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The Essence of Wake Forest

By Edwin G. Wilson ('43)

A new film showcases Provost Emeritus Edwin G. Wilson (’43) explaining Wake Forest’s tradition of friendliness and honor.

A new film, “The Essence of Wake Forest,” marries Dr. Edwin G. Wilson’s eloquent description of the character of Wake Forest with scenes from the old and new campuses. The film was produced this summer by award-winning cinematographer George Reasner (’90) and students and faculty in the Documentary Film Program (DFP). “Dr. Wilson is a treasure and everyone should be able to hear him,” says Mary Dalton (’83), associate professor of communication and co-director of the DFP. “It was also a way for the Documentary Film Program to do something for the campus that has embraced us, and at the same time provide training for our students.” Wilson originally delivered “The Essence of Wake Forest” to trustees and others attending the University’s Summer Leadership Conference in July 2010. Remarks adapted from that speech are reprinted below.


The Essence of Wake Forest

When I begin to think of the Wake Forest I know and love, two words come at once to my mind: friendliness and honor. I heard them for the first time as Wake Forest words on the night of my own freshman orientation. “At Wake Forest,” Professor Jasper Memory said, “You say hello to everyone you meet.” (Memory: What a great name for a college professor!) And Pete Davis, the president of the student body, told us about the honor system: “We do not use proctors. We trust you. Just sign your name. That’s enough.” And – for many years – every Wake Forest freshman was given a badge to wear. The badge had two words on it: friendliness and honor.

The friendliness we spoke of was not just about saying “Good morning” or waving a hand in greeting. Nor was it merely a sign of Southern hospitality or student camaraderie. It incorporated the faculty also. The student yearbook, in fact, introduced the faculty section with the words “Our Friends the Faculty.” And beyond the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday classes and the Tuesday and Thursday afternoon laboratories, where teaching and learning officially took place, there were frequent encounters between students and teachers – here and there on the campus or in town – which opened eyes and inspired confidence and led to new insights about one’s life and career.

One night, for example, I was studying physics and needed to learn about the Wheatstone bridge. I saw that my professor, Bill Speas, was in his office, and I went by to ask for help. He was in a chair at his desk, listening to a record being played on an old department turntable. Before I could inquire about the Wheatstone bridge, he invited me to sit down and said, “Listen to this!” Then I heard, for the first time, “Che gelida manina,” from La Bohème, sung by the Pavarotti of his day, the great Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. To this day I could not explain the Wheatstone bridge to you, but I could, if called upon, hum my way through that aria by Puccini.

The English novelist, E.M. Forster, once wrote about Cambridge, his college, trying to capture what he calls the magic quality of college life. He said that at Cambridge “Body and spirit, reason and emotion, work and play, architecture and scenery, laughter and seriousness, life and art – these pairs which are elsewhere contrasted – were fused into one. People and books reinforced one another, intelligence joined hands with affection, speculation became a passion, and discussion was made profound by love.” In this way, he said, the university “became for a moment universal.”

I do not wish to make unsupported claims for Wake Forest or for our faculty, but I do believe that “friendliness” between students and teachers is still part of our collegiate environment. The other day, I received, as I often do, a letter from a recent graduate. This one said: “I’ve told many folks that, if I had to make my college decision over 100 times, I would 100 times choose Wake Forest. It was a perfect setting for a young man from the rural environment of Anson County who wanted to broaden his horizons. Upon arrival I found myself woefully unprepared academically but also at once I found the opportunity [to learn and grow].” He then mentioned by name ten professors – from seven different departments – who had helped and inspired him.

Perhaps a better word than “friendliness” is “friendship.” I think that Wake Forest is a place for friendship. And, when I look at the two words we have chosen to define the Wake Forest faculty member – teacher and scholar – I speculate that maybe we should add a third word: friend. That may well be the best word of all.

Toward the end of his life the Irish poet William Butler Yeats walked through an art gallery in Dublin and looked at the portraits hanging on the wall. Some of them were of his friends, and he reminisced about them. Yeats was, by then, probably the greatest living poet in the English language, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State. And yet, as he, looking at pictures, came to the end of his thoughts, he said:

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.

So, on that first night of my own orientation, Wake Forest said to me, “Friendliness.” Wake Forest also said to me, “Honor.” That word invited me into a community of good will where people trusted one another and where other related words – “moral,” “ethical,” “spiritual” – were central to our education. For some modern academicians these words are fraught with peril – their fear is that in academe we might, if we talk about morality, go beyond the borders of rationalism and objectivity – but my own Wake Forest heritage obliges me to confront these words.

To that end I will go back to what is perhaps the greatest address ever delivered at Harvard University: by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837. It was called “The American Scholar” and it was Emerson’s challenge to each of his listeners to be what he called “Man Thinking.” (Note the words “Scholar” and “Thinking”) But even though Emerson’s theme was “Man Thinking,” he said, “Character is higher than intellect.” “Thinking” is only “a partial act.” “Let the grandeur of justice shine in [your] affairs. Let the beauty of affection cheer [your] lowly roof.” [Hear that word “affection” again!] “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

As I look at our nation, at our world, as they appear today, I see an increasingly urgent opportunity – and need – for men and women like Wake Forest students – who, to be sure, in Emerson’s word, “think” but also represent character, affection, justice, principle. I would say indeed that principles are more important to our students – and, of course, to us too – than high grades or intellect, as valuable as they are.

Almost every day, it seems – in newspapers or on television – we read about someone – an athlete, a writer, a professor, a banker, a businessman, a candidate for office, a governor, a Congressman, a minister, a priest – a person of presumed intellect – a person who thinks – who none the less – led by thoughtless passion, by selfishness, by greed – turns away from family, friends, and obligations and betrays a public trust. Almost every failure we hear about – almost every fall from grace – whether in Raleigh or in Washington or on Wall Street or even sometimes in our home towns – is a moral failure, not an intellectual failure. And these failures, unfortunately, are bipartisan and interfaith, and they ignore Emerson’s warning: “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

Obviously, the Wake Forest concept of “honor” was rooted in the Christian faith and, specifically, in that version of Christian faith that is called “Baptist.” But Wake Forest, even on the Old Campus, was not imprisoned by creed or doctrine, nor was the classroom used as a setting for persuasion toward belief. Religion was prevalent as an assumption but not a proclamation. Evidences of faith were all around us, but they were, so to speak, between the lines.

I took religion courses in the “teachings of Jesus” and the “teachings of Paul,” but my teacher, a distinguished ordained Baptist minister, taught the Gospels and the Epistles by using essentially the same method by which, in a government course, I was being taught the Federalist papers and, in an English course, I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. My philosophy professor, a man of renowned piety, taught me Nietzsche (“Haven’t you heard that God is dead”?), and in a class on the modern novel, my English teacher required us to read Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: books that, in the early 1940s, were not often included in a college’s English curriculum.

These three men I speak of – my religion professor, my philosophy professor, and my English professor – were all, typically, to be seen on Sunday morning, worshipping at the campus Baptist church. They saw – and I saw – no limit to the search for truth – what Harvard chose to call “Veritas” – even in the context of what were still unmistakably Baptist commitments. They showed that moral and ethical, even religious, commitments can be combined with the highest academic standards.

The story of Wake Forest since 1834 has parallels almost everywhere in private higher education in America. Until 1843 the motto of Harvard, then two centuries old, was “Christo et Ecclesiae”: “For Christ and the Church.” Only then was the motto changed to “Veritas”: “Truth.” Wake Forest’s motto of “Pro Humanitate” did not require such a radical change; it simply had to be reinterpreted. Originally, “Pro Humanitate” was meant to echo the words of Jesus to his disciplines: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” “And the disciples went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere.”

Today, “Pro Humanitate” is still Wake Forest’s much cherished motto, and the original interpretation is still being heard by some who wish to “proclaim” the good news of the Gospels, but it is no longer for most Wake Foresters an invitation to proclaim and to convert. Rather it tells us to be friends to all humanity with honor, to teach, to help, to serve. And nothing is more encouraging to me than to know students and alumni who hear the words “Pro Humanitate” and then, with friendship and honor, put those words into practice.

As we look to the future, I hope that we will remember “friendliness” and “honor” and “Pro Humanitate” as cornerstones of what I think of as the uniqueness of Wake Forest as a university. I do not like to talk about “peer institutions,” and may I say that for me national rankings of universities are invariably shallow and partial and not to be trusted. Wake Forest really has no “peers.” There is no other school quite like us. We stand alone. We are what we are. We do not exist in relation to other schools; we succeed or we fail only in so far as we are true to our commitments, to our own ambitions, to our own destiny, to friendship and honor. Let me illustrate what I mean.

In athletics we are fond of praising our uniqueness. No other school in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the eight public universities and the three other quite different private universities), we say, is quite like Wake Forest. And our athletic directors of the past century – Jim Weaver, Gene Hooks, and Ron Wellman – have built admirably successful programs not by imitating some other school or by following a generic model, but through creativity and with a recognition that there are certain principles beyond athletics that athletics, like every other division in the University, must adhere to.

I would hope that all our other programs could be uniquely Wake Forest in that same way. Let us, as we move toward our goal of being – in Wake Forest’s President Nathan Hatch’s words – “a collegiate university,” be not just one among many but, at heart, the same Wake Forest we have always been.

If I have any anxiety about Wake Forest’s future, it is that, because of the increasingly high cost of a Wake Forest education, we cannot enroll young men and women who want to come to Wake Forest, who have all the necessary credentials, who are of good character and purpose, but who do not have the money that is required. Many of us are fortunate, and I hope that Wake Forest will some day admit my grandchildren, but I also want to see in our student body the children either of parents who did not go to college or of parents whose resources are modest and severely limited. Such students would come to Wake Forest – without a background of privilege, without any sense of entitlement, without arrogance – they would, I think, come eager, hopeful, hungry, ready to broaden their horizons – like the young man from the rural environment of Anson County I spoke of earlier – and they would often become the kind of Wake Forest students whom we have always honored and cherished and taken delight in, and around whom the words “friendliness” and “honor” were first woven.

So, I think we should place “financial aid for students” at the very heart of our institutional endeavors. Only then, I think, will our future be what our past has destined it to be. Only then can we fully declare our embracing friendliness and our steadfast honor. Only then can “Pro Humanitate” – for all humanity – remain truly our motto.

Because I have talked at length about friendliness and honor and may seem to have ignored the academic purposes, which, after all, give substance to a university, I want to end with a tribute to learning itself. It comes from T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone,” a retelling of the legend of King Arthur. (You may have read it when you were a boy or a girl.) The wise old magician Merlin is giving his student, the once and future King Arthur, some farewell advice about how he should use his time.

“The best thing,” says Merlin, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling . . . you may lie awake at night . . . you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, [you may see] your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. . . . That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, . . . astronomy . . . , natural history . . ., literature, . . . biology and medicine and [religion] and geography and history and economics.” And Merlin continues. At the end of his discourse Merlin says to the young and future King Arthur, “Do you think you have learned anything?” To which Arthur replies, “I have learned and been happy.”

My hope for each graduate of the Wake Forest of our future is that he or she, if asked the question on Commencement Day, “Do you think you have learned anything?,” will be able to say “I truly love what Wake Forest stands for. I have made friends, I have conducted myself with honor, I have learned, and I have been happy.”