Summer 2009: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

Journey to Emory, Journey to Mars

By James W. Wagner

We humans seem to have a need for liberating our spirits by liberating our feet—for trekking because we believe that experiencing a journey and a different place will lead us to a kind of inner transformation. It’s not just any journey or place that will foster this transformation, however. It’s not tourism; it’s pilgrimage.

For many of us who set out on pilgrimage, this inner need plays out through a determination to connect in a physical way with the spiritual landscape of others. People stand at the site where Pickett’s Charge began at Gettysburg, not simply to view the landscape but to imagine what thousands of men must have felt like as they faced each other across a mile of fields on July 3, 1863. Christians, Jews, and Muslims travel to Jerusalem not merely to visit particular sites but to try to experience how stony streets and bare hills helped shape a distinctive sense of the Holy among the city’s ancient peoples. Devotees of Shakespeare journey to his tomb not to touch a piece of marble but to stand as close as possible to the mortal remains of someone they would love to have had a dinner conversation with. Behind the urge to pilgrimage lies a deep, irrational need for an understanding of history, emotion, and transcendence beyond our ordinary experience.

This need is not always about the past, but it is about significance and meaning. Consider a “pilgrimage” to Mars, which would be a significant and meaningful undertaking indeed. Most scientists agree that there is no earthly reason, so to speak, to send a human passenger in a spacecraft to the red planet. Robots could do everything that an astronaut could do there—gather soil samples, test the atmosphere, take photographs—and do it just as well or better. What a robot could not tell us, however, is what it must mean to walk on another planet and know oneself to be almost impossibly cut off from some of the most basic experiences of being human—a vision of blue sky, a feeling of wind on the face, earth under the feet. No robot could feel the poignancy of being human in a place devoid of all signs of human passing or human possibility. Only a pilgrim would understand the significance.

Human beings long to go on pilgrimage for the sake of an outward experience that renders, in the old formula of the sacraments, “an inward grace.” We sense that taking ourselves off to a place beyond our ordinary, everyday realm of experience is the prerequisite to deep transformation of our tired or undereducated or parochial selves whom we wish to be no longer. For that reason, going to college will always be an important pilgrimage for some men and women, whether it be leaving home for a university across the country or driving across town for evening classes.

One reason why great universities appeal to prospective students is that they are not only home to superior scholars but also appropriate destinations for pilgrims of the mind: here, in Magdalen College, at the University of Oxford, C. S. Lewis had his rooms and wrote The Chronicles of Narnia; here, in the Cavendish Laboratory, at the University of Cambridge, Watson and Crick, with the help of Rosalind Franklin’s data, mapped the structure of the DNA molecule; here, in the First Parish Church near Harvard Yard, Emerson delivered his era-shaping Phi Beta Kappa oration, “The American Scholar.” Here, in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, readers can hold the letters of Yeats, the manuscripts of Alice Walker. In breathing the atmosphere of these sites, fitting our spirits temporarily to their architecture and landscape, we perhaps imagine that we participate in some small way in the greatness of heart of those who left their shimmering legacy there.

This enlargement of the self, which is also a transformation of one’s understanding, is the principal mission of a university like Emory. At the core of all the research, teaching, service, scholarship, and social action in which Emory people engage daily burns a bright conviction that these are the paths to growth, change, and improvement, to participation in the maturing of humanity—both our personal humanity and humanity in general.

Something innate in the human psyche spurs us to pilgrimage. As long as universities are worthy places for such pilgrimage, they will satisfy that drive, will be necessary, and will flourish.

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