Don A. Smith
L.F. Parker Professor in History
9:30 a.m., May 21, 2006
Herrick Chapel is now 100 years old. In a splendid article on Herrick Chapel and the Forum in the Spring 2006 number of The Grinnell Magazine, Professor James Kissane reminds us of what the College was like in 1906. Herrick Chapel, he notes, expressed the ideal of knowledge, wisdom, insight and inspiration being IMPARTED. So here we are in Herrick Chapel again, where generations of baccalaureate Grinnellians have gathered with their guests on the day before commencement for knowledge, wisdom, insight and inspiration. I suppose that, in the language of post-modernism, I am an imparter and you, collectively, are the impartee.
Some six decades after 1906, the College commissioned an eminent architect to design the Forum. The South Lounge of the Forum became the expression of another ideal: in Mr. Kissane's words, that knowledge, wisdom, insight, and perhaps even inspiration itself are most truly and usefully present when they are being CONTESTED. Whatever I have to impart this morning will escape contestation in this place. But let me assure you that I'll be around for the next two days; and if contestation is what you desire, we can go to the South Lounge and put up our dukes. As many of you know, I feel quite at home there
Alexis de Tocqueville served as Foreign Minister of the Second French Republic for some sixteen weeks in 1849. During that time, he had frequent contact with the President of the Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Two years after Tocqueville left office, the Prince-President in a coup d'etat, swept aside the constitution of the Republic and prepared the way for him to become the Emperor Napoleon III. Tocqueville left in his RECOLLECTIONS of the revolutionary events of 1848 and 1849 a portrait in words of the man who became Napoleon III.
This portrait is a verbal masterpiece, and I think that anyone here who has read it--and there should be over a dozen of you here--will agree that it deserves to be read in its entirety. But, in the spirit of the pulpit and my responsibilities as imparter, I want this morning to take one sentence from this portrait as my text. Tocqueville wrote, "Les paroles qu'on lui adressait etaient comme les pierres qu'on jette dans un puits; on en entendait le bruit, mais on ne savait jamais ce qu'elles devenaient." "The words that one addressed to him were like stones that one throws into a well. One heard their noise, but one never knew what became of them."
I think that Napoleon III might feel more at home today than Tocqueville would. We may imagine the Emperor settling down quite well into our turn-of-the-twenty-first century vocabulary. We may imagine him inviting a someone into his office for a conversation and then getting round to saying, "I want your input on this important matter." The visitor would then begin to talk, perhaps slowly wondering what the conversation would amount to once it was over, and wondering what the enigmatic face of the Emperor was making of her input. The conversation would come to an end with the Emperor fulsomely thanking the visitor for her valuable input. The visitor had heard the noise her words made, but would never know what became of them.
We have become cynical of requests for our input. We so rarely learn what happens to it. Was it really brought to bear on the putative deliberation that was going on somewhere, or have we simply been treated to what is hoped will be a "feel-good" moment for us? Who hears or reads our words is frequently a mystery. The perverse effect of these invitations for our input is often to encourage us to retire into what Tocqueville called individualism. Individualism, he wrote, "is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself." What I ask of the class of 2006, and indeed of anyone who hears the noise that my words make this morning, is that you claim for yourself and your fellow citizens a deliberative way of life, in which see that your role a citizen of whatever communities you are a member of, summons you to mutual deliberation with your fellows over the issues that your community faces. Cultivate the ability, as the British statesman W. E. Gladstone, called it, to throw your mind into common stock. I read the other day that a member of the faculty of the Yale Law School has proposed that we inaugurate a national holiday, not on election day itself, but on some day before the election. It would be what he called "Deliberation Day," in which citizens would gather together for persuasion and dissuasion, debate and discussion, of the leading issues of the day. Would it work? I'm not sure, but at least here is someone who is giving thought to that creeping individualism among us that seems to discount active citizenship and leaves the greater society to look after itself. Mere input will not solve this problem. Input needs contestation. We need that sense of responsible deliberation that, in the words of Grinnell College's mission statement, will enable us all to serve the common good. If you, about to be alumni of this College, take up that responsibility, it can surely be said that in that way, you will have lived up the highest ideals of the College. I wish you well as you move on to a new stage in your lives, and I ask for your best wishes as I am about to do the same. Good luck and godspeed to us all.