College of Letters and Science Testimonial

Robert Davis


"Fifty years ago, in September of 1957, I began my freshman year at what was then known as Wisconsin State College-Stevens Point. It seems like such a long yet short time ago that I came here in need. I needed the wisdom to know my ignorance. Now at the age of 68, I find myself hoping that the experience of you, who are the present students and faculty at our university, will be, as it was for me and fellow alumni, only the beginning of a lifetime of exciting wonder and adventure.

The adventure I have in mind is liberal, that is, liberating, education. To me it is the constant quest to learn what we do not know, discover the permanent questions and know the alternative answers and thoughts offered by the best minds in the great books, and free our minds to think carefully about them. Thus are we able to seek genuine knowledge, as opposed to opinion, of the truth concerning the nature of man, the nature of the whole we inhabit, and man's place in the cosmos. After all, from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on, the university has been about the quest to know the universe. Liberal education has helped me understand why it is a quest. The answers are neither obvious nor simply unavailable.

I also find myself moved to express my profound gratitude to my teachers. They were, and remain, the midwives who delivered me out of the cave-prison of my culture, my times, and myself into the sunlight. Thanks to them, I think I have become enlightened enough to see I am still ignorant, but not simply ignorant. I know now that my powerful desire as a youth to know who I am, which means what is man, is the natural longing for completeness. This need, essentially erotic, longing to be happily whole is really our longing for education in the use of reason beyond the calculation of our self-interest in happiness understood as comfortable self-preservation.

I certainly understand why our democratic republican society wants to produce trained technical and professional specialists, and abundant economy and personal material prosperity, physical health, and long lives for more and more of we the people. Energized by the American regime's founding principle of justice, each individual's equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, these goods combine to generate the desirable conditions for happiness itself. But, do they constitute happiness itself? Does the predominate public opinion in our mass democratic society mistake the means for the end? Is the good person one who knows how to get the means, and cares to use it, exclusively for him or herself, or one who also cares about and know how to help others? Are there nationally knowable ends other than material self-interest that can and should guide us?

It was the great modern political philosophers-scientists, the national liberal educators of Enlightenment University in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, who schooled the American founders in the revolutionary ideas they were the first to translate into political practice as our democratic republic. They knew from the great classical teaching they overturned that there are problems inherent in the nature of democratic regime which need to be solved without violating the spirit and forum of democracy. The people's passion for equality is compatible with tyranny as well as with freedom. Hence, in order to work as it is supposed to, the principle of self-interest correctly understood, must be correctly understood. I am persuaded that liberal education still serves democracy best by conserving genuine liberty and extending it to all. This means growing citizens, both in the university and in the nest of our society, who love virtue, knowledge, and the capacity to think reasoned thoughts for their own sakes. They help protect reason from beginning intimidation by the soft, subtle tyranny of popular culture and majority opinion. Without awareness of alternation thoughts about the questions posed above, there can be no freedom of the mind, autonomous individuals, and meaningful dialogue about whether it is better to aim low and hit, or aim higher and though we will probably miss, make moderate progress toward the marks of excellence.

In Spring of 1963, as President of the Student Government Association, I spoke at the inauguration of James Albertson as President of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. As students and teachers, I said, we are a community of scholars dedicated to knowing and living the truth about the good life. Like Chaucer's Oxford scholar in The Canterbury Tales, gladly would we learn and gladly teach. May we always bear this in open, thoughtful, and thought-provoking minds. For we have a stake in each other because the future has a stake in us.

As an alumnus, I can say that is has not been easy to be open-minded with a view to learning the truth and seeking the wisdom with which to serve others. But, I have been helped to keep striving by being mindful that we still know too little to be dogmatists and too much to be skeptics. It has been a thrilling love affair."