The little college of Hampden-Sydney lies in the rolling farmland of Southside Virginia, about 60 miles southwest of Richmond, and believes itself to be in the business of education. It is really in the business of being an idyll -- small, civilized, serene, a proof that civilienzation need not be vaguely unpleasant.
When I studied there a decade ago, there was only one street, which dead-ended in the woods by a pond. A swan lived there. The entire college consisted of 650 students, the size of a freshman calculus class at a large university, and lay in second-growth forest. Behing the faculty homes, which lined the only street, called the Via Sacra, there was only woods, rich in squirrels. The importance of squirrels to the cultivated life is underestimated. In fall they furiously throw acorns onto roofs, making a clatter conducive to study. Otherwise, it was blessedly quiet. If the city fathers of Arlington knew of Hampden-Sydney, they would try to suppress it as revolutionary in tendency.
The people, too, were heretical. The older faculty members were brilliant, dignified men who led lives of books and Protestant elegance -- dressed for dinner, went to church and regarded sociology as a vice. Their homes were much as I imagine an Oxford don's rooms, characterized by leather-bound books, good tobacco, better conversation and a faint mustiness that wasn't physical. They were intellectually conservative, politically careful and believed in preserving the best thought from the past. In studies that felt old and familiar, they read Ovid, Xenophon, Kipling, Emerson, Marcus Aurelius, the Synoptics. I don't think they read "I'm O.K., You're O.K."
In a sense, they owned only a conditional allegiance to the 20th century. They knew the genuine thinkers of the age, by which they meant Tillich instead of Carlos Castaneda, but they knew the giants of so many other times.
It gave them a span of mind that is rare today. Considerable truth resides in the cliche of Santayana -- believed by today's young to be a rock band -- about the dangers of historical amnesia. Products of the current social-science schooling seem to spend their time certifying the obvious and discovering the known, driven frantic by the notion that their problems are new and special. They suffer from a sort of temporal provincialism.
At Hampden-Sydney, one occasionally encountered a theologian of formidable intellect who thought sin was Sin, not a socially mediated deviation from the conditioned norms of a transitional post-industrial society. More accurately, they believed that ethics is in some respects absolute, that some things are at all times bad. Today only tent revivalists are thought to beleive in Sin. Of the prevailing fatuities, the most cherished is that misbehavior is the fault of society -- that is, of everybody except the one who commits it.
A consequence of a firm approach to ethics is an emphasis on a citizen's duties to society, instead of the other way around. A student's duty was to refrain from cheating and stealing. Those who transgressed were expelled. I suppose that dismissal would now be construed as a violation of the student's rights. The school stodgily thought that theft violated the victim's right to keep his possessions.
Responsibility had its rewards. A fellow could leave his books anywhere in the college and expect to find them on his return. Dormitory rooms didn't have locks and didn't need them. No one stood guard at the library dood to prevent theft. Nobody stole books. n
From the general honesty issues a trust that altered the tenor of life. Theft is a builder of walls more than a crime against property. It leads to mistrust, convex mirrors in supermarkets, dead-bolts, pervasive suspicion and social division. To this day I resent being eyed in mirrors by watchful store clerks, although I know they have reason.
In autumn a student could sit on wooden steps, beside an oak a yard thick and look through the branches at stars. Today some children probably haven't seen stars. In winter the snow came, and there was silence. On rare wonderful occasions sleet sealed the trees in an inch of glistening ice, following the contours of each berry and branch, until the forest rang with the crack of burdened branches giving way. Then a fellow could curl up in front of a rippled glass window, listen to the woods and read the Anabasis. It was an affront to the entire 20th century.