Founders Day remarks by keynote speaker Laura Trombley

College celebrates 220th anniversary of its charter
Nott Memorial

Founders Day remarks by keynote speaker Laura Trombley

It is wonderful to be here on such a beautiful spring day. I lived in Potsdam, New York for seven years, just 20 minutes from the Canadian border, and by the end of February, we would envy the warm weather and balmy nights you all enjoy in downstate Schenectady. I appreciate being invited to take part in your Founder's Day and would like to thank President Ainlay for his kind hospitality. Our two institutions, while founded in different centuries--18th and 20th--share many similarities. Union is a private, non-denominational liberal arts college and so is Pitzer. After 175 years as a traditional all-male institution, Union began enrolling women in 1970. After 7 years as a traditional all-female institution, Pitzer began enrolling men in 1970; we didn't hold out as long as you did.

From the beginning both institutions understood the value of a liberal arts education, and at the time of Union's founding, there was a desire for what was called a "practical education" for the citizens of this newly birthed republic. Union believed that in order to create a prosperous United States it was necessary for colleges to prepare citizens for lives of commerce and politics, no longer just for the more genteel professions and the ministry. Union made its mark by introducing an "uncompromising and effective place for applied science in the course of study" (from your Wikipedia entry), thus expanding the definition of a liberal arts education. This expansion, however, was not framed as a zero-sum game. Science and art, psychology and literature, theater and mathematics, engineering and philosophy; these are disciplines in dialogue, not in competition. As practical as a Union College education may have been in the 1870s, it was never simply and only utilitarian.

I've been invited today to speak about the "Enduring Power of the Humanities," since I was a double major in English and Humanities I better, the humanities really best speak for themselves; art and literature do not need me as their interlocutor. Yet the humanities have increasingly found themselves under attack. Critics are applauding their extinction and characterizing them in these post-2008 recessionary times as a luxury, disconnected from core curriculum. According to the Huffington Post "since the late 1960s, the proportion of four-year college students majoring in the humanities has dropped by over 50 percent. Today, only 8 percent of students in the U.S. pursue a humanities degree."

My role today, then, might be to simply remind you that the humanities are organically as much a part of who you are, as much as the Mississippi is central to this Continent, and as important a critical plot device in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (I had to work in a Mark Twain reference.) That's how I think of the Humanities--like the deep and nourishing waters of the Mississippi to the delta.

Let me offer an analogy--we humanities folk like analogies. On my way here yesterday, starting from the Los Angeles International airport, flying to Chicago's O'Hare, and then to Albany was, and this is the highest praise you can give about travel these days, uneventful. Now there are those of us from a particular generation who recall the time when flying was an exciting proposition; you had the sense that this was special and you should even dress up. I was 12 when I went on my first plane flight and recall that there was a lounge on the 747 where a man played a snappy Neil Diamond medley on the piano just as we broke through the clouds into a robin's egg blue sky. It was "Sweet Caroline" in motion at 30,000 feet.

Flash forward a few decades, and you can find me on my broken United economy window seat with a disgruntled person sitting in front of me fully reclined, leaving me with no room to move, unless I count blinking my eyes. There's no piano bar, no film, no Wi-Fi, no music, no magazines. There is nothing to see, a cloud bank obscures the view (in LA we call clouds smog), and I'd rather not mention the food. It struck me that flying in a beige and white steel tube with nothing to occupy my time might be a reasonable analogy for what existence might be like devoid of the humanities. You'd live, but the experience would be lacking.

It strikes me as frankly concerning that we have reached a point in our cultural crossroad where there's a need justify the "study of how we process and document and understand the human experience." Do I need to explain how deadening and joyless it is to ride in that cylindrical tube? Do we really need to explain why poetry, art, philosophy and theater matter? Really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowing ourselves? Of human complexity? Of analysis? Of communication? Of meaning?

I feel a particular kinship to those physicians who have to explain that raisinettes aren't really a fruit or that Cheetos have no nutritional value. I sympathize with financial advisors who have to make it clear that there are consequences to spending more than you earn, and with elementary school teachers who reason that too much television inhibits the reading habits of children. It all seems obvious, and in becoming acquainted with Union College, I know that it’s obvious to you as well.

I was pleased to learn that your future alma mater values the humanities in their curriculum. Your College offers approximately 1,100 total courses a year, in which a third of those courses are humanities related. Even more interesting to me is that you do really cool things like having your Classics Department teach a class examining entrepreneurship in the ancient world and having students in your Victorian literature class print manor houses on a 3D printer. The sciences and the humanities have always been intertwined and one cannot prosper without the other. My favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is properly recognized as the originator of the scientific study of life or, as we know it, biology; but he was also our first philosopher of art and theater. My guess is that Aristotle would be troubled by the way we have siloed our ways of knowing. We practice today a broken and disjointed way of understanding the world around us. That we now have the means to produce weapons of mass destruction without considering the ethics of using them, terrifies me. We can now keep people alive almost indefinitely, but we should be careful to ponder just how we define living. We are now arguably the most "connected" generation in the entirety of human existence, where such phrases as "wireless environment" and "bandwidth test" are part of our vernacular. We email while scuba diving, make satellite calls from Mount Everest, and tweet while dining. And let’s not forget, we text: we text during childbirth; in the space between one side of the street to the other, we text. We may even text during a very profound and moving "Enduring Power of the Humanities" speech. But we all feel, at times, disconnected and cut-off despite our many tools and toys.

There is something achingly missing in all this fast and frantic communicating, as David Brooks, author, op-ed columnist for the New York Times and Pitzer parent, rightly observes: “The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, ‘The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.’" Absolutely. There is an increased need for the humanities to help us cognate the "human experience," particularly in view of our multiple global challenges.

Currently, there is an odd reductionist mindset that if you are an English major your only avenue for future income is teaching or if you major in art you become unemployed. I was on a radio program a few years ago along with the presidents of USC and UCLA when the moderator asked me if we really need any more philosophy majors. My response was of course, and how about asking that question to George Soros, Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King, Jr., Carly Fiorina, Studs Terkel, Stephen Breyer, Pope John Paul II, Albert Schweitzer and the 14th Dalai Lama--philosophy majors all. Now as the daughter of two elementary school teachers, I will say teaching is a noble profession, yet more importantly my English major trained me to think critically and prepared me to develop the portfolio of skills that I practice as president: negotiating a thirty million dollar construction contract; stretching the institutional budget to create improved benefits and healthcare; convincing the college community to engage in tactical planning; becoming expert in governance and practiced in Robert's Rules.

Now I will assume that all of us have favorite television or cable programs that we enjoy watching, although all the students here think that televisions are so 20th century when you have a handheld, and a new favorite of mine is Nurse Jackie. A series about a drug-addicted, tough yet compassionate caregiver. In the first episode, opening scene, we see a blank white screen, and we hear Jackie's disembodied voice: "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table. T.S. Eliot, tenth grade English. Sister Jane. What a champ. She's the one who told me that the people with the greatest capacity for good are the ones with the greatest capacity for evil."

The camera slowly pulls back, the whiteness fades, and we see Jackie, slowing regaining consciousness after overdosing on painkillers, lying on her back on the floor of the hospital. She gets up and begins caring for patients and trying to find meaning in her existence. And that's what we all do--no, not take pills and pass out--but just as Plato admired the order and beauty that he observed in the universe, the enduring power of the humanities helps us make order out of our chaos.

In our modern time, as the number of reported heart attacks, faintings and other medical emergencies aboard airlines continues to soar, yes, we are back to my earlier plane flight analogy, the government is considering changing the way cabins are pressurized to provide more oxygen to passengers. The airlines say there is plenty, but Marian B. Sides, vice president of the Aerospace Medical Association, says: "Going on an aircraft does in fact compromise one's rate of oxygenation. The oxygen deficits are significant."

I think about the humanities' importance to society in the same way. If we continue trending in this way, a little less art, less music, less history, fewer libraries, just like reduced oxygen we will slowly deplete ourselves and die. Yet I can't end on that note. After all the humanities endure, just like us humans. More than ever we seek ways to feel connected to one another, and in the end it doesn't matter if it's the beauty of Strauss' flowing "An der schönen blauen Donau," or Bill T. Jones' exploration of survival through dance in Still/Here, or Auden's incomparable "Lullaby," "Lay your head my darling, human on my faithless arm," or Maxine Hong Kingston's anguished admission in Woman Warrior, "You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well," or our poet-bard, Kanye West's love song to Kim, "Bound to fall in love, bound to fall in love (uh-huh honey)"; these are all expressions and interpretations of life and they tie us to those who came before as well as to our contemporaries.

And so I close today by thanking you for inviting me to speak, I salute your fine institution and all the faculty and students who are Union College. I think you have a beautiful college and a great history. I hope you study it.