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Schwartz to receive Thomas Jefferson Award at Charter Day


When Joel Schwartz, director of the Charles Center, steps up to the Charter Day microphones on Feb. 11 to accept the College's Thomas Jefferson Award for career contributions to William and Mary, he will have three minutes to speak. Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine will be there; William and Mary President Gene Nichol will be sharing the platform; colleagues with whom he has labored for two and a half decades will be pressing closer; students will be clustered en masse. Three minutes: It will be, Schwartz knows, barely enough time to acknowledge, much less to thank, them all.

Pondering the dilemma, Schwartz plans a tack: "I was an undergraduate and a graduate student at great state universities," he said. "I've taught now for 25 years at a great state university. We now have a president who is trying to explore what the significance of that is after we spent so many years talking about what amounts to privatization—the whole charter thing and turning toward private fundraising. We have a new governor who is a big supporter of higher education. It will be a good time to reflect on the mission and the obligations of what a state university is."

No doubt, many audience members will listen intently. They know that Schwartz, in the manner of Thomas Jefferson, has steadfastly advanced public concepts such as freedom of inquiry, freedom of expression and freedom for all to pursue them. As he has done so, they know, many times he has gone directly to bat for them. Yet, as they listen, no doubt what they will hear will be Schwartz deflecting credit for his contributions back to his colleagues.

"I cannot take much credit for the things I've done here because they're all part of what the culture at William and Mary has accomplished," he explained. "I am much more comfortable with thanking the institution for the opportunity it has given me."

As the director of the College's Charles Center, Schwartz thinks about the three-minute window allotted his speech from a seat at his desk in the back corner of the basement in Tucker Hall. Around him students share plans for study-abroad or international-service adventures. Approaching him, faculty members speculate on research proposals or on the latest reading-group selection. Out in the "lobby," discussions range from the recent victory of Hamas in West Bank elections to the prospects for additional College Fulbrights and what to do with a cat while its student owner is spending a semester overseas.

Indeed, in his basement, Schwartz is at the center of many things. The banter reflects the programs he leads, including the College's university teaching project, its Monroe scholars, its new-faculty orientation, its grant-writing workshops, its interdisciplinary studies and its freshman seminars. Although such a list could reduce some professors and administrators to babbling about what specifically they do, Schwartz is not daunted. He describes himself easily: He is a catalyst, a teacher and a mentor who tries to keep the teaching and research responsibilities of the College in balance.

"I am a catalyst," he said. "What a good teacher does is kind of catalyze thinking and productivity in students. Teaching is not something in which you have a student sit at your feet while you dispense wisdom down to them and they soak it into their heads. You try to help them become original, creative people."

Continuing that thought, Schwartz introduced the term "mentor." He explained how Mentor, in "The Iliad," was responsible for helping Odysseus' son gain the self-confidence to assume the responsibilities of manhood during the long absence of his father.

"It was Athena, the goddess, who came to [the son] in the form of Mentor," he said. "She could have come to him as Athena and said, ‘Look, I'm a goddess. Do this, do this and do this; this is the way to handle things.' That would have been self-defeating. She came as a mentor, a mortal. That's the model of what a good mentor is: someone who is respected, can facilitate, can catalyze. The measure of a mentor's success is the independence of the student, not the continuing dependence."

Schwartz clinches his point by focusing on the College's freshman seminars. The seminars, mandatory at William and Mary for the past 10 years, invert the typical pyramid in which students at many universities have the luxury of very small classes only during their junior and senior years, he said. Currently 100 seminars are offered each year at the College. The fact that each is taught by a faculty member—as opposed to by a graduate assistant—not only institutionalizes the commitment to quality teaching among faculty but it helps young students come to terms with educational skills that might not be developed in a larger, lecture-style classroom.

"If you value your students taking an active role in their education, using their heads, learning how to listen, argue and disagree," he said, "the seminars break up that pyramid. Students learn these things and they gain self-confidence."

The result is that they are prepared to be lifelong learners who are able to independenly follow up on ideas of interest regardless of their academic discipline. "The old-fashioned word for that is intellectuals," Schwartz said. "It means their interest in ideas goes beyond just getting a grade in a class."

If Schwartz does address the topic of what it means for William and Mary to be great and public during his three minutes at Charter Day, his comments might focus precisely on the value of that quintessential William and Mary product—what he calls, in old-school terms, the intellectual.

"Certainly there are some definitions of the public role of the university that do not seem compatible with a great liberal-arts university such as William and Mary," he said. "Land-grant schools have a public agenda. It may be training engineers, or training teachers. If you're only going to have land-grant functions, you're probably not going to have a Latin department, or music or many other things. That liberal-arts model, featuring a diversity of the curriculum, has proved its ability to liberate students to think for themselves."

As to the benefit such flexible, self-confident, perenially curious, internationally exposed and intellectually competent graduates bring to the commonwealth, Schwartz did not elaborate. Whether on the Charter Day platform or in the basement of Tucker Hall, the answer is self-evident. It goes without saying.