Dr.Dunlap at Wofford Event

Notifying William Morris & Other Stops Along The Way
An Inaugural Address by Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap

President, Wofford College

This inaugural address was delivered on April 24, 2001.  

My grandson was flipping through a picture book the other day and paused at a picture of an ibex. "I is for ibex," the caption said. I read that aloud as he pointed at the graceful curve of the animal's horns, much longer than any utility could possibly justify. I tried to see it through my grandson's eyes as he studied the sturdy but delicate goat perched on a craggy peak.

"Why?" he asked me. "Why?"

It's one of those questions so deceptively simple that we don't know how to answer it. Should I give him some sort of zoological explanation, with a little evolutionary theory tossed in for good measure? Or a short metaphysical peroration on the need for beauty, diversity, and the unexpected? Or one of those all-purpose adult evasions that amount to saying "because it is, that's why"?

"But why?"

Why, when there're so many varieties of life in the world should there exist something as desirable no doubt from the point of view of the goat fancier--though, let's face it, not strictly necessary in the great scheme of things which has provided more than enough variation to fill a small child's alphabet book and, beyond that, all the zoos in the world?

When you get right down to it, do we really need the ibex? Or, for that matter, the letter "x"--which along with most things it facilitates--ought to strike any sensible person as, well, supernumerary?

Clearly, something of the sort was troubling my two year-old grandson. My answer was purely improvisatory, though I confess that, as I spoke it, it crossed my mind he might as well have run across a list of colleges and universities in America and, having paused at "Wofford College," asked me "Why?" with the same untroubled blue-eyed gaze, expecting a sufficient answer.

"Because it makes the world more wonderful," I said.

My grandson thought that over for a moment, then nodded and turned the page to "Jackass," for which I realized I might have to formulate a different answer.

But now, on this august occasion, with my grandson several years older and seated in the audience, it strikes me as appropriate to point to the buildings that surround us and the idea they embody, and pose the same simple, vexing question "Why?"

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it's the same question posed for himself by Henry Nelson Snyder some 99 years ago, when he became the fourth president of Wofford College, a position he would hold for 40 years--which by my reckoning means that, if I am to be as inspired by his example as by his words, I can expect to retire at the age of 102. . . just a few years past the point at which my mentor, friend, and colleague here at Wofford, Sandor Teszler, declared he no longer felt as young as he had at 95. My one sorrow on this occasion is that Mr. Teszler is not with us here today--though, in a very real sense, he is, presiding in his wise and humane fashion, approving for once of the music I've selected.

And it's easy to feel Dr. Snyder's presence too, for the question he asked a century ago is, if anything, more relevant now, when the prevailing concept of higher education is seemingly secular, public, and vocational. To re-phrase his question: alumni loyalties aside, what place is there today for a Methodist institution of higher learning devoted to the liberal arts and to the proposition that undergraduate instruction should teach one not merely how to make a living but how to live a meaningful life?

I'll try to answer the question as Snyder himself did, with a little history, a dab of philosophy, and an earnest prayer--the right approach, I think. For here, on the brink of our college's sesquicentennial, we do well to reflect on how, improbably and unpredictably, human beings find a chance to redeem the vagaries of circumstance and their own shortcomings.

It was not far from here, 221 years ago, in the red hills of the Carolina upstate where fratricidal conflict was underway and the outcome of a revolution very much in doubt, that events occurred without which none of this panoply would exist.

Fall came early that year and a chill was in the air on the evening of October 18th, less than two weeks after King's Mountain and several months before the decisive battle of Cowpens. A rebel partisan, having visited his pregnant wife, had just been apprehended by his Tory neighbors who were preparing to hang him summarily. But his wife intervened with desperate pleas, warning that her life and that of her unborn child would also be forfeited. Unnerved, the Tory posse relented and let her husband live. And early on the following morning, October 19th, 1780, Benjamin Wofford was born into a world that, even after the war had ended, continued to be marked by violence and uncertainty.

This area of the piedmont, stretching from Georgia through the Carolinas, would remain a frontier culture for some years to come--as it had been a half-century before when visited by an Oxford scholar whose heart had been "strangely warmed," leading him to found a society in which "scriptural holiness" might combine with respect for learning to create a "new middle class" to combat the arid rationalism of Deist thought. That scholar, of course, was John Wesley, and among the energetic spokesmen sent forth by his society was a sometime apprentice to a blacksmith and saddler by the name of Francis Asbury. It was Asbury who brought Wesley's message to this immediate vicinity, including in his instructions for would-be Methodists the admonition to "preach especially on education" and posing for them a question that would become with time increasingly difficult to answer. "What can be done," he demanded, "in order to instruct poor children, white and black. . . to teach them learning and piety?" White and black alike, for all were God's children.

Among those who responded to Asbury's call was a circuit-rider out of Georgia, George Doherty, who was said to be both a self-taught sage and a mesmerizing preacher. And it is here that our story comes together, for it was within hailing distance of where I stand that, in 1802, the young Ben Wofford, having heard Doherty preach, was converted and called to the ministry.

This ought to be the triumphant climax of our founder's history, but the fact is that, after a trial year in Tennessee, when Ben Wofford was told by the Methodist conference that he would have to rid himself of the two slaves he owned if he wished to preach the gospel. . . Ben Wofford declined.

His subsequent career has been memorably summarized by Henry Nelson Snyder: "Retiring from the active work of the ministry, he settled down in Spartanburg County for the next thirty-four years of his life to acquire the reputation of a skinflint and miser on account of his talent for making and keeping money. Traditions of miserliness grew around this lean, gaunt man, six feet two inches tall, Lincolnesque in face and figure--his careful picking up of pins and nails, sweeping of every single grain of tobacco into his pipe, letting his candles burn down to the last gasp of light, using of the torn margins of newspapers for keeping his accounts."

Yet, nearing the end of his life and contemplating eternity, Ben Wofford apparently recalled the exhortations of Wesley, Asbury, and Doherty, whom in his youthful enthusiasm he had so much admired. And, amid the founding of institutions throughout the South such as Davidson, Furman, Randolph-Macon, Erskine, and Trinity (later Duke University), Ben Wofford responded to the suggestion of a friend that he should found a college--"spreading, working, increasing in power and goodness through the ages as they come"--with one of the largest bequests ever made for that purpose. The college that would bear his name was to educate both mind and spirit, to instruct the youth of the South not merely in what was profitable but in what was right and decent, pursuing an ideal later to be enshrined in the motto of the school that it should continue to shine with untarnished honor.

"Honor" was, of course, a term much bandied about in the ante-bellum south, and here, in this town the very name of which commemorates the martial discipline and communal solidarity of ancient Greece, we thought we knew what honor involved. In the decade that followed its founding, however, Wofford College was perhaps too loyal to its local name and habitation, for we invested those talents we had been given in a cause that, however gallant in intent, was also a defense of the indefensible. The very building behind me, our noblest shrine to the life of the mind, is also a constant reminder of a heritage in which those who labored hardest in its construction were neither free nor equal.

It is some satisfaction, and evidence perhaps that human beings like their institutions can grow in grace, that Wofford was the first independent college in the state to integrate its student body; that the newly elected president of that student body, Ben Foster, is an African-American, on the platform with me today; and that he, that other Ben, from a new and better era, was among several dozen Wofford students who traveled recently to South Africa, where they discovered in a museum among the documents devoted to the career of Nelson Mandela, a letter of praise and support from my predecessor, Joab Lesesne, addressed to Mandela during his long imprisonment.

History both defines us and challenges us to transcend what we have been. Wofford has done that. But is there still a place for such an institution, that can learn as well as teach the great truths of democracy and Christianity, that matches knowledge with faith, livelihood with morality? My answer is a resounding yes.

To be sure, what we mean by faith has broadened its purview since the 19th century. Scientific speculation doesn't threaten our beliefs, nor does dialogue with those of other persuasions. If the world has grown smaller in the past century and a half, the universe has expanded so vastly in conception that we are, to our own and the world's advantage, more tolerant and ecumenical than we once were, less exclusive or dogmatic, more inclined to engage in civil debate with those whose ideas are different from our own, readier to take heart from what we have in common and to work together to implement what John Wesley himself once described as his own determination to

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Having quoted those lines, let me pause to suggest that there is indeed an unbroken continuity from John Wesley, the Oxford scholar; to Francis Asbury, the blacksmith's apprentice; to George Doherty, the autodidact; to Carlyle and Snyder and Lesesne; to all those who have taught and studied here; to friends of the college--not least among them Roger Milliken, whose benefactions to the campus include that new and noble structure facing the building behind me like the assurance of a legacy assumed and carried forward--; to those who in generations to come will continue to translate ideas into deeds and education into lives for which posterity will praise them.

Let me hasten to add, if only for my own peace of mind, that, though greatness will not be achieved by most of us, goodness is within the reach of all, and it is that to which we aspire as the common trait of all Wofford men and women. Even our founder's own career, that offers so little evidence of getting on with God as opposed to getting on in the world, suggests that we might in the end redeem our pettiness and procrastination by commitment to one great idea conceived in the service of others.

But, lest I sound too vainglorious on behalf of this little kingdom of the just, let me point out that I have spent more than a quarter-century of my own career at the University of South Carolina, and I know first-hand the value of such public institutions to the citizens of this state. So it seems to me, in all candor, that it's not enough to justify the existence of a church-related college in relation to its own professed ideals. I must also consider the value and validity of a small, independent, liberal arts college in contradistinction to a mega-university.

Coincidentally, perhaps, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on William Morris, the 19th-century polymath who was studying at Oxford at the very time Wofford College was being founded, and who subsequently became not only a poet, essayist, and fiction writer of considerable renown, but who also revolutionized British taste in such pursuits as architecture, printing, and design of everything from type fonts and paper-making to fabrics, rugs, wallpapers, and furniture. Recoiling from the mid-Victorian predilection for all that was cheap and shoddy, Morris preferred a sort of medieval revival of handicrafts, establishing a company that not only produced objects of great utility and beauty, but treated its workers as craftsmen, refusing to ask them to engage in work that was not creatively satisfying, to which they were committed in pursuit of something more than profit. Though not everyone could afford the products of Morris & Company, everyone wished to, and his great experiment exerted a profound--indeed, a revolutionary--influence over his entire society, out of all proportion to the scale of that modest operation. In fact, one can plausibly argue that few developments of that era were as important in humanizing the industrial revolution and diminishing its abuses than the counter-example of this practical idealism.

In many respects, it seems to me, Wofford College is the Morris & Company of higher education in the state of South Carolina. This is not to imply that our great public institutions are resigned to the equivalent of the cheap and shoddy. Far from it. But such institutions by their very nature are larger, more bureaucratic, less flexible in adaptation, more various in their obligations and responsibilities. By contrast, a small liberal arts college like Wofford exists for a single purpose, upon which all its energy and resources are focused: the teaching of undergraduates, a task we undertake not so much in competition with the larger public institutions as in consort with them and counterpoint to them.

The difference, as with Morris & Company, is not merely with regard to the handmade as opposed to the mass produced, or even to the carefully crafted as opposed to the casually supervised, but in the emphasis on educating the whole person as opposed to the vocational self, on the satisfaction of the teacher-scholar as professor--one who professes more than the skills he has mastered, who invests more of himself in the college community than the workday requires, whose sustained and intimate contact with his students reveals his values and aspirations as well as his knowledge. Above all, the small independent liberal arts college is distinguished by its insistence on the importance of character and service as well as intellect, on combining the arts, humanities, and sciences with religion so as to instigate a lifelong quest for understanding, on its concern with what the students are when they graduate as opposed to what they were when they applied for admission. Authentic community is a crucial part of that distinction--not the platitude that appears in every institutional brochure, but the day-to-day, hour-to-hour reality of living together and sharing a common ideal.

What this means for every Wofford student is an education that rests upon a broad-based core curriculum, complemented by a solid mastery of the discipline or disciplines of one's choice, and extended still further at every level of study by an emphasis on integrative learning--an emphasis that, despite a widespread capitulation to what is merely vocational throughout the world of higher ed, best suits our graduates for the realities they will encounter. For it is this that enables them to make connections, to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and negotiate a world no longer divided so neatly into categories of endeavor.

The public universities are essential to our purpose, if only because they are good and getting better, cheap and getting cheaper. Independent institutions are compelled to be efficient, obliged to innovate, above all driven to invest wisely, combining their assets for maximum results and, in the process, serving as models for the bigger institutions. In effect, though we often pretend otherwise, we need them and they need us. Without public institutions, there would be a tendency for their private counterparts to grow smug and static. Without independent colleges, the effect on public institutions would be catastrophic--first, in the resulting financial demands on the state's resources, and, ultimately, I'm convinced by my own experience, on the product they deliver.

Why does Wofford exist? I'm tempted to answer with the same retort I gave my grandson, "to make the world more wonderful"--and that's not altogether wrong. Like the ibex, liberal arts colleges are a hardy species inhabiting the heights of higher education, and there are others of our sort, many of them represented here today, who occupy their own pedagogical peaks, true to the same faith I so passionately espouse. True, we have our distinctive features, but we haven't evolved in ways so different from our larger, more numerous cousins that we fail to recognize a universal ecology on which we all depend. But it's our special characteristic that we embody the notion that education is at bottom about more than knowing a lot. It's also about doing a lot, about an implicit recognition that success is more than acquisition--it's also giving, and the satisfaction that comes from living for something other than oneself. And it involves the pleasure of understanding oneself and the world, of relating the different aspects of one's experience to a fundamental sense of who we are and what we believe.

The new Milliken Science Center is a manifestation of that ethos, a building of more than offices and labs--in effect, the intellectual crossroads of the college, where students from every discipline gather to study and compare ideas.

The hymn we'll sing later, with music by Joseph Haydn and words by Joseph Addison, blends literature, art, religion, and science in precisely the way our curriculum seeks to do.

And as soon as I finish speaking--something I'm sure my grandson is ready for me to do--you will hear another sort of statement, one that might remind us that, however we might hope to find articulation for our thoughts, there are ideas and aspirations that are, as art and religion should teach us, literally beyond words. It is unconventional, I know, to devote so much time on an inauguration program to what might be viewed as an interlude. But the Chaconne from Bach's Partita #2 for Unaccompanied Violin is more than a bridge from one speaker to the next. It is in a very real sense the reason we are here, a ceremonial occasion during which we might pause to ponder who and what we are and what we are about. Everything that might be said about life and the challenges that confront us is stated in Bach's masterwork, and I am assured that, however we might fail in other respects to rise to this occasion, a day on which this music is heard has been well-spent. I am immensely grateful to Ayako Yonetani that she is here to perform it, as I am grateful to all of you for your readiness to listen. It is the very essence of what this college exists to foment and the heart and soul of what matters most to me.

Well, there are strange synchronicities in life. My grandson is here, my mother is here, my wife, my son and daughters, my college roommate and so many of my friends. But perhaps the oddest thing to me is that I myself am here, at this time and place, for this exalted purpose.

When I was in my early thirties, and, in keeping with the jaunty fashion of the times, riding a motorcycle to and from the university where I was teaching, I joined the William Morris Society, which had its headquarters in London. From the regular communiqués that I received from Britain, I quickly learned that, though Morris himself had been engaged in a multitude of activities, the Society seemed to include no one but aging socialists who, judging from the black-rimmed necrology notices that arrived at the rate of four or five a month, were dying like flies.

Every day I would roar home on my Honda, stride in among my bawling kids, and ask if anything interesting had come in the mail that day--I was sending essays out to a number of national magazines and always eager to see if one had been accepted. But invariably my wife would answer, "Only another note from the William Morris Society" indicating that yet another fellow member had caught the ferry. It became something of a joke between us.

Then, one stormy afternoon, riding home, I had a head-on collision with a truck. I vividly remember the last protracted seconds before I realized there was no way to evade what I assumed would be a fatal crash. "Can I get off to the left? Noooo. Can I get off to the right? Noooo. Should I try to lay it down? Too late! I'm deadddd."

The truck cleared out and I was left unconscious in the roadway beside my ruined bike. As luck would have it, the next car to come along was driven by an old friend whom we had always teased for being so cautious about virtually everything, and, rather than run over the bundle of rags and broken pieces that was the better part of me, he stopped to investigate and called an ambulance.

I came to in an emergency room, surrounded by my weeping wife and all my friends who'd become physicians, among them a neurologist, who noticed that I had regained consciousness and began to ask me questions--what year it was, how many children I had, who was president of the United States. But for some reason I still can't explain, my memory had spooled off backwards and I could no longer remember anything that had happened for the past two years. So I gave the wrong answer to every question, at which point I saw my friend look at my sorrowful wife and shake his head. And, since my last conscious thought had been that I was done for, I assumed this indication that I might have damaged my brain meant I was indeed a goner.

And I'm here to tell you I rose to the occasion. With all the strength that I could muster, I weakly raised my hand to pluck my wife's sleeve and, as she bent down to hear me, whispered. . . "Notify. . . the William Morris Society."

It was my finest hour, ruined only by the fact that it was not, after all, my curtain call. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I've delivered my famous last words in advance and that they did me greater credit than most of what I've said under more salubrious conditions.

But, as I stand before you today, I can't help thinking that there truly was a vital connection between the example of William Morris and my own career--at least, that portion of it that has brought me, somewhat improbably, to this moment and this particular challenge.

It reverberates in my memory with another such moment, 99 years ago, as Henry Nelson Snyder savored the aftermath his own inauguration. "The guests had gone," he wrote. "The children were in bed asleep, the exercises of the morning, the congratulations, the warm voices of friends promising support and co-operation, the youthful enthusiasm of students over their president, had melted into silence. . . The familiar summer winds whispered in the leaves, the fireflies were doing their best, and the light of the stars seemed close enough to mingle with theirs. We were talking things over. What had been placed into our hands, just what sort of trust had we accepted?"

Suddenly daunted, he recalled his great predecessors whose portraits now hang with Snyder's own and the five other men who succeeded him, Joab Lesesne the latest among them. And, Dr. Snyder continued, "I decided that in men like these was an endowment that accounted in part for the extraordinary influence of this little college in the number and quality of the men [and we should add "women"] it turned out--men who, though few, represented the important leadership of South Carolina. Wightman, Shipp, Duncan, Smith, Kilgo--through them I knew whoever succeeded to the presidency was the heir to a spiritual wealth that had infused into the life of this college worthy standards of character, conduct, and service, guided by the religious motives of a great church. I know I became very humble when I thought of myself and them, but I did highly resolve to do the best I could to carry on in education what their leadership had stood for at Wofford."

I too, Dr. Snyder. I too.

©2001, Benjamin B. Dunlap, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC