From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2009

It’s always a challenge to figure out the best way to mark an important birthday—to come up with the perfect combination of mirth and meaning, celebration of a milestone and contemplation of the future. So it is with Goucher’s 125th anniversary, which happens to occur this year.

We are, of course, reminding ourselves of the great prescience of John Franklin Goucher and his colleagues, who used their own special occasion, the 100th anniversary of the organization of Methodism in America, to start a women’s college in Baltimore City. We will have birthday parties around the country throughout the academic year, culminating in a major blowout here on campus for Alumnae/i Weekend in the spring. And we plan a particular effort to persuade those who have graduated in the past 25 years (i.e., since the 100th anniversary year of 1985) to intensify and escalate their engagement with their alma mater; they are essential to the college’s future.

Inevitably, on an occasion like this, one is drawn to focus on the twin themes of continuity and change. Superfi cially at least, Goucher is quite different from what it was in those early days: The college no longer has a church affi liation, and it is a proudly coeducational institution—not to mention that we completed the move to our magnifi cent campus in Towson some 55 years ago. (One of my favorite conversations since becoming president was with an alum from the late 1930s who had never been back to visit. She called from her home in the Midwest one evening a few years ago to ask me how "the new campus" was working out. "So far, so good," I reported then. Now, with the Athenaeum up and running, I would be able to give her a very optimistic update.)

But let’s talk about continuity, achieved through a very important change in the curriculum: the study-abroad requirement. As I understand the history, one of the most important issues for the founders of the college was that the students gain a sense of their place in the larger world. Dr. Goucher himself would return from his legendary travels and enthrall his audiences with his written and spoken descriptions of what he had seen and the schools he had helped to start in Asia. It was an essential part of his vision for a liberal arts education.

A recent trip that my wife and I made to Andalucia, in southern Spain, helped underscore for me the point of how much there still is, and always will be, for all of us to learn out there in the larger world. I believe myself to be a reasonably well-educated person, but I am constantly discovering gaps in my knowledge. One thing I had never come to understand before was the extent to which Muslim and Jewish cultures had coexisted and fl ourished in that region of Spain for centuries, until persecuted and conquered by the Catholic Queen Isabella. A few days of visits to cathedrals, mosques, and museums, and some reading in place, helped revise my old schoolboy perception of Isabella and her husband, King Ferdinand, as benign rulers who should be known primarily as the heroes who dispatched Columbus on the voyage during which he would discover America. I can now understand them as people who, like so many others to follow, greatly damaged their own society in the long term by expelling or brutally suppressing everyone who was different from them. The vain dream of purifying their culture and trying to make sure everyone was the same actually caused Spanish political and military infl uence to decline precipitously—a history lesson that is chillingly relevant in various parts of the world today.

Indeed, one afternoon as we wandered the grounds of the Alhambra, the complex of Moorish palaces and gardens in Granada that Isabella had conquered at the end of the 15th century, I looked around at the remarkably diverse crowd of visitors from all over Europe and many other parts of the world. In perhaps 20 different languages, they were commenting on what they saw and, as far as I could tell, talking about their own personal lives and world issues. Suddenly I flashed back to the somewhat controversial visit to Goucher’s campus a month earlier by Karl Rove, the Republican political strategist, and remembered one of the most troubling things he had said in answer to a student’s question: (I paraphrase) "There is no Indian dream or Chinese dream or other dream. There is just the American Dream, and that is what people all around the world aspire to."

Now, I obviously did not poll them on the spot, but I feel rather certain that this diverse group of travelers—while perhaps influenced in some manner by American popular culture and even curious about, if not inspired by, the election of Barack Obama— really did not dream, publicly or privately, of being just like us. It was another one of those "aha" moments for me: how absurd it was for Mr. Rove to make such an assertion, for anyone to believe that the United States ever has been, or could possibly be now, the center of the universe.

It could be argued, I suppose, that one need not travel to the Alhambra to arrive at such a simple and obvious conclusion. But by sending our ever curious and thoughtful students out across the world on a required mission to learn something about other cultures, their history and language, and their way of solving common problems, we are helping them deal with the mixed legacy of American exceptionalism. It doesn’t matter their fi elds of study or their career aspirations. We are giving them a unique advantage and a start down the road toward the kind of genuine global consciousness and citizenship imagined by a bunch of wise innovators in Baltimore 125 years ago.

So Happy Birthday, Goucher. There truly is much to celebrate.