As Hamilton College’s third century began with its annual Convocation on Aug. 29, keynote speaker and former President John W. Chandler offered an affirmation of the enduring value and purpose of a liberal arts education, even in today’s dynamic era. His tenure as Hamilton’s 15th president spanned from 1968 to 1972 and coincided with another tumultuous era in the nation’s history that included both the opening of Kirkland College as well as the Kent State massacre.
The 89-year-old Chandler painted a vivid picture of campus life during his time at Hamilton, evoking images of low-flying B-52 bombers from nearby Griffiss Air Force Base bound for Vietnam as well as the United States Marine Corps recruiters at the Bristol Center.
“The nation contends now with a different set of issues,” Chandler said, “…but Hamilton is better than ever.”
He spoke foremost of a “covenant” that allies the Hamilton students of his era with the students of today: a charge to educate and better themselves and their peers to the limit of their abilities. Engaging with like-minded students is the best way for “essential learning” to occur, Chandler said, and he feels that this transaction is at the base of a liberal arts education. Physical interaction with others is just as important to a liberal arts education as the material itself. “Humans,” he said, “are essentially social animals.”
During his time at Wake Forest and Duke Universities, Chandler was able to steep himself in the liberal arts. As the first person in his family to attend college, he recalls examining his first course catalog and feeling like he had “been let loose in a candy store.” He eventually narrowed his academic interests down to studying Greek—not an insignificant challenge, as Chandler found after his first course.
“I realized I had not joined the Boy Scouts,” Chandler said. “It was the academic equivalent of the Marine Corps!”
Yet he soon found that the very nature of the academic challenge was a learning experience in itself. “Majoring in Greek meant jumping into the deepest end of the academic pool,” he said, “but I discovered I could swim.”
In Chandler’s estimate, the purpose of a liberal arts education will always be learning as a means of personal enrichment. It is a theme, he said, that has endured back to Plato, who stated that the purpose of the liberal arts is enjoyment, or as Chandler put it, to “get a kick out of learning.” For Chandler, a baccalaureate education prepared him broadly for life rather than a narrow career track.
The “transcendent goal” of the liberal arts education “is to seek learning as an end in itself,” he said. “But it also makes good practical sense.”
He prizes the writing, critical thinking and analytical skills he learned during his post-secondary education. Chandler invoked A.G. Lafley ’69, the 2012 Commencement speaker and chairman of Hamilton’s Board of Trustees, who stated that as the CEO of Proctor and Gamble, he looked for managers with “a well-exercised mind, leadership potential, and a willingness to make a difference.” These qualities, Chandler believes, are best cultivated in students of the liberal arts, which perhaps accounts for the reason why Hamilton and colleges like it supply “a large share of the nation’s leaders.”
Looking forward to Hamilton’s next century, Chandler also evaluated the impact of technology on higher learning. Although he conceded the need to carefully weigh technology’s impact on education, he stated that online learning is merely a new form of intellectual capital, not a threat to the residential college experience.
“Faculty, like chefs, are always trying new ingredients to see what works best,” he said. The Internet, and all its possibilities and implications for higher education, should merely be seen as another ingredient—although only time will tell what new recipes the next 200 years will bring.