Last May, on a drive from New York City to Boston, our family swung through Hartford to visit the home of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. It’s easy to forget that this former Confederate solider spent his most productive literary years as a Connecticut Yankee. With Lydia Clemens’s money, the couple built a Gothic Revival home in Hartford, notable for the third-floor billiard room where Twain smoked and wrote. Here, just a mile from the shores of the Connecticut, Twain composed his most famous books about the Mississippi.
At the end of our visit I picked up a copy of Life on the Mississippi and sank into its nostalgia. Twain fills the narrative with anecdotes from his days as a young riverboat pilot before the Civil War, most of the tales rather tall, or what Huck Finn calls “stretchers.” A few of the more elegant vignettes describe how he learned to read each bend and bank in the river. By the early 1880s, when Twain wrote this memoir, the railroads had all but crushed the riverboat trade, and his recollections are a wistful tribute to a fading industry and a way of life that helped him come of age.
In recent years a growing number of educators and editorialists have forecast a future for the liberal arts college that is as bright as that of the steamboat industry. We arrived in Hartford fresh from a visit to Columbia, where the dean warned against academic nostalgia as the scholar's dead end. In the era of the internet and the neuroscientist, he argued, inquiry and identity were less likely to be seen as a collegian's subjective quest and more likely to be understood through our social networks, computer algorithms, and the electrical exchanges in our synapses. Scores of intellectuals who came of age in the nation's best liberal arts colleges now proclaim that many liberal arts institutions will not survive in the new wired economy. You can hardly open a newspaper (or, more likely, click on a news link) without someone predicting the end of college as we know it. Quite often they have places like Westmont in mind—residential, traditional liberal arts colleges poised between the highly endowed and highly entrepreneurial.
This year the Provost's Office will sponsor a reading group or two in order to explore some of the books caught in the current whirlwind of predictions and anxieties about higher education. I welcome faculty and staff who would be interested in joining me for about four sessions during the year . . . [continue reading...]