The Call Numbers of Wisdom

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

In a time that sadly notes the general erosion of trust in expertise, a vague cynicism about the meaning of data, and a shrinking confidence in the authority of facts, we risk the perverse virtue of not only being intellectually undisciplined, but also being proud of it.

970 and 790. A pair of numbers I will always remember from my childhood, different from the unforgotten local telephone exchange or family home address. I admit that I more easily remember these numbers for the convenient flexibility of transposing them, but also as a secret cipher of my reading habits and preferences from an early time of enjoying books. Those numbers were the first coordinates organizing my intellectual journey.

The Takoma Library, a branch of the Washington, D.C. Public Library, was near our home. It was built in 1911 because of Andrew Carnegie’s extraordinary vision that placed 3,000 libraries in American, Canadian, and British communities (he also funded science buildings and labs at 50 American small colleges, St. Lawrence among them). I often visited after school, as it was near my mother’s workplace, which gave her a dependable checkpoint. It inhabited the southwest corner of Fifth and Cedar, across the street from the family doctor, the same man who brought me into the world. 

By the time I started visiting the public library by myself, a handsome brick Renaissance-revival building with tall Palladian windows under a four-sided slate roof, three generations of my family had entered its front doors to borrow books. Already open for a half century when it was my turn, the many years of burning logs in the reading room’s fireplace gave the interior atmosphere an irresistible flavor of cooling bacon—uncirculated earthy air defined by old leather furniture, cloth book bindings, and the accents of sweet smoke.

As many still do, the library used the Dewey decimal system of classification to organize its diverse collection of books. Except for specific school purposes requiring the card catalog, I preferred the rambler’s adventure, hoping there were no other browsers in the stacks classified by the 970s or the 790s. The first “address” held the shelves of North American history and biography; the latter contained all the titles having to do with sports. I read the heroic narratives of Valley Forge and Gettysburg, but also the vivid biographies of Jim Thorpe, Lou Gehrig, and Jesse Owens. My time wandering in the 970s and 790s offered magical encounters with various silhouettes of a reluctant past and also the foreshadowing of a sublime imagination just beginning to form.

The reminiscent understanding of why a public library was so attractive to a young boy is its explicit organization. It was the rigor and order of the place that made random discovery possible. The power of structure itself—knowing reliably where to look for something—not only sets the mind at ease or grants it pleasure, but it unfetters the mind to be free for deeper thought. 

The traditional form of a library, its orderly shelves and topics, its means of classifying ideas and mapping the sources, is a living metaphor for all avenues of a life’s work in the larger world of St. Lawrence graduates. Knowing how a library works transfers practical insight to those who go into business, government, medicine, education, the military, or the law. 

To make any sense of today’s massive amounts of stimuli, to differentiate what T.S. Eliot describes as “the wisdom we have lost in knowledge…the knowledge we have lost in information,” the personal equivalent of a Dewey decimal system feels warranted in our daily lives. We need an unshakable confidence that essential human values are shelved where we expect them to be, that we know their call numbers. 

In a time that sadly notes the general erosion of trust in expertise, a vague cynicism about the meaning of data, and a shrinking confidence in the authority of facts, we risk the perverse virtue of not only being intellectually undisciplined, but also being proud of it. The cultural and moral riddle of our society begins with the misinterpretation that liberty of thought can be separated from the self-discipline of learning. 

Not all pieces of information are valid or of equal importance, or so we have believed for centuries. Today, however, digital expressions of “news” will come off the shelf without call numbers, without independent verification, or without rigorous judgment of evidence, as if the future of knowledge is to become centrifugal and not centered on the ambition of truth. 

A natural resistance to something like the lists and logic of a library packs the staggering potential of undoing the human success story. I sometimes am left wondering, even within the academy, how can logical fallacies or erroneous inconsistencies get the upper hand on the discipline of solid thought and ultimate wisdom? Maybe it is human boredom or residual laziness that creates unbridled chatter that so pompously declares itself true, “just because” it feels like it should be.

The wisdom contained and the discipline implied by such symbols of curiosity as a college library, and the rigorous order brought to its raw material, extend to every other campus endeavor or area of study. The common quality of all athletic contests, for instance, is that games are played inside a field and within rules, just like a library’s inventory of titles and their means of circulation.

Similarly, the empirical method of a chemistry experiment requires the discipline of asking again and again, are the results repeatable? Arguably, the most difficult form of English writing is the sonnet—a disciplined pattern of fourteen lines; three quatrains and a final couplet; and the meter in five-foot iambics. It’s beautiful because it is so damn hard to do.

Experience teaches that in times of difficulty and opportunity our actions are seldom determined by our conscious thought. The practiced order of deeper stuff in the mind takes control in such a time. What is that stuff in us, in the person we may wish to hire, or the leader we are considering for election? Vital questions about the quality of discipline are usually abiding questions. I have yet to encounter wisdom that wasn’t preceded by impressive self-discipline.

The yield of our quietly cataloged decision patterns, ethical habits, and accumulated living will more probably determine our wise response in a crucial moment. The greatest benefit of a liberal arts education at St. Lawrence will be the realization that wisdom comes the hard way—by the work of intensively hard thinking and the hard choices born of intentional self-discipline.

Go again sometime to your neighborhood library and look up the ancient sentence in a seldom read book, probably in the Dewey decimal 220s: “wisdom will torment you with her discipline, until she may trust your soul.”—WLF

President William L. Fox '75