My Daughter, My Teacher

A Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

This one is personal. Fathers of daughters in college will often plot the steepest line of X over Y coordinates, the upward line tracing the family learning curve. When diagramming new thoughts against time, the dad trajectory stands apart. 

My own “second” college education was given to me by a daughter who is now celebrating her 10th reunion at a campus much like St. Lawrence in its form and purpose. And it is without shame or equivocation to admit that I still have much to learn from her and the women in her era walking by me on their way to class or practice. What I neglected to acknowledge and celebrate fully in my student days, simply because I didn’t know enough or have sufficient life experience, was how many brilliant women were my classmates.

Whatever generalizations about college existed at the time, most of them framed as the indelible golden moments of youth, they were often half-truths. Those days were absolutely magical, but only in part, because it was also a period of life when every sorrow seems lingering and every disappointment seems unrelenting. My daughter delivered to me, through her own college experience, the realization that she was much better in gaining the perspective of happier days ahead of her than I ever was at that similar formative time of life and manhood.

St. Lawrence is today a near-majority female campus. There are more women than men in the student body (a consistent ratio for 20 years), exactly 50 percent women in full-time faculty ranks, and more women in the overall work of college administration than men. In my view, this shift in proportionality could not be better news, first for historical reasons that affirm our founding tradition of men and women learning together, though undoubtedly the levels of opportunity were slanted. And second, the current ratio is excellent news as a teachable microcosm for the best hopes of achieving a healthier society. 

We are all, in this moment of our times, trying to reconcile decades of habitual mendaciousness about the experience of women. The countless and painful imperfections caused by deep patterns of inequality demand the rush to a better day, one that is finally absent the intolerable power equations of old.

Our daughters are the best extension of a history that fathers may not know enough about. It begins for me in recognizing that, even within the heroic narratives imagined since childhood, women also have an immense untold significance in history-making as innovators, philosophers, poets, and scientists. The genius of many ruling queens, the effective leadership of women in democratic societies, is shockingly still unrecognized by too many men, which ought to be the ultimate embarrassment of an offensively inadequate education. 

One of the saddest and most maddening passages in English literature comes from Mary Anne Evans (professionally known as George Eliot) in her novel Middlemarch, which is Professor of English Sarah Gates’s favorite book to teach: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” That last phrase is the seed of much pain in the lives of women in my family, and because I have loved them, I cringe at the incalculable sums of unfairness.  

Daughters now tell their fathers, women on campus confidently explain to men down the hall, that the days of “a hidden life” and “unvisited tombs,” Middlemarch’s most salient point left to us, make essential the continuing study of gender history and identity. And that would only be the beginning of what needs to be said about “getting it” and what needs to be done in the next step of getting it right.

There is more to learn if you pay attention to what daughters are showing their fathers in other terms than history. In her memoir Testament of Youth, the early feminist writer Vera Brittain tells of her university education taken in a very ancient place from around 1914, when the walls of academic patriarchy were never thicker. Her recollection comes by noting incremental progress from a very buttoned-down day as there was “nothing of psychology, that beneficent science which has begun to make men and women more merciful to each other than they used to be in earlier generations.” Today, we would expand the hope for vital inclusion of all human expressions of gender identity.

The Socratic admonition to know yourself is for fathers a common sticking point that only a daughter’s word may help unfasten. There is nothing like a father hearing insights about what makes him tick from his college daughter who is at the time taking courses in behavioral psychology. I belong to that most special community of experience and am glad to have been initiated. She noticed that when there’s a lot on my mind, solitude precedes talk, but that my talk, if sounding merely incidental, even irrelevant, was also my means of listening.

For many summers, even before her college years, my favorite cycling partner has been my daughter. We have taken extensive rides with big climbs over consecutive scenic days. My wife once asked me after we were on the road for a week, “Well, what did you talk about? What did she tell you?” 

“Nothing,” I said. “We didn’t talk much at all.” Or did we? 

The prevailing silence between us on those rides—a two-person peloton, with her bike always out in front of mine so she could lead the way—was a long, unfinished conversation. Her resolve, her calmness, her awareness, her navigation, and her joy expressed her own command of language, a powerful intelligence that knew enough had been said.—WLF