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About The Room
In March 1957, Pierre F. Goodrich began planning a unique conference room for the Lilly Library of Wabash College. Completed two years later according to his exact specifications, the room provides the students of Wabash College with a practical tool for understanding and interpreting the historical evolution of the idea of individual liberty. Etched into limestone slabs set in its walls are important names and developments of significance in the history of freedom that stretch back in time from the Declaration of Independence to the epic story of Gilgamesh and the Sumerian reforms of Urukagina of Lagash in the third millennium B.C. The room itself is of grand proportions, as it must be to accommodate the great span of time over which the idea of liberty developed: thirty-eight feet from north to south and fifty feet from east to west. The ceiling is eighteen feet high with inset lights that illuminate the discussion table below and the stone inscriptions on the walls.
Beneath the limestone inlays Mr. Goodrich placed volumes containing the primary works and histories of each entry plus other writings that have contributed significantly to our understanding of liberty. The collection of books thus extends the story of humankind's struggle against tyranny well beyond the Declaration of Independence and into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the middle of this collection of materials is a large oval table that can be broken down into smaller stations to accommodate discussion groups of various sizes. When one considers the room as a whole, the intent of its designer becomes evident: the idea of liberty, which was developed and transmitted from generation to generation, is seen as a long historical conversation of which the students themselves are a part.
Exploring the History of Liberty
The lighting of the room first calls the student's attention to the walls, where he or she can view in brief the long chain of names and dates. Then, wherever his interest may draw him, the student is encouraged to explore further by consulting the appropriate books below the etchings. And should other students be present, the table and chairs invite them to converse about the subjects at hand.
As noted by Mr. Goodrich, "It is hoped that the individual who enters this room will immediately feel the humbling presence of the centuries of written communication portrayed by the walls." Those who use the Goodrich Seminar Room as Pierre Goodrich intended immediately sense that they are indeed part of a long conversation that includes not only those who sit around the table but also all those whose works are on the shelves and whose names are etched into the surrounding walls.
Mr. Goodrich also described nicely his vision of how the room was to be used to help students understand the history and meaning of individual liberty: "It makes it as easy as possible," he wrote to a member of the College staff,
for a student not to rely, for instance, on Locke's citation of Hooker, but to find out for himself what was actually happening with Locke and what both Locke and Hooker were saying. Or, if the student were reading Blackstone's Of the Nature of Laws in General, wherein Blackstone refers to Locke in a very interesting way, that also could be checked. Or, Lord Acton's reference to Locke in his essay "On the History of Freedom and Christianity" could be checked. Thus for example, it is possible to find out whether Lord Acton inadvertently did not tell the truth--or what it was that so suddenly startled Blackstone.
The room also serves to remind us of the fragility of civilization as well as humankind's enduring need for liberty. The west wall, facing the entrance to the room, roughly corresponds to the period known as the Dark Ages. Mr. Goodrich had no problem with this "great deal of blank space," but thought rather that it served "a historical purpose." The hope of liberty was kept alive in times of turmoil by those who preserved their heritage of ideas through constant discourse and study. Wherever individuals might gather to explore the concepts of human freedom, liberty could be kept alive to burst forth again in a new renaissance of civilization.
Mr. Goodrich determined the placement of the names with great care and consulted numerous scholars, ranging from experts in Sumerian civilization to professors of Eastern and Western history and archaeology. The records of his correspondence and his careful notations indicate his intention to provide the students of Wabash College with an accurate portrayal of the historical development of the idea of human liberty. As he observed,
Every effort has been made to provide as nearly as possible honest and good translations of the knowledge of each period of time. Where practical, the original language is also available for those who have the capacity to exercise a truly scientific desire to verify by looking at the original. There are a few books where there have been no satisfactory translation in English. There only the original language can be found.
The room is a gateway for exploring the meaning of liberty and the nature of a free society. Mr. Goodrich felt strongly that liberty will be preserved only so long as individuals take seriously the moral problems inherent in the exercise of political power. The room provides a unique opportunity for the student to investigate the ways human beings have understood the difficult questions surrounding the use of such power in society: What is the meaning of law? What is the proper function of government? What are the responsibilities of the individual?
Humans in every age have struggled with these questions and have developed ways to lessen the abuses of force and ally authority with justice. The inscriptions present important figures and moments in the history of liberty, but they are not meant to constitute the definitive list, only to suggest the many possible approaches to understanding the evolution of human freedom. Thus, for example, we might begin with the epic of Gilgamesh and investigate the appeal of the people of Uruk to the divine goddess of creation to deliver them from the tyranny of their king. What was the nature of that tyranny? Why did the people of Uruk need to appeal to the divine? What finally resolved the city's crisis? After a careful reading of the text provided on the shelf below the inscription, we might turn to the related material nearby, such as Noah Kramer's From the Tablets of Sumer. From here we could move on to explore the reasons for written law or the Greek notions of the common good, moving next to the Christian conception of sin and personal responsibility, and so on. The approaches to studying liberty are as varied as the interests and experiences of those who enter the room.
The Conversation Continues
The room presents ideas as essentially connected by dialogue through time. Whenever individuals gather around the table to discuss the important questions and texts on liberty, they are entering into a conversation not only with themselves, but also with all those who have gone before them. It was for this reason, as Mr Goodrich writes, that the books were "arranged in chronological order on the theory that man at any given point of time is influenced by the conversation which he is able to find in the written records of the past and in current discussion if he wishes to better understand."
It was Mr. Goodrich's hope that students would find inspiration and excitement in exploring and discovering these connections for themselves, and in this way come to appreciate the fundamental
ance of free intellectual inquiry to the preservation of liberty itself. The room, in essence, is the embodiment of Mr. Goodrich's educational ideal and its message is as radical today as it was then. In his words, he sought to remove, "the aspect of the lecturer as dictator and the student as the slave of the dictator" by providing the means for self-education:
The education here available discards all of the formalized concepts of education, such as courses and departments in this and that. It simply makes available an opportunity to read and think, check, explore, observe, and discuss. It is only the individual who accomplishes his education.
Mr. Goodrich believed that one of the best expressions of this education through conversation is the Socratic-style of discussion. He carefully engineered the room at Wabash College to encourage and support this discussion. However he remained guarded in his optimism that in our present educational system enough individuals could be found who would gather together with the common goal of their cooperative development, and whether such a desire could continue throughout their lives.
The creation of the room was an act of dedication to an ideal of education that challenges every individual to exercise responsibly the liberty that belongs by right to every man and woman. The purpose is not simply to celebrate freedom but to continue its development through the generations by providing the optimal context in which liberty can be explored and understood through a collegial exchange of ideas and observations.