Welcome Class of 2020 (and Others)

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

Letter to an Entering College Class:

As you prepare to enter into the classes, the residence hall life and social life, the activities, the sports teams, and the other opportunities that St. Mary’s College of Maryland offers, it’s useful to look at the university ideal and why colleges are set up as they are.

I could go back to Plato’s Academy, founded 2500 years ago, but I’m going to focus instead on the chateau of Michel de Montaigne, the 17th century French writer famous for his reflective essays. Montaigne was an active military man, but at a certain point he retired from the service and withdrew into a tower that housed his library. While there he reflected upon the world, writing essays about everything from revenge to sexual impotence to his cat. His “essais,” loosely translated as “attempts,” changed the way we see writing.

The idea of college as a safe place to reflect upon the world continues today. In our case, college is a bucolic retreat, a school set in a beautiful natural setting where one can escape from what William Wordsworth described as “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” We seek to offer you a congenial space where you can engage in higher order thinking.

But that being said, it is also true that the so-called “real world,” with all its problems, can’t be entirely shut out. This invariably comes as a shock to us. After all, weren’t we promised a safe space?

Fortunately, St. Mary’s offers you intellectual tools for understanding what the world is as it is. In your history classes you will study instances of conflict throughout the ages.  In your psychology classes you will study why people behave the way they do. In your sociology and anthropology classes you will study why societies are constructed as they are. In your biology classes you will study genetic imperatives. In your Cultural Perspectives classes you will study how cultures very different from your own operate.       

And that’s not all. In “the St. Mary’s Way” we have a code that calls upon us to respect and listen—really listen—to each other.

To be sure, we don’t always live up to our ideals. After all, we ourselves come from this real world and bring with us many of its anxieties, fears, insecurities, and prejudices. That’s only to be expected. But because we have these ideals, we have a framework for working through our issues.

Someone who speaks powerfully to this matter is Lucille Clifton, whose poems you have undoubtedly seen as you’ve walked around campus. Lucille, as we all called her, taught at St. Mary’s for almost twenty years, and she has long been one of America’s most beloved poets. This is in large part because she sympathizes with people going through tough times. Clifton has poems that help large women feel better about their big hips, abuse victims better about their bodies, and women in general feel better about biologically induced mood swings. People of color experiencing racist attacks have found solace in Lucille’s poetry, and she has also helped us experience the perspective of autistic children. Lucille’s poems have appeared on California billboards and New York subway trains to sustain people.

Lucille understood that honest conversations, difficult though they are, in the end make us better able to create a world that will honor us all. Once we step beyond our fear and our anger, we begin to see the full potential of each human being. At that point, we can begin looking for ways to support him or her.

St. Mary’s can’t entirely build a Montaigne tower to protect you from this world. Even though we have a requirement—Experiencing the Liberal Arts in the World—that is designed to alert you to how you can apply your training to the outside world, and even though we have an active Career Center to help you transition into that world, ultimately there will be shocks along the way. The world is a challenging environment.

Our role is to give you the tools you need to develop your own ways of understanding it and finding your way through it. You will “learn how to learn,” and we will also provide opportunities for you to practice what you are learning in a variety of situations, whether in a class, a student organization, or just a casual lunchroom conversation. If you add these to your life’s toolkit, you’ll be okay.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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