To Shine in Use: The Trojan Horse and the Sphere of Common Duties

Inaugural Address
President Ron Thomas
Friday, April 23, 2004

[Words of greetings and appreciation to participants, special visitors, friends]

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

(from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses)

 

I am a part of all that I have met. Today, I am acutely attuned to these sentiments expressed by Tennyson’s Ulysses when he returns home after years of war, adventure, and accomplishment. More accurately for me, I will say that all of you have, inextricably, become a part of me. The great Ulysses returns to his home city of Ithaca and stands before the familiar ghosts of his past—family and friends, allies and rivals—realizing that all his much heralded experience in battle and at sea has been no more than an archway through which he must pass to another untravelled world gleaming before him. He sees that moment of arrival not as an end, but as a beginning, an opportunity to seek a newer world in which to perform some new work of noble note.

Like Ulysses’s Ithaca, our own city, especially on this day of inauguration, is not so much a destination for me, as it is a starting point for us. Home is where you start from, T. S. Eliot said; and today, I start again with you from this new home, this Tacoma that has been the home of the University of Puget Sound for 116 years.

The question I would put before us all is this: “What untravelled world gleams before us at this new beginning for the University of Puget Sound?” Where are we going, we who follow knowledge like a sinking star from this small point on earth? How shall this liberal arts college on the shores of Puget Sound, in the shadow of a great mountain, on the edge of the American west, how shall we move through the arch of our experience to embrace the call of citizenship?

But perhaps the first question should be, does the life of liberal learning lead us to embrace our civic duty at all? Indeed, this was the question Ulysses posed to himself in a moment of crisis and decision. He returns from celebrated exploits in the wide world to realize that the greatest challenge of his wit and talent was the challenge of leadership in his own city. A hero of Troy, conqueror of armies of men and monsters, traveler of the world and the underworld, now at home in Ithaca, Ulysses, the man of many ways, is called upon to be the leading citizen in his own city; and he resists that call to civic duty.

In Tennyson’s version of the story, which takes up where Homer leaves off, we find Ulysses wrestling with this imperative, groaning under the weight of the duty that calls to him, the victim, he says, of a restless spirit, driven always to grander things by what he calls the lure of an “always roaming . . . hungry heart.” He questions whether the life of “the useful and the good” is one for which he and his great talents are cut out. He finds the city, with its narrow confines of councils and governments, a heavy harness for his talent and ambition. He would choose instead to leave “the sphere of common duties,” as he calls it, along with the scepter of leadership, to his son, Telemachus. Ulysses longs to set sail again; he hears the siren song of another epic battle, of some “newer world,” calling through the arch. No ivory towers for him. And no halls of government either.

We in the academy have sometimes expressed these same sentiments. Like Ulysses, we, too, are “yearning in desire/To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Our calling, as Cardinal Newman urged, is to seek truth for its own sake wherever it may lead, without regard for practical consequences. We who have embraced the liberal arts often seem more deeply concerned with principles than practicalities, with the war of ideas than with the conflicts of peoples, with understanding the laws of nature than with shaping the rules of civic engagement. Should we not stand apart from the hurly burley of the arena so that we can be disinterested critics and commentators of a world from which we are in some ways detached, the gadfly that admonishes and asks the crucial questions of our culture: “Why?” or “Why not?”

When we speak in this way, we echo the equivocations of Ulysses, and we repeat his contradictions. Ulysses wished “to shine in use,” he claims, yet he spurns “the sphere of common duties.” He asserts that he regards knowledge as something “beyond the bound of human thought,” yet he longs that “Some work of noble note, may yet be done” among men.

We should recall that with his much-celebrated inventiveness and wit, Ulysses once gained fame in the war with Troy by conceiving an ingenious plan to enter that other far-off city by hiding with his army in a great Trojan horse, and thereby managing to conquer that city in battle. Resourceful enough to defeat an enemy stronghold by secreting himself within that duplicitous gift of false generosity, Ulysses was not wise enough to see his own city of Ithaca as a destination equally as challenging as the distant Troy, a place to enter and assume a public role rather than to hide within a private plan. Ithaca was a place not to conquer with arms but to engage with truth, a place where intelligence could not only be nobly deployed but where knowledge, and even wisdom, might shine in use.

What destiny calls to us at Puget Sound through the arch of our history? How will we enter it? What will the effect of our presence be? The newer world we will seek at Puget Sound is not one where knowledge fades like a sinking star on a distant horizon, but where it burns with the bright light of noble work. We do not come to Tacoma or to the national scene to hide in the stratagem of a Trojan horse of false friendship or private ambition; rather, we come with an open commitment to partnership with our fellow citizens here and in our nation. We will not choose between the path of local leadership and the road to national prominence. We will show that the first journey maps the way to the second, that excellence in the sphere of common duty, in the useful and the good, is, for those truly committed to the values of the liberal arts and sciences, the foundation for national distinction and leadership.

This is our adventure, and this is the course we will chart for our journey together. One hundred and sixteen years ago, our founders came to this city with these same intentions, and declared that in this place a great university would be established: here, in the so-called City of Destiny, at the foot of the mountain that is inscribed on our seal; here, where the Northern Pacific railroad would join the east coast with the west; here, in the land of the Puyallup and the Nisqually; here, where our inland sea, the Puget Sound, would draw students, our founders envisioned, from throughout the land and from every state in the Union, just as it drew ships and goods from throughout the world. In 1884, before Washington was a state in the Union, a former President of Northwestern University, John Fowler, came from Chicago and conspired with an elder of the Methodist Episcopal church to affirm that here in the “new Northwest,” would be born a university of the first rank, the equal of the finest institutions of learning in Chicago and Boston, and it would bear the name of Puget Sound. It would invoke praise and respect from throughout the nation, they said. That vision and that aspiration guide us still today.

Since that time, this university has had many changes in name and direction, just as our city has taken its own twists and turns of destiny. As Puget Sound established its campus on three different sites in the city over our first forty years, as we expanded and then as we focused our mission, we shared boom times and hard times with Tacoma; and recently, we have seen a great cultural renaissance taking place here, with new museums on the waterfront, new arts organizations, a convention center under construction, and new housing in the city’s core.

How will the histories of this city and this college converge in the next generation, as we pass through the arch of our experience together and become a national phenomenon? What noble work is yet to be done by us, together? Just as in previous generations, the vision and commitment of our legendary music professor, Ed Sefarian, led to the formation of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, or as Puget Sound faculty helped to create the Tacoma Actor’s Guild and the Tacoma Art Museum in generations past, what new cultural work will come from our next collaborations?

Just as the annual Pierce County Economic Index and Forecast emerged from the good work of our faculty in the School of Business and Leadership and the Economics Department, how will our intellectual capital be leveraged to contribute to the fiscal development and well-being of our South Sound neighbors in the years ahead, to our region and our nation, and to the Pacific Rim upon which we gaze? As the University’s partnership with the Tacoma Public Schools in the Access to College programs has opened the doors and made higher education imaginable to a generation of diverse young people in our city who might never have dreamed of it, what new ways will we discover in the days ahead through which to strive for equity and excellence in educational opportunity for people regardless of race, economic position, or ethnic background?

What new work of noble note remains to be done by us at the University of Puget Sound in the sphere of common duty with our community, with our nation, and with what has been called our global village?

We have already begun to explore a number of such new works: a center for strategic issues research and sustainability; a health and human sciences center for teaching, research, and clinical practice; a strategic master plan that will develop our beautiful campus over the next two decades as, at once, a cloister for intellectual reflection and a vital crossroads for cultural exchange. These and whatever projects we pursue will manifest this principle: we will seek common cause rather than promulgate a private plan; we will learn as well as teach; we will listen as much as we speak. This week alone we have begun new conversations about cooperation with our Native American neighbors, with members of our African American community on the plague of racial segregation and inequality, with local and national organizations addressing the challenges of global warming, with citizens concerned about our civic duty to remember injustice and resolve to resist it, and even with our three-time poet laureate on the role of poetry and the arts in renewing our culture. These things are a beginning of our voyage into the useful and the good, our commitment as a liberal arts college to productive civic engagement in our city and on the national stage.

In this moment in our nation’s history, ours is a voice that will not remain silent. We face a time of great challenge in higher education when we have sometimes lost the gleam of appreciating our role in the public good. There was a time when this nation recognized higher education as the key to our future, when we made the brilliant sacrifice following World War II of investing in the GI Bill and making a college education accessible to a whole generation of veterans when they returned from their adventures in battle abroad. In those days, the great economic engine of the American Century emerged from that unflinching commitment to higher education and the sphere of common duty it would open up. Universities like Stanford helped to spawn Silicon Valley, while Harvard and MIT generated the technology and biotech boom around Boston and Cambridge, and college campuses throughout the nation became vibrant centers of public debate, political discourse, and social action in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, America does not regard higher education so seriously. It is often considered more a consumer good than a public good. It is commonly regarded as a mere job credential or a training ground for the labor force rather than as a caldron for leadership, a great national asset through which to create and test ideas, to discover and expand knowledge, to critique, and transform our culture. It has become a Trojan horse of instrumentalism rather than that “something more,” that “bringer of new things” that we know it can be.

Today we hear a great deal about the higher priority of maintaining the security of the homeland. Not unlike Ulysses, we heed again the siren call to arms. But we must remember that true security is based on understanding as well as power. An uninformed obsession with security can be the breeding ground of fear. “Security,” Shakespeare writes in Macbeth, “is mortals’ greatest enemy.”

Franklin Roosevelt, whose leadership brought us through one of our most perilous times of economic and military threat, once said that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This sentiment was uttered by the president who oversaw the invention of social security and the atomic bomb, who engineered the great economic recovery of the last century as well as the great victory in World War II, and who warned us that the greatest thing we had to fear was fear itself. Yet for him, the real safeguard of democracy, fear’s true antidote, could not be found in unimaginable military might or unprecedented government effort: it was in educating a generation to be informed and to act, one that understands the useful and the good, and chooses them.

This is our mission as a national liberal arts college; this is the sphere of our common duty. Our security is not to be found in a Trojan horse of power or privilege, but in an open exploration of the limits of human thought and its responsible, creative engagement with the useful and the good. If education is our security, our safeguard, it is also our hope. Many of you have heard me say that in the business of higher education, we deal in hope. Hope is the product we make. Hope is the service we offer. Hope is the benefit we provide, and hope is the only profit we earn. I believe that there is no more important business for our future as a nation and as a human community than this. What we are about every day at the University of Puget Sound is nothing less than the cultivation of the leaders of the next generation—they are the ones in whom we invest our hope to secure our future.

I am proud, and honored, to be part of that enterprise at a place like Puget Sound. Today, as we pass through the arch of our collective experience, I join with you, our faculty, our staff, our trustees, our alumni, with all our colleagues, and, most importantly, with our students, in our commitment to a liberal education, to strive with you to shine in use in the sphere of common duty, to seek knowledge beyond the bounds of human thought in some work of noble note, and not to yield until together we find our newer world in the useful and the good. Today, we have begun.