November 19, 2008

Rawlings Traces Intellect’s History in His ‘Last Lecture’

Print More

With many intellectually fruitful years ahead of him, Prof. Hunter R. Rawlings III, classics, acknowledged that the concept behind yesterday’s “Last Lecture” in Goldwin Smith may be a bit morbid. Nonetheless, the former University president managed to deliver a lifetime of lessons and knowledge, speaking to a packed auditorium in what was simulated to be a university intellectual’s final bow in the academic spotlight.
The Last Lecture series is put on by the Der Hexenrkries Chapter of the Mortar Board National Honor Society, formed in 1892. The Der Hexenrkries Chapter is the society’s founding chapter, and the University’s second oldest honor society. The Last Lecture Series is one of the Mortar Board’s hallmark events of the year.
“The Last Lecture event is a really great way for well-known scholars and administrative leaders on campus to convey to students the lessons they’ve learned and any advice they have for the future,” Ashley McGovern ’09, president of the Mortar Board, stated in an e-mail statement. “This is in keeping with our mission, which … is to serve the campus. It gives students unique insight into the wisdom of these university figures.”
The event began with an introduction by McGovern, who discussed Mortar Board’s legacy and history. Elle Erpenbeck ’09, chair of the Last Lecture series, introduced Rawlings as “one of Cornell’s immense thinkers.”
Foregoing a broad discussion of his goals and achievements, Rawlings opted for a more concise lecture topic.[img_assist|nid=33723|title=A final bow|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Today, I would just like to unburden myself of one subject, and this is close reading,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings discussed his frustration as an academic and avid reader, over the “quick reading” that is ubiquitous in today’s Internet-driven world. Rawlings emphasized the importance of close reading with three “case-studies.”
The first case study dated by to 1968, when Rawlings was a graduate student of philosophy at Princeton University. The archaic studies of Greece and Rome seemed of little relevance compared to the gravity of the Vietnam War, and the young Rawlings felt conflicted.
“I had a hard time seeing what my studies had to do what I was seeing every day around me,” Rawlings said.
The importance of his work was illuminated by a class on Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the most revered and abstruse writings in the canon of classicism. For Rawlings, the recondite epic was exactly what he needed to understand the context of the Vietnam War.
“I found the Vietnam War hard to cope with, and I found Thucydides hard to cope with,” said Rawlings. “This was good … To this day, I still read Thucydides, slowly and carefully, because he’s still telling me things.”
Rawlings’ second case study dealt with James Madison. Rawlings, a native of Virginia, referred to the diminutive fourth president of the United States as “my favorite Virginian.”
“James Madison was small, he was shy, he was a poor speaker. But, of all our presidents, he is our only real scholar,” said Rawlings.
Rawlings discussed Madison’s role in drafting George Washington’s first presidential inaugural address to Congress, and the subsequent first Congressional response to the presidential address, which Madison also drafted. In the nascent stages of the nation, the citizenry turned to men “who knew what they were doing,” and the academic Madison had the vision and the political acumen to be a great leader.
Rawlings read several lines from Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, a scathing criticism of state-supported religion, and noted that in Madison’s Ciceronian rhetoric were important details and powerful language.
Rawlings final case study discussed Abraham Lincoln, “the greatest of our presidents, and no doubt our greatest speaker.” Rawlings explained his admiration of Lincoln stems not only from his actions as President, but from his mastery of political rhetoric and appreciation of analyzing texts. Lincoln would often read certain seminal works numerous times over to glean as much wisdom as possible.
“Lincoln drew inspiration constantly from the Bible for everything he wrote and presented to the American people,” said Rawlings. “A masterful reader can take the rhythms and phrases from great texts, and turn them into powerful instruments for terrible situation.
The discussion of Lincoln parlayed into an emphasis on the importance of the New Student Reading Project, Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills. Lincoln’s concise, 270-word speech at Gettysburg held more brevity than speeches 10-times its length, and remains among America’s best-known political documents.
Finishing with several lines by poet Walt Whitman about the importance of reading, Rawlings was met with resounding applause and spoke with many audience members afterward.
“I just thought he’s an excellent speaker, his reflections were so profound,” Erpenbeck said. “Close reading is not something you’d expect to be a Last Lecture topic, but it worked out perfectly.”