,” he said, providing as an example an issue of the school newspaper from the fall of 1963. In it, an article claimed that the College had the most diverse class ever. However, there wasn’t a single mention of race or ethnicity.

For Densmore, the Quaker tradition allows us to look at events like that with more understanding.

“It’s not so much that someone is a bad person. We’re probably doing some things now that people fifty years from now will wonder about,” he said.

Eldridge also admits that Swarthmore’s struggle to incorporate diversity has taken many years of concerted effort. He said the College’s goal has always been to improve.

“It has never been perfect, but it has consistently wanted to be better,” he said, adding, “I think Swarthmore is prepared to find the path always.”

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