On shutting out the maelstrom

Valerie Smith’s new presidency provides a welcome opportunity for reassessing the current direction of the College and its commitment to an educational mission.   

The contemporary elite college is the most expensive investment in human capital in the history of the world and an elite education, regrettably, more necessary than ever for access to the levers of power. These are reasons why the doings on college campuses exert such mesmeric power over the rest of society, and why college students are so understandably eager to make their voices heard in current political and social debate.

But there comes a time to close the classroom door and the browser window and social media app. Insofar as in-person higher education has a justification in a transformed world, it is that shared, careful, receptive attention on a small piece of the world — a poem, a plant cell, a physics problem, a phoneme, a concert, a lecture, a debate — can inform our view of the rest of it. My sense — no doubt occluded by distance and age — is that it is as difficult for students at Swarthmore and peer institutions as it is for the rest of us to attain this shared attention. Students are no less industrious, incisive, or well-prepared than students past, but our technology has made us unable or unwilling to close the classroom door. Around us swirls the maelstrom — who are we to shut it out?

As the 19th century historian and social reformer Arnold Toynbee put it, college “is where one walks at night, and listens to the wind in the trees, and weaves the stars into the web of one’s thoughts; where one  gazes from the pale inhuman moon to the ruddy light of the windows, and hears broken notes of music and laughter and the complaining murmur of the railroad in the distance.” The ideal of college is “the ideal of gentle, equable, intellectual intercourse, with something of a prophetic glow about it, glancing brightly into the future, yet always embalming itself in the  memory as a resting-place for the soul in a future that may be dark and troubled after all, with little in it but disastrous failure.”  Toynbee died young, but the settlement house founded in his name was an important inspiration to many of the early Progressive reformers and founders of the NAACP — as can be seen in the Jane Addams Collection of Swarthmore’s own Peace Collection.

My best wishes to Dr. Smith in her new Presidency, and my hopes for Swarthmore students present and future to enjoy, along with civic engagement and intellectual challenge, that gentle and equable discourse that makes of memory a resting place for the soul.

Jacob Hartog ’00

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