Professor George Drake '56
Professor of History
9:30 a.m. May 19, 2002
It's a great honor to have been asked by the current seniors to be their faculty speaker and I am humbled by that honor. I actually wrote out my comments, but I think I do better when I speak extemporaneously, so I am going to do it that way rather than to use my script. Along with President Osgood, I want to recognize the parents, other family members, and particularly since Inow am of that generation, the grandparents in the audience. And, as it happens, my own brother and sister in law are among those grandparents.
You, the graduates, are facing a right of passage. And, as I though about that, Irealized that I, too, am confronted with a rite of passage as this is my lastyear as a full-time academic and I move to what we at Grinnell call "SeniorFaculty Status." (Which is a sort of phased retirement.) And I will teach acouple of courses for the next couple of years and then run up against thatawful age seventy and presumably cease this activity.
And this caused me to think about thresholds. And tomorrow you'll probably be challenged to think about the thresholdleading into the future. And I, as a historian, (I guess you would expect that) am going to think about thisthreshold as time to look back -- to look back at the Grinnell experience.
I guess I can claim to have some unique perspectives on the Grinnell experience,as I was thinking about my connections with the college. I was a student here. I am a graduate. I married a graduate in 1960.And in that same year she and I returned to this campus and I was a sabbatical replacement faculty member 1960-61.Â I was in seminary at that time, so I helped in the chapel. I actually preached sermons from thisplace. I taught history. And, because I had seen the game played andbecause I had been an athlete at Grinnell they made me the soccer coach. Fortunately, we had an African student whowas a super soccer player and I organized the practices and he did thecoaching. Then, in the 1970's, when I was a faculty member and dean at Colorado College, I became a member of theBoard of Trustees here. So, for roughly ten years I served as a trustee of Grinnell.Then I got demoted by the trustees into the presidency -- sorryRussell. He understands exactly what I mean.
It was an amazing experience. These folks had been my colleagues, and suddenly I was working for them and I had to answerto them. And so I laughed about beingdemoted and then I realized I had been demoted. That lasted for roughly twelve years and during that time I had adaughter who was brave enough to come to a college where her father was thepresident. I won't go into that. So, I've been the father of a Grinnell graduate. Finally, and maybe best ofall I've been privileged for the last eight years to be a full time member of our history department. So, I think Ido have some perspectives. But that does not necessarily qualify me to get into the shoes of our graduates and tosay that I know what your perspectives of you experience may be. But I will try to make that leap.
But, I'm also going to begin with one more bit of autobiography. When I arrived on this campus in 1952(that's a long time ago -- it's fifty years ago) I remember my father, whowas full of words of wisdom, but offered them in a restrained fashion said tome, "I'm not worried that you'll succeed in athletics, or that you'll have anactive social life. I am worried that you'll flunk out." He had good reason to say that.
As a high-school student I had majored in athletics, women, or girls, and studentleadership -- in that order. My academic life was a definite last. Fortunately,I was a depression baby and it was relatively easy to get into a good collegesuch as Grinnell. Mostly, if you wereambulatory and more or less warm you could make it. So, I was here. And Imade some sort of vow that I would turn my papers in on time -- I had never turneda paper in on time in high school and, you know, that I would make an effort tobe a diligent student. After all, I realized now it wasn't the taxpayers paying, it was my parents and myselfpaying for this education.
Well, as it turned out, I didn't have to work hard to fulfill that vow. It was an exciting place and I suddenly found out that it wasexciting to learn. And I'm saying thatabout a college that was probably at the nadir of its history. Now, anyone who was around here in the 1950sknows what I mean. There were three presidents in my four years as a student.Â That says something about what was going on. Nevertheless, at this relatively weak moment in Grinnell'shistory I was turned on intellectually. I never would have dreamed by the end of college that I would end up anacademic. Yet that's what happened to me in those years.
Well, what's happened to you? I hope that you have had thatintellectual excitement that I have. Because, after all, this college is a vastly stronger institution nowthan it was in those years. With a much more uniformly capable faculty than in those years. So, I would be surprised it if didn't happen to you in most ofyou courses that a particular discipline became exciting to learn about and study.
You know that you've learned to write. It is the one thing, I think, that we as a faculty can say, at least in the discipline Iteach in -- in the social studies, humanities types of courses -- that you can seethe extraordinary progress that our students make in their writing skills. So, I'm not going to dwell on that. But I do want to dwell a little bit onsomething else. You are excellent problem-solvers. Now those of you whomajored in mathematics or the natural sciences, I think you recognize that immediately. But those of you whomajored in English -- think about the papers that you wrote in Englishcourses. What's the role of Prospero in The Tempest? You're a problem solver as you try to figure out -- fromreading that text with great care -- what Prospero represents and what Prosperosays to us. And on, and on, and on. In your various disciplines youhave solved problems. And you are much better problem solvers than you realize.Â Plus, you have the ability to take on something you have never seenbefore and you know how to go about solving a problem, an issue in aheretofore-unseen area.You will discover that you are very good at this and very flexible with it.
You also, and this maybe is I think, one of the most important aspects of an education such asyou've had . . . you have developed your imaginative capacities. We, as humans are, we think, somewhat uniqueamong the animal kingdom in having this ability to picture, to imagine. I mean, think about it for a moment. You can take black marks on a piece of paperand you can turn those black marks into words and those words into images inyour mind, so that you can move vastly beyond your temporal experiences. Beyond the here and the now. You read Huck Finn. I mean, most of us are not going to go downthe Mississippi on a raft. But, you can almost literally experience what that is, or was.
If you knowscience, think about what you know about this space.And what is in this space from the point of view of the chemicalcomposition. Why is it that we aren't floating about in space? Could easily happen, I suppose. But there arereasons why we don't. One of my colleagues in my presidenting years -- Wally Walker, was a botanist and every time I walkedacross this campus, he showed me things that I was not seeing before. It's an enormously rich experience to havesome sort of botanical grasp of your surroundings. So, I think I'll stop with those -- well, one other experience. To look at a great painting allows us toview reality, the world that surrounds us, in a somewhat different way -- a newway.
These experiences are there so that what you've been doing in these four years is furnishing yourimaginations. And developing your imaginations so that you have the capacity to experience the richness of whatit is to be a human being blessed with an imagination from now on. Really quite apart from your materialcircumstances you will have a rich life because of those endowments and thatstimulation. Now, I treat into areas I know less about, but I'm going to say something anyway.
If you're honestas a faculty member, we have no idea what kind of lives you live day by day inthe residence halls. I sort of laughingly say it's the closest thing to ghetto living that any of you willever experience. (Even though we havefine residence halls and good residence lifestyles.) But, nevertheless you're just jam-packed in there and you've gotto live with a lot of people, some of whom you like a lot and some of whom youdon't. But, I'll venture to say this:Â That you have developed your moral capacities while at Grinnell. And I'm not saying that you always dothe good. But I think you've learnedmore and more about what the good is.At least that's my experience interacting with students and I recognizethat in class you're on more or less your best behavior. But, I think there has been what we wouldcall moral development during your years at Grinnell.
And this thing that we call self-government isn't just 'I'll govern myself and you governyourself." It's more than that becauseyou are in that ghetto, the dorm, and you have to interact with each other. It's a close campus. There is community here and in the processof living in that community there is, I think, considerable development.
And, finally, let me say something about leadership. Now,that's a bad word at Grinnell, with a capital L. Most of you don't want to be leaders in the sense of standing outfrom the crowd. And yet again when youthink about it -- think about the multiplicity of organizations and activities onthis campus, of all of these complaints about this extraordinarily crowdedcalendar that we have. We're doing it ourselves. And it's the faculty andstaff doing it in part, but it's the students doing it.You have this tremendous multiplicity ofactivities and organizations. Andalmost all of you have been involved in planning and executing those activities. So, even though it's not particularlypopular on this campus to stand out from the crowd, nevertheless, I think youhave developed considerable leadership skills.
There are other things that could be commented on -- but what I am doing here is just asking youon this day, your day, at this event that the students have organized, to lookback at this threshold before you part from friends -- and that's a scarythought. Some of you will never see each other again even though you've just interacted closely for fouryears. Other of you, by the way, will see each other a lot. That certainlyhas been Sue's and my experience to be very close to some of our Grinnellfriends throughout life.
So, it is an extraordinary change that's coming and I'm inviting you to think back todayabout what that experience has meant to you. And tomorrow, I suspect, you'll be asked to think about what awaits youin the future.
Now I want to close by thanking you, the students whom I've had the pleasure of knowing,excuse me, you and others whom I've had the good fortune to know have blessedmy life and the life of this college. It has been a privilege to be your teacher. Thank you.