5/14/2019 Barbara K. Altmann

A Journey of Perpetual Discovery

This magazine article is part of Spring 2019 / Issue 93

F&M inculcates in students the qualities of flexibility, curiosity, nimbleness, and the ability to tell their stories. The College must remember to do the same thing as an institution, says President Barbara K. Altmann.

The following is an excerpt of the inauguration address delivered by F&M President Barbara K. Altmann.

In college, I was a late bloomer. It was in spring of my senior year when I finally experienced the transformative moment. I was the only student to register for a medieval French literature class. The professor agreed to do an independent study. Face to face with her, in her faculty office, surrounded by materials the likes of which I had never seen, I got hooked, and started to dig in. How does language work if a three-word phrase in Old French needs six words to say the same thing in the modern idiom? How could medieval poets work within the rigid rules of fixed-form poetry to say something new? What is the relationship between the derivative, the conventional, and the innovative?  How were the notions of individuality, personal voice, agency, the nature of genius understood when most medieval authors were anonymous? What societal constructs explain the great scarcity of identifiable pre-modern women writers? Why did a culture in which few were literate prize the written word? How does a modern printed book compare as a physical artifact with a manuscript made of precious animal hide and handwriting that required hundreds of hours of highly skilled artistic labor? What does it mean about the human condition to find emotional touchstones in 800-year-old poetry that ring true today? Why do we commonly dismiss the Middle Ages as barbaric and unsophisticated while still recycling and re-appropriating medieval material in our buildings, our movies, our literature, our artwork?

In one course, in one term, I went from merely a smart student to a good one, a lifelong one. I found questions big enough, penetrating enough, interesting enough, challenging enough, to think about every day, with endless curiosity and passion. I found I had abilities I hadn’t recognized. And while it took me some years to give in to it completely, I got hooked on the pleasure of intellectual challenge, on the imperative of engaging in the world of ideas for our own individual and collective well-being. I was also hooked on the power of intellectual mentorship. And I wanted always to be on both sides of the desk.

That sparkling engagement of the mind is what I found here at F&M. I found it in the recent graduate who told me, “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I discovered what kind of law I might want to practice because I took courses in philosophy and sociology and dance. Now I know why I want to be a lawyer.” I found it in faculty members who have said, “I developed a new course to help out with the new curriculum, but that course led to the core ideas behind my recent research, too.” I heard it from the student who said, as he headed back into the library, “This is hard, but it’s good!” The professor in the performing arts who said, “I wanted to come here because the students are so sharp. Because of them, I am using much better material in class. We’re shaping their minds, but we’re shaping their bodies and souls, too.” The custodian in one of our college houses who told me, “I love these kids. They tell me what they’re learning in class.” The alumna who declared, “This is a real place.” And the students who insist that we keep it real, bring our intellectual labor to bear on real-world problems locally and far afield, and tackle the confounding problems like poverty, endemic racism, homophobia, environmental sustainability, migration. The creators and performers of art, working not only for mastery but also for meaning.

That’s what I came here to foster. Why wouldn’t we want to provide the opportunity for this kind of education for those game and smart enough to take it on? I take enormous pleasure from being on a college campus with others who love to think and stretch intellectually and personally. I think of myself as akin to the protagonist in a medieval text by an author I have long studied, a woman named Christine de Pizan, who wrote at the court of King Charles V in France. In a work from 1402, titled Le Chemin de Longue Estude,” or The Book of the Path of Long Study, she recounts a dream vision in which she, the narrator, is guided on a celestial and terrestrial journey of learning. There are many remarkable agendas at work in Christine’s book, not least of which is that she herself, a woman in the very masculine field of late-medieval letters, assumes the role of the scholar on an intellectual journey, and her purpose for so doing is to discover what qualities would be required in an individual who could rule the world well.


  • Barbara K. Altmann inauguration Image Credit: Deb Grove

I stand before you as living proof that majoring in something relatively obscure is no impediment to getting a real job. Why wouldn’t we want to guide our best and brightest to learn to navigate the world, and get ready to rule it well, through any field of study that excites them? The two historical figures for whom this college is named were intellectual fomenters at the heart of the national-identity formation of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and the faculty first hired to teach at Franklin College were polymaths just like Franklin himself – they were pioneers in new scientific disciplines, but also philosophers, theologians, linguists, and polyglots, all in the same person. We have hundreds of pithy quotations from Franklin, including on the topic of education. One of his best-known statements on education until recently decorated a banner near Shadek-Fackenthal Library: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” That’s a wonderful encapsulation of the teacher-mentor model that underlies our teaching philosophy and practice here on campus today. Less of John Marshall’s common wisdom has been recorded in his own words, but one of his pithy opinions that I particularly like is, “I have always believed that national character… depends more on the female part of society than is generally imagined.”

Our task at hand is to continue to make the case that the education students can get here at F&M is exactly what each successive generation of leaders needs to be those learned people who can wisely rule the world. We need persistently, consistently to convince our critics and demonstrate to the very best minds that for their own good, their quality of life, the quality of the communities they will live in and lead, they need to learn broadly and cultivate their curiosity. We need to demonstrate unequivocally, for the many who want the proof, that it will enhance their earning potential. And we need to prove by any measures we can devise that the return on investment on this kind of education is very large, indeed, by other measures beyond money – for the individual, for every sector of society, and for every city, state, and country in the world.

On our campus, good as we are, our mandate now is to avoid the temptation to hold steady, content with the impressive gains of the recent years. We need to find the balance between acquired (and well-deserved) confidence and the call to our own journey of perpetual learning. We must grant freedom to possibility—in inquisitiveness, in resources, in spirit. Just as we have seen the very positive change in our talent, our programs, and our national stature over the last decade and more, we can anticipate new horizons, new opportunities, new challenges for our people, programs, and facilities. And we have to make the case to the outside world that that culture of possibility is far too good to turn down or refuse. If we inculcate in our students the qualities of flexibility, curiosity, nimbleness, and the ability to tell their stories, we must remember to do the same thing as an institution. We will move forward with the confidence our past presidents have so generously bestowed upon us, so that we imagine, shape, and claim the distinction that is rightfully ours in the years to come. We are already charting the next course on this journey of perpetual discovery, and I invite you to join me on that most exhilarating and sustaining of paths.

  • From Spring 2019 magazine
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