by Web on November 16, 2015
In the fall of 1949, I walked onto the Millsaps campus, aware of the academic rigor synonymous with the college, but primarily interested in playing football. Four years later when I graduated with a BA in sociology, my view of my world, my culture and my society had been transformed. The insistence on meticulous and critical thinking demanded of me and my fellow students by every professor in every classroom went far beyond just seeing truth in the world around us; it challenged me to take seriously the claim that was made on us by what we had seen. The self-understanding formed in that supportive community of study, reflection, and debate became for me a moral, spiritual, and intellectual point of reference that continues today. And, yes, I still love football.
I had assumed when I arrived that Millsaps’ culture was similar to the one I had grown up in only 150 miles away. But I soon discovered that while both cultures shared historical roots, the culture I had entered was actually in tension with the culture I knew. Millsaps wasted no time challenging my cultural predispositions: my basic sociology course engaged me in a critical analysis of society which revealed class and race as social constructs, rather than stable realities. The course in southern history offered a different analysis of Reconstruction than the one with which I was familiar, e.g., Birth of a Nation. I discovered there had been a populist coalition of former slaves and poor whites, and that Black elected officials had served well in public office.
Challenges to the provincial continued even during Religious Emphasis Week when the speaker made a persuasive case for passivism at the time war in Korea was raging. Through the Intercollegiate Fellowship, I participated in diverse student groups, joining students from Tougaloo, Jackson College (now Jackson State University) and Alcorn each month on alternate campuses to get acquainted, discuss questions of mutual concern, and learn from each other.
I had been introduced to an alternate view of the world, indeed, a different vision of reality.
Before Millsaps I had thought of the arts and literature as forms of entertainment, but soon discovered these also can enlarge the soul as authors and artists deal truthfully with life’s hard questions. Lance Goss, professor of speech and theater, gave us Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and taught us that drama is actually an invitation to dialogue; and with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman we discovered, if we are willing to be vulnerable, that a play can challenge you to ask seriously about your life’s meaning.
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, from my required reading list, caused me to ponder how one person’s self-sacrifice could turn another persons’ despair from tragic overreach into hope.
The Millsaps experience prepared my class well for what came next: medical school, seminary, law school, graduate school, the military, or business. It also prepared those who chose to do so, to live into a future of radical change with both hope and confidence that life is good. Millsaps gave us much. And with this gift we heard the claim: “Those to whom much is given, much is required.”
This was the transaction with those fellow students and faculty from my Millsaps experience. And from the testimony of recent students I’ve met, it continues to be what Millsaps is about.
T. W. Lewis III Class of 1953