“COLLEGE LIFE” AND VALEDICTORY ADDRESS AT KENYON COLLEGE

 

August 3, 1842

Gambier, Ohio

 

An eminent American scholar has remarked that the great business of one generation is the education of its successor.  The obligation faithfully to discharge this duty is so strengthened by the natural suggestions of prudence and affection that it is justly considered the chief object of parental solicitude.  It is not therefore to be thought strange that parents are often unwilling to commit to another’s care the important trust of training up their offspring, and are always extremely anxious to understand the nature of the influenced by which they are surrounded.  This is especially to be expected where those influences are so powerful, so oft-repeated and long continued as they are in the course of College Life

 

Besides the objections which have been urged against this life are so various and of such force that many who readily admit the benefits of a liberal education nevertheless believe that the seclusion of a College is poorly adapted to fit the young to become energetic and successful men.  They are satisfied that learning is required to perform the duties of exalted station, or to investigate the secret wonders of nature, but they imagine that the habits which students acquire will retard their advancement and weaken the influence they might otherwise exert.  The graduate, they say, is apt to suppose, because he has spent the usual number of years in pursueing [sic] a course of Collegiate instruction, that he is, of necessity, far in advance of other young men who have not had the same advantages—that his diploma is a sure passport to wealth and honor, and he therefore live—without improvement and dies without a single virtuous action to perpetuate his memory.

 

Such is undoubtedly too often the conduct of the collegian; but such is not the effect produced upon him who performs with fidelity and zeal the part he is required to act in College Life.  So far from its creating in him that overweening self-esteem and insufferable arrogance sometimes complained of, its true tendency in all in the opposite direction.  Such an one meets at every step with so many difficulties that impede his progress, and obstacles which he cannot surmount that he most indeed be an intellectual giant who is not mortified and humbled to find how weak and limited are his powers; and that man who boasts of his attainments merely because he has passed through College may be always set down as vain and ignorant pretender.

 

Again, we are told that although the student may have too much good sense to wish to improve on the unlearned, and thus in his turn become the laughing-stock of the wise, still he is deprived of that experience without which he can never succeed in the common concerns of life.  Surely it will not be denied that he has the best counsel and instruction from others to guide and assist him in his course.  Here we are assured, however, lies the difficulty.

 

Young men, it is true, might profit by the wisdom of those who have travelled the journey of life before them, but they surely listen to advice or give heed to example.  The sage precepts of the feeble old man, tottering on the verge of the grave are too tame for the high spirits of those who see the wide world before them, its honors, its pleasures, and its vanities all gilded by the bright beams of youthful hope and anticipation.  The wholesome counsel and warning admonition of a prudent seem to them the offspring of a father’s anxiety or a mother’s love.  Before they will learn to control their passions or moderate their desire, they must experience for themselves the mortifications and disappointments which are the common allotment of Providence to men.  Every one must feel the stimulus which successful industry excite before he will exchange the fitful efforts of a momentary enthusiasm for the patience that never tires and the union which preserves to the end.  In a word all must learn by their own experience the conditions of their being.  This can be done in youth only in those situations in which the actions, events and results of a life are crowded into a period so brief that it forms but a segment of man’s pilgrimage on earth.  In such a situation we are placed at College.  We enter it just when our capacities for enjoyment and improvement are expanding to the utmost and while reflections on the lasting effects of our conduct still rest lightly on the mind scarcely casting a transient shadow over the fair prospect spread out before us.  The inexperienced beginner knows not the necessity of the severe restraints of college discipline nor the benefits of the long hard course of college instruction.  He feels wronged that his sweet repose must be broken and his sports be left at the signal tolled by the old unfeeling bell.  He feels no interest in solving the knotty problems of Algebra and studying languages no longer spoken.  Lawyers never plead in Latin nor merchants make use of unknown quantities to ballance [sic] their accounts, then where’s the use of poring over tedious volumes when the woods the river and the fields are in sight enticing him from tasks which dear nature abhors?  No wonder that arguments and temptations like these often prove too strung for youthful blood, and that even the dreaded examination is sometimes forgotten in the flow of youthful spirits.  But in a short time this course as such courses always do leads its follower to mortification and disgrace.  He falls below the grade of merit which his eaquels [sic] and perhaps inferiors have reached and which his friends expected him to attain.  He knows that his disappointment is the result of his own negligence and the tour that trembles in his eye tells that his pride is touched.  He then learns his first by warmth of soul and sterling merit.  Such being the character required for friendship he is forced “to assume its virtues if he have them not” and “by use to change the impress of nature before the features of his disposition become fixed and rigid.

 

He does not stop with the formation of right habits of affection but haveing [sic] been taught by experience that man is truly beloved only for judicious acts of benevolence, he labors to become a useful member of the society in which he lives and thus prepares himself to deserve the only reputation which is valuable and lasting.

 

Yet I may be told that this is only the experience gained by boys and is quite different from the practical wisdom of real life.  True.  But these habits and principles are the same everywhere, and he who makes them the rule of his life has little to fear in any station which he may be called to fill.  Some however dread the peculiar temptations to which we are exposed, and others imagine that the restraint we are under is forced and unnatural, but every condition has its cares and dangers and where the gain is greatest there it is the part of prudence to remain content.

 

After all, is not this a poor and cold account of College Life, that like every other situation in which man was ever placed, it has certain advantages and corresponding to these are trials and difficulties?  Is this the reason why we who have taken our degrees still linger in this abode of monotony and restraint?  Full of confidence and determination we should rather be eager to test the powers we have so long labored to develop and strengthen.  Can it be that like the aged prisoner of the Bastille we fondly cling to the tomb in which we have buried the ardor and wild hilarity of youth?  The world has not lost its beauty nor freedom her charms, then why are we not instant to enjoy them?  The unchained eagle never waits to bid adieu to the links that held him but soars aloft exulting that he is free once more to visit his eyrie [sic] in the skies.  But if we have laws and restraint, in College we are not chained.  Tis by the exercise of habits of industry and self-denial that we reap its benefits but these do not constitute all its gratification and delight.  These do not explain the melancholy pleasure with [which] we shall look back on our schoolboy days.  It is behind the scenes that we find those dear objects which take such strong hold of the imagination and the heart.  These we form our hopes of the future and prepare to fill those stations which we expect to reach ere the voyage of life is over.  There we meet with kindred spirits whose warmth and nobleness have not been chilled or sullied by the coldness & suspicion which creeps over us as life wares on.  There we have springs of happiness that never fail and pleasures which never cloy.  For solitary enjoyment, in our libraries we have all the stores of learning, wisdom, and wit that heart could desire.  For the social pleasures—festivity and frolic nothing is wanting.  Each one can have his little circle of congenial souls who share in the same toils and sports, the same friendships and dislikes and who are indeed linked together with “hooks of steel.”  Such jovial meetings, such schemes of fun, we have witnessed and planned within the gray walls of yon old building as would send a thrill of delight through the blood of age.  “Oh who that has shared them ever can forget” those happy times when heart-burnings, bickerings, [sic] and jealousies were all forgot in emotions of unmingled joy and gladness.  Then call not our parting scene a cold formality, nor think our ardor is damped or feelings crushed, and dead, for

                        “Wild as the accents of lover’s farewell

                        “Are the heroes which we bear, can the tales which we tell.”

 

 

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Gentlemen of the Faculty:

 

For years you have sustained towards us the various relations of parents, instructors and friends.  As parents you have borne our cares, commended our diligence, reproved our faults, guarded us from temptation and danger, directed our steps in the path of duty, and watched over our dearest interests.  As instructors you have labored with patience and zeal to awaken in us a just sense of the obligations which our opportunities for improvement impose, and to fit our minds for high enjoyment and noble pursuits.  As friends you have shared our griefs, [sic] watched with us in sickness, cheered us in disappointment, and rejoiced in our success.

 

In all the difficult and often embarrassing situations in which you have been placed, we know that you have always endeavored to perform your duty to us.  We also feel deeply how inadequate and sometimes ungrateful has been our return.  But Gentlemen, notwithstanding the indifference and apparent levity with which we have more than once met your exertions in our behalf, do not think that we shall ever forget them.  Be assured that after many days you shall be rewarded for the sacrifices of time, of pleasure, and of health which you have made for our sakes; not indeed with a precise compensation for your hours of anxiety, the weariness and sinking of spirit occasioned by your concern and toil for us; but in the willing tribute of honest and grateful hearts.  In the instructions received we have a lasting memento of our indebtedness.  Whatever respectability and influence we may attain in life will remind us of those who fixed our fortunes by moulding [sic] our minds in youth.  Though our connection with you is now at an end its effects will remain with us forever, and as you feel you have fulfilled your obligations, so you may be sure that your acts of friendship and affection are fast locked in our memories there to be cherished till our “names are engraved on the tomb” We can never repay the debt of gratitude we owe, but when in other days and distant climes we bear the troubles and disappointments of life our fervent prayers shall ascend to heaven that as in manhood you have been useful and esteemed, in age you may be honored and happy. Gentlemen of the Faculty. Farewell.

 

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To President Douglass:

 

With you our relations have been so peculiar and interesting that we cannot depart without some faint expression of our thankfulness for the friendly manner in which you have uniformly treated us, and a public avowal of our high esteem for your character and attachment in your person.

 

During the eighteen months that you have presided over the destinies of this Institution we have daily met you on terms of familiarity and confidence not often accorded to the pupil by his instructor.  We have sensible that is has been your earnest desire to render our association with you, not merely instructive, but pleasant and improveing [sic].  We have not been cold observers of your constant attention to our convenience and comfort, nor uninterested spectators of your exertions to add to our means of enjoyment by improveing [sic] the natural advantages and beauties for which this place is distinguished.  But I need not enumerate the labors, nor speak of those traits of character which have won our affectionate regard; it is enough to say that we have never doubted the goodness of your intentions but have at all times been confident that your aim was our welfare.

 

With this estimate of your worth we not leave the scene of your instruction, and wherever our lots shall be cast there you may look for those who will be ready and willing to do all that in them lies to defend your reputation and secure your happiness. Farewell—

 

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Fellow Students:

 

Your situation is very different from that [of ] those who will this day go from among you.  You have reason to be glad that you are advanced to the rank to which your labors during the part year entitles you—that you are now to have a respite from soil—to return to your homes, to receive the congratulations of friends and enjoy the delights which vacation affords.  We, on the other hand, are about to part forever from scenes endeared to us by many pleasing recollections and fond associations, from companions with whom we have lived in the closest intimacy, and from friends whom we have “worn in our heart of hearts.”  We cannot therefore expect you to partake largely of the emotions which swoll [sic] our bosoms on this occasion.  I need but allude to our regret that we are about to part, and to express our earnest hope that unkind feeling if it exist, will cease and offences which are past be remembered no more.  There are, however, other things suggested by your situation which our interest in your welfare will not permit us to pass over so hastily.  This is the critical period of your lives.  So far as human sagacity can forsee, [sic] your present conduct will fix your characters and influence your career for the remainder of your days.  In regulating your habits bear this constantly in mind— When deliberating on the propriety of any acts consider first the ultimate result towards which they verge, if you willing that their tendency shall determine your fates, you may soberly perform them, but if you see cause to hesitate be sure that their end is fatal:  You have already heard much, perhaps, too much, of the advantages of College Life.  Do not be deceived as to their nature.  They confer no distinction, beyond that which superior excellence obtains.  On the contrary there is a strong desire among our people to exalt merit when exhibition in self-made men.  We cannot complain of this.  It is natural and proper.  But is [sic] will require greater exertion from us to attain those stations of respectability to which we aspire.  Be careful, however, that you do not make too great haste to become learned.  Time is short and the amount of knowledge to be gained, infinite, yet this is a work in which “too swift arrives as tardy as too slow,” and if in your anxiety to grasp all within your reach, you become superficial, you acquire but little that you can truly call your own, lose the discipline which would enable you to use it promptly and with effect, and deprive yourselves of the power which is required to master what is profound and difficult.  But as it is possible for students to mistake the manner in which they can best secure the benefits of their college course, they are also in danger of being deceived in the kind qualities for which they should labor.  Young men are often “caught by glare” and strive for what is brilliant rather than for what is substantial.  We are especially liable to fall into this error, in our public exercises on occasions like the present.  We feel it would be vain to attempt to instruct those who favor us with their audience and we therefore endeavor to please by tickling the ear with ornaments of speech and creatures of fancy.  By the ability required to succeed in such efforts you may compose woful [sic] ballads to your ladies eyebrow, but it is not that which enables men to break down formidable opposition and carry on “enterprises of great pith and moment.”  There must be something more deep and sound than is implied in such capacity.  This style is not suited for our age and country.  However sweet it may sound empty declamation does not influence men of practical good sense nor persuade any to great and virtuous actions.  It was not used by those master minds who established our institutions and built up this nation.  We still have remains of the oratory which moved men’s souls when self-devotion and patriotism “cost blood”.  Behold the appeal of the gallant Stark to his little band, when the green hills of Vermont were all gleaming with hostile bayonets, and the flag of England was waving over every peak!  His simple words were—“Boys, there’s the British and we’ll whip them or this night Molly Stark’s a widow.”  The phrase was homely but energetic and went straight to the bosoms of the hardy mountaineers around him.  It breathes the plain republican spirit of our revolutionary sires—A spirit so honest, and persevering that if we nourish it in its original purity and strength it will bear us safely through the visions and shadows of youth, and sustain us in the dark hours of manhood’s adversity—

 

Heed, we beseech you, those principles of sound morality and learning which will here be taught, and when hereafter Old Kenyon shall count her jewels, may you be recorded among the brightest. Fellow Students— Farewell—

 

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