Words shared at the 2016 alumnae luncheon, ‘An Intellectual and Moral Adventure’
We have an all-time favorite quotation from Clara Spence: one that names not only her purpose in creating Spence but also the essential and enduring qualities for an excellent liberal arts education. Written in 1912 for her Commencement address, it reads that she wanted Spence to be “a place not of mechanical instruction but a school of character where the common requisites for all have been human feeling, a sense of humor and the spirit of intellectual and moral adventure.”
We love this quotation for many reasons: the way in which it partners humanity with scholarship, the way in which it names humor as essential for good life in good schools, and the beautiful way in which it calls the whole enterprise “an adventure.” On a good day, I can’t even dream of a better word: “adventure!”
Of course we immediately understand the moniker “intellectual.” It makes sense, and what better word to capture both the charge and aspiration of Spence? But the word “moral” has had a more encumbered journey over the years, making it less understood, less obvious and perhaps even less welcomed. Whose morals? What borders might be crossed in that sometimes-slippery place of defining really big things such as good or bad? Can inherent tensions between concepts of community and individuality make for difficult understandings, not to mention common ones?
To be clear, Clara Spence was unequivocally certain on what she meant by a moral adventure, and I join her in that clarity. For her, a moral adventure was all about what she called our collective responsibility as humans in this world or, as I like to say, the call to go out and make the world a better place…better than we have.
So why is this so clear to Clara and to me? Schools are in the business of goodness, and our promise actually manifests not within our halls, but rather when our graduates walk out and step into this very complex world of ours. Our promise is in that very collective as empowered by the individual. Our mission and our motto transport us beyond the “what” and into the “why” of that moral and intellectual adventure. If “not for school,” then, that life we live is ultimately what we ourselves make of it. Yoking words such as “passion, purpose and perspective” as three pieces of one larger whole, we recognize how limiting any one of these values stands if it stands alone. Our focus falls beyond any single academic performance, especially our own. As the writer Walker Percy wrote, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.”
The academic backbone of Spence, a dedicated commitment to inquiry, engagement and discernment, has allowed for our students and graduates to be full of voice and confidence. As one first-grader said to me recently, “We learn how to learn at Spence.” The mission of our School and every teacher in it has been how to teach our students to navigate the world and to make a difference within it. We know that, as writer Marilynne Robinson tells us, the world is “remarkably splendid and terrible.” Sometimes uncharted and always double-doored, the world is full of promise and pitfalls. Our job, in leading that moral and intellectual adventure, is to equip every one of our students with the capacity to both chart and change directions as necessary, all while understanding the tenor of their times.
And as every teacher at Spence knows, the most important thing we can do is to believe in each of our students, while making explicit their own individual responsibility as scholars and as human beings, over and over and over again. We will wait patiently and quietly, allowing for a few wrong turns in the journey, and then, at the end of the day, when all is weighed, we trust and believe that none will be found wanting in the grace and courage it will take to walk this world.
So, when Clara Spence, back in 1912, wrote these words, she was, I believe, not thinking of two separate parts of an educational framework: a moral adventure and then an intellectual one. Rather, she was using two adjectives to describe two halves of a larger whole: indivisible and equally essential. And if we believe that what the world wants and needs are enlightened and self-sufficient human beings who will, in the words of poet Kay Ryan, “leave deep tracks” in their lives, then, indeed, Clara got it right, and we will continue to fix our gaze on very high horizons.
And when I think of our seniors, I recognize capacity and unfailing promise. I see imagination, dignity, determination, openness and yes, some Spence flintiness. But most of all I see that grace and courage coming from what is just the beginning of their moral and intellectual adventure. I see that deep and abiding power coming from the continued belief that Spence holds for each of them as they continue to learn for life and for far, far, far beyond school.