A THRESHOLD TO THE FUTURE
Remarks delivered at the Convocation celebrating the completion of the renovations of Main Buliding.
Time. . . time. . . Once upon a time. . . on some commercially commemorative occasion like Mother’s Day, I tried to tell my mother how I wished I could pay her back for all she’d done for me through the years. But she quickly upbraided me for what she regarded as facile sentimentality. “Listen, son,” she said severely, “in a relay race, you don’t return the baton to the person you got it from.”
That’s an appropriate caution for our celebration this morning. For, as much as we undoubtedly owe the past, it’s what we’ll transmit to the future that ought to concern us most—how we plan and resolve to carry forward what’s being entrusted to us here, this magnificent transformation of Wofford’s Old Main.
I realize I’ve indulged in the sort of metaphor that can baffle a literal mind: a baton is carried and passed from hand to hand, but who can visualize lugging an enormous building around a track? The best way to elaborate on what I mean is to say as plainly as I can that this celebration is really about the present and future—and, having said that, return to an illustration from the past.
I first encountered the work of C.S. Lewis as a teenager at an Episcopal summer retreat, where, while waiting tables during a conference of ministers and laymen, I heard a superstar theologian ask a roomful of adoring church-ladies if they’d all read The Screwtape Letters. I noted the eagerness with which they assured him they had, and, thinking I might find myself at any moment in the company of their younger counterparts, decided I should read the book as soon as possible. I did, and, in fact, shortly afterwards, was able to pontificate knowingly to a robustly devout young homecoming queen on the importance of C.S. Lewis in general and The Screwtape Letters in particular, enjoying such success in achieving my ulterior motives that I went on to read other works by C.S. Lewis such as his science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet, and then, when I was an undergraduate, The Allegory of Love, an indispensable if somewhat eccentric guide to the notion of courtly love from the late Middle Ages through the early Renaissance. At that point, Lewis loomed as so important a figure on my intellectual horizon that, when I was interviewed for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1958, I told my questioners that I was eager to study at Oxford so I could sit at the feet of the great C.S. Lewis—not knowing the great C.S. Lewis had just abandoned Oxford University for its rival on the Cam. Undeservedly, I won the scholarship, but, as was probably just, I never realized my ambition to meet the man who had done so much to further my career as a God-haunted Lothario en route to a Ph.D.
Here I should pause long enough in this lurid personal history to observe that the range of C.S. Lewis’s interests and accomplishments makes him in many respects the quintessential embodiment of liberal arts learning, and that, all facetiousness aside, his combination of faith wed to both science and the humanities represents precisely the same ideal as that articulated by John Wesley and, from its very beginning, espoused by Wofford College.
It wasn’t until after I’d matured into the somewhat more responsible role of a father reading each night to his children before they went to bed, that I discovered the other great facet of C.S. Lewis’s achievement, the one for which he is almost certainly best known today—The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m fairly certain that nearly everyone here today who came of age after 1950, when the first of this sequence of seven novels appeared, is aware of their basic plot. My reason for going on at such length about things that might seem remote from our present occasion is partly that we’re gathered in an auditorium where, for more than a century and a half, events have occurred so full of intellectual excitement, artistic brilliance, and spiritual exaltation that those who witnessed them would remember them all their lives. Indeed, when we recall that this is the very same place where sages like Henry Nelson Snyder delivered their edifying admonitions and celebrities like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg fenced with sarcastic razzle-dazzle, we might well suppose C.S. Lewis himself sometimes regretted having been sequestered in cultural backwaters like Oxford or Cambridge instead of Spartanburg. But we should remember, too, that this is the very stage upon which generations of Wofford students, with pounding hearts and sweaty palms, rose to present their mandatory declamations to a jury of skeptical professors—trials of wit and acumen that, according to their own testimony, many would revisit in their dreams for as long as they lived.
So. . . as we’ve already done thus far in this celebration of past, present, and future, it does indeed seem appropriate to evoke the ghostly presence of those who preceded us here at Wofford. And, in saying so, what rises irrepressibly to mind is that wonderful passage in Walt Whitman’s great poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in which, writing at just about the moment Wofford’s first few dozen students were gathering here in Leonard Auditorium, he tries to speak directly to posterity, to “men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations” in the future. “Just as you feel. . .” he says to us in 2007--and to those who will follow us fifty or a hundred years from now—“Just as you feel. . . so I felt. . .
What thought you have of me now, I had as much
of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as
looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
Ah, well. . . though we don’t suppose for a minute our prosaic Founder would have used such evocative language, we know he was possessed of a vision for this college, growing through the years in size and reputation while nurturing among those who would teach and study here the ideals of intellect and faith upon which, in his hopeful, all too human way, he was willing to stake his immortal soul. Perhaps because his mortal remains lie so short a distance from this place he caused to be erected, it’s easy to imagine Ben Wofford’s steady, if myopic, gaze fixed on these proceedings—and who knows but he too is enjoying this celebration of renewal and rebirth. . . and, along with him, that earliest generation of Wofford students and professors? If you can conjure them up in your minds, I ask you to consider what their thoughts might actually be. Do they regard us and the transformation of this venerable building as the final end and culmination of what they began and sustained? Or do they, rather, join us in gazing—not backwards, but forwards—into a future that stretches much further ahead of us all than the mere century and a half we‘ve been discussing?
With that question, you see, I’ve come back to my point of departure—to C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia. As many of you will have guessed, what I’m thinking of most especially is that haunting device, so tantalizing in its implications, of the wardrobe in a country house that serves as a magical threshold, transporting the children of that story from mundane reality to the realm of myths and archetypes—of those things that, as was long ago observed, never were but always will be? My equivalent of the wardrobe is, of course, this building itself, the corridors and classrooms of Wofford’s Old Main, which does indeed serve those who enter it as a portal to the realm of ideas, but also, and most significantly, as a threshold to the future—their future and that of the college, though, as with Lewis’s wardrobe, when they leave its antique enclosure they will find themselves once again confronted by the challenges of the present and the burden of the past.
Think of this: while Old Main was being built 154 years ago, armies were just gathering to fight the Crimean War, Commodore Perry was sailing with his black ships into Edo Bay, and Vincent Van Gogh and Cecil Rhodes were drawing their first inspired breaths. In the following year, as Wofford’s initial contingent of students met for classes in this building, the Suez Canal was being inaugurated, the Light Brigade was launching its heroically misbegotten charge at Balaclava, and, amid all the sound and fury of the time, the accordion was invented.
All of which strikes us in retrospect as, at best, mildly diverting. But, believe it or not, a hundred fifty years from now, at some occasion very much like this, others will look back at our time and at us with equally bland amusement. Whatever their assessment of the blunders and achievements of this age, my future counterpart will stand here like me, and no doubt she’ll pontificate as I am doing about how idly or devotedly we nurtured Wofford’s mission before urging her audience to join her, in turn, in peering into the future. Who knows, she may say to those still further in the future, but we are as good looking at you now, for all you cannot see us?
And if she looks back at us, at this moment in 2007 as we celebrate the transformation of our beloved Old Main, she may linger long enough on this present occasion to observe that, at this precise point in Wofford’s long history, we had reached a remarkable plateau in our soaring academic reputation, having become a national bellwether in cross-disciplinary learning communities, ranking consistently among the top few colleges and universities in the country in the percentage of students who study and travel abroad, and having devised the most ingenious and successful freshman book experience in higher education. No doubt, she will also note such trend-setting programs as the Success Initiative, the Wofford College Community of Scholars, and the many variations of imaginative instruction fostered by the college’s highly successful interim program. I hope she’ll include some reference to the architectural beauty of this building’s restored interior, the technological sophistication of its fully equipped classrooms, and maybe even, if she is of antiquarian inclination, make passing reference to the milestone performance here in Leonard Auditorium of the Saens-Sans Christmas Oratorio in December, 2006. She will certainly note, I think, that when this building was so lovingly restored, it was not as a seldom-visited shrine or administration building but as what it was designed to be in 1854, the college’s one indispensable place for learning and reflection. “For all our glittering future,” she will probably exult, looking back to our time and beyond, “We are still what we have always been, a true liberal arts college—and this building, which has changed and adapted through every stage of Wofford’s long history, continues to serve its original function. . . a symbolic consistency in which we take great pride.”
Good. We want our descendants to keep the faith. But let me ask you for the moment to turn the tables on our successors in their retrospective nostalgia. Let us together in Whitmanesque fashion lay in our stores in advance, imagining those students and professors who will gather here in 2157. Who exactly are they, and what do they look like? How has this seemingly substantial world around us today been transformed in those intervening years, and, more specifically, what has happened to Wofford College?
Here are some possibilities that occur to me, to which you may add your own. Though the United States no longer enjoys its hegemony as the world’s sole superpower, it is envied still for its intellectual and cultural achievements, especially in the realm of higher education. Spartanburg County has become a Mecca for artists and thinkers, an equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge in Great Britain, though South Carolina’s persistently archaic annexation laws have prevented the city’s official population from growing any larger than it is today. Worldwide technology has become so much more sophisticated that what seemed far-fetched science fiction in 2007 is taken for granted in 2157, but the soul of instruction at Wofford still lies in the close interaction of students and professors; its proudly Methodist tradition of open inquiry is intact; and the curriculum does indeed remain true to its original ideal of a liberal arts education. Wofford College is renowned, in fact, not only for its long tradition of educational innovation, but for the distinction of the leaders it has produced in virtually every field of human endeavor. Its beautiful and bucolic campus, an international arboretum, has been celebrated for more than a century and a half, and there are memories—supported here and there on campus by holographic representations—of incidents and landmarks from the past, such as the memorable occasion when, triggered by slight aftershocks of a minor earthquake in the vicinity of Charleston, Marsh Hall finally collapsed from sheer decrepitude, injuring no one but confirming a long-standing conviction that it was time to put first-year students someplace else. Of course, though it has been many years since the legendary Wofford Village began a new national trend in college housing, it and the surrounding areas of faculty and alumni housing offer the most sought-after residential opportunities in the region. Many names once associated with the college are known around the world, including that of the legendary author and environmentalist John Lane, whose admirers make regular pilgrimages to the ancient magnolia which he is said to have saved from destruction by chaining himself to its upper branches in a kayak during a month-long hunger strike. But, of all the places on this majestic campus so redolent of inspiration and achievement, none rivals the grandeur of the building affectionately known today, as throughout its 300-year history, as Wofford’s “Old Main.” Every student who has ever studied at Wofford College has taken at least one class in this historic building. And, when one reflects on the importance to the world of so many Wofford graduates, it is a truly unforgettable experience merely to walk through its corridors or sit for a reflective moment in Leonard Auditorium, trying to imagine the excitement, the hopes and aspirations, of generation after generation of students and professors who were part of this extraordinary institution even like those who are alive today.
This is not altogether a fantasy. They will look back at us, you know. . . and what will rise to their minds, along with thoughts of Henry Nelson Snyder and Lewis Jones and Joab Lesesne, will be those who at a critical juncture in the college’s history elected to preserve this precious legacy. Ladies and gentlemen, we are part of a magnificent tradition, but we are also on the threshold of the future—and, as C.S. Lewis would doubtless observe if he were here among us, we are necessarily the keepers of both our legacy and our potential. The past is prologue to the future. At the beginning of a new era in the history of Old Main and Wofford College, that is at once our responsibility and our opportunity. It is what we have gathered here today to celebrate as, returning to my original conceit, we slip our fingers beneath the foundations of this noble building, heft it to our shoulders, and begin the next lap, bearing it into the future. . . shining and untarnished as it is. As it was, so let it be: an idea we believe in, a place we love.
Wofford College, now and forever!