Trouble on a higher plane

photo of Hanna Holborn GrayHanna Holborn Gray '50 remembers not a word of her own baccalaureate. "But I did carry away one strikingly vivid memory from the stage of Goodhart Hall -- the College was so small then that we did everything indoors," said Gray at the start of her 1997 Convocation address. "Introducing a candidate from the School of Social Work for the Ph.D. degree, the dean solemnly intoned the title of her dissertation: 'A study of retired civil servants in Montgomery County, broken down by age and sex.' The poor candidate stood there, and we went wild. And then we went on, most of us pretty well beyond Montgomery County."

Gray told degree candidates she hoped that as they, too, move on, they will always think of the College "not as an escape or sanctuary, but as another 'real world,' one without which the larger world and its possibilities would be impoverished, the quality of its life, its civilizing values and social purposes impaired."

Gray has argued in the Washington Post against the legislation of national standards for the study of history because it is "complexity and controversy that accompany the search for genuine understanding of the past, and hence the present." Living and coming to terms with complexity, perhaps "the hardest and most important thing we learn," also allows us to shape the future and to accept change.

"The mission of this College is directed to learning as the initiation into a lifetime of taking seriously the process of trying to come to some understanding and wisdom, of committing to the obligation of thought, of critical judgment, of the willingness to confront complexity, to examine assumptions, to see things in their relationships and contexts, and to engage with and benefit from the thinking of others. These qualities are pertinent to every activity of life, every vocation, every judgment, every exercise of citizenship and of responsible choice. The College exists for learning in all these senses and it does so for the long term, not for the pursuit of immediate fad and fashion. ...

"Robert Frost once said, 'Education doesn't change life much. It just lifts trouble to a higher plane of regard.' And that I suppose is one of the gifts and one of challenges bestowed on us as thinking beings. It would often be a lot easier not to think as it would also be easier also not to try to see things whole or try to take into account new or different or unsettling ways of reviewing what we may have taken comfortably for granted. So too, it might be easier to evade the pains of making decisions and choices, and to withdraw into some state of being where all thought and options are forever open. But strangely enough, that course would diminish, not enhance one's freedom; it could become the most limiting path of all. ...

"It is the common experience of graduates that their College is never quite what it was in their own day and memories, and that not to be the same or the place of one's memories is inevitably to be less than before in both standards and stature. All commentary on education, a subject on which everyone, absolutely everyone, has strong and obdurate opinions, assumes that things are generally getting worse. ...

"It is instructive to see how much of the vocabulary applied to the presumed decline of higher education, derives from the language of a pervasive nostalgia and from romantic visions of a golden past that never quite existed -- instructive to see how much has to do with resistance to historical changes that cannot in fact be argued away. Colleges, seen as institutions immune to change -- even caricatured, often, for their conservatism -- are at the same time regarded, especially by some of their own alumnae/i, as places that should not change, that ought instead to preserve their own past as they, its loyalists, want to remember it, a timeless security against the disintegration and disappointment, the corruptions and uncertain turnings of a threatening and dissolving world. To the degree that colleges mirror the tensions and shifts within the larger society, they become the objects of the disillusionments and fears which those invoke. ...

"I do not for a moment argue that there is not much to improve and strengthen within higher education, but I maintain that the symbolic and selective uses of memory need to be understood for what they are before we can think clearly about the state of higher education and its institutions. Let me offer just one example. Once upon a time, we are told, there was greater harmony on our campuses. Whether true or not, it certainly true that once upon a time and not so long ago, there was great homogeneity on our campuses, and surely to have a broadened diversity now is a positive improvement and an educational good. Our campuses have, as a result, come to reflect more fully some of the problems in our society. An academic community in which those can be identified and confronted with candor and growing understanding, is surely a better, if not a more comfortable place for learning than the colleges of old. But education is not meant to be comfortable; it is meant provoke, to stretch, to enrich while complicating, in short, it is meant to lift trouble to a higher plane of regard.

"To think critically about education is to think broadly and deeply about the future and to be willing to accept and to help shape the complexities of the change it may require. It is to create standards by which to measure the quality of what institutions represent over time in light of the fundamental values by which we hope to be guided. It is to be reminded that those institutions and their enduring goals live by continuing renewal, a renewal that depends on educated commitment of all their citizens. ...

"Bryn Mawr College is a wonderful institution, one in whose uncompromising dedication to the quality of its own mission you can always take great pride. It has had the courage and continuing foresight to be clear about its own best aims and to adhere steadfastly to a defined institutional personality that lends shape and weight to the education you have received here. So you will, of course, see changes over time, but if these are the changes required to sustain rather than transform its essential ethos, that will be a sign of health, of strength, not of decline. Of course, if you see the place offering gut courses or academic credit for ballroom dancing or an easy life, then we would all have to think again.

"I will leave you with one admonition drawn from the great philosopher Pete Seeger: `Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what happens when you don't.' I should perhaps point out that his point is even truer when the fine print is in Latin."

Comedy Hour's loss, Academy's gain, Bryn Mawr's highest honor

The M. Carey Thomas Award was presented at Convocation in recognition of her eminent achievement in higher education to Hanna Holborn Gray '50, who is retiring from the College's Board of Trustees after a decade as its chairman.

The Award was established in 1922 by the Alumnae Association of Bryn Mawr to recognize American women for eminent achievement and first given to its namesake in honor of her retirement that year. Only 17 other women have received the award, among them: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marianne Moore '09, Eudora Welty, Martha Graham, Georgia O'Keeffe, Katharine H. Hepburn '28 and Barbara Auchincloss Thacher '40.

President of the University of Chicago from 1978-1993 and recipient of 65 honorary degrees, Holborn is a member of major corporate, foundation and educational boards, including the Harvard Corporation, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J.P. Morgan & Co., Atlantic Ritchfield, and Ameritech. She was one of 12 prominent naturalized citizens to receive the Medal of Liberty award from President Reagan in 1986. In 1991, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Bush, and the Sara Lee Frontrunner Award.

Gray's father, Hajo Holborn, a distinguished historian, moved the family from Germany to the United States in 1934 after he was dismissed from his academic posts for opposing the Nazi party. The Holborns settled in New Haven, where he taught at Yale until his death in 1969. In 1991, Gray honored her mother by establishing the Annemarie Bettmann Holborn Fund at Bryn Mawr for scholarships and fellowships in classics and archeology.

Young Hanna was brought up, she once recalled, "under all kinds of German theories that included having no pillows, no white bread and apart from news and classical music, only two radio programs a week -- the Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy and Fred Allen shows, so 'Sunday nights were very special to me.' " She vowed not to follow in her parents' footsteps as an academician, aspiring briefly to a career as a radio comedian. By the time she was graduated from Bryn Mawr -- at 19, summa cum laude and a European Fellow -- it would have been no surprise to classmates and professors that she would go on to become a distinguished historian of the Renaissance and Reformation instead. Her comic delivery, however, remains notoriously hilarious and her timing dead-on.

She continued her work as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford and took her Ph.D. at Harvard. Her first teaching job was as a lecturer in history at Bryn Mawr, followed with positions at Harvard and at the University of Chicago. She was dean of the college of arts and sciences at Northwestern, provost at Yale, where she was also acting president. After years of academic administration, she has returned to the classroom at Chicago as Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor of History. In 1996, the University recognized her with the coveted Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the nation's oldest such award.

"Her luminous intellect, powerfully logical mind, and forceful insistence on intelligent forward movement in any enterprise with which she has been connected has brought her public attention and public honors," said Mary Maples Dunn, M.A. '56, Ph.D. '59, who presented the M. Carey Thomas Award as a member of the selection committee. "As Will Rogers, someone she likes to quote, once said, 'I don't care how unostentatious you do things, the news of them will gradually leak out.' "

Dunn is a former faculty member in Bryn Mawr's department of history, dean of Bryn Mawr College from 1980-1985, president emeritus of Smith College and currently the director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

The new chairman of the board of trustees is Trustee Barbara Janney Trimble '60, who has served as its secretary. She will be profiled in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin.

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