The Wabash chapel tower is a distinctive feature of the college, dear to the heart of many Wabash people. Every student begins and ends his Wabash studies at the Chapel — the Ringing In Ceremony and Commencement. It stands as a primary symbol of the college, its history and its values. It is stunning when set against a clear blue Indiana sky and shines beneath stormy clouds. When do you think is most impressive, when all is calm and peaceful, or when turbulence threatens?
All cultures communicate with words, gestures and by organizing and decorating their physical spaces. One example are ways in which colleges and universities design and structure buildings, malls and other space. Knowledge is designated and organized into separate, related or connected buildings and space. Religious commitments are communicated in buildings, ornamentation and symbols. Hindu temples are lush with painted images of gods and goddesses. Medieval churches in Europe are filled with carved scenes of biblical stories and stained-glass windows honoring saints and other heroes from the past honored. Medieval peasants who had no access to books, could walk around churches and see their histories, with their eyes drawn toward the sky by spires and arches.
The Wabash College has evolved over almost 200 years with a unique footprint. The College chapel is central on the mall and representing the moral and ethical commitments of the founders to educate good men. Trippet Hall faces the chapel from the other end of the mall with stately buildings lining the mall representing the second foundational commitment to the liberal arts as education for free men to conduct themselves as responsible citizens.
The chapel is not elaborately decorated; in fact, it contains no religious symbols at all. It is in the tradition of the New England meeting house, used for both religious and civic gatherings. People carried their values and commitments into the building. Clear glass windows display the world and nature. The beautiful chapel tower causes many of those affiliated with Wabash to look up and to be reminded of the moral and religious commitments at the heart of the college’s foundation.
When, then, do you judge the Wabash Chapel tower and those commitments more needed and impressive? When the sky is clear blue and untroubled, or when storm clouds threaten? To be honest, those seem to be most needed now when it is easy to lose heart and hope because so many storm clouds threaten. Nonetheless, the tower has survived for a century through good times and bad, under sunny skies and storms.
Many of our neighbors cherish diverse symbols for moral and ethical commitments as impetus for developing good individuals who are responsible citizens able to govern themselves and a free society. They communicate and preserve those in words, gestures and physical symbols. As we pass by buildings and homes with such symbols, we should celebrate all those that produce positive results in individuals and in our community. We lose heart in despair for those who are ungrounded or raise distorted, destructive and divisive symbols. It is critically important that we cultivate in Montgomery County positive values and the institutions that produce them when all is well, and even more important to hold fast to them when beaten down by menacing storms.
Long may the Wabash Chapel tower stand as a witness to life-giving values and virtues for the college and its neighborhood — good people in a flourishing community.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.
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