Elmhurst College: The Exquisite Work of the Self

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The Exquisite Work of the Self

At the Convocation of Elmhurst College's 138th year, new president Dr. S. Alan Ray welcomed new students with an address on the task of self-formation that awaits an incoming college student.  His address in Hammerschmidt Chapel on Wednesday, August 20, explored the words of former Elmhurst president H. Richard Niebuhr, as well as the July 1966 address of Dr. Martin Luther King, also in Hammerschmidt Chapel. The full text of Dr. Ray's speech is below.

Good afternoon and as we say in Cherokee, Osiyo, and welcome to this Convocation of Elmhurst College as we begin our 138th year. New students, meet your new president. Like you, I have left familiar surroundings, am moving into new housing, living among boxes, and slowly finding my way around this beautiful campus. I hope that like me, you are already discovering what a warm, generous, and humane community Elmhurst College offers the newcomer.

Soon you will draw upon the intellectual resources of our faculty, as you begin your work in class, you will connect broadly with the social resources of myriad student activities and athletic teams, and you will delve into the limitless and diverse cultural resources of the Chicago area. The number of things you can tackle is astonishing and limited only by your imagination and courage. By coming to Elmhurst College, you are in effect the winner of a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.

What I want to say to you is not “don’t indulge” in this feast for the mind and senses, but “choose wisely.” For, the purpose of attending college is not what you probably think it is. How many of you believe you are coming here to learn? Well, as strange as it sounds, you should not come to college to learn.  Allow me to explain what I believe college is really about.

My predecessor, H. Richard Niebuhr, was the sixth president of the College and a pretty sharp blade. Reflecting on the future of Elmhurst College, in 1926, he said:

“Our ultimate purpose is not the attainment of a common standard but of an effective individuality; not the formation of a standard product but the education of individualities and personalities…. It must be the purpose of Elmhurst College to  develop men [and women] who are not merely good “C” [students] in all their attainments but who are [persons] of “B” and “A” grade in intellectual as well as in moral and spiritual achievement.”1

Think about that first sentence: “Our ultimate purpose is not the attainment of a common standard but of an effective individuality.”  You come to college not to be stamped out like some standard product. Nor do you come to be filled up like empty bottles with the water of knowledge.

The reason you come to college and why I hope you will thrive at Elmhurst College is just this: you come to achieve an effective individuality. You come to engage in the process of self-formation.  And in that process of putting yourself together, you learn. Learning serves self-formation. It is not an end in itself, not, as Niebuhr put it, the “ultimate purpose” of your college experience.

A philosopher whose work I admire, named Michel Foucault, spent a good deal of time toward the end of his life studying how people throughout Western history have taken themselves as their own work for improvement. What he called the “care of the self,” le souci de soi, is the name of an ethical principle that leads people to cultivate themselves. In ancient Greek and Roman times, the care of the self focused on self-mastery—what you ate and drank or didn’t, what pleasures you enjoyed, and when, and how much, and with whom, what disciplines of mind and body you undertook to achieve this person, this self, who was you.

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the Christian culture of the times understood this life-long process as the "cultivation of the soul.” Today, the care of the self has for many become working to shape one's inner character, though cultivation of the soul still resonates with many.

The learning you will undertake through higher education here at Elmhurst College is, or should be, one very important form of the care of the self, and like all forms of such care, it should help you shape your inner character, or if you prefer, cultivate your soul.

Niebuhr sees this, too, when he says that Elmhurst College should strive to help students achieve an “effective individuality.”  And again, when he remarks that the College should “develop” men and women who are “A” grade “in intellectual as well as in moral and spiritual achievement.”  Moral and spiritual achievement is not something someone else gives you.  It is not indoctrination, or coercion, or simply doing good deeds.

Yet the care of the self is inherently social.  It is not narcissistic self-obsession or navel-gazing. The Greeks and Romans who focused so intently on constructing themselves to a high moral ideal also saw themselves profoundly responsible for the welfare of others, even as they enjoyed the benefits of social duties owed to them. You cannot successfully form yourself unless you are articulating yourself in terms of our larger world and its needs.

Jump forward more than two thousand years from the ancient world to Elmhurst, Illinois and this very chapel, where on July 8, 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of summer students, local clergy and their congregants. Dr. King was visiting downtown Chicago, encouraging folks in that urban center to take hope and action in the cause of civil rights. He was asked by the Chaplain of this College, Rev. Robert Schieler, if he would like to speak to a largely white audience here in the western Chicago suburbs. Dr. King agreed, and brought his message of radical change to this very room. I spoke yesterday to Rev. Schieler, who told me Dr. King said on that occasion that the day was going to come, in fact the day was already here, when the rights of all people would be respected, regardless of race, and the slums of Chicago would be transformed.

Why would Dr. King bring his message to a largely white, affluent suburb? Because he knew that in order to make this country and this county a place worthy of its promise of equality and opportunity, the people themselves would have to change, change their hearts, change their minds, and change themselves into better individuals. Dr. King was inviting his listeners in this chapel to care for themselves, transform their souls and reconstruct their innermost being, so justice could run like a river. His words and very presence on our campus were aimed at that “ultimate purpose.”

Over the course of your time with us here at Elmhurst College, you will become your own project, your own canvass, your own magnum opus or great work. We will help you by providing many of the tools for your work—instruction in the classroom and community, opportunities to take risks and change, as well as those semi-unbridled occasions for what is called “fun,” perhaps even provide personal examples of wisdom, courage, and the other classical virtues, and yes, we’ll also give you some rules for what you can and cannot do.

But moral and spiritual achievement, or the care of the self—yourself, the cultivation of the soul—your soul, or shaping of your inner character—that exquisite work is ultimately yours alone to do. And that is the real reason for coming to college—not just to celebrate the life of the mind and body but to transform yourself into the person you want to be.  So, indulge in the feast for the mind and senses we have set before you, but choose your cuisine wisely. We’ll be there beside you every day to help as you make the choices that are best for you. Welcome to Elmhurst College and welcome to the first day of who you will become.

1. H. Richard Niebuhr, in The Elms, 1926, quoted in Melitta J. Cutright, An Ever-Widening Circle: The Elmhurst College Years, Elmhurst College Press, 1995, p. 104

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