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That the Night Come

September 13, 2017

I was invited to speak at an event at my alma mater, Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, in celebration of the 40th birthday of the college theater, newly refurbished, the 40th anniversary of the Murphy Foundation, which brings visiting writers to campus and was now offering to bring me, and the 80th birthday of my theater professor, Dr. Rosemary Henenberg. It was an amazing weekend.

It was particularly amazing for someone who usually walks around her own campus trying to follow the advice given by a character in the movie Elizabethtown: “have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.” I was not only one of three featured speakers flown in for the occasion at Hendrix, but I was also asked to speak to the provost about Writing Centers. It felt like finally someone cared what I thought.

The event has been planned since June, and at first I wasn’t sure if I should agree to come, since it would be only eight weeks after my knee replacement, but I really wanted to so I said yes and asked if I could pay the extra to get enough legroom for a stiff and swollen knee. Their answer was that they would pay it. I found this both generous and reassuring, and as it turned out, I got through the airports just fine. My friend Ann, now a theater professor at Hendrix, pulled up right in front of everywhere I needed to go, including picking me up and taking me back to the airport.

My speech, about humanities and the liberal arts, got laughs in all the right places and also a few I didn’t anticipate, like the startled giggles during my introduction when in the process of defining “liberal arts” by looking at what different college websites emphasize, I revealed that Kenyon’s website says that if you come here you’ll learn to “write better than your peers.” I found myself ad-libbing that yes, we are kind of snotty sometimes.

Part of the speech was about using literature as a lens on current events, and I gave the example of reading Days Without End just before hurricane Harvey hit Texas and finding this quotation applicable: “Thousands die everywhere always. The world don’t care much, it just don’t mind much. That’s what I notice about it. There is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything”

My conclusion to the speech quoted from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, from which I got a line I’ve used in conversation throughout my life: “The only really safe way to eat potato salad is with your head in the refrigerator.” Literature, I said, gives us a line for any experience–something to say about potato salad or natural disaster.

I think there’s considerable urgency in defending the role of the liberal arts in today’s world, so I said that those of us who believe that liberal arts are important should make more noise about it, speak up more often, and learn to live with the tension of saying something in uncomfortable situations rather than trying to avoid disturbing anyone.

I ended with a Yeats poem that I knew by heart already when I went off to college in Arkansas, one known by its last line, “That the Night Come.” My eccentric reading of this poem is that it’s about the necessity of living in a way that involves taking risks and making mistakes, maybe even failing big:

She lived in storm and strife,
Her soul had such desire
For what proud death may bring
That it could not endure
The common good of life,
But lived as ’twere a king
That packed his marriage day
With banneret and pennon,
Trumpet and kettledrum,
And the outrageous cannon,
To bundle time away
That the night come.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2017 11:21 am

    I find it remarkable just how often when I am reading really thoughtful literature there are moments that reach out and touch us where we are at that very moment. For me that is why reading is such a vital activity; it teaches us that we are not alone. I bet your speech was one of those that the students will remember through their lives.

    • September 13, 2017 8:32 pm

      Yes, it teaches and shows us that we are not alone, and that people who seem nothing like us can feel and react as we do. I loved reading “the world don’t care much…” out loud because I would never say anything like that in a million billion years. And yet the way he talks is part of the feeling of the book. We might not feel like someone who grew up hardscrabble like he did is anything like us, and yet there he is, laid bare, and we can only hope to come up with thoughts as perceptive and interesting as any of his.

  2. PAJ permalink
    September 13, 2017 11:31 am

    As usual, a lovely post. I wish I could have been at Hendrix for the events and am glad that your return to our alma mater was such a success. They absolutely should have ferried you about. (I probably would have insisted on palm waving, too.)
    In our results-driven culture, defending liberal arts often feels like trying to shout above the noise of the ocean. With college costs so high, people have a bottom line approach to a college education. “What kind of job will you get? How much money will you make?” Those are the questions asked. We must be brave enough to ask, “What will you learn? What kind of life will you have?”

    • September 13, 2017 8:38 pm

      I eventually had to tell Ann she was catering to me too much, that I actually need to start walking a little more!
      The traditional “what kind of life will you have” question about a liberal arts education actually produced another of those somewhat unexpected laughs. I used the phrase “rich inner life” twice, and the second time I must have exaggerated a little for effect, because I was trying to aim towards the idea that a lifetime of self-enrichment is not enough; that we have to give back to the community. That’s the part that every definition of liberal arts includes and that I think we have too often forgotten in the past, before this last election made it more obvious.

  3. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    September 13, 2017 12:17 pm

    This sounds like an amazing, affirming weekend–perhaps exactly what the doctor ordered.

    You know I earned a liberal arts degree for my undergrad; I am no stranger nor am I opposed to liberal arts. I do wonder, though, how you think we should balance the cost of a liberal arts degree vs potential earnings? Taking on crushing 5- or 6-figures’ worth of debt without considering repayment seems incredibly short-sighted and very limiting.

    • September 13, 2017 5:39 pm

      To begin with, Kenyon is expensive, but neither Ron nor I have ever heard of anyone taking on 6 figures of debt, either at Kenyon or at any liberal arts college.

      Many liberal arts colleges don’t require students to take out loans; if you are admitted, they calculate the financial aid to make it possible for you to come. How much you pay depends on your family income. Most financial aid packages have 3 pieces–a grant (i.e. free money), work study, and loan. Really wealthy colleges offer only 2 pieces of financial aid–no loans.

      For those that require loans as part of the financial aid package, the loans are usually capped at 20-25 thousand for all four years, so roughly equal to the price of buying a new car.

      In general, most students at liberal arts colleges get some financial aid: the average student pays 40-60 percent of tuition cost.

      Now, you have to remember that we’re talking about liberal arts colleges, which are by definition undergraduate institutions. We have heard of enormous loans taken out by people in grad school or attending for-profit universities; they don’t cap their loans.

      You should also consider that liberal arts colleges will graduate a student in 4 years. At many universities–because of pre-requisites and periodic course offerings–the average student will graduate in 5 or even 6 years.

      A degree designed to get a particular job in a specific profession can pay right away, but that doesn’t mean that a liberal arts degree doesn’t eventually pay as much–many liberal arts graduates are on their third job five years out of college, working their way up or into what they’re most interested in, branching out and earning, not just money, but also breadth of knowledge in different fields, making them more versatile hires. Kenyon’s data shows that at mid-career, Kenyon grads are earning more than the grads from state universities.

      • PAJ permalink
        September 14, 2017 12:25 pm

        Thanks for this! Good talking points for those of us who support the liberal arts ideal. I’ll also add that smaller liberal arts colleges often are “liberal” with merit scholarships, which helps even students from families who are financially secure pay only the “40-60 percent” tuition cost you cite. (However, that is not the case with the “small Ivies.”)

  4. September 14, 2017 2:29 pm

    I have a degree in Medieval history. I never moved to England to work in a castle and there really aren’t any in Southern California unless they are part of a movie set. But I learned more than just history, which has allowed me to move through life with some knowledge about everything, able to talk to almost anyone about anything. And while I may never have made a lot of money, I wouldn’t have changed that degree for anything more ‘practical.’ And that rich inner life means I am never bored (I actually call myself ‘self-amuseable’)! I think I give back by appreciating so much, being interested in what people have done in the past, are doing now, and will be doing. A liberal arts education teaches you to write, think and be aware.

    How splendid you were given a chance to speak up for something so important. One of my biggest fears is that the more we specialize jobs and thereby, majors in college, we become one dimensional; we know our field, but not the wider acreage.

    • September 14, 2017 5:48 pm

      Being interested in what other people in different walks of life are doing is doubly important in a world of “alternative facts.” How do we know enough context to be able to challenge falsehood unless we have groups of friends with enough combined expertise to know where to look for the truth?

  5. September 17, 2017 11:14 am

    This sounds like it was a wonderful experience, Jeanne, and I’m glad that they invited you (quite rightly! you are great!) and that you were able to do it. I am not at all surprised that your words were well received, as you are brilliant and funny and great. ❤

    • September 17, 2017 11:44 am

      Aw, you are sweet to say so. There’s a video of the event now, and my bit comes about 19 minutes in
      I watched it and was disconcerted by how fat I look and how southern I sound. I think my face looks less fat in repose, but I couldn’t stop beaming all weekend, I was so happy.

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