How the words and ideas of John E. Sawyer ’39 continue to inform the Williams of today—and tomorrow.
When CBS News rolled into Williamstown in February 1964 for an interview with President John E. Sawyer ’39 and University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom, the college was on the cusp of a decade of transformation.
Some elements of Sawyer’s vision for Williams, such as the phasing out of fraternities, were already being implemented. Other changes were yet to come. But throughout the hour-long interview, led by which aired that March on the weekly public service program One of a Kind, Sawyer offered his insights into the challenges facing society, higher education, and Williams, in particular. His ideas and ideals—and the eloquent case he made for the liberal arts—were remarkably prescient and continue to resonate today.
We asked members of the Williams faculty to lend their voices to the conversation that Sawyer began all those years ago. Their essays accompany the video clips below. Plus, read A Legend Brought to Life, a short commentary on watching the video by Jim Kolesar ’72, Assistant to the President in Public Affairs. To see the entire broadcast, contact [email protected]. Or learn more about Daring Change, an event held on April 5-6 2013 to honor Sawyer and his legacy, and to engage the campus community in a discussion about Williams’ future.
K. Scott Wong, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs
“America is the first country and society that has ever attempted to put as many as 30 to 40 percent of each age group into higher education. This is a national decision, rooted deep in our history and our philosophy and our conception of the precepts of American life. It is out of this that the problem of numbers has come, and it is out of this dedication to it that I think we’re going to find ways of meeting it.” –John E. Sawyer ’39
It is remarkable that this conversation took place right before a watershed period in American history that would bring significant changes to our society, changes that are still unfolding today. Both Sawyer and Ransom readily acknowledge the changes wrought by the Second World War, and they both defend the cause of a liberal arts education in the face of increasing post-war professionalism.
When this interview was recorded, President Kennedy had already been assassinated and the Beatles had come to the U.S., but there was no way Sawyer and Ransom could have imagined the transformative events that would take place later that decade that rocked both of their campuses and the rest of the world: the ravages of the war in Vietnam and the subsequent anti-war movement, the height of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the women’s movement, the student movement and its demands for educational reform, and substantial changes in American immigration policies.
All of these events and larger social movements had lasting influences on what people believed the “American Dream” could be and should be. While our civic discourse had always paid lip service to the core ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” it took until the ’60s for these ideals to begin to reach fruition. President Sawyer would act decisively to abolish the fraternity system, increase minority enrollments, increase the number of women and minorities on the staff and faculty, and even cancel the last two weeks of classes in 1970 in protest against the American bombing of Cambodia. And yet we as a society, and our campus in particular, are still grappling with these issues—the role of a liberal arts education in the face of the power of “big money,” the goal of diversifying our campus in terms of students, faculty and staff, many of whom come from a wider range of countries and backgrounds than ever before—all the while keeping true to the goal of nurturing an informed and compassionate citizenry.
Will Dudley '89, Provost, Professor of Philosophy
“What we have to keep our mind clearly on is the purposes of it all. We’re ultimately concerned not with facilities but with people, with the growth of young men and women, and in that we must keep a very clear eye on the qualitative part of the problem to be sure we don’t sacrifice essentials of quality before the onrush of quantity.” –John E. Sawyer ’39
Jack Sawyer remains exactly right about the purpose of a liberal arts education: We’re concerned with the growth of young men and women. I think of the college as an incubator designed to cultivate human potential. Every September we inject 550 carefully selected teenagers into this special environment. It’s small, isolated, residential and resource intensive. It’s populated with extraordinarily talented students, faculty, coaches and staff. It’s alive with an astonishing variety of curricular and extracurricular activity. In June we eject 550 22-year-olds from the incubator and watch with pride as they begin to make their ways in the world.
How are these young people different, in virtue of spending four years at the college? We know that they are older. But are they wiser? Have they refined their understanding of which goals are worth pursuing? Are they well prepared? Have they acquired the knowledge and skills that will be necessary to achieve their aspirations? Have they developed the character traits and habits required to persevere when doing the right thing proves difficult? Are they happier? Do they approach the future with confidence, satisfied with the paths on which they are embarking?
Building, maintaining and operating an incubator that reliably nurtures young men and women in all of these ways is expensive. It takes libraries, labs, classrooms, residence halls, performance spaces and athletic facilities. It takes students chosen for their abilities to contribute to the college community rather than their abilities to pay. And it takes the very best, most deeply dedicated teachers and mentors we can find.
The primary signal of our success is the passion of our alumni, who express their gratitude for the four years they spent growing at Williams by supporting the college in every imaginable way. The breadth and depth of that support ensure that we will continue to serve Jack Sawyer’s purpose for generations to come.
Denise Buell, Chair and Professor of Religion
“American higher education has to be mindful … that the vocational demands of an increasingly complicated civilization don’t press back into and cut away some essentials of the liberal arts program. … We have to mount the defenses to protect and preserve the range and variety and richness of the undergraduate years, to keep the liberal arts core, which has been its traditional strength, remaining at the heart of the enterprise.” –John E. Sawyer ’39
Sawyer’s words certainly ring true to me. Exposure to multiple ways of thinking and multiple interpretive tools with which to understand the world remains a hallmark of the liberal arts. Being stretched to engage a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives enables liberal arts graduates to become more nuanced and effective in any profession they ultimately pursue.
Indeed, Sawyer argues for the kind of “elasticity” a liberal arts education produces. A liberal arts education trains students to think more flexibly about the complexity of—and in—the world rather than providing them with narrower technical expertise that’s likely to become obsolete or with single-disciplinary specialization that limits their capacity to respond to challenges or to see the larger picture. Learning how to approach a problem with a varied set of tools is a skill of great use in the practical world, where comprehension can rarely be achieved through a single approach.
This is true in my own multidisciplinary field of religion, which straddles the humanities and social sciences (and, increasingly, other scientific fields). A liberal arts education challenges students to encounter a range and variety of subject areas and approaches, thus helping them to “look widely,” as Sawyer puts it. Even more than this, at its best, the liberal arts equip students to negotiate and work successfully with competing perspectives.
Strikingly, Williams has strengthened its curriculum precisely in ways that sustain investigation of the questions Sawyer identifies as central for students in his day. These include questions about the relation of America to the world, about intra-American racism, immigration and economic disparity. The college should continue to articulate the core values of the liberal arts while also embodying curricular elasticity—asking students to encounter radically different time periods, languages, methods and techniques, as well as to identify and confront directly ongoing, present challenges. In this way we can ensure the relevance of the liberal arts.
Satyan Devadoss, Associate Professor of Mathematics
“The students now entering our institutions are going to be carrying responsibilities well into the next century. The kinds of problems they’re going to face … simply cannot be foreseen. And the elasticity of the liberal arts type of education, awakening the capacity to see and understand and respond over as wide an arc as possible, is the kind of education that I feel very deeply is the most durable and … most practical training we can give.” –John E. Sawyer ’39
Reading these lucid words, I find myself nodding in constant agreement. As a mathematician, my research has blended art and visualization with studies in cartography, genetics, computer science and geometry—a potpourri that in no small part is due to my years as a liberal arts student. Now my life as faculty at Williams is best summarized by the proverb from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I am given enormous freedom to design my own courses, develop my research interests and pursue academic excellence. My charge, on the other hand, is to guide, equip and shape our students to interpret and transform the world around them. And I am convinced this begins with the tearing down of academic walls, an intrinsic feature of the liberal arts education.
I am not deluded into thinking lives are transformed when my students understand the gradient of a function or the eigenvalue of a matrix. Nor am I arrogant in believing that mathematics alone holds the keys to unlocking the future. A true liberal arts education equips us not only to understand mathematical form and structure but also to craft a thoughtful essay, to appreciate a performance or painting, to juggle molecules and matter and, dare I say, to compete on the athletic field. Indeed, the extraordinary gift offered by the liberal arts is the ability to reasonably converse in the languages of all disciplines—to focus on ideas across categories and not just the particulars of one.
There is a natural corollary to this perspective, which I pose as a challenge to the reader: Your college major does not matter. From personal experience, having written hundreds of letters of recommendation and having seen the triumphs of these students over numerous careers, what seems crucial to success are the usual traits: curiosity, determination, adaptability. The recent visual graphic showcasing the major-career trajectories of 15,600 Williams alumni highlights this point: Each major branches nearly equally to every career category (see http://bit.ly/Devadoss). The Williams graduate is trained to adjust, conform and thrive in a complex evolving landscape.
William R. Darrow, Cluett Professor of Religion
“This is a generation … newly aware of America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Our basic educational legacy had come from Europe and was concerned really with Europe and its offshoots, the Atlantic community. This generation is aware that it’s a wide world, and they’re interested in all of it.” –John E. Sawyer ’39
The past can seem like a foreign country. Listening to this conversation on the verge of a doubling of higher education seems unreal. “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” echoes in one’s head. As with a Mad Men episode, one watches the interview unfold with either 20/20 hindsight or with a cringe of recognition. But in the talk of growth, the rumbling “youth revolt” and the noticeably gender-inclusive language—the intentional use of both “men” and “women”—we can hear the rhetorical bases for making Williams co-ed that is Jack Sawyer’s major legacy.
We think of what lies ahead: the Vietnam War and the economic, technological and cultural shifts we label “globalization.” Williams’ membership in the Associated Kyoto Program, Williams in India, Georgia, Cairo and Oxford, and the diversification of the curriculum, faculty and students.
But such 20/20 hindsight might miss what’s already there. Sawyer has just returned from a tour with business leaders to Western Europe and the Soviet Union. The Center for Development Economics is three years old. The Haystack scholarship has brought a few international students each year. The basis is there already, though today the curriculum has been thoroughly internationalized, almost 50 percent of undergraduates study abroad, international presence in the faculty has grown, and this year the international student population is 144. When I arrived at Williams in 1981, I recall the international student population was about 50, with approximately half from Canada!
Still there are moments of cringing recognition. Characterizing this new mood as generational does hold the seeds for marginalization and a culture war. This is reinforced by a “West vs. the rest” assumption. Need the political saliency of the idea of an “Atlantic community” be translated into an “educational legacy?” Is all outside the same and primarily “interesting,” rather than part of a much more complicated human narrative? Finally, the conversation turns to the social revolutions already under way at home. Ransom’s rejection of the metaphor of a mosaic to envision diversity in the United States is impressive. But internal and world diversity are not the same thing, and the equation of the two may leave us with insufficient tools to understand both ourselves and the “wide world.”
Sarah R. Bolton, Dean of the College, Professor of Physics
“The honest answer to the question of [whether the child of poor parents has as much of a chance at a good education as the child of wealthy parents] is no, he does not. There have been very substantial efforts in this direction, and the trend is a favorable one. … The opportunities are opening up all the time. But for children from very poor families, there’s no question there’s a handicap.”
Thirty years ago, only 19 percent of students in the lowest quarter of U.S. family incomes entered college, and 5 percent of those students completed it. Now 29 percent of students in that income quartile start college, and a little less than a third of them complete it. These shifts certainly represent progress. But they also show us a great deal about the work ahead.
Sawyer framed his comments in terms of equity. And in those terms, the U.S. has not gained significant ground over the past 30 years. Students in the top quartile of U.S. family incomes remain almost three times as likely to enter college as students in the lowest quartile. Students from high-income families are more than six times as likely to complete college as their low-income peers. Indeed, a low-income student with above-average test scores is less likely to complete college than a high-income peer with below-average scores.
What does this landscape have to do with Williams? Williams holds a particular, privileged place in higher education. We must constantly improve equity of opportunity on three fronts—access, support for our students and engagement with the national context.
We are a relatively wealthy institution, which allows us to address aggressively equity of access. We meet the full financial need of every student we accept, and we also accept students independent of their financial circumstances. The increase in the number of Williams students receiving financial aid from 25 percent in Sawyer’s time to 53 percent today is in large part due to outreach to high schools serving lower-income students. It’s also due to the exceptional generosity of our alumni, whose donations make it possible for us to maintain our access commitments.
But getting low-income students to college is only half the story. Nationally, fewer than a third of low-income students who start college go on to complete it. At Williams, we must continue to understand and reduce the barriers that affect these students’ thriving and success—whether they arise from financial constraints, under-resourced high schools or the particular challenges of being the first in a family to attend college.
Williams has the opportunity and the obligation to alter the national context through the learning and work of our students. They leave this place with the potential to change the educational opportunities of individuals and of communities. Indeed, they can change the landscape of educational equity entirely.
Jim Kolesar '72, Assistant to the President for Public Affairs
A Legend Brought to Life
Into our age, when the digital capture of people’s lives runs practically from birth canal to columbarium, drops this rare animation of a key figure in the college’s history. It’s fascinating.
Reading Jack Sawyer’s often eloquent words is one thing; seeing him think out loud is another. He presents himself in this film as almost everything a 21st century college president could never be—deferential, low-key, laconic. Philosopher king has always been a good gig, if you could get it, and Sawyer looks here like someone who maybe did.
After seeing him on screen, you can let your mind project back to the young Jack Sawyer, showing early promise, being culled from the privileged New England class and prepared for leadership with a long and elite education. He was appointed Williams president at an early age with what would now seem scant administrative experience.
Unlike modern-day college presidents, who are expected to be half CEO and half Dad (or Mom), Sawyer’s persona was alien to this member of the Class of 1972, since if he’d ever shown up at a student event, we’d have assumed the world was coming to an end. He was instead, I assume, as with Plato’s ideal ruler, off mulling “the eternal and unchangeable,” his hand guiding the ship of state.
That hand, by all accounts, was a firm one. We’re told that Sawyer never entered a meeting without knowing where all the votes were. And don’t forget, his training included a stint during World War II with the OSS, precursor to the CIA. Future generations won’t have to wonder what Adam Falk was like. His manner will be there for all to experience, by then perhaps in Princess-Leia-like holography.
But almost all we have of Jack Sawyer is this one-hour film, and it’s tantalizing in the ways that it brings him to life.
You wonder what it’d be like to see a film of Mark Hopkins. Would we marvel? Be appalled? Both?
Image credit: top photo by Bill Tague.