Philip W. Eaton

Philip W. EatonPresident Eaton made this address to the Seattle Downtown Rotary in October 2001.

I believe we live in a changed world. I am one who believes Sept. 11 changed things profoundly for all of us. We don’t yet fully understand the lasting impact, but we need now to put on a new set of glasses. And I would make this claim for my university and for higher education: We are in the business of making new glasses.

And so I ask myself: How should our purpose change? What should be different about a university education in this changed world?

Educators are in the vision business. We are at our best when we are envisioning a better world. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about meaning and culture and shaping lives that can make a difference for good.

A friend of mine told me about a cartoon he saw recently. There was this professor writing a wall full of formulas, the pluses, minuses and divisions all leading to an equal sign on the far-right side. And on the other side of the equal sign was the word “whatever.” Clearly, we have got to do better than that. All education can’t add up to “whatever,” especially now.

Let’s think about vision for a moment. My brother-in-law has been the president of a fine liberal arts college in Santa Barbara for 25 years. Three years ago, right after commencement, he was driving down the streets in Santa Barbara and thought his glasses were smudged. He took them off and wiped them clean. As he put them back on, he knew the problem was not his glasses.

An optical nerve in his brain was inflamed and permanently damaged. This gifted leader, this consummate educator, an intellectual, an avid reader, now sees the world darkly, in a blur, never again with sharp outlines. The first thing we can say about vision is that you can’t see when your optical nerves within are damaged.

Here’s another thought about vision. I wear contacts. For those of you who wear contacts you know what it feels like to get a speck of something in your lens. It hurts so bad you have to pop those babies out very quickly. Good vision requires clean and focused lenses.

Good vision also requires good light. On Sept. 24, the cover of The New Yorker was black. Totally black. But if you catch a certain slant of light, you can barely see the two towers. The statement seemed clear enough: we peer into darkness. We see through a glass darkly. The lights went out on the world we have known. One small note of history here: There are no cartoons in the black-covered issue of The New Yorker.

Here’s my point: We can lose our vision by damage of the nerves deep within. We can lose our vision by a speck in our lens. Or we can lose our vision when the world goes dark. We have work to do in all three areas. And I would say again that vision is the business of education, checking the nerves within, refocusing the lens, and shining all the light we can find on the dark world we feel around us.

For at least three decades, with philosophical foundations that go back for a century, we have built a culture of cynicism, suspicion, dividedness, shrillness, and incivility. And our universities, of course, have contributed to making such a culture. So has our media and our entertainment world. We have created a cultural context for our lives that has no moral center, where all authority is under question, where the curricula of our universities have no core.

And as we gazed, hour by hour, on those two blazing towers, that smoldering pile of bodies and rubble, somehow such a vision of our world seemed so petty and shallow and inadequate. We have work to do.

During the dark hours of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln fought hard to get the world back in focus. “As our case is new,” Lincoln said, “so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” I think we are being called to “think anew, and act anew” at this moment in our history. I think we must “disenthrall ourselves” of many of the ways we have been looking at things.

So, let me propose four ways of sharpening our vision, four ways to think anew, act anew and disenthrall ourselves, four ways of refocusing our glasses to see the world more clearly:

First, we must refocus our new glasses with moral vision. Perhaps Sept. 11 has taught us the limits of postmodern relativism. We imagined for a while that we could have a civilized world without condemning some things as wrong. Our appetite for tolerance had grown insatiable. Evil had gone out of our vocabulary. Cultural relativism took over the imagination — in the academy, no doubt about it, but all over our culture.

With our new glasses we need to look into the ancient resources of wisdom to discover there how to name both right and wrong, complex though that process is and always has been. A hundred years ago Nietzsche warned us that power might be the only game left when there is no longer any source of right and wrong. Knowledge can and must have some connection to what is right and good and true and beautiful.

Second, our new glasses must be able to see again a vision for human unity and the common good. Perhaps we have begun to learn the limits of dividedness. We have been so divided by race, religion, economics, ideology, and politics, and we have paid such a huge price. Our media and our politicians have been champions of dividedness. I challenge here some of the notions of multiculturalism that drive us apart. I challenge here some of our notions of individualism, our obsessive commitment to rights and personal gain instead of responsibilities. Let us bridge the gaps that separate us in our own country, and then let us understand that our well-being as a nation depends on the well-being of the world. We must teach again a vision of community and unity and global humanness.

Third, our new glasses must give us a new vision for how to share our prosperity. Perhaps we have begun to see the limits of economic disparity. Images of prosperity to those who are trapped in hunger and poverty can only create hatred and despair. While I do not believe poverty is the root cause of the attacks of Sept. 11, surely we must better understand how to share and how to shape new engines of economic opportunity across the globe. Can we see this as an offering of goodness to the world? I am not talking here about the old, discredited Marxist notions of redistribution of wealth. That didn’t work. Rather, we must educate the next generation how to spread the good of cultural, economic and political freedom and opportunity.

Fourth, our new glasses must let us see again what is good about our own way of life. Perhaps we have begun to learn the limits of self-loathing as a nation. Patriotism has been uncool for a long time, and often this is most true on our campuses. Let us reach down deep into the heritage of our country and locate what is good and renew our efforts to effectively take that goodness into the world. Let us be appropriately proud and confident precisely because we are bringing new hope into a desperate world. Lord keep us from teaching the young to be cynical ever again.

In 1863, at the site of the battle of Gettysburg, where 50,000 soldiers died, Lincoln gave a two-minute address, and put on a new pair of glasses for the nation. In those dark hours of fierce disunity and brutal self-destruction, the country stared through a glass darkly. Lincoln knew his country might not survive. He had to convince a nation that there could be something better than this, that there were stronger, deeper and more enduring principles that could hold the country together, that one view of the world, one view of race and human nature, had to give way to another, better view. He believed human dignity was worth fighting for. Thank God Lincoln was not confused by postmodern relativism, or paralyzed by easy tolerance, or thought that it all added up to “whatever.”

Lincoln stood tall for individual freedom and human dignity, but he also believed strongly that the nation must hold together. Good principles mean nothing without human community. Unity as a nation for Lincoln was critical, and I think he was right.

Baseball has been good for our country this fall. The Mariners were certainly good for Seattle all through the summer and perhaps especially after September 11. When the President threw out the first pitch last night in New York, the crowd went nuts, and I felt it was a kind of cheer for national unity. Think about it: God Bless America at the seventh inning stretch. On Sunday night in Phoenix, where the Mariners should have been playing, Ray Charles unleashed a home run as he sang America the Beautiful. I was watching the game alone, and I felt a bit shmaltzy and maudlin, but I had tears in my eyes. I found myself recalling all of the images after September 11, the images of human dignity in the firefighters, the images of human unity as people gathered together to pray, the images of pride and perseverance and decency. And you know what, I have been very proud of my country. These are good things. These are things that are right. This is a way of life worth defending. This is a way of life worth sharing with the rest of the world.

You know I believe good will triumph out of all this. The black cover on The New Yorker is not the final answer. My faith tradition talks a lot about light and about the triumph of light over darkness. The darkness will not overcome the light. For me that is a spiritual and personal promise. But the triumph of good is not passive. We all have work to do. Our new purpose as individuals, as universities, and as a country must be to bring goodness and hope into the world. We must anchor our actions, even military actions, on goodness and clear principles, not on revenge and reciprocal hatred. And we must learn to come together again around what is right and what is good.

After four years of civil war, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln said these words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The good will triumph after all. I believe that with all my heart. But in order for that to happen, we all have work to do. What a great opportunity for our nation to put on a new set of glasses. And what a great moment to be educating the next generation, these wonderful young people who will be the new champions for hope and light and goodness in the days ahead.

Philip W. Eaton is president emeritus of Seattle Pacific University. He served as the university’s ninth president from 1996 to 2012. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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