Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Turner Lecture at Lynchburg College

Yesterday I had a very enjoyable visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, where I was the Turner Lecturer in the Humanities at Lynchburg College. That is a lovely liberal arts college with about 2500 undergraduates in the same town as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University -- a very different place! I spoke on the Moral Mission of Higher Education and got a nice reception from a good audience. I gave a list of all the reasons why colleges and universities have a hard time prioritizing the exercise of moral courage, and how it was that the moral mission had gotten squeezed out over time. I ended with a bit of a manifesto for honoring free inquiry and free speech at the same time as expecting the institution at least sometimes to have a moral posture about itself. Those familiar with my previous worries about an HBS professor's consulting in Libya and the Swamy vote can imagine where the tensions lie. I hit some of the notes that are in Ellen Lagemann's and my essay on civic education in Harvard magazine, but it's not the same story. I am trying to decide if I should write it up in a longer form.

The Lynchburg newspaper wrote a very nice story in advance of the lecture, with an arresting analogy in the third paragraph.

It is a lovely area, everything on rolling hills and the blossoming trees have already started to bloom. We had dinner before the lecture at Shoemaker's, a good American restaurant in what was once a shoe manufactory overlooking the river. The town used to be a shoe manufacturing center. (I have a weakness for shoe makers since Gordon McKay, whose bequest pays my salary, was one.)

The interesting thing about the town is the way the secular intellectual and the evangelical worlds intermingle and collide--Lynchburg is home not just to the two institutions I mentioned by also Randolph College (which used to be Randolph-Macon until it went co-ed a few years ago), but Liberty U is enormous and growing. Some of the people who showed up at the talk were local community members with no particular connection to Lynchburg College except that it seems to be where they go when they want to get an occasional discussion of some subject out of the shadow of Liberty U. The most memorable part of the evening was when a guy came up to tell me how much he enjoyed the talk and to thank me profusely for visiting Lynchburg -- and, when I asked, identified himself as a manual laborer. I don't think that would happen to me in Cambridge or NYC.