Senior Chapel Address
Dr. Edward C. Kollmann, Professor of Philosophy
It is just ten years since I sat with my class on the eve of our graduation and listened to the words of wisdom handed down by a man well along in years of experience and study. We were part of that American college class of 1941 who were soon to be engaged in all-out war on the far flung battlefields of the world. From a psychological viewpoint we were all split personalities, periods of enforced and devil-may-care gaiety being succeeded by periods of serious concern about our futures, along with a suppressed anxiety about our chances of coming through a total war effort alive. We were in no mood for moral platitudes about facing the world and life with courage and optimism. Neither did we want any lecturing about facing the kinds of reality with which we were shortly to be confronted. There was no suitable ritual or description for the baptism that lay ahead. Several years later, many of us came to recognize why we sat there listening with unbelieving ears to the well-meaning admonitions of a man who spoke in the terms of a knowledge and experience founded on a tradition of peaceful living. It was most aptly expressed for us by the title of that book written by one who had under gone the actual baptism, namely, The Battle is the Payoff by Ralph Ingersoll. Somehow on that day ten years ago we knew that what lay ahead was something that each of us had to face on its own terms as well as ours. Even God was something that had to be faced by each one personally as a stark experience in terms of life and death. “This is it” is the most realistic statement I know in terms of experience and in it is contained all the hope, love, apprehension, tenacity, cowardice and bravery that enter into a man’s make-up. The experience itself gave the laugh to all those who called upon us to go bravely forth into the world, be that world a world at war or the world in which one is to make his livelihood.
This morning I stand before you as one who has had much experience and study, but I can offer you no words of wisdom founded on a tradition of peaceful living. You are the children of the generation of the great depression. I am one of that generation who does not have children of high school or college age because of the impact of that depression upon me and many others of my age. I cannot hark back to the days of my father’s youth and draw upon the wealth of satisfaction and good-living that marked what has been called the golden age of America. No matter how nostalgically some of us may look back to those days we all know that they are beyond recall. Just as ten years ago, so today what lies ahead for each of you is something that each of you has to face on its own terms.
But how then, can one pay honor to this graduation class? We can only honor you for what you have become through spending four years of your young life at Willamette University. Some of this honor is quite tangible, many of you having received various scholastic, service and social distinctions as expressions or what you have become under the impact of the many facets of university life, be they academic or extra-curricular. Last Tuesday’s awards chapel was the high water mark in recognition of these tangible honors. But what of the honor that is not quite so tangible? What of the honor that expresses your growth intellectually, emotionally and morally, the growth that will be revealed in each of you as the terms on which you will face what lies ahead? The distinctions will not be in the way of formal awards. Instead the distinctions will be revealed in how you meet what lies ahead. Some little progress toward mutual understanding within the community will be a mark of such distinction. Or perhaps it will be revealed in the recognition of the growth of your own children. Or more important yet, it will distinguish itself through recognition and understanding of other peoples than Americans. The exact character of such distinctions are beyond our abilities of prediction, since great changes are taking place and many more will probably come about. You will have to meet those changes on their own terms, but the way in which you face them will reveal what you have become through spending four years at this university.
What are some of the characteristics that one might conjecture as marks of what you have become, now that you are about to put your college life behind you? The answers to this question area also the criteria by which we who have been your companions and guides are judged as to what we have become.
Probably the foremost sign of the man or woman of a liberal arts education is an open mind. The open mind is always seeking new knowledge and new avenues of approach to knowledge. The open mind sees no finality to the process of man’s thinking. Thus all the various data of the events in man’s life and their relations are constantly forming new material for the mind to work with. It is engaged in that great enterprise that Whitehead called The Adventure of Ideas. Hence, there is no framework of ideas that is rigidly binding in any absolute sense. Instead the open mind is a flexible mind constantly subject to change in method and content, depending upon the nature of the material to be dealt with. If there is any obligation here, it is the obligation to keep the open mind open.
Do each of you recognize this obligation? In so far as you do, it is a mark of what you have become through being a student here at Willamette. In so far as you do, it is a judgment passed upon your teachers. However, it when you ask yourself this question about the openness of your mind, you can find no readiness on your part to entertain the ideas of others that run counter to the mould of you own mental make-up , then you have not become the man or woman of a liberal arts education and we have failed you miserably. Then all ideas must be met only on your terms and there can only be a defense of the status quo or an inevitable conflict on the ideological level. Then you are the containers of absolute truth and all other expressions of the human mind are in grave error. As such you can only meet what lies ahead with an unyielding dogmatism which refuses to understand the aspiration and trials of other minds. If these are the answers you give to the question of the openness of your minds, then we have dishonored you in our capacities as companions and guides. But if you have come to recognize the obligation of the open mind then you do us honor. Then we have succeeded in making the dreamer and the philosopher encounter the stubbornness of facts, as well as in making the practical man of business and the applied sciences realize that men are moved by visions. Then we have succeeded in making the artist appreciate the hard precision of scientific measurement and in turn made the scientist glimpse the insight and delight offered by the fine arts. Then we have succeeded in teaching your generation to learn and that the history of the past is in part a substitute for unnecessary and painful experiments. Then we have succeeded in making you realize that a narrow focus upon vocational training brings about a dangerous irresponsibility, a danger that this atomic age highlights as it has never been before. In short, do each of you have an open mind or rather have you been inhabitants, so to speak, of Collins hall or Eaton hall, or the music building? Have you departmentalized your minds along absolute lines? Or do you inquire freely wherever your curiosity and imagination may lead you, and express yourselves without fear of unfair reprisals? Do you hold with Jefferson that false ideas will meet their match in a market place of free and open discussion? Are you one with Milton in his criticism of the ivory tower outlook of his day: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and see her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
Another sign of the man or woman of a liberal arts education is the harmony revealed in the expressions of the emotions. The man or woman of harmony, to use Plato’s term, or of balance in the more modern context, is always seeking an adjustment of all levels of felt experience, including the novel, so that none of them will be either completely suppressed on one hand or expressed without restraint on the other. Again this means that there are no absolutes of expression that are beyond censure. The balanced liberal person of education is a contributor neither to doctrines of ascetism nor to doctrines of complete license with regard to the emotions. This means that the expression of emotional harmony or balance is closely related to an open mind, for here too, the various kinds of emotional expression are material for the mind to work with in terms of the general notion of balance.
Are each of you aware of this harmony or balance in your emotional expressions? In so far as you are it is a mark of what you have become as you reach the last days of your college careers. In so far as you are so aware, it is a judgment passed upon the directors of your social programs. However, if you are aware instead of repressive measures against natural expression of emotions or of a lack of understanding and guidance, then again the directors of social living have failed you. Then all relations with other people can only be placed on your emotional level of expression and there can only be an emotional retreat to a recluse-like life or the legalization of an enforced restraint upon the expression of others. In these changing times this failure to reach an emotional balance can only mean an emotional isolationism toward the expressions of other cultures or a dominating insistence upon the efficacy of our own expressions of emotions to the exclusion of all others. This expression highlights one side of human psychology, what Freud chooses to call the death instinct. Is this the instinct that represents the present state of your emotional growth or are you on your way to becoming the whole man or woman emotionally?
In reflecting upon this query remember that an objective of Willamette is to develop a Christian philosophy as a motivating force in life, a philosophy that is founded upon the way of life of Jesus in which is included the wedding feast of Cana as well as the forty days in the wilderness.
The third sign of the man or woman of a liberal arts education is moral character. The man or woman of moral character is always pursuing with courage the ends of life by choice and not by compulsion. Here again there is no finality to the pursuit of these ends of life in so far as achievement has a final end to it. This is particularly true in the dynamic state of the international scene, where if community of action is to be brought about among the nations of the world there cannot be a disregard of the ends of other peoples. Instead there needs to be an adjustment of such recognized differences empirically. Hence, the man or woman of moral character pursues the ends of life as problems of ends and means. For if you are accountable for actions, then you are accountable for the ends of those actions. Also, if you are accountable for actions, then you are accountable for the means those actions express in terms of ends, or goals. Well then, what are the ends which reveal what you have become, the ends which will be the terms on which you will face what lies ahead, the ends for which your actions are accountable? This is a basic question for you to answer as a sign of what you have become through a liberal arts education in a college dedicated to the development of a Christian way of life. The other basic question is, what are the means that you are responsible for as actions leading to these ends? Both of these questions are interrelated, for ends without means and means without ends cannot bring about a life with meaning on any level. Actions are for something, just as goals cannot be attained except through action. Hence the terms on which you meet what lies ahead are an expression of the ends and means subscribed to by you, ends and means that reveal what you have become through the college-bred habits of an institution dedicated to the Christian philosophy.
The questions that you have to ask yourselves as a sign of moral character in this instance are crucial, for on their answers depend the nature of the terms on which you will face what lies ahead in contrast to the terms on which the Marxian communist for instance will face those same experiences. What are some of the meanings of the Christian way of life that you should ask of yourself, meanings basic to the notions of all Christian denominations, all Christian groups, all individual Christians?
First of all, is the Christian way of life the way of life which will be the terms on which you will face what lies ahead?
Secondly, do you look upon Jesus as the man who has lived the Christian way of life supremely, and thereby has enabled man to realize that he can act upon his environment in terms of his ends as a moral being through the awareness of the experience of God, as revealed through the brotherhood of man? For some Christians this means that Jesus is the God-man between God and man. For others it means that Jesus is God-like and reveals to man the God-likeness of all men. For others still, it means that Jesus is God himself come into the world. Whatever the meaning of the life of Jesus in relation to the question of God, is the Christ-like way of life, the ideal way for the expression of the ends and means subscribed to by you?
Thirdly, and most important of all in terms of the moral character that represents what you have become under the guiding philosophy of a Christian university, do you look upon the Christian way of life as an experience of love, or what has been called the life of agape? In terms of the gospels this means the love of God for man and man for God and the love of man for his fellow-man. This means that any traditional authoritarian social ethic is not Christian in so far as it sets down rigid codes of conduct that do not allow for the personal relationships of man and God and of man and man. Rather should the social ethic be flexible enough so as to supplement and enrich personal experience. Jesus is the man who lived this life of love or agape to its fullest, which meant that he lived it to the point of practically offering himself deliberately to its workings. In terms of Jesus the life of love means a passionate concern for one’s fellow-men, which is to be expressed as selfless service on their behalf. This life of love is the ideal held up for emulation by all Christians. In terms of social ethics this is often expressed as an affirmation of the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” but it means more than that, for the love of God comes about most directly through the love of man for his fellow-men expressed as selfless service on their behalf. This means that each man is more than his brother’s keeper, he is his brother’s helper. In terms of the social community this means that no man’s actions and expressions are independent of the consequences for his fellow-men, the life of love or agape means that every man is related to every other man through the love of man for man. Under the Christian way of life we are then a community of equal persons under God. This is the central meaning of that basic commandment, to love thy neighbor.
If you so look upon the Christian way of life as embodying the ends and means which will be the terms on which you will face what lies ahead and for which your actions are accountable, then can you exploit others in any way and to any decree? Can you then separate your economic life from your moral and spiritual life? Can you then sanction as Christian any form of totalitarianism or dictatorial control over men: can you then ignore the aspirations of other peoples in terms of self-determinism and still insist upon a community of equal personas under God? Can you make distinctions in race, color, creed or social position between those who should share participation in and contribution to the ordering and working of society? Can you then regard educational institutions and other service institutions as being founded and endowed for the private advantage of those who resort to them so as to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner?
If you can do all of these, then as a Christian institution we have failed to offer you the best four years of your life in the development of a Christian moral character. For as Confucius says, “If you fail in your duty to men, how can you serve spirits?” But if the outer door opening upon the community of men remains open for the common good of all and is not shut to the benefit of society, then we do honor to you as members of the community of equal persons in the love of man for God and of God for man, and of man for man.
These then, are some of the marks of the man or woman of a liberal arts education in a college dedicated to the development of a Christian way of life. These are the signs of what we honor you for, the honor that expresses your growth intellectually, emotionally and morally, the honor that reveals the terms on which you will face what lies ahead. This is an honor that makes no distinctions between those at the upper end of the class and those at the lower end, be the distinction drawn along academic, economic or social lines. This is the honor reserved for all men and women as members of the community of equal persons. Whether this honor is deserved or not only you can answer at this time in the depths of your own consciences. We who have been your companions and guides during your four years at Willamette can only look to how you will face what lies ahead as the sign of whether you honor us or whether we have dishonored you in our capacities while you were with us. Therefore, I do not call upon you to go bravely forth into the world. Instead, I ask you to meet the world on its own terms in the way which reveals what you have become through spending four years at Willamette University. For what matter is men. As Goethe said: “Mankind? It is an abstraction. There are, always have been, and always will be, men and only men.”
The senior class is grateful to Mrs. Blanche Proctor who has made these copies of this address available to them.