I've spent the past 43 years of my life in places like Knox College. I've known them as a student, as a faculty member, as an administrator, and now, as president. Many of the colleges I've attended or served were in small, relatively rural communities much like Galesburg. All have been nationally recognized for their commitment to the liberal arts. Yet there is something about Knox College, this storied school on the prairie of Western Illinois, that moves me like no other place. When Knox's founders arrived in Illinois, this was truly open space, and the journey was arduous. About 20 years later, the first of many trains arrived in Galesburg, linking this prairie town to other railroad towns and cities nationwide and, eventually, around the globe. Today's students still come by train, but more come by car and jet from 51 countries to this small city. And when you travel outside the city limits or rise in a plane above the landscape, you will see, as did our founders, 360 degrees of sky, dwarfing the surrounding fields of corn and soybeans. It is a very big sky, but as Emily Dickinson, one of our great American poets, wrote from the confines of her small Massachusetts town,
The brain -- is wider than the sky --
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain --
With ease -- and You -- beside --
Our little campus, so small in comparison to the big sky, to the great cities of the world, is infinitely large because of the powers of imagination, of reason, and of comprehension that are nurtured and developed here. This was the real gift of our founders -- the gift of a college on the prairie invented in the brains of our founders. The life of the mind, wider than the sky.
Knox is not alone in the pursuit of this idea. The liberal arts college is a uniquely American form of higher education that draws students from around the globe. Nowhere else on earth do you find so many colleges of this type: small, so that every student has individualized attention from faculty and staff dedicated to their education; residential, which means students live and learn away from home, living with others in common housing and experiencing a rich campus life; and broad, offering a liberal arts curriculum in which students study an array of subjects while also concentrating in a major.
A liberal arts college's central premise is that students can pursue their intellectual passion rather than be assigned an occupation by predestination, caste, or class. The term liberal here refers not to political perspective, but instead to the notion of liberation, of freedom. It's why Knox tells its students they have the freedom to flourish -- because freedom to study whatever moves you is a core value of a liberal arts education.
Liberal arts colleges like Knox have at their core a learned community of distinguished faculty. Here at Knox, we have more than 120 faculty members, nearly all of them holding the highest advanced degree possible in their fields. Together, they have spent at least 500 years -- half a millennium -- preparing to join the faculty in post baccalaureate study. They have written hundreds of books and articles, speak scores of languages, and have researched the secrets of the universe from the most minute subatomic particle to the furthest galaxy. They have studied the smallest organisms and the largest political and economic systems. And they are singularly dedicated to undergraduate education in a residential liberal arts college. They have chosen to work and live in community with their students.
Why? Because Knox is not only a learned community, it is a learning community. Despite all that the faculty collectively know, all that we know -- small and finite -- is dwarfed by the magnitude of what we don't know. There is no cure for AIDS or cancer, seemingly no guarantee that nations can resolve their conflicts without war, no definitive forecast of the pace of climate change, no knowledge of how to reverse spinal cord injury.
At colleges like Knox, we try to push back the frontiers of knowledge together. While the faculty is at the core of the curriculum, students learn outside the classroom and outside the formal curriculum. In fact, everyone in a learning community will be a teacher. We all learn the most from the people the least like ourselves. Artists learn from scientists; rural dwellers learn from city dwellers; liberals, from conservatives; Christians, from Muslims, to name only a few of the differences in human experience that students bridge during their education at Knox. This is an important lesson of liberal arts colleges: academic excellence demands diversity -- geographic diversity, diversity of perspective and background, demographic diversity, economic diversity.
This is the beauty of the American liberal arts college -- nowhere else on earth would people so different from one another live together in a community formed, constituted, and held together solely by learning. One of the reasons Knox has been a premier liberal arts college for 175 years is that it has always valued the learning that happens when people of very different backgrounds come together.
There has been no time in our history when we have needed individuals trained in the liberal arts more than now -- individuals who can think critically, chase the big questions and challenges facing us, and easily adapt with creativity to our ever-changing world. The fact that Knox is one of only a small number of educational institutions around the globe that provides students with such a transformational learning experience is reason enough to celebrate its existence. And when I think about the boldness of our founding vision; the courage of our early faculty, students, staff; the impact of our alumni and our College on the course of American and world history; the commitment of Knox boards and administrators, faculty, and staff to this vision through tumultuous economic and social changes to this vision -- I am truly inspired, and my dedication to this College and its future grows even deeper.
We all know that the efforts of the years ahead will be set against the backdrop of continuing economic challenges, with their impact on students and their families, as well as on philanthropic giving. We all have read or watched the many stories in our national media about the cost and value of higher education -- it costs students more to receive a college education than ever before. Yet just as students pay more for a college education today, colleges pay more to provide an education to its students than ever before. This is particularly true for schools like Knox that maintain a mission of inclusion, which is why I encourage all members of the Knox community to think about what you can do to help Knox succeed now and into the future.
Let us all be inspired in this anniversary year by our past, by the sacrifices and the gifts of those who came before us. Let us be empowered by the energy of learning, by the explosion of knowledge at this time in human history. Let us be transformed by the diversity of our community-intellectual, geographic, economic, perspectival. Let us be transformed by the potential for understanding and peace that beckons like a flame at the heart our diverse community. Let us be empowered by the idea that is Knox College.