Thomas S. Henricks, Distinguished University
The World We Have Lost – and Gained
A response given on occasion of being named Elon’s Distinguished University Professor for 2003.
I must confess, after John Sullivan's receipt of this honor last year, I feel a bit like a kid tromping around the house in his big brother's size 13 shoes. However, on this occasion, I'm happy to walk in those shoes – and I accept this recognition in the spirit that it was accepted last year. That is, an event like this really is a time when the university honors itself – or more precisely calls attention to the values that guide its development. Our dinner tonight is one way of emphasizing that the faculty role has been and continues to be central to what we do – and that making a career here is an honorable (and much appreciated) investment of one's life. We who have been – and will be – the recipients of this honor are merely markers of that institutional commitment.
There's an old Hope-Crosby bit where one of the fellows (Hope, I think) is to receive an award – and the other begins his accolade. "Never has one man done so much – to so many – for so long – with so little – for so long – for so much – for so long – for so few – for so long – for no reason – for so long – to no purpose – for so long ..." I can't remember the rest – and I hope that most of it doesn't apply in my case anyway. However, I must confess that the length of service theme is starting to resonate with my self-understandings. While my employment here has in no way reached Danieleyan or Baxterian proportions, I am starting to consider myself a denizen of the old world – someone who has known and inhabited many of the realities that have been Elon.
In that context, I recall the first end-of-the-school-year luncheon that I attended at Elon in May of 1978. I remember sitting at the back of (I think) McEwen Dining Hall with some young colleagues. As we watched the aging warriors come shambling up to the front to receive their 25 and 30 year awards, we gently teased one another. Surely this would never be our fate. Either, like Peter Pan, we would stay young forever – or perhaps more like Tinker Bell, we would go flitting about from one glorious academic appointment to the next.
We teased each other then. But I'm proud of the commitment – and the contribution – that that group of young faculty – and staff – made to our institution.
I think most of us in the room tonight would grant that Elon remains a fascinating place to work if only because of its continually changing character. No two years – or semesters – are quite the same. I used to joke that we're the sort of place that comes up with a five year plan every couple years. Office assignments become games of musical chairs; people move in and out of departmental and program leadership roles in a way that would make George Steinbrenner proud. Like family members gazing at long-ago photos, we hardly recognize our past. And whatever we are now is not what we will be in three years or five.
However, amidst all the institutional growth and the various changes in programs and facilities, there has been a large core of people who have stayed the course. It is a tribute, I think, to our leadership – and to the rest of us – that Elon has been able to maintain such strong, enduring commitment from its faculty and staff. Sustaining that artful balance between people and programs and between stability and change has been one of the keys to our success.
Just because we are such a future-oriented institution, I want – for my contribution tonight – to talk a little bit about the past and about its connection to our current identity. I suppose my thesis will be that we are not really like the Phoenix at all, arising magically from its ashes. Rather we have come to this point by building on the work of the previous Elon generations. In that sense, our university is not only an institution of change but also one of continuity – and it's fitting in a moment like this that we remember that.
To help our stroll down memory lane – and because I am an academic – I will refer to a book, The World We Have Lost, by a British historian Peter Laslett. As I recall, the book was about English society in that period just before the coming of the Industrial Revolution. I liked the book when I read it in part because of the title – no small consideration – but also because it made clear the fact that the issues people face are different only by degree from one age to another. Thus, to go backward those three or four hundred years is to find an English people not unlike ourselves – poised precariously between past and future.
Among the themes of Laslett's book, and the one I remember best, was the changing character of the village communities – that had their origins deep in the Middle Ages and beyond. That rustic world was even then being transformed by the new more expansionist viewpoint of the nation-states – with their cities and parliaments, imperialism, money-relations, machines, and what William Blake called the "dark satanic mills."
For just a couple minutes then, let us wander back to those agricultural communities of all those years ago. As many generations of academics have pointed out, life in that setting was profoundly "local." People commonly spent almost all of their lives within thirty miles of their place of birth. They operated in a world of familiar others. Friendships, like family ties, might last a lifetime. People followed local customs. They shared a common knowledge about the various tasks of making a life. They worshipped with neighbors. From cradle to grave, agricultural people were locked in a kind of embrace with one another and with their landscape.
Among the accomplishments of modernity was the destruction of that world. Just as many people were forced out of their agricultural holdings – sometimes to wander on the roads – so they were set free of their moorings in the social order. Old patterns of group responsibility – to families, neighbors, and work associations – were challenged by emphases on individual rights. Broad, personal relationships were replaced by ones that were both more specialized and more "contractual." Religion lost most of its battles with Reason. Hierarchy – at least of the old style – was examined and found wanting. A colder, more calculating attitude swept through the world. Indeed, as many sociologists have claimed, life in the new order became somewhat more legalistic, impersonal, individuated, abstract, transitory, and hard-boiled.
Now I should say quickly that neither Laslett – nor I – have any interest in romanticizing the so-called Old World. Back then, provincialism was thought to be a virtue. Life expectancy – for all manner of unpleasant reasons – was short. Patriarchy reigned. Religion took some nasty ideological turns. Property holders expected personal deference from those less fortunate. Indeed, many categories of people were humbled, set apart, or otherwise treated cruelly. For the circle of compassion was not widely drawn.
However, Laslett's point is that there was something about that older, more traditional world that should be remembered. Each age, it seems, is a mixture of the horrible and the wonderful. We must turn the coin about to see its two faces.
So I choose to remember the Elon of twenty-five years ago – the world that we have lost.
By making my memories public, I try to participate in what the great modern sociologist C. Wright Mills considered the fundamental act of the academic imagination. In Mills' view, the challenge of the educated person is to connect the characteristics of one's personal life story with the characteristics of the society in which he or she lives. However, trying to connect the private and public dimensions of life without some historical sensibility – without some understanding of where that society has been in the moments before – makes the whole enterprise futile.
Now it is quite true that memory-making is a very selective – and even subjective process. And in that sense, it departs radically from the careful accounts of the historian. In memory making, people bring their own sets of criteria – and their own urgencies – to the task. Past events are evaluated from the vanishing moment of the present. For just those reasons, I would agree with those who claim that we continually re-write our own life stories. Like people reading favorite books again and again – and finding different things of interest each time – so we decide that various people and events of our own lives become more or less important to us with the passing years. Even the so-called big moments of life, the "turning points," may change. My Elon story then will be different from the one that you would tell – and what I say now will be different from what I would say to you in ten years.
Again, it's not my intention to claim that Elon in 1977 was equivalent to some little agricultural community poking its head out of the Middle Ages. However, I will try to show that some of the themes are the same. For modernity has been running hard from the past for more than 500 years – and we were farther back along that road than we are now.
To begin, Elon then – like its village counterpart – was much more "local" in both its circumstances and vision. A large percentage of our students came from North Carolina and Virginia – and many of our faculty and staff were people from regional towns and universities. We had, it will be recalled, a goodly number of non-traditional students and a night school. Many of our students were the first of their families to attend college and many were from modest economic backgrounds.
In that pre-Internet, pre-cable TV world, people had fewer information sources readily at hand. For such reasons, professors – and their books – occupied a slightly bigger portion of that intellectual pie chart called "things I should know." We had some strong students – and many more of modest ability. The professor's task was in part to help those students either find or stabilize positions within the middle class – as citizens, workers, and heads of families.
We were of course smaller. My catalog lists a full-time teaching faculty of about 85 or so. And administration and staff was a much smaller portion of the college. I still marvel at the breadth of secretarial and office responsibilities that people like Martha Hill and Carolynn Whitley had in those early days. And this in the pre-computer era.
Furthermore, the interaction and leadership pattern of the place – what sociologists sometimes call social structure – was somewhat different. As one famous sociologist put it, earlier times were characterized by, among other things, particularism and affectivity. (By the way, I don't know why people insist on saying that sociology creates ugly jargon. It just seems so unfair.) Anyway, translating English into English, particularism refers to the way that rules are developed and applied; affectivity refers to the role of feelings in social life.
In that sense, social order in earlier times was built on the particular relationships that people had with one another. Hierarchy (and the sense of loyalty that went with it) was often a personal thing. And rules might be adjusted to fit the characteristics of the individuals involved. Put differently, one person's "deal" might be a little different than another's. Furthermore, personal feelings were important to the maintenance of social order. People with strong personalities might somehow get their way; and upsetting a person's sense of honor or dignity was a serious matter. In that sense, social organizations were bodies of concrete "people" more than of abstract "positions." At its best, this approach led to social relations that were warm and compassionate. At its worst, personal relations might cloud the work of the organization. Like other small colleges then, we confronted these issues.
As everyone who was here even ten years ago remembers, the regular teaching load was nine classes a year – albeit 3 credit hour classes. Overloads were not uncommon; indeed a person might be expected to step up to the plate should enrollment surge at the last moment. And teaching a couple courses in summer school was the fate of many. In that same context, released time – or assigned time, as I prefer to call it – was not so common. Coordinators of some disciplines and programs might take on those duties as acts of institutional good will.
As an institution, we were probably more religious – at least in that official if not deeply spiritual way. Carole Chase used to tease us about our "prayer sandwiches," the beginning and ending meditations that would be offered by faculty at our monthly faculty meetings. Faculty being what they are, such offerings were sometimes of the most theologically evasive and philosophically tortured variety. We were at that point still the "fighting Christians," a juxtaposition only slightly less befuddling than that of our former rivals, the "fighting Quakers," to the west.
And students, we had them! Major days in the academic year would be the registration and drop-add periods. A large portion of the faculty and staff would be seated at long tables in the gym. Vast numbers of students would come to the tables to sign up for or otherwise adjust their schedules. Classes might be added at the last moments. Alternately, class sizes could be run up to dramatic levels and then split for two professors. When students didn't get the professor (or course) they wanted, they sometimes complained. But students – and their parents – endured misfortune somewhat more resolutely than they do now.
Perhaps because the Registration and Drop-Add days were held in the gym, they had something of a circus atmosphere about them. The room would be transformed by pads and wires running at crazy angles about the floor; faculty (and their ever present books) would be perched precariously on metal folding chairs; sweaty, scantily clad students would be bounding about; the advising center – and the rest of us – would be performing miraculous feats of schedule juggling. That everyone should go through these hoops on time was the responsibility of the ringmaster, our voluble – and lovable – registrar. At the end of those days – when the room was being broken down – there was a sense of quiet self-congratulation. If one could endure this craziness, then the rest of the semester would be easy.
It will be remembered that faculty in most of the General Studies disciplines – and in some of the others – routinely carried 150 students a semester. In that regard, I have to laugh – it's fortunate that I amuse myself – at my own personal record in this regard. It was somewhere deep in the 1980s; and I was attending a workshop on Writing Across the Curriculum held here on campus by a consultant from, I believe, Hollins College. She was explaining how wide varieties of writing activities could be used in classes of every size and type. (Incidentally, this is a philosophy I firmly espouse myself.) Anyway, she was working her way around the room making suggestions to the various participants. When she got to me, I mumbled something like "Well, I don't know, my classes are pretty big this semester...." "How large are they?" she asked. "Well," said I, "they are 46, 48, 61, and 65." Aside from scenes around traffic accidents, I've never seen a person look quite so stunned. The poet W.D. Snodgrass once used the image of being out raking leaves one bright fall day – and turning up a severed hand. There was something of that quality to the moment. At any rate, she just turned and walked away. Perhaps she thought I was joking.
To be fair, that semester wasn't typical – and I was paid an overload for my adventures in enormity. But there was an odd kind of institutional bravado about class size – about people's carrying their weight in an intensely teaching-focused world. With fewer people to share the load, institutional service was very heavy – both on committees and in student social organizations. People did anything and everything; and sometimes fools rushed in where wise people would not tread. In that light, I recall my own two-year stint as a sorority advisor during my early days. Even now, I remember it as an endless falling backwards into a bottomless chasm of incompetence.
In such a context, the intimate connection between scholarship and teaching was not a clearly understood part of the official culture. Indeed, faculty research was sometimes seen as a lovely floral display – something that graced the campus but was not fundamental to the work at hand. Those who relentlessly pushed forward their scholarship under such conditions were the wonders of the world.
Of course, much of this smacks of those Great Depression stories that an earlier generation of parents used to tell their children. My own father, for example, had a favorite story about the year he only got a pair of sweat socks for Christmas. More precisely, he said he got one of the socks in 1933 and the other half of the pair the following year. Now I hope that some of those stories – like ones about people walking ten miles to school in the snow or wearing cardboard boxes for shoes – are apocryphal. That is, if not true precisely or if true only occasionally, that their real intention is less to scare or revolt another generation than to remind them of a more general truth – that there are other legitimate ways of being.
Was the old Elon an inferior place? I would rather say that it was different. Because there were fewer faculty and staff and because we played so many institutional roles, we knew one another better than we do now. And because our students were a little less well positioned in the social class structure and therefore a little less sure of themselves, I think perhaps that professors marked their lives more heavily than they do now. Oddly – in light of the heavy teaching loads and service activities – the institutional culture was a bit more leisurely. Because so many people taught so many students, there was a certain focus to our work. At any rate, I remember people as being a little less scattered and fretful than they are now – when everyone tries to do everything well.
Again, I have in mind an image of the old Elon. It is of a professor being in a committee meeting – excusing themselves, racing off to their office to get books and papers, and then appearing before a class of forty students three minutes later. Because we taught so much, it toughened us to our task and cultivated – above all else – plain speaking. It also promoted – within the narrow latitudes available to the academic mind – common sense. It amuses me sometimes to think of most of my graduate school professors – such hothouse plants as they were – trying to make a go of it in that Elon of 25 years ago.
Now there is probably not a person in the room who wishes to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear – unless it is for the opportunity to be young again. Nor am I claiming that my generation was the bedrock of Elon, the foundation on which our current university was built. There were earlier ages, each with its own distinctive qualities.
In that regard, my own father was a sociology professor at a small college in the Midwest. Like many others of his generation, he returned to work at the school where he had spent his undergraduate days. Beginning his career in 1951 and finishing thirty-some years later, he never taught elsewhere than his alma mater. As a professor, he also served as Dean of Men for awhile, coached one of the sports teams (though he had no particular qualifications for doing so), went to most of the football games, lived on campus with his family when we first arrived, and attended (albeit fitfully) the college's United Methodist Church. The experience of many Elon professors in that generation was, I think, not dissimilar.
All this is only to say that the character of an institution is an ever-changing thing – and our portion of it is rather small.
For that reason, I would not wish us to bury or disavow our past, like forgetting old relatives because they had different social attitudes or a bad temper. Indeed, remembering what was good from the old Elon is one way of guarding ourselves against some of the bleaker futures that we might enter.
For a few years now, we have been poised between the culture of a college and that of a university. And the pull of university culture, like modernity itself, is very strong.
Many of us have attended large universities for our undergraduate or graduate degrees. Some of us have worked in those settings. In my experience, at least some of those universities are characterized by the following traits. They are big and bureaucratic and preoccupied with the legal implications of things. Because of sheer size, people cannot possibly know one another and hence operate out of smaller departments and offices. Indeed, the world of familiar others can become remarkably small. Departments and programs in such settings are often encouraged to develop in their own ways; and relationships between them are sometimes strained.
Faculty and staff in such settings can have a fairly adversarial relationship; and faculty themselves are routinely suspicious of one another. In that light, many faculty participate in a cult of individual productivity. A university position may be seen primarily as a launching pad for creative exploit; lengthy resumes become measures of personal worth. After all, one's fundamental responsibilities are to the world of culture.
Communication with flesh and blood others – and of course at the bottom of humanity's heap, students – are nagging misfortunes, like diarrhea and gout. Thank heavens, graduate students should have been invented to address these fundamentally medicinal or even custodial matters. As one of my graduate professors once told me: "There are places that create knowledge and places that transmit it. How fortunate that we should be at the former."
In many university settings, people are encouraged to be citizens of the world – or failing that, to at least be conspicuous within their professions. Institutional loyalty, on the other hand, has the smell of Nietzsche's definition of morality – something for the geriatric set or for those otherwise enfeebled.
Of course, all this is bit of a caricature. And of course also, Elon has profited tremendously from its entry into university culture. We need men and women of enterprise – who are citizens of the world and of their professions. We want people who are dazzling in their creativity and who model that for others. We surely do not want a world where people have their heads down – huddled together like peasants in the fields or soldiers in the trenches. Still, as with many medicines, a bit of a good thing is wonderful. Too much is fatal.
In that sense, I would join those who argue that we must maintain – and even enhance – the quality of our connection to students. The teaching environment at Elon now – with its smaller classes, clearer purposes, and technologically enhanced communication – is simply better than the one I entered. We are preparing a different generation of students for a different set of futures in a different world.
With that in mind, I would offer a bit of advice about being successful at Elon to those who are younger or more recently arrived in our midst. At one level, to be sure, success is a personal thing. There are the opening lines of David Copperfield, where Dickens begins; "I am born. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station shall be occupied by anybody else, these pages must show." All of us should be the heroes or heroines of our lives – and success to a large degree means writing your own life story and then struggling to maintain that definition against all odds. Each person must "do" Elon in their own best way. There are many ways to be successful here. We cannot be one another – nor should we try.
Having said that, there is a larger measure of success. A person is successful to the degree that they make better the communities to which they belong. Is Elon or the wider public communities that we embrace made better by our involvement? Those who have been here awhile will remember the old TENTEF buttons – "A rising tide lifts all boats." We not only contribute to our communities. We are carried upwards by their accomplishments. As John Sullivan has reminded us through the years, we should be aware that there are ways of thinking small and ways of thinking large. And the task of us all is to comprehend – and meaningfully connect – those two.
I will conclude with an anecdote – from the old Elon. It was my first day of teaching here. My first day. I was carrying on in front of the class – discussing the syllabus and the path ahead for the semester. As I continued deeper and deeper into the hour, I noticed a blond-haired fellow at the back of the room, sitting next to an open door that was positioned there. As I continued, I saw him looking aside, out into the hall where I presumed a friend was standing. And what I heard him whisper – a bit too loudly – with a face transfigured by a Quasimodo-like anguish – was: "This son of a bitch is going to keep us the whole time."
Now I wouldn't want to look out across the room tonight to see people turning and whispering such a thing hotly to their dining companions. But I do have a few "thank yous" to make. I am deeply appreciative to all of you for coming tonight and for sharing this moment. Most of you have marked my life in various ways; others I will have the pleasure of knowing in the future.
Beyond that, I'm grateful to my colleagues at the front of the room – who in different, profound ways are the leaders of our institution. Quite specifically, I would thank Larry Basirico for his kind remarks, his friendship, and for his gifted leadership of our department. I would also like to remember a couple of my department chairs from the old Elon. Dr. Bob Delp was responsible for ushering Judy and me into the Elon world and for helping me with my baby steps here. I've always appreciated his courtesy and kindness. Dr. Fred Watts helped me through my adolescence. He showed me that there are many ways to be a thoughtful person and he remains a model of the vigorous, connected life.
Of course, my deepest debts are to my family. My obligations to my mother who is here tonight – and to my father (now fifteen years departed) – cannot be summarized. I will simply say thank you. Likewise words are poor instruments for expressing my continuing gratitude to Judy – who remains the center of my world – and to our children, Lizzie and David – who represent our family's reach into the future.
It was, we might all remember, another one of Dickens' characters who said, "God bless us everyone!" at a different though similarly happy occasion. I would add my own best wishes as we move – together – into the years ahead.
Thomas S. Henricks
September 24, 2003