Speeches and Writings
"The Name of Our Age"
Friday, November 2, 2001
On the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the University of Oregon
Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon
In these next few minutes, let me convey thoughts that might have meaning appropriate to the dimensions of our gathering today.
We assemble in the midst of troubling and challenging times - perhaps the most intellectually, emotionally and spiritually unsettling times this nation has experienced in at least 60 years. Yet I hope to leave a few moment's worth of substance to carry with you beyond this room and hour.
To start then - let's think about what we call "the ages." We have come through many ages: the Age of Bronze, the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Jazz Age, the Space Age, the Information Age - and that "age" of greatest nostalgic renown, the ideal of all, but always the age of someone else's time - "The Golden Age."
Most of these ages are named, not by contemporaries, but in hindsight by observers with the advantage of decades or centuries distance.
It is common now, following September 11, to say that "everything has changed" - a debatable point, but one that captures the jarringly radical alteration in our view of the world and our place in it.
It is possible, then, that we have witnessed the beginning of what may someday be seen as an "Age" - one differentiated, not just by a technological or cultural transformation, but by a tectonic shift in substance and perception from what came before.
Ponder then - what "Age" might we someday be called, from history's perspective? It was the Age of ... you fill it in.
Ponder, and I will carry on with thoughts designed to travel to some relevant places, then bring us again back to this question and possible answers.
I will start with history, that rambling, organic, ever-changing, shifting, darkened, then glowing, comforting, then accusing chronicle through which we struggle to understand today - and through which we dare, with no small amount of conceit, to peer ever-so-hopefully into the future.
The past is past, unchangeable, except in our interpretation of it. This continuing process of reinterpretation, of course, ought to be sufficient answer to a state legislator's stunning question to me some years ago as to why we should study history, since it has already happened. But we also recognize the inertial forces of the past as prologue - and we are the ones who write that prologue for the future chapters - a prologue being written simultaneously around the world by multitudes of people, more often than not unaware of their precise roles, just as we are often equally unaware.
125 years ago, on this very spot, our predecessors were equally unaware, though committed to doing something that would matter to their age and beyond, committed to making a difference.
The University of Oregon - as anyone must know who has been on this campus for the last month - is celebrating its 125th anniversary. At exactly this time 125 years ago, the first class of men and women was seated a few hundred feet from here in Deady Hall, hearing lectures in Greek or Latin, mathematics or the sciences, looking out on a field atop a small hill, with the Willamette River to the north and the growing city of Eugene a mile or so to the west.
We know the names of that time - John Wesley Johnson, Matthew Deady, Thomas Condon, Luella Carson, Henry Villard and others.
Let us take a few minutes to look at their time, but beyond their place - to look briefly at the broader context of their age.
This was 1876 - 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence - men and women still lived who had known Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. It was the year Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone - and there was no need to issue warnings against its use while driving teams of horses. It was the beginning of a transformation in communications that would rival the impact in the 20th century of personal computers and the Internet.
This was a year before Edison invented the phonograph - so music still had to come from friends and family grouped together in parlors, theaters and churches rather than through the solitary experience of headphones and CDs and voices and images from far away.
It was long before Marconi developed radio or Lee De Forrest the vacuum tube. It was before moving photography and television furthered the erosion of that pulsing line between reality and image ... before image moved so deeply into our lives as to reduce our dimensions to two and our size to the limits of the box - before we were so completely shielded from the world via a media membrane, a curtain with no Wizard of Oz behind it. Is it mere coincidence that the overused entreaty of our age for the exercise of the creative imagination is to "think outside the box?"
One of the great national entertainments then was - believe it or not - listening to orators deliver speeches that often ran an hour-and-a-half, two-hours or longer. Sometimes there was a double header. Consider yourselves lucky today - as do I.
Ulysses S. Grant, the general who led the Union forces in the American Civil War, was in his last months as president of the United States.
That civil war - the most costly war ever in American history in terms of lives lost and long-lasting destruction had ended only 11 years prior - as if today a warring action so long, bloody and horrifying had ended in 1990.
President Lincoln had been assassinated, and a good portion of the rebelling states were still under authority of Federal troops. Hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost and families were still in the midst of that long and achingly painful time of grief and mourning.
Oregon, physically far from the war, was none-the-less a part of the Union, and saw partisans of both sides establish camps and carry their views into the lives of their communities - views which in some cases, sadly carried their weight well into the 20th century.
In the November presidential election of 1876, the Democratic and Republican candidates found themselves in a contested election - one finally - and controversially - given to the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. Here Oregon, one of four states whose outcomes were contested, played a national role in this eerily familiar drama.
The result of that victory for Hayes was a political deal that removed federal troops from the states that had once made up the Confederacy, thus putting an end to the Age of Reconstruction - and an end for decades to any real attempt at enforcement of civil rights for all, rights protected under the 15th Amendment.
In 1876, just four months before classes opened here, General George Armstrong Custer was defeated - annihilated - at the Little Big Horn. The following year Chief Joseph and his beleaguered Nez Perce nation surrendered to the United States Army.
In Oregon as elsewhere in the West, the last of these wars against our native peoples still were being fought, bringing to an end one chapter in our shameful treatment of the people of these nations - and opening another that offers both challenge and hope.
Inventions of the world we know today - automobiles, aircraft, rapid communications, great medical and scientific discoveries, were decades away. And I must add - the worst of the horrible wars, intolerance, hatred and injustices of the 20th century were yet to be experienced, even imagined.
It was a different world - and yet the same world. It was a world so different in some ways from today, that many of us would have a seriously hard time surviving it. And yet, it was a world so similar that discussions entered into then were done so with emotion and passion that we would recognize as something we might engage today.
This was the landscape of 1876 - a landscape vastly different, yet, at least in human terms, not discernibly altered 125 years later. The physical landscape of this university has changed beyond the wildest dreams of those early founders and the technological revolution has changed the way we think and relate. Some of us seem so consumed these days by the need to communicate - including the admonition on Halloween that our children carry cell phones - that we may systematically rob ourselves of the simple pleasures of solitude, reflection, and personal peace. Yet one could also assert that our true differences as human beings from our ancestors of those days 125 years ago comprise little more than dress, social mores, and the serious desire for indoor plumbing.
This was the landscape from which the University of Oregon arose that century and a quarter ago.
This was the landscape in which some men and women of that age - the Victorian Age, the Industrial Age, the end of the Frontier Age, were moved to thoughtful action in the midst of what must have seemed to them a time when everything was changed and changing.
John Wesley Johnson, whose amazing story of traveling at age 10 to Oregon by foot beside an oxcart, of teaching himself to read and write, of acceptance to Yale as a special student, of excelling in his studies, then returning to Oregon to become the first university president, is certainly the stuff of legend.
Johnson believed in making a difference and in the vital role a university was to play in the shaping of culture and history. So did his successor, Charles Chapman, and his, Frank Strong.
It was Strong, the third UO president from 1899 until 1902, who in an address concerning the place of a university in the life of our state, said:
"The wealth, civilization and development of a state depend upon the education of the masses of its people and upon the education of those who by a process of education become the leaders of these masses in the various departments of life."
He went on to say:
" ... the state must make it possible for the university to attain the highest known standard, and then must insist on corresponding results."
In fact, the University of Oregon is the one public institution required of the state under The Oregon Admission Act of 1859 - we are the public university of Oregon, called for at a time when only one-quarter of one percent of the population had earned a college degree. It was our promise to the state and to its future.
For the ensuing century - and even before President Strong's remarks were made-- this university has committed itself to keeping that promise in mission and purpose, has committed itself to its public mission, has committed itself to the highest ideals that universities serve.
That commitment has come in many shapes and forms - and through many lives and efforts. A brief listing gives evidence to its breadth and depth:
Wayne Morse, the Tiger of the Senate; Emery Barnes, first African American speaker of the British Columbia House; Ann Curry, news anchor; David Jeremiah, Admiral and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Douglas Hofstadter, brilliantly mad physicist and Pulitzer Prize winner; pioneer geneticist Ralph Heustis; fearless journalist Randy Shilts; visionary filmmaker James Ivory; insightful cartoonist Jan Eliot; architect Johnpaul Jones; Nobel Prize winners William Perry Murphy and Walter H. Brattain; Manhattan Project scientists and vocal opponents of the weapons they helped design, Paul Olum and Aaron Novick ...
... the list goes on:
Ellis Lawrence, Steve Prefontaine, Mack Robinson, Tom McCall, Frank Stahl, Edith Green and George Streisinger ...
These are the names of the men and women, diverse in backgrounds and cultures, associated as students, researchers or teachers, who made this university what it is - and who helped define the age in which they lived. They made a difference.
These are the names of our past, most gone from us, but somehow still with us and silently guiding us almost in the same way that DNA guides us from within. But it only guides us to the extent that we allow this rich legacy to inhabit our minds, inspire our hearts, and direct our full energies-the way our genes, gifts from the past that they are, inhabit and direct our cells.
Today, it seems, the headlines and the video images define our age. It is the Age of Random Terror, the Age of Unreason, the Age of Fear, the Age of Anthrax, the Age of Uncertainty.
Yet, we know those are not the names that will stick. Those are the names propelled at us through immediate visions from the media - when images and a few words hurriedly launched to meet a deadline are incapable of presenting the larger picture - the picture that will emerge only through time.
Yet, one must admit that many of the challenges we face do not give us the gift of time to deal with them.
And it is during such occasions that what universities do is particularly important. What we all try to do at these times is to understand ourselves, each other and the world itself in all its manifestations. We try, through understanding, to ensure that our reactions are appropriate to the circumstances, that they are helpful and useful as we make difficult and important decisions for ourselves - and participate in making equally momentous decisions with others.
This is a time when we must engage in critical thinking, with a background in law, science, history (our own and others), political theory, languages, religion, psychology, and the understanding and expression of the human condition that comes from literature and art and music. We must know what has happened in the past so that we can endure and then act in times like this. We must have the technical skills that universities provide, from grief counseling to map making or, on a deeper plane, the understanding and control of the molecular mechanisms of infectious diseases as well as development of the most profound and searching tools for cultural analysis.
One of the typical reactions at times of grief and stress is to seek the familiar. Fear is not a comfortable emotion. We try to escape it - and if we can't immediately escape it -we try to cope with it. We may cope by seeking the familiar sometimes in authority figures, sometimes technology, sometimes in the routine of work, and sometimes with family, friends and community.
Seeking the familiar can be a good thing or a dangerous thing. It is important to be reflective - to know what we are doing - and to use that insight to make decisions about whether what we are doing is, in the end, our best response - both for ourselves and for others. Fear may be irrational but it is not unfounded. The fear is a proxy, a placeholder, for an ever deeper terror of an uncertain future that the mind and soul cannot yet comprehend.
One danger of which we should all be mindful is that of becoming self-centered and egotistical - to assert that my terror is worse than your terror. And we must not let our fear and confusion about what has happened lead us to overestimate our own danger - to become immobilized by fears that really are irrational - and to take time that could be better spent, our own time and that of others, overreacting to risks that do not exist.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A UNIVERSITY
How have we responded during this time? By learning - by reading books, probing essays, even lengthy communiqu�s on the world-wide web - by listening to those with wisdom and knowledge and experience. Is this not what universities in their essence should do?
At the start of the American Civil War, Lincoln spoke to what he perceived to be the need of his time:
"As our case is new," he said, "so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
Is there any better home for thinking anew and planting the seeds for acting anew than the university? Do we not, across our disciplines, seek ways to recognize the real and disenthrall ourselves from the false? Are we not the men and women who have chosen, across the breadth of our disciplines, as teachers and as students, and as graduates to explore their depths for all that might lead us to the ability to face the new?
Is that not, in fact, our greatest dream - to meet the new, to have discovered, brought to life a thought, an idea, a theory that moves us from problem to solution, from fear to hope?
And is not this - in a meaning beyond self-centered jingoism - - is not this the way we do save our country? And then more than just our country?
War and terror, its hardships and aftermath, bring to our consciousness both clarity of thinking and distortion - bring the noblest of thoughts - and the worst. In the past weeks we have seen examples of both.
Here - at the University of Oregon - we hold the possibility, built on 125 years of effort, to work toward the noblest of thoughts.
"Every culture," said social historian Lewis Mumford, "lives within its dream."
But I believe that every culture also makes its own dream, and in the process has the potential to make itself in the image of that dream.
Is not this dream the heart of the university?
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it, Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
Is not this boldness the soul of the university?
Augustine wrote: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."
Is not this anger and courage the very sinew of the university - this university - the University of Oregon?
What will our age be named? I can offer no answers at this time. I can offer what I fiercely do not want it to be called - the Age of Despair, the Age of Hopelessness, the Age of Unreason or Fear, the Age of Hatred or the Age of Intellectual Retreat.
In New York City just last week, I saw something that stood in the face of these fears. At the site of the attack -now called "Ground Zero" - and throughout the city I sensed a mood, somber sadness marked by bagpipes and flags- yes. But also a mood of people looking out for each other - of people stepping up and doing their duty, gathering food for an apartment complex, escorting children to and from schools - of people reaching out and doing all that can be done for each other, for erstwhile strangers- of people making a difference -of actions that engender hope for a meaningful name to this age we enter. I hope that name will somehow signify duty, knowledge-even wisdom-and the rediscovery of community.
And we, here, now, by the very fact of our choice to be a part of this university, are doing our duty to assure that our age will not be called by demeaning names - are doing something that might move this age to a name of our choosing.
We do it through the dreams we choose, the boldness we embrace, the anger and the courage we carry each day into our work.
And there is one more element - one vital element - it is that which we have done best at the University of Oregon for the past 125 years - it is the foundation of our passion and our dreams - it is knowledge. Knowledge is only gained through the continuing hard work and dedication that we have shown for the past century and a quarter. We aspire to transform lives through knowledge, each of us, every day.
Deady Hall, the first building on this campus, was constructed of brick three feet thick. The goal of those who built it was simple - if startlingly ambitious - that it last a thousand years.
Now entering year 126, it has 874 to go.
But more important than how long one particular building endures, is the promise that what we build here in knowledge will last - that those efforts are solid enough to last a millennium - and beyond.
As surely as those who built Deady Hall dared to say it would last for all that time, we would want our descendants to say of us that we renewed that foundation, not merely for 125 years, not even a millennium, but well into the ages.
This is how we will meet the expectations of President Frank Strong that we "attain the highest known standard" and then "insist on corresponding results."
We will continue to build.
We will make a difference.
This is how we will begin to "think anew."
This is how we will name our age.