What about parody? Check out this new-ish online student publication, The Bi-Co (On A Budget), which includes a clever send-up of the Descartes letter discovery from 2010. Professors, administrators, and school traditions are lampooned on the pages of this Tumblr microblogging site. Even the Cricket Library isn’t spared!
Posts Tagged ‘Rene Descartes’
While preparing for a presentation about the return of the Descartes letter, I came upon this speech from Secretary of the Board of Managers, Howard Comfort, dedicating Roberts Hall in 1903, which together with the Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection, had been donated to the College by Roberts’ widow, Lucy Branson Roberts. The speech is included in its entirety, having been transcribed by our student assistant, Kyle McCloskey ’11.
Remarks at the opening of Roberts Hall, Haverford College – Fourth Month 30th 1903
By Howard Comfort
It seems fitting, at the first formal gathering in this new building, that a few words should be said regarding its creation and purpose.
In 1860, Charles Roberts, descended from Welsh ancestors, entered Haverford.
In the chapter he wrote for the Haverford History, he calls his College days, “the Civil War Period” – the weary days of the great struggle between the north and the South, when thousands of troops rolled by on the railroad which then bounded the college grounds. On one occasion Lincoln bowed to the students from the rear platform of a passing train, while on his way to take up his duties as the newly elected President. Charles Roberts tells us it was the day of small things in college and without. The conditions were however favorable to the development of mental training, in the quiet student of simple tasks, who loved reading and study. In the family life that then prevailed, students were drawn more closely together than now, so friendships were formed and interests aroused, that lasted through life.
In 1864, Charles Roberts was one of the first class that rec’d their diplomas from the platform of the then new Alumni Hall. During a successful business career of nearly thirty years, he took an active part in many societies and organizations, founded to promote historical, artistic, scientific, benevolent, antiquarian and educational purposes.
It was as a member of the City Councils of Philadelphia, that he was best known to the general public. He served in the Councilmanic Chamber continuously for 18 years, up to the time of his death. In this service he faithfully, ably and honestly performed his trust, setting an excellent example of strict integrity and fidelity to public duty.
Secure in the confidence of his constituents, he retained the personal esteem and friendship of his opponents by never impugning their motives, thus confining his criticism to objectionable measures.
This evening, Charles Roberts’ connection with this college is of especial interest. He was a member of the Board of Managers for thirty years. During part of this time he was President of the Alumni Association and Secretary of the Corporation. He was, perhaps the most regular attender of Board and Committee meetings, where his ripe judgment and Knowledge of College affairs will he greatly missed. A liberal contributor to every good cause, he was ever ready to answer the not infrequent calls of his Alma Mater. Therefore when his premature death occurred fifteen months ago, his colleagues had no expectations from the estate of one [who] had already done so much for the College.
In March of last year, Mrs Roberts informed the Board, that she wished to present to the College an Assembly Hall, in memory of her husband. The only condition attached, was that the new Hall should contain fire-proof rooms for the reception of the Autograph Collections, to be given the College, and to be Known as the Charles Roberts Autograph Collection and kept intact by the College.
The Managers gratefully accepted this generous offer, with a keen sense of its fitness as a memorial of one whose interest in our Institution had been so constant & fruitful.
Mrs Roberts has co-operated with the Building Committee in the selection of a site, and has given valuable help in the consideration and revision of plans, prepared by Cope and Stewardson, architects.
Owing to difficulties which attend many building operations of recent times, completion has been delayed, but we are glad to welcome you this evening to this room, which, even in its present conditions, promises to be a most convenient assembly room for our larger academic gatherings.
When all is finished, we expect to have administrative offices at the right of the front entrance, for the dispensation of such laws and orders as are incident to the Presidential office.
On the left are two fire-proof rooms for the final home of the collection of rare manuscripts gathered by our late friend. As an undergraduate, he had the usual youthful desire to collect, and early began to accumulate papers and autographs to be pasted in an old fashioned scrap-book.
Through many years, before so many collections were in the field, Charles Roberts was a judicious and constant buyer of rare books, portraits, prints, autographs and manuscripts of a literary and historical character.
The autograph collection alone has been conservatively estimated as worth $85,000. It includes the letters of many literary men of this country and Europe, and of nearly all the statesmen and public characters of the United States.
Mrs Roberts has been giving much attention to the best way to care for this collection, so as to combine safety with a proper degree of accessibility, one of the most difficult problems for curators to solve. It is her desire, as we knew it would have been that of her husband, to allow as much opportunity for examination and study as is proper, — and if any mistake is made it will be on the side of liberality.
Some in this audience can recall, as I do, their pleasure in opportunities to examine some of these manuscripts, under the guidance of their late owner.
With the suppressed enthusiasm of the antiquarian, he would draw treasure after treasure from well-ordered receptacles, and point out the distinctive features of each. I remember his showing some letters of Shelly and Burns, to illustrate their care in the details of paper, penmanship, the framing of paragraphs, and accurate use of language.
A study of this collection will go far to confirm the impressions that the art of letter writing as practiced one hundred years (and less) ago, has been lost in the rushing activity of this generation.
The cost of this Hall, when completed, will be about $53,000, which, — added to the market value of the autographs, makes this memorial worth nearly $140,000, expressed in the measure of material things. Measured by the standard of academic sentiment, who will attempt to fix its value through the coming years?
For the love and interest which prompted this magnificent gift, I esteem it a duty and a privilege, to thank Lucy Branson Roberts in the name of the Corporation and of all students past and present, and still more on behalf of the wider constituency we call friends of the College — and of the innumerable company of future generations of students, who will seek the truth beneath these shades, long after all present have passed away.
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???”
Last week’s announcement that an unknown and stolen letter by René Descartes had been discovered in Haverford College Special Collections and will be returned to France has received quite a bit of attention in the press. Below is a list of original articles that have appeared in English.