The Marquis de Lafayette

Champion of the Human Spirit

This essay appeared in the Orange County Register, Sept. 10, 2007, written by Daniel H. Weiss, then president of Lafayette College.

Sept. 6, 2007, marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of two worlds and champion of the human spirit.

One of the most important contributors to the success of the American War for Independence (and George Washington’s most beloved friend), Lafayette was above all dedicated to individual freedom and liberty. He fully believed in the ideal of true liberty because he understood it as “the fruition of the enactment of the rights of man” and saw in his adopted country the greatest chance that this ideal might take root and grow.

Nearly a half-century after Lafayette entrapped Cornwallis at Yorktown, leading to the British surrender ending the Revolutionary War, the citizens of Easton, Pennsylvania, founded Lafayette College. In 1826, they understood the essential connection between a free society and an educated citizenry, and that is why they named our college in the Marquis’ honor.

The connection between a free society and an educated citizenry endures. As we in the nation’s colleges and universities chart our future contributions to the well-being of our students, our communities, our nation, and the world, we can find inspiration in the Marquis’ life of service in the cause of freedom and his legacy of liberty.

First, our institutions must reaffirm the central importance of liberal education as a key foundation for helping students build productive and rewarding lives. “Liberal education” does not refer to the narrow political term, as in liberal vs. conservative, but to an intellectual value—that of being open-minded, at liberty to inquire and explore freely.

The value of liberal education has long been recognized in American higher education, and the purposes of liberal education are as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so. The real benefit of time at college, for most students, is to encourage individual growth, the cultivation of ethics, new capacities for expression and, most important, the skills and desire to continue learning. Yet many students and their families have begun to question the utility of a broad, values-based curriculum in this fast-paced, skills-driven economy. They are justifiably concerned about outcomes and their prospects for gainful employment.

We have reason for encouragement, though, since we know that employers from a wide range of sectors continue to seek graduates who are “skilled communicators, scientifically literate, adept at quantitative reasoning, oriented to innovation, sophisticated about diversity, and grounded in cross-cultural exchange,” to quote from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Thus, higher education’s challenge is to communicate more effectively about the enduring value of a liberal education in pursuing their professional careers, enriching their personal lives, and informing their roles as citizens.

Upholding the Marquis’ legacy also means reaffirming the benefits of intellectual pluralism and social tolerance and the value of open debate. Preparing students for life and leadership in a world that is increasingly interconnected and globalized requires that the learning environments we offer them—our campus communities—embody diversity of race, religion, geography, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation.

Social and intellectual pluralism enriches the educational possibilities by a measure greater than any other means, and so diversity in its broadest sense must be a core value, rather than an initiative or action plan. For many institutions, achieving diversity requires rethinking admissions and financial aid paradigms, including finding ways to provide greater access to qualified students without regard to their ability to pay. But that is only part of the challenge of maintaining a vibrant, fundamentally diverse community. It is equally crucial that the recruitment of faculty and staff and the structure of curricula reflect a commitment to pluralism.

Colleges and universities must also reaffirm a commitment to engagement with our communities and the world. We are fortunate at Lafayette College to live and work on a splendid campus close to the center of Easton, a pleasant setting, conducive to study and contemplation—but not a sanctuary removed from the outside world. Fostering our roles as engaged citizens of our community is an important component in serving our educational mission. Here, as at other schools, this means providing the infrastructure for academic service-learning and community-based research programs, and supporting faculty whose teaching and research benefit the community, among other initiatives. We must also provide students with an educational experience that is international in reach, so that they will have a basis for understanding what it really means to be global citizens.

One further word on honoring Lafayette’s legacy in our institutions.

Today’s undergraduates are coming of age in an era fraught with conflict and unprecedented challenges, including the tragedies of Columbine High School, Oklahoma City, and 9/11; wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the attack on their fellow students and faculty in Blacksburg. We should be mindful of the cost of these events—and their underlying problems—to our students’ capacity for hope and their faith in the viability of progress: at risk is their belief that tomorrow can be better than today, and that making it so is worth the effort. Given the current state of the world, it would be entirely natural, and even understandable, to give in to cynicism and individual pragmatism.

Their greatest challenge, then, is transcending despair and defeatism. Hence we are challenged, in preparing them to enter the 21st-century global society with intellectual capacity, functional skills, and other worthy attributes, to inspire students to learn and to live with energy and passion, as Lafayette did, and to allow their own human spirit to triumph within them.

On December 10, 1824, during his Farewell Tour of the United States, Lafayette was the first foreign dignitary to address a joint meeting of the House and Senate. Some 40 years before, in a speech to the new nation’s Continental Congress, he had expressed what he called “the fond wishes of an American heart.” Now he said, “On this day I have the honor, and enjoy the delight, to congratulate the Representatives of the Union, so vastly enlarged, on the realization of those wishes, even beyond every human expectation, and upon the almost infinite prospects we can with certainty anticipate.”

Let us encourage infinite expectations!