Kenyon and Lifelong Learning

President Oden offers a prescription for continuing the Kenyon experience in our own hometowns

Almost seven years ago now, during my initial weeks on the hill and just as I was satisfying my own curiosity about the origin of the "Cromwell" in "Cromwell House" (given the College's origins, I knew the Cromwell in question could not be Oliver), I met with Dean of Admissions John W. Anderson to talk about the criteria by which we assess applicants to Kenyon. Long before my move to the College, I knew John by reputation as one of the finest admission deans in the country. During our first hours together, I said to John, as I have said most years since 1995, that what we most want at Kenyon are students who are hungry to learn. "Throw out," I said to John, "all the national test scores and other quantitative data for any applicant if you have discovered in speaking with her or him that here is a student consumed by intellectual curiosity."

Naturally, we welcome and consider with care other evidence on the behalf of the more than two thousand high school seniors who annually apply to the College, and especially evidence of character traits such as integrity and a commitment to others. Still, Kenyon is centrally about the life of the mind, and we want to welcome to the hill each autumn those whose hunger to learn can never be fully satisfied.

As intellectual curiosity characterizes those whom we admit to the College, this same hunger to learn characterizes as well Kenyon students throughout their time at the College. And this same hunger describes, I believe, Kenyon graduates. This is the chief reason why I have longed, again since my earliest weeks on campus, to make life-long learning the chief focus of most gatherings of the College's graduates, and certainly of those gatherings that Kenyon sponsors.

The successful-and successful beyond all reasonable hopes-end of our "Claiming Our Place" campaign gives us now the opportunity to concentrate on this issue. Beginning last autumn-in Chicago, whose regional association is unusually vibrant and committed-we have offered seminars for our graduates, days and, in the future, weekends devoted to learning and led by faculty members from the College.

Though our models for these seminars will vary with the topics and with the schedules of graduates in different locations, here is what we have in mind. Kenyon faculty members possess themselves the passion to learn, accompanied by a passion to share their learning and to learn with and from others. They possess as well an expertise and an engagement with the wider world of scholarship in any number of areas of potential interest to our graduates. Though any list of these topics would be less than exhaustive, some which come to mind include:

*Recent developments in Mexican politics, including the dramatic switch in the ruling party following seventy-five years of the same party's time in power;

*Central Asia, and especially archaeological discoveries that long ante-date the Silk Route, and the results of the collapse of the Soviet Union;

*The history of the Negro Leagues and the integration of Major League Baseball-at once the topic of a memorable week's visit to campus in April 2001 of former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent and several veterans of the Negro Leagues, and also the topic of our first seminar in Chicago, led by Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff;

*The Ancient Near East, its religions and histories (which happens to be my own academic discipline), and the modern Middle East, alive again with tragedy;

*The Federal Reserve and the U.S. economy, a topic of renewed interest in recent years, and one on which the College's faculty includes special expertise, especially that of Professor Will Melick, who came to Kenyon following ten years with the Fed, and who was last spring appointed to a one-year term on the President's Council of Economic Advisors;

*Legal, historical, political reflections on the presidential election of 2000, on which several College's professors have spoken during riveting Common Hour discussions and in lectures;

*Art history and current exhibits at area museum;

*Continuing developments in technology and in information access, their promise or threat to liberal-arts colleges.

Again, any such list is but a beginning, but I hope even this provisional list indicates something of what Kenyon faculty members will be eager to share with alumni and parents.

The format of these sessions might normally include some reading suggestions sent out well in advance to area alumni, and then much of a day, typically a weekend day, devoted to lectures and discussions. However the format of these seminars may differ, the chief reasons for our renewed accent on continuing learning remain the same. First, and as noted above, as curiosity is the chief attribute we seek in applicants, such hunger to learn hardly ceases when those we admit to the College graduate. Second, if Kenyon is, as I have come to describe the magic on the hill, "learning in the company of friends," then gatherings of graduates after they depart from the hill ought to be "continuing to learn in the company of friends."

Further, we hope that through the kinds of seminars described above, alumni and parents will learn firsthand what the College's faculty members are at work upon, what their interests and passions are. Among the great privileges of my own position is that of interviewing finalists for tenure-track faculty positions. In addition to whatever these applicants may learn of our vision for Kenyon through my time with them, I learn the key questions of liveliest debate today in any number of disciplines -in art history, in chemistry, in classics, and much more. These wonderfully fulfilling moments are those alumni and parents can come to share in learning with and from current faculty members. And what our faculty members learn from the College's graduates can and does make a difference. For example, in May 2000, the Kenyon faculty approved, by a wide margin, new general-education requirements in quantitative reasoning and in foreign-language study. From the Alumni Council and wider consultation, these were precisely the areas in which many of the College's graduates noted their wish to have studied more while at Kenyon.

And concentrating College-sponsored alumni and parent gatherings on continuing learning carries additional benefits as well. Thus, a recent survey of programs for college and university alumni throughout the country concluded that "institutions of all types reported that educational programs draw the highest average attendance and attract many alumni who don't go to reunions, club meetings, or other alumni events" (Currents, the magazine of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, February 2001).

If, as I have repeatedly insisted, the future of Kenyon is in the hands of our graduates, if it is our graduates who are the stewards of the College's future, then we need wider alumni participation in the life of Kenyon, and there may be no surer way to gain such participation than through educational programs.

To return to where this article began, it was William Nelson Cromwell, founder of the New York City law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, who gave the funds for and the name to Cromwell House. Satisfying that curiosity was important to my wife, Teresa, and to me as the fortunate inhabitants of this lovely home. And just such a hunger to learn is what we know characterizes both our students today and those of you who graduated from Kenyon. We aim to begin to redirect our programs for the College's alumni in the same direction, and we will welcome and be grateful for the support of so many whose loyalty to and love for Kenyon have made our campaign the stunning success it has been.

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