Iconoclasts, Unite

Iconoclasts, Unite

As an experimental, progressive college, Sarah Lawrence is known for its activism on behalf of social justice as well as its emphasis on individuality.

When the individual matters, the individual can make a difference in the world. Dewey believed that individualism need not be narrow or selfish. The question is, though, how is developing the capacity of the individual related to the capacity for community and contribution to community? How are connections forged within this campus of individuals and between the campus and the wider community? It has been said that developing community at Sarah Lawrence is like “herding cats,” a cliché often applied to academic communities. And it is true that the vocabulary of “difference” that is so abundant here has sometimes obscured, even inhibited, a sense of community on campus.

Joan Cannady Countryman '62, Trustee

The most important and challenging achievement of any board of trustees is its selection of a president. We are proud of our work in that regard, and we are delighted to welcome Karen R. Lawrence as tenth president of Sarah Lawrence. We look forward to her leadership of the College that we cherish.

One response is that the imagination plays an important role in the development of both capacities. Just as the individual voice requires the imagination to freshen ordinary existence and make and remake the self, so community involves imagining the lives of others, being able to stand in the place of another and feel what it is like to live inside that person’s skin. William James, another important American pragmatist, bemoaned narrow individualism and what he viewed as an inability to understand “the sources of delight for individuals other than ourselves.” Novelists understand the exercise of such sympathetic imagination when they establish characters from words on a page. After reading Joyce’s Ulysses, one of my favorite novels, readers probably know Leopold Bloom’s “sources of delight” almost as well as they know their own.

And yet, in our contemporary local and global societies, Dewey’s faith in the ability of individuals to know each other—to make themselves legible to one another and to “read” each other—is being tested in a much more heterogeneous society than Dewey experienced. It is tested by the changing demographics of college communities, where students and faculty of different backgrounds come together in a learning environment. It is tested by the expansion of community through technology, where individuals from radically different cultures can enter each other’s living rooms and where identity and community can take on “virtual” existence. These are tests we must welcome if we are to form communities of individuals who understand people with different likes, dislikes, backgrounds, preferences, and ideologies—people on our campus, in our neighboring communities, and in the world. Our colleges and universities must encourage the deep study of languages and cultures at home and abroad if we are to avoid our own parochialism. Both locally and globally, we have a responsibility to others, to make a difference in their lives without succumbing to ill-fated attempts to export our system of beliefs.

Phillip Amicone, Mayor of Yonkers

Sarah Lawrence College has been a very important part of the educational system in Yonkers. We are always pulling in the same direction, and that direction is toward a better life and a better future for everyone—especially those young people who will follow us, who will be better leaders than we are, and who will make a better world than we’ve been able to make. That only happens through great education.

Earlier, I mentioned Paul Newman’s commencement address. In it, he spoke eloquently of the various communities he had belonged to in his life, communities in which he felt that a group of individuals could make a difference in the world. Community, he said,

"inspires, supports, demands, extracts all I have, keeps me in the process, keeps me honest. The community is the demand that creates my supply. I need its invitation to remember that I am responsible, that I long for fellowship, that I have any generosity at all. Individualism needs, for its own moral comfort, to be tempered by community."

Community involves imagining the lives of others, being able to stand in the place of another and feel what it is like to live inside that person’s skin.

Carol Christ, President of Smith College

I recently attended an international meeting of the presidents of women’s colleges worldwide. A president from a women’s college in India repeated the blessing that her culture bestows on its educational leaders, and I’ll repeat it to you: May you have the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of the lion, the cunning of Machiavelli, and the stomach of a goat.

As I eagerly begin the work of stewarding the College, I believe that Deweyan optimism, pragmatism, and experimentalism are alive and well and living in Westchester. As I begin my term as president, I am committed to fulfilling our mission of fostering the individual voice and helping the community of individuals to imagine, and contribute to, the lives of others. But in order for future generations to enjoy the same transformative experiences that our alumnae/i and students have had, Dewey offers further instructive counsel.

First, a learning community, like an individual, must grow. Esther Raushenbush said it best, I think, when she reminded the constituents of Sarah Lawrence that the College was “created to be a continually experimenting college.” It

was indeed established to bring to life a particular educational philosophy, and experimental in the sense that it put into practice new ideas about learning, about human development, about designing a curriculum. But more important was the commitment it made to continual examination and inquiry into education, and into how education in an institution based on such principles would function.

Sha Fagan, Director of Libraries/Academic Computing

The College’s hidden treasure lies in the remarkable community of people who work here. It is a group of people who love the College, who believe in its mission and work tirelessly to carry it out. We look forward to your leadership in the years to come. You do not have an easy task, but please be assured that the staff is here to assist you in every way, and we are confident that under your guidance, the College will continue to prosper and grow.

I agree. A progressive, experimental college must adjust to the changing intellectual and social demands of the 21st century.

Second, Dewey’s philosophy of community offers an instructive message to the “cats” in our Sarah Lawrence community. In the year since being named president-elect of this extraordinary college, I have met alumnae/i from all over the country who attribute their sense of individuality to the unique Sarah Lawrence environment for learning. The most typical expression I have heard is that each person became the person he or she is through the intellectual and social partnerships forged at Sarah Lawrence with a don, other faculty, and fellow students. Yet some seem to feel little overt identification with the College as an institution. The individuals of Sarah Lawrence are skeptical of tradition for tradition’s sake, skeptical of hokey forms of association, and skeptical of phony invitations to the club.

Claire Hipschman '08, Current Student

The Sarah Lawrence community is a peculiar and wonderful one, filled with individuals passionate about knowledge. Sarah Lawrence has been a truly transformative place for me, President Lawrence, and I hope it will be for you as well.

To members of the Sarah Lawrence community gathered here today, particularly our alumnae/i—our best advertisements for the Sarah Lawrence education—I would ask you to remember that the College nurtured your individual voices and met your “demands” to be heard as individuals. It taught you, and is teaching others today, to know how to “say” and “unsay.” Now, however, to use Paul Newman’s terms, supply and demand are reversed. Now, community is the “demand” that needs your supply. So my final message is made with a sense of joy, and possibility, at the sight of all of you comprising one audience today at this occasion. My message to the Sarah Lawrence community is the following: “Iconoclasts Unite.” The College and the world need you. 

Behind the Scenes The Future of Liberal Education Q and A