The Warch Interview: VI. Angry butterfly, shy butterfly

Peter Gillette

TL: Most students know you primarily through your speeches. I know you went to seminary. Is that where a lot of your speechmaking came from?RW: Well, I did take a public speaking class in high school from Mr. Stratton, a memorable class. And we were taught to do such things, and this is really silly, but he would say, “I want you to walk across the room as an angry butterfly. Now I want you to walk across the room as a shy butterfly.” And the whole idea was to break down your self-consciousness, so you weren’t always thinking about, you were willing to quote, “perform.” And in seminary I took a course in preaching, and we were then instructed to give a sermon as if we were a revival preacher, to give a sermon as if we were an Anglican priest, and you know, whatever, just to try to get you to think in different ways.

I still get geared up when I talk. When I started teaching at Yale, I remember asking some of the people who had been my mentors in undergraduate school – when I was about to go over to the faculty – about lectures, and they said, “I write everything out. I don’t stand up with just an outline and spew forth.” Well, I was sufficiently nervous as a young faculty member teaching the introductory American Survey course that I wrote out every lecture, and to this day I pretty much write out every speech. Part of it is just practice, and it’s clear from anyone who’s heard me, I’m a quotation monger, so if I find a quotation that I think is interesting, I write it down and put it in a file and find a place to use it.

TL: You’ve become known for your quote-savviness. Where did this quote fascination come from?

RW: I don’t know, I think early on my parents gave me “Bartlett’s Famous Quotations.” I would find it interesting and stimulating, I mean maybe it sounds like reading the phone book, the stories are all pretty silly. But I use it more to sort of jog my own thinking. For example, in the book published a couple years ago called “The Emperor of Ocean Park”… in that book there is the following quotation: “To alumni everywhere, memory… Change is the enemy of memory.” Change is the enemy of memory. So alumni come back, and something has changed, and they don’t remember it that way… So I thought, that’s an interesting quotation. And certainly, when we were dealing with Formal Group Housing and all of that hubbub, I used that quotation when talking to alumni. It’s a way of sharpening a point. And in the speech I’m giving to alumni – I’ve got one more to go, I’ll give that same speech the fifteenth time as a part of the Valedictory Tour, the Farewell Tour – G.K. Chesterton talks about someone “living in the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.” That’s a way of explaining the way I think about the Lawrence education: we don’t want people to “live in a clean well-lit prison of one idea,” but to embrace many ideas and see their relationships. I don’t know, I suppose it’s a conceit of sorts.

TL: Now to many students, your most famous speech is, not the Matriculation speech, but the-

RW: The Unamuno speech?

TL: We’ve got that covered here elsewhere. The one at the very beginning of the year.

RW: The president’s welcome to new students?

TL: Yes. Now, how long have you been delivering that same speech?

RW: Quite a few years. I’ve fiddling with it, but you know, there’s a certain extent to which, it works. That speech works, and so why not use it?

TL: In particular, I wanted to ask about the “Your business is to learn,” line. Do you recall when that came into the speech?

RW: That’s the famous line, that’s the one. It was over ten years ago, and it was really the response – when I heard it being played back by students – that I thought, “aha!” And the first place I saw it played back was from parents. Parents would come up to me right afterwards and say, “That really energized me. I really hope Suzie or Peter or somebody got it.” And it turns out that most students did get it.

TL: “The Nature of a Liberal Arts College.” You seem to love that book.

RW: [smiling] Yeah.

TL: When did you first read it?

RW: I first read it I think when I was the dean or very early in my presidency, and I found that it was – as I said in my introduction for the republication of it – is that it’s a time-bound book. That is, you can read it and see that it was written in the 1930s, because a lot of the references are rooted in its time. But what I found most compelling about the book was, I thought, its timelessness. It really has an understanding of liberal learning, of liberal arts education, which I’ve always tried to distinguish from education in the liberal arts education. You can go to Madison or the two-year centers and take a liberal arts course. But liberal education is a way of learning, not particularly things that are learned, and I think that book describes much of what I take to be valuable about this kind of place.

TL: What’s on your summer reading list, and do you have any recommendations?

RW: What am I going to read this summer? That’s a very good question. I’ve been accumulating some books that are going to be read fairly quickly, which I think I’ll get to very soon. I had a pretty defined reading list last summer, and I got through I think four out of five books that I thought I was going to read. This summer I’m hoping to read Podair’s book “The Strike that Changed New York” – he has given it to me, and I’ve yet to read it, I will confess, but I am going to sit down with that book. Aside from that, titles are not jumping to mind at the moment. I very much enjoy literature, and new novels are things I will continue to look for. There is a new biography of William Sloane Coffin that will be the first thing I probably get to.