When Dr. John Churchill accepted an appointment to the Hendrix College philosophy faculty in 1977, an eminent scholar congratulated him on the appointment and said he hoped that Churchill would discover the genius loci of the place and thrive
That remark inspired, in part, “The Sense of the Place: Toward Humanity Fulfilled, Hendrix and the Transformative Experience,” Churchill’s Pre-Inaugural Address in the Mills Center.
“That a place should have a genius loci is the idea that it can have a definitive character, something we might approximate with words like ethos or style; more substantive than tone or feel; less explicitly directive than mission,” Churchill said. “For convenience, today, I have settled on the phrase, “the sense of the place.”
Churchill is currently Secretary (or CEO) of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest honor society, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary. Before assuming his position at ΦBK, he served as Dean of the College at Hendrix from 1984 to 2001.
He began his search for a sense of Hendrix with an examination of the College motto, adapted from a phrase in Ephesians and generally translated as “toward human fulfillment” or “unto the whole person.”
“What these versions cast as fulfillment, perfection, completion, or wholeness is the idea that there is a fullness of being human out there as a goal to be sought after and worked toward: a lure available to the imagination but not imaginary, that draws our aspiration, and is thus very real in its effect on our striving,” Churchill said.
It’s crucial, he added, that the motto doesn’t define human fulfillment, but leaves defining, questioning, and redefining human fulfillment as a critical component of achieving the goal.
"The genius loci of Hendrix College — the sense of our place — puts such questions as these squarely, and inexpungeably, at the center of our self-understanding,” Churchill said.
Looking back to the writings of the College’s first two presidents — founder Isham Lafayette Burrow (1876–1887) and Alexander Copeland Millar (1887–1892) — Churchill noted that the push away from the liberal arts toward learning practical arts that lead directly to employment is not a new thought for the 21st century, or even the 20th.
In the introduction of the catalogue for the 1889–90 school year, A.C. Millar wrote: “That education which, ignoring culture, burdens the student’s mind with tables and technical terms simply because these may be of use to him in his business or profession, is not practical or beneficial, but injurious in the extreme. The education founded upon comparison of what is best in Science and Literature, giving development to mind and heart, building strong by building deep and broad, is truly practical.”
“Millar lays out here, 126 years ago,” Churchill said, “the very progression of thought that dominates the decision processes of so many of our own contemporaries.” ”
“He is staking his venture on the idea that the practical and the ideal can be united in a vision of what it is to be a whole human being,” Churchill continued. “It’s a vision of wholeness — a deeper, longer-term practicality — one we would do well to seek and advocate in our own age.”
“The immediately practical is all too prone to become the quickly outdated,” he said. “Real practicality lies not in mastering the techniques of the moment, but in acquiring the intellectual flexibility and agility to adapt, to continue learning, to be ready for an unpredictable future.”
Millar’s catalogue text is worthy of examination, Churchill said, because it captures “something very distinctive and enduring about the genius loci of this college, the sense of this place, a spirit of transformative intent that aims not at making people something they were not before, and certainly not at producing in every graduate a uniform output, but at transforming — no, enabling self-transformation of — people into themselves.”
Just as in Millar’s time, the debate continues today about the value of the liberal arts and the role of higher education in society. ”
“The question is whether it is the business of higher education to engage these further dimensions of our human being — the ones beyond getting us our first job,” Churchill said. “The answer at Hendrix, from the beginning, has been that it is. Hendrix has consistently held that those further dimensions, making up the wholeness of our humanity, is where our real work lies.”
After his address, President William M. Tsutsui and Terri Bonebright, Provost of the College, presented Dr. Churchill with a silver medallion struck with the Seal of the College in recognition of his service to Hendrix and to the liberal arts. He was also named Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy.
View the Pre-Inaugural Address photo album on Flickr.