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The statue of “Alma Mater,” or “Nour­ishing Mother,” graces the Columbia Uni­versity Library. | Courtesy PublicDomainPictures.Net

There stands at Columbia Uni­versity in New York a bronze statue of a seated woman, arms out­stretched, wel­coming all who wish to study. She bal­ances a great book on her lap. She holds a scepter or mace. And she is crowned with a laurel wreath.

A plaque on the base names her. She is “Alma Mater,” or “Nur­turing Mother.” And those she wel­comes are the ones to be nour­ished, the “Alumni.”

In an age when col­leges and uni­ver­sities no longer see their work in light of this metaphor, it is a remarkable thing that the statue has not yet been assaulted or removed. Perhaps, some­where in the hearts of those who teach and study at Columbia, there remains a notion that the work of nour­ishing souls, hearts, and minds is somehow important.

In my years of study, I was enrolled in and lec­tured at various col­leges and uni­ver­sities. Each one of them was a “bubble” in which we, sep­a­rated from the world around us, studied works and ideas often with little con­ti­nuity.

Many evenings, to pay my bills, I waited tables, washed floors, and cleaned toilets alongside people who seemed a great deal more genuine than those in my classes. Indeed, my evening col­leagues often wanted little to do with the pro­fessors and stu­dents who inhabited those bubbles. In time, I came to under­stand this divide.

In these schools the aca­demic work had become aimless. A job had become the only per­ceivable end of our studies. Those with whom I worked in the evening sus­pected that there must be more to life than a job. There must be more to aca­demic work than what they had observed in the bubbles.

Study is intended to nourish a soul.

You and I happily inhabit a college – its own sort of bubble – which retains a belief that we pro­fessors cor­po­rately serve as an Alma Mater to our alumni. We strive alongside women and men who work at tasks of equal impor­tance in the care and nurture of stu­dents. As I talk to my col­leagues I am con­sis­tently encouraged by the sense of purpose we share. Never perfect, and often full of bluster, there remains a common end to our efforts. We are here to nourish souls. We are here to nurture each alumnus in prepa­ration for the living of a good life.

Here, we have pre­served some­thing of that which schools were intended to be.

Kenneth Calvert is a pro­fessor of history at Hillsdale College.