In 1979, a junior history major at Haverford named Conrad Turner, chose as the subject of a research paper a letter from Special Collections by philosopher René Descartes from 1641. Turner’s paper was written for the Junior Seminar in Historical Evidence (History 361), a ground-breaking program begun in 1969 in order to inject the study of material culture and the use of primary sources into the undergraduate history curriculum. In one assignment, students selected an unidentified object and were asked to determine the object’s identity, provenance, use, and social context. In another assignment students selected a document from Special Collections, and were assigned to prepare a transcription and in-depth analysis of its content.
Over thirty years later, the Descartes letter was discovered to be unknown to the scholarly world and—even more surprising—to have been stolen from a French library in the mid-nineteenth century. This exciting news was widely reported in the media in early 2010. On June 8, in a ceremony held in Paris, France, Haverford returned the letter to its rightful owner, the Institut de France. At the reception that followed, Conrad Turner ’81—the alum who wrote the paper on the Descartes letter—gave this moving speech about working with the Descartes document, Haverford’s decision to return the letter, and the potential for education to inspire and engender integrity.
Steve Emerson, Mr. Anderies, Members of the Board, Scholars, Distinguished ’Fords and guests: while Rene Descartes, Count Libri and “father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf have made today’s ceremony possible, we have come here because we have a spiritual connection to Haverford, and also of course because many of us happen to live in Europe. It says something about Haverford that a 370-year-old letter is the reason for my trip from Belgrade to Paris, allowing me to visit my senior year roommate Mark Sadoff and his wife Sheila. I have been on the wrong side of the Atlantic and in some cases deep in the Eurasian continent for every reunion for most of the last 23 years, so being part of this one is special for me, and being invited to say a few words is a real honor.
The Turner paper, as it has come to be known, is a footnote in the story of the Descartes letter. But as someone who, as Chris Mills put it, “spent some quality time cuddled up with that document back during the Carter administration,” I’m happy to share some thoughts on what this letter, and its return to l’Institut de France, symbolize. It has to do with the obligation universities have to educate not only their students, but also society at large.
Real education inspires. For too many of the world’s undergraduates, the reality is different. Information is force-fed into the brain, causing a brief rearranging of a few neural networks before being swept off to make room for the next brutal infusion of facts. What remains is a grade on a transcript. Inspiration, on the other hand, turns the brain into a magnet not just for facts but reason, purpose and values. That is what makes the difference between a good college and a great one.
The other day I spoke to Serbian university students about Diversity in the United States. Students there complain that professors lecture at them while keeping a studied distance. They’ve learned to expect worse from foreign diplomats, so I love to smash those stereotypes: as I addressed those students I paced the room, stepping forward and back, gesturing, asking open-ended questions, encouraging a lively give-and-take… In other words, I worked hard to inspire them.
Some of you will recognize a style mastered by Professor Emeritus Roger Lane. I sat quietly during his year-long American History course, but that didn’t prevent me from admiring, and one day imitating, his inspirational teaching style. It just seemed like the right way to do it. (I don’t mean to contradict myself, and please don’t tell Roger, but that’s the only thing I remember from his class.)
As a student then I thought it bizarre that some people could get worked up over the Honor Code. What was the big deal? Yet 21 years later I was on the lecture circuit, addressing thousands of students at a dozen universities in Kyrgyzstan on the subject of academic integrity, helping them write honor codes, and leading seminars using abstracts provided by Haverford’s Honor Council. Concepts that seemed pretty mundane to me as a student turned out to be excellent tools for helping universities, through their students, to come to terms with problems that threatened their country’s development.
And then there’s the Descartes letter, which over a few weeks forced a sleepless young man to think of the great philosopher and mathematician as a real human being.
It’s not unusual for a student to see the extraordinary as ordinary, as I did the Honor Code, Roger Lane, and even exclusive access to an original letter penned three centuries ago by one of mankind‘s greatest thinkers. And really, isn’t that a goal of education? We should enter the workforce taking for granted that inspiration and integrity are the ideals we’re supposed to strive for. Embracing these values is what grounds us throughout our careers, as we engage in the struggle between our desire to hold to the values of our profession, and our need to navigate the politics governing that profession.
This struggle is evident in the letter itself, which if you read between the lines is really a scene from a political drama. Descartes’ challenge was to be true to scientific values while avoiding offending the religious figures who could have been his undoing. It wasn’t easy, and makes you wonder where he got his inspiration and integrity.
My stories from Haverford days are only a small part of the picture, and I’m sure many of you have similar ones. But colleges have a responsibility to educate that transcends even their duty toward their students. Returning the Descartes letter to its owner should be an obvious step. We might even take it for granted. Others do not. A close colleague of mine, whose opinions I respect, was incredulous when I shared the news. “Why give it away? Who cares how it got there, it’s Haverford’s now.” I understand this point of view. Many people would agree, maybe a majority. It was stolen a long, long time ago, and stuff happens.
But stuff doesn’t just happen. We make it so, as individuals and as institutions. Seen in another way, Haverford’s power to confer a prestigious degree carries certain rights and privileges, as well as obligations. Just as I was allowed 31 years ago to connect with history by staring at original ink marks, a great college must be aware of its historical role, and through its actions improve on history by taking a public stand on behalf of integrity. In this case, Haverford’s obligation – to educate us by inspiring us – was simply to do the right thing and return the letter to its home, giving up any perceived benefit the college might have had by clinging to it.
And your decision has inspired us, the news rippling through academic networks worldwide in multiple languages, all the way to my daughter’s high school in Belgrade, where the librarian, on learning my humble connection to the story, gaped at me as if I were a rock star and said, “That was you???”