The Rev. Peter J. Gomes told those gathered in Memorial Chapel that a small liberal arts college like Union is “a beacon of light in a cultural wilderness… and the darker it gets, the brighter your light shines. All you have to do is keep it burning. You are civilizing an uncivilized country.”
Speaking Thursday at the Founders Day celebration in observance of the 211th anniversary of the College, Gomes – one of Talk magazine's “Best Talkers in America” – discussed the importance of Founders Day, noting that a wise institution takes the time to regularly, publicly and formally applaud its past while securing its future.
“It good for us to remind ourselves and others that we are not the first, nor will be the last to be here,” said Gomes, Harvard University chaplain, American Baptist minister and best-selling author.
“I am happy that Founders Day is a separate occasion that pulls us out of our routines to remember great hopes and great ambitions.”
Union received its charter on Feb. 25, 1795, the first college charter granted by the Regents of the state of New York. The first Founders Day observance was held in 1896.
Gomes called the creation of Union College “a bold experience in a closed world,” introducing French and engineering, among other forward-thinking initiatives at the end of the 18th century.
“This college reflected the little notion of a national union, an outgrowth of a sense of community devoted to unity rather than sectarianism, to community rather than division.”
Gomes, 64, is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and Pusey Minister in Harvard's Memorial Church. He holds degrees from Bates College and Harvard Divinity School, as well as 30 honorary degrees. During the Union ceremony, he received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Interim President Jim Underwood.
He said both Union and Harvard, as heirs to an act of a state Legislature, “share this institutional beginning at the hands of the public good.
“The state has every right to expect great and glorious things from us. We exist to improve the landscape, to reform the world… to take the rough stuff of human nature which comes to us as freshmen.
“The whole purpose of this enterprise is not personal, private interior decoration,” he said of a liberal arts education, “but for the public good. A college that commits itself to improving the wider world deserves everything we can give it.”
Gomes said “we are living in barbarous times,” with mistrust, anxiety and fear pervasive “throughout the land.” And in these troubled times, “we celebrate the virtues and opportunities of an institution such as this. It is in such schools that I invest the greatest hopes for this country.”
Gomes reflected at length on the Nott, both the building and the man, marveling at Eliphalet Nott's 62-year tenure – the longest of any college president in the nation.
Gomes was perhaps most engaging in his long, dramatic story about his first encounter with the Nott, which appeared to him like a lost spaceship.
“That is a very extraordinary things in the middle of your campus,” he said. “Was it an Italian baptistery set up in Upstate New York? Was it a remnant of another planet? Was it the top of a some enormous building that lies underground? I approached it both reverently and warily.”
Gomes drew laughter when he noted that once he entered the spectacular 16-sided edifice, “it was no clearer from the inside what the building was about. I said to myself, ‘This is an academic mystery.' A splendid, glorious, wonderful mystery. No one knows what to do with it.
“It's very much a center, a power and a presence,” he continued, talking of the Nott's majesty and grandeur as a metaphor for a broad liberals arts vision. “It almost sounds – dare I say it? – religious.”
Bemoaning the current state of American education today as ‘dumbing down,” of “a kind of manufactory in which we all play our little part,” he said, “How I wish every college in America could have its center. It might make us a little bit more reverent in the face of ignorance,” and aid in the “transformation from darkness to light, from petty division to broad, human tolerance.”
He added, “Wherever I go from now on, I will invoke the specter of your great mystery.”
Concluding his talk, Gomes evoked the Nott once more, reminding his listeners that this glorious heart of the Union campus “can remind you of a great hope to be cultivated.”