It’s one of the great structural paradoxes of this place that reflection – so essential to learning – is so counter-cultural to the routines of campus life. If an extra hour were to fall out of the sky into today, most of us would spend it knocking a few more items off our lists, doing a little more thorough job on an assignment or grabbing some much-needed play-time with friends. These ways of spending time are necessary, important. But the tendency among us is all toward filling spaces up – not emptying them; all toward productivity, not pondering.
I’m as guilty of distraction from this dimension of life here as anybody – so I’m grateful to the Record editors for the gift of space to ponder. In taking that gift to heart, a question comes to mind – a very chaplain-y question, by the sound of it, but one that I hope might have wider resonance: Where is the soul of the College? That probably sounds a little spooky – but that’s what pondering is for.
We can say a few things about where the soul of the College is not. It’s not, certainly, in “being the best,” as we learned communally from the helpful conversations that ensued from David Kane’s ludicrous and offensive propositions on this page early this fall (“What does it mean to be the best?” (Sept. 20, 2017)). We can be proud of the excellence for which this institution and its citizens have come to be known; but pride is no star to steer by, and self-aggrandizing ambition is no flag to salute.
And I think the soul of this place is not in the epicenter of our activity. The hub of our days is academic work, intellectual exercise – which we justifiably privilege, and which everything else the College does, from extra-curricular activities to grounds-keeping to fiscal management, serves in some way. But if the soul of this place were lodged merely in our work, I don’t think we’d find ourselves nearly as compelled as we do by the drive to understand it that keeps us up late at night thinking and talking – not just about the work, but about ourselves, each other and life.
But that late-night stuff starts to get at the heart of the matter, soul-wise. If I’ve learned anything in all the meetings of the weekly group that designs First Days, it’s that it takes time, not just to train high school graduates to become functioning Ephs, but to learn how to become who you want to be – the worker, the reader and writer, the friend, the citizen, the lover. It doesn’t just happen, doesn’t just well up inside you as a matter of some lab-defying kind of biochemistry. It happens in the conscious confluence of desire and intention and practice and reflection. It happens because you bring a full measure of heart and conscience to the work we’ve organized this place around, which is the provisioning of your mind.
One measure of the distance from the beginning to the end of the process that goes on here is the difference between a credential like a transcript, resume or CV – documents that students, as they enter, might say were what they came here to compile and burnish – and reputation, character, empathy, which perhaps some students might say they hope to take with them as they finish. Soul, maybe – in the broadest, least dogmatic sense of that word – as a name for the way from here to there.
Meanwhile – like any other intentional community, this is a place full of amateur human beings, trying to work out ways to live and learn – trying not to get in our own ways too much, and trying to rattle other people’s ways just enough to be creative and not enough to be harmful. Amateur in its most generous sense: people who love what they’re trying to do, leaning into it because it has won over not only their mind, but also their heart. There are, wonderfully, luminously, all kinds of people here – that, of course, is the point. And not one of them is perfect, or finished; each one of them almost certainly needs to be forgiven for something; each has at least one desperately ragged edge, probably several. All of us amateurs, just trying to get it right – this learning together thing. This living together thing.
I think – today, anyway – that the soul of this place lies somewhere in the project of our labors to become more fully human – in those labors individually and collectively, intellectually and psychologically and ethically – labors that unfold joyfully and even those that cause us anguish, remorse, uncertainty in this huge little place that we live and learn in together.
This is Reverend Spalding’s last semester as chaplain to the College.