Visiting HIST 197 again

I sat in this morning on Prof. Michael Milligan’s HIST 197 “History of Penn State” course. Like I did this time last year, I wanted to get a sense for the sort of Penn Staters attracted to the course. This fall the course it taking place in 225 Electrical Engineering West, which sits between Willard Building (where it was last fall) and the Hintz Family Alumni Center. It’s held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:35-11:50am.

It was more than five years ago that I remember speaking with a number of alumni from different generations in a short space of time who all had a similar vision for a Penn State course on Penn State history. It would be a way for students of any major to learn about Penn State itself, from its earliest moments through its most difficult periods to the present. Prof. Milligan ultimately made this happen through his development of the semester-long curriculum.

Today’s lesson brought students through some of Evan Pugh’s early writings on the nascent Penn State and the vision for something more than merely another agricultural college, the generation-long struggle through much of the remainder of the 19th century as the institution was led by superintendent-style presidents, and ended just on the cusp of President Atherton’s emergence on the scene.

Learning through encounter

Basil Chad Chisholm writes that when college disappoints, it’s worth starting a fraternal club that intentionally expands your world/mental range:

In the Classical Age of learning in ancient Greece, Plato argued that true education not only conveyed to us a right knowledge but also taught us to desire those things that are right and good. By the standard of the ancients, the current state of higher education is unquestionably prostrate and lamentable.

Fixing all this will take time: perhaps a generation of activism and argument. But for now the question is: what can you do to supplement what’s lacking in your education?

Much of education has to be what students make of it; in fact, it has always been so. But how can students take charge of their educations? I believe one answer can be gleamed from our past.

Much of the history of higher education is built around groups and clubs that sometimes were only tangentially related to the lecture hall. …

At Oxford University in 1929, a new faculty member named J.R.R. Tolkien started a club he called Kolbitar (meaning “Coal-Bitters” in Old Norse) that was dedicated to the Old Scandinavian languages. While Tolkien believed that the study of Old Norse and Icelandic had an intrinsic value, Tolkien possessed an understanding of what the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein later said about how the “limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Tolkien wanted his Kolbitar club to help those who enjoyed the Norse legends to experience these sagas in their original tongue; as members became more fluent in the old languages, Tolkien believed that they would experience the world of Odin and Sigurd as if they were native to the ashen tree of the Norsemen.

In 1931, Tolkien and one of his fellow Kolbitars—another faculty member named C.S. Lewis—were invited by Oxford student Edward Tangye Lean to join his new club called The Inklings. Members of the group would read aloud their own creative manuscripts at gatherings and receive feedback. Lean graduated after 1933, but The Inklings became Tolkien’s and Lewis’s creative hub for their professor colleagues, former students, and local friends. The group functioned as a crucible for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia novels that we read today, but as Alan Jacobs reminds us, the members of The Inklings were much more to each other than a writing workshop:

“They provided an enthusiastic, but constructively critical, audience for all sorts of stories and arguments; they formed a society in which formerly lonely and isolated men discovered that it was not necessarily so crazy to believe in God and miracles or to write stories about Elves and Dwarfs and creatures called ‘hobbits.'”

While few campuses can boast of a Tolkien or Lewis, this world of thriving student organizations was once the terra firma of higher education.

You have the power to seize your own college experience and make it what you want it to be. This might seem like something out of Dead Poets Society (conjuring images of Robin Williams standing on his desk, etc.), but the history of higher education is built around groups, both formal and informal, and their history dots the landscapes of our institutions: our past can be the future.

In his poem “Jerusalem,” William Blake proclaimed that a sword should not sleep in our hands. If dynamic learning is what you truly desire, then create autonomous groups rather wait on classrooms or campus bureaucracies. Such a solution is quite conservative, since it draws its inspiration from the past; however, it is likewise radical since the entire machinery of higher education is aligned in an antithetical direction.

Such a “once and future” model of the university could be appealing to those [feeling] helpless to do anything. Offer your fellow undergrads places where—in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson—their creativity and metacognitive awareness can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars.”

“Learning through encounter” is the simplest way I can think of to describe this fuller sense of higher education.

It’s basically the idea that spurred us to create the Nittany Valley Society a few years ago, though we’ve struggled somewhat to figure out how best to make the sort of encounters, reading clubs, vibrant discussions, etc. described here a reality in a consistent way. It seems likely that the sort of consistency we thought we could create initially through a nonprofit and through annual programming can’t really be imposed in a place that’s natural, organic, and focused on learning through encounter with one another, and that the variance from year to year is a natural thing as people come and go.

Chris Buchignani’s ‘State of State’ talk

Ever wondered why Happy Valley has its name? Why the spirit of Penn Staters is so ubiquitous and recognizable? How a relatively isolated part of Pennsylvania became home to one of the nation’s great universities? Chris Buchignani delivered a talk at Penn State at last month’s “State of State” conference that answers these questions and more.

My favorite part of Chris’s deck was this slide, portraying the typical student’s sense of “Happy Valley” unless/until they become aquainted with the larger region by forming a relationship with someone who cares about them, their experience of place, and their future.

This would be a great poster.

Advent ales

Chris Buchignani is highlighting this particular column for December, and incidentally the book from which it’s excerpted makes a great Christmas gift. Check out The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Nowadays, it seems, excitement is experienced as something that is thrilling because it is new, unknown, risky, sexy and dangerous. Today’s young people seem to look for excitement at the edge of life.

But the ancient excitement of Christmas was something quite different. Christmas wasn’t something which happened at the edge of life, but something that happened at the heart of life. It wasn’t a search for something new and dangerous. On the contrary, Christmas was as predictable as clockwork, and as familiar as one’s most favorite feeling. Each year Christmas came on exactly the same day, and everyone tried very hard to do the same things in the same way they had done them in the past.

To today’s young people that might sound boring. And yet … and yet … in those days it had seemed so very exciting. To me, Christmas had always seemed like a challenge without equal. It was an adventure in time. Every year people tried to see if they could rekindle and pass down the same feeling that had been felt on that first Christmas morn.

They all knew and believed with childlike simplicity that something wonderful had happened on that hallowed night almost 2,000 years ago. They believed that hearts had been opened and changed in a way that had never happened before. They naively believed through all the years since then that the original joy had been rekindled again and again each and every year at Christmas, just as it had been experienced on that first blessed eve.

Oh, the excitement of it all! Each year they wondered: Could it happen again? Would it? Could the magic still work? The anticipation grew to the highest levels of expectation and awe: If they did all the same things, heard the same stories, ate the same foods, drank the same drinks, rejoined in the same ways, would they again feel the excitement of their own first Christmas when they were children? Did they still have it in them to unlock all that joy one more time?

The wonder of it! Could their joy be great enough to renew again for one more year the tremendous joy of that first blessed eve in the year One, when the time of our time began? And so, on the 4th day after the winter solstice, when they were absolutely sure that the sun had begun to rise again in the heavens, they celebrated Christmas.

In ancient days everyone had worked so hard to make it happen again each year. They bought presents which they believed would bring out each person’s most childlike joy. They baked Christmas cakes and cookies, worked for weeks to prepare festive decorations for every room and window, searched out old recipes for Christmas goose or turkey stuffing, hung mistletoe in their hallways, hauled in the Yule logs, and brushed up on the ancient Christmas stories and carols to tell over again to their children and themselves. Old fights were ended, debts forgiven and friendships renewed in this season.

One of the smallest and least significant contributions to the annual challenge to rekindle the ancient joy was made by the brewers of Europe and early America. In those days everyone felt the obligation to contribute whatever they could to the annual renewal of the community’s joy. Each year the brewers made their small contribution by brewing special Christmas ales and holiday beers for the season.

The ancient tradition is undergoing a rebirth in America…

Ben Novak wrote this in 1984. A lot has changed, but hopefully you’ll drink in the spirit of Christmas as meaningfully this season as so many of us have breathed in the magic of the Nittany valley.

Conserving the timeless and fleeting

I wrote the other day about Pierre Ryckmans, and want to share another aspect of his New York Review of Books feature that struck me. It deals with concepts I’ve been working through as part of The Nittany Valley Society, and larger concepts relating to locality, sense of place, and cultural memory:

In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.

I think a worthy challenge lies in attempting to live out a reconciliation between Eastern and Western tradition—in embracing the worth and place of tradition and real tributes and monuments and markers as “timeless” symbols in the same way the written word might, while also embracing their fleeting nature.

What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death? We have to be moving toward something, with some metaphysical basis for virtue, to understand that the sweetness of our tributes and memorials isn’t really sweet at all if those things don’t lead to a stirring in our souls, and a visibility in our own lives.

If “the word remains” but the heart has lost its capacity for feeling, then words become worthless. We have to be moved, transported, utterly awed by history for it to matter.

The Willow Gathering

The Nittany Valley Society is hosting The Willow Gathering tonight in State College. The Willow Gathering is a celebration of Penn State, the Nittany Valley, and their people. By bring people together for a special night, it’s a tangible way we put our mission into practice to “foster a spirit of community across time.”

This is The Willow Gathering’s fifth year. It’s the first time we’re syncing it up with Homecoming, which is when it will probably be celebrated from now on.

img_0896The Willow Gathering’s name refers to two aspects of the Nittany Valley’s history. First, it’s named in honor of Old Willow, Penn State’s oldest tradition. Old Willow was planted in the late 1850s during Evan Pugh’s presidency as a symbol of the hope of the founders that the institution would “take root” and flourish in the years to come. This sort of thing was common then, but today is almost unknown. Old Willow lived into the 1920s, when a second generation cutting was planted, which lasted until the 1970s. A third generation descendant was planted, but never took root physically or culturally, and the tree vanished from the cultural consciousness of much of the community until recently. Thankfully the fourth-generation Old Willow is now recognized on the Old Main lawn.

You can learn more of the history of Old Willow in Ben Novak’s book Is Penn State a Real University?. The photo of Old Willow below is from a 1923 Penn State Alumni News profile, which can be found in the Hintz Family Alumni Center on campus:

Old Willow on the Lawn.jpg

The second motivation for The Willow Gathering’s name relates to the hope that, in the same way Old Willow’s roots physically took root in the soil of this place, perhaps new students, professors, trustees, alumni, and friends can become more firmly rooted in the cultural landscape of the community we share by coming together in fellowship.

In other words, we intentionally created The Willow Gathering as a means to defeat the “information silo” effect that can especially plague university communities, where specific constituencies self-segregate with the effect of cultural corrosion that can seriously weaken communities. In years past, I’ve met students and businesspeople, trustees and alumni, and others. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them, and strengthened some relationships.

Roger Williams, retired Executive Director of the Penn State Alumni Association, delivered one of our past keynotes on “Evan Pugh and George Atherton: Penn State’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” Roger’s keynote was my favorite so far.

Old Willow.jpg

Tonight Paul Clifford (Roger’s successor) will be keynoting at The Atherton Hotel with an expected attendance of 50 guests—we intentionally keep this small so that guests have a chance to meaningfully connect with one another. There will be open bar with craft beer availability, tying in with our book The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution, and specific time set aside for fellowship among friends old and new.

I hope more students and alumni consciously develop local relationships and reasons to return to the Nittany Valley—even beyond our legendary football tradition.

Campus as it once was

Penn State’s Historic Campus Modeling Project, which “aims to enhance Penn Staters’ sense of place and University history,” looks promising:

“University Libraries provided us with digitized fire insurance maps from 1922 as well as a large collection of historic building images,” Klippel said. “So we’ve been using these resources to model buildings that, to some extent, don’t exist anymore.”

A few notable historic buildings the team has modeled include the former Women’s Building (which stood close to the location of Burrowes Building), the original Old Main building and a former version of Old Botany Building complete with an attached greenhouse.

“It’s just amazing how drastically campus has changed over the last 100 years,” Klippel said. “With this virtual reality technology, people can go back in time and experience campus as it once was.” …

Although the project is still undergoing preparations for broader use, the team hopes that in the near future it can be used to educate users on campus’ past while providing context to its present and future.

There’s a historical perspective that to understand the present you have to first understand the past, but it can be really hard to imagine it,” said Mark Simpson, a geography doctoral candidate working on the project. “So being able to see what was here before in virtual reality is really helpful.

For Klippel, one of the greatest benefits of virtual reality is its ability to illustrate these environmental changes beyond the constraints of human imagination.

“I think our imagination is limited when it comes to trying to visualize things that are no longer there,” Klippel said. “So while imagining how campus looked without the Millennium Science Complex is almost impossible nowadays, virtual reality is a way to bring these past environments back to life.”

We created The Nittany Valley Society to foster a spirit of community across time, and we created Nittany Valley Press to make more of our history and heritage accessible to regular people. Learning about initiatives like this historic campus modeling project is validation for what we believe: that special places need to continually fire the imagination of its newest people through encounter with its past.

If there’s “something in the water” at special places like Penn State, and distinctive regions like the Nittany Valley, there’s a key lesson that’s often overlooked: you need to actually drink the water.

History changes

After watching Bruce Schneier’s talk a particular comment of his has stayed with me. Schneier emphasizes that we’re “bad at predicting our social future.”

Amidst the constants of life, death, taxes, etc. our social and cultural environment is always changing in unexpected ways. This is true of the Nittany Valley, though I think it tends to be difficult for Penn Staters and residents to acknowledge this. The pace of life in the Nittany Valley is so cyclical (so familiar from year to year) that it can seem like nothing changes. Yet the character of community certainly does change.

What does this unpredictable change mean? It means we’ve got to keep telling our story—we’ve got to keep articulating who we are and what we believe and convey how we understand our lives in the context of the history of our community.

Our story will change in the telling just as stories did in the old oral traditions. It’ll change based upon our biases and our prejudices and our hopes for the future that impact how we speak about ourselves and the things we love. Yet with every telling of our story what we’ll really be trying to do is convey the best aspects of our legacy to those who’ll carry forward our names in the future.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany and helped create Nittany Valley Press. We can’t let our history seem so obvious and permanent that its specifics and nuances dissipate over time. If we don’t treat our history and place a living thing, the words and ideas that we ascribe to the place just like dry sentiments.

A continual recovery and conveyance of our history is an essential aspect of a real community, which is what we’ve got in the Nittany Valley if we can keep it.

Little renaissances

Are you watching Stranger Things this summer? I did. I loved it, and I love Gracy Olmstead’s reflections on why so many have.

Among other things, Stranger Things “reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything.”

Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end. …

“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes [Josef] Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.”

This is the thing about tradition, so often maligned as the milieu of the dead or the playpen of the romantics. Properly encountered, tradition isn’t a means of robotically re-enacting the past, but rather it’s a means of entering into a way of being, or a way of experiencing, the world in communion with the past, but with a character and tone wholly distinct and particular to the time.

Every little renaissance is an echo of the past as much as it is an echo of the future.

A tribute to my grandfather

John Shakely, my grandfather, died in December 2001 after a multi-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I was barely a teenager at the time of his death, but his life, his adventurousness, his western Pennsylvania humility, and his presence haven’t ever really left me even if my experiences with him were only a child’s experiences. He’s one of those figures in your life that grows larger with time and distance, rather than smaller.

A connection we share is Penn State and Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, where he went after serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps. When I first found out that Michael Pilato’s Inspiration Mural was raising money for conservation a few years ago, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my grandfather there. The Nittany Valley Heritage Walk is creating a beautiful brick pathway surrounding the landmark mural, and I’m thrilled to be able to leave a little sign of my grandfather, of Pop, in a place where he spent time.


I saw my grandfather’s paver stone in person for the first time in December 2013 when I visited for The Nittany Valley Society’s Willow Gathering. We cremated my grandfather, and until recently there was no grave or site to visit. Because of this, this marker has been all the more meaningful to me. His marker is one of the set of five in the foreground of the above photo, roughly front and center.

He majored in Geology at Penn State and worked for many years as a geologist in the Middle East and elsewhere. Eventually he came home, earned his master’s degree, and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to raise a family. He taught high school history at Central Bucks West for nearly three decades.

I hope this marker can become something special far into the future for new generations of our family to make an increasingly distant ancestor feel a bit closer to reality.


A member of Penn State’s Class of 1950, he graduated the same year Joe Paterno arrived in State College. In this respect, it’s appropriate that his marker has ended up directly in front of Joe Paterno’s mural visage.

While I’m reminiscing about him (as I did somewhat in Conserving Mount Nittany), two other things:

In a very direct way, I’m thinking I might owe Penn State my life. When Pop joined Sigma Phi Alpha he cemented a friendship with fraternity brothers. Three of these brothers were heading from State College to Philadelphia one night for a group blind date with sorority sisters at the University of Pennsylvania. Pop ended up coming along because they needed a ride, and he had a car. He met the woman who would become my grandmother that night.

And finally: another fraternity brother named Paul Linvilla (who would later take over Linvilla Orchards in Delaware County) became his first mate when Pop bought Skoal, his 30 foot Tahiti ketch sailboat. They sailed from Miami across the Pacific and chronicled some of their journey in a surprisingly vivid way for two young 1950s adventurers.

These are some of the memories of both personal experience and history that come to mind when thinking of my grandfather, and now each time I return to the Nittany Valley and see his marker.