Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Look at the world around you

In a Feb. 27 Hatchet editorial essay, Adam Connor wrote about a personal catastrophe that probably sent chills right into the very bones of most students at GW. His iPod died (“iSolated: iPods and an alternate reality,” p. 4). Worse, his old iPod also died. For 10 long days, Adam had to walk the streets of Foggy Bottom with nothing to listen to. He discovered during that time, however, how isolating listening to an iPod could be. The result was that he began paying more attention to his surroundings. His conclusion is worth quoting – and taking to heart.

“When I was finally reunited with my repaired iPod, my joy was tempered by the experience of 10 days without it. Now I sometimes leave one of my headphones off, to keep one foot in the world that isn’t controlled by the click wheel, and remind myself of the world outside my white earplugs.”

Adam teaches a good lesson. You have to keep one foot – and, I recommend, a good part of your eyesight and your brain – in the “world outside.” Especially when you’re on campus.

I say this because the last several semesters at GW have produced some remarkable achievements, and I hope you are aware of them. We just opened the new business school, which combines the rehabbed Funger Hall and the brand new Duqu?s Hall. This coming fall, we’ll open a new residence hall to be called Potomac House. We’ve already been using, and enjoying, the School of Media and Public Affairs Building, the Elliott School’s new home, the refurbished and infinitely more attractive Marvin Center, the Lerner building housing the Health and Wellness Center and improvements in the Law School.

We are anticipating the development of Square 54, the site of the old hospital, and a new facility for science and engineering. In addition to bricks and mortar, we have many other things to be grateful for and even to be proud of. Let me just give two examples: the success of the men’s and women’s basketball teams this year.

Now there is a tension, I know, between what we spend for today and what we spend for tomorrow. This was brought to mind by David Ward, the head of the American Council on Education. He recently said this: “We benefit today from investments made years ago. It is our turn to invest on behalf of future generations.”

Certainly, we must acknowledge our debt to the industry of past students, faculties, administrators and trustees. At the same time, current students, faculty, administrators and trustees are stewards for GW’s future. It was Hugh Downs, I believe, who said some years ago that it is impossible to “pay back” to previous generations for what they did for us. So it is a good thing to “pay forward,” to leave something good for generations not yet born, to the future George Washington University. But how about paying today? Not forward or backward, but right down on the barrelhead?

And in what measure? That is the most difficult thing to calculate. The buildings in which we have invested so much are not exclusively tokens for the future: they are functioning facilities today. If you have been too isolated by your iPod or simply preoccupied with your own thoughts, I encourage you to visit Duqu?s Hall or the Elliott School. I think it will strike you immediately that they are not merely handsome buildings – though there is no denying that they are – but also that they are the genies of better instruction.

So, while these buildings may last many years, they are serving us today. Were they not, were we investing inadequately in today’s needs and necessities, we would fail to preserve and enhance what we have inherited as an institution from the past. Or to put it differently, though we may always have our eye on our future – or our posterity or legacy, if you prefer – we must never overplay our anticipations for the next generations at GW by being too modest in what we do to promote our present day agenda.

This, I hasten to assure you, is not always easy. Different constituencies on campus, and off for that matter, have different desires. There is always some guesswork involved or sometimes, with luck, an intuitive masterstroke by someone who sees the right opportunity at the right moment and convinces all of us of its truth. And that’s why I want everyone on campus, especially students, to keep an eye on the “world outside” and let me – and let the whole world – know how we can honor our past, enhance our present and guard our future.

-The writer is the president of the University. He wrote this column before announcing his retirement effective July 2007.

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