From These Grounds
by President William G. Durden '71
October 1, 2012
In my final year as Dickinson’s president, I have been prompted to reflect on a number of topics, including what makes a Dickinson education so valuable and distinctive in today’s 21st-century society. Some of my thoughts on this, which were included in my August Convocation address when I welcomed the incoming students, are relevant for alumni and parents as well.
In my remarks, I related that last summer I read in the International Herald Tribune about the “exploding” audience for original works of art. The head of venerable auction house Christie’s in London, Steven P. Murphy, explained the increased appeal: “I think that the virtual world, the ease of access to images in high definition, the total availability of art online—all those things have increased the value of the object itself.” The role of an institution like Christie’s, he said, is that of “honoring the object.”
Well, in a strange way, Dickinson is like Christie’s—our primary mission is to “honor the object itself.” Those who choose to come to Dickinson realize just how precious and ultimately useful the pursuit of the object itself is, as opposed to its mere image—a facsimile—even if it “costs” more. Of course, it has to cost more: It is the “object itself.” It is created by high labor intensity and unfolds in intricate precision.
Undergraduate research universities and increasingly many colleges, are filled with exceedingly large classes, radically diminished in- and out-of-class resources, graduate-student and adjunct instructors, professors obsessed with their own research agendas, online / virtual courses and degree programs that often extend over six or more years because of the unavailability of required courses. Instead, Dickinson students have chosen to experience a premier undergraduate education—direct interaction in a physically and emotionally safe 24 /7 residential setting with a small group of similarly motivated learners. They have chosen to be among dedicated professors who are committed solely to their students and their intellectual development, with sustained focus on original texts and artifacts and engagement in those skills and experiences in and out of the classroom that mature a student’s mind and emotion—and all of this in an efficient four years of study.
This costs a considerable amount to honor. And like the “object itself"—the original work of art—it continues to increase in value as its scarcity becomes apparent in a broader world where a mere reflection of the original undergraduate education seemingly suffices.
I, along with all Dickinson alumni, students and their families, have demonstrated that we collectively desire the real thing — the “object itself”—in higher education and will not suffer a substitute.