A Living Place of Education
The places we inhabit habituate us. The virtues they cultivate are grounded in the values they embody.
In 1855, a natural opening in the oak forest of the Burr farm was selected as a fitting site for the creation of the Michigan Agricultural College (M.A.C.) because the place was beautiful and building there would require less clearing.1 Already in this decision, a set of values was affirmed: education is an aesthetic as much as an intellectual endeavor; we owe something to the land on which we build.
O.C. Simonds, landscape gardener at the M.A.C. from 1857-1931, captured the spirit of this decision when he wrote in 1906:
This area contains beautifully rolling land, was a pleasing arrangement of groups of trees, many of which have developed into fine specimens. This area is, I am sure, the feature of the college which is most pleasantly and affectionately remembered by the students after they leave their Alma Mater, and I doubt if any of the instruction given has a greater effect upon their lives.2
For Simonds, the campus was no inanimate space, but a living place of education. The idea that the place itself could exert a lasting educative effect on those who inhabit it for a time seems to have animated the planning and development of the MSU campus.
Early on, the Olmstead Brothers (the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, father of landscape architecture whose designs include Central Park in NYC) established a vision of a “campus park as a place for buildings and nature.”3 It was to be a “beautiful and humanly scaled place,” according to Adam Oliver, one of the first of a series of landscape designers who helped establish the principles that would govern the growth and development of the campus.
You need to dwell here a bit, to walk around and get a feel for the place, as I have done during these past few weeks, to appreciate its grace.
In the oldest parts of the campus, the pathways and roads are fluid, organic and asymmetrical, attuned to the topography of the landscape. A symbiotic relationship between the natural environment and the human institution can be felt in the way the buildings respect their surroundings.
The oldest parts of campus embody the value of environmental stewardship that plays itself out today in the ongoing tree planting program and in educational initiatives like our Environmental Philosophy and Ethics program.
This place embodies values that animate the life of the institution.
There is no main gate at Michigan State University. Instead, the campus is designed to be accessible to everyone and from all sides. The place is porous, enriched by the exchange of people, ideas, and experiences that is at the heart of the educational endeavor.
Access to education is fundamental to the land grant mission; it is designed into the MSU campus, and it continues to animate our ongoing efforts through community outreach and study away programs to expose our students to a wide diversity of perspectives.
As I walk through campus, across the Red Cedar River and into that original opening in the oak forest of the Burr farm, I become aware of the values of beauty and humanity, of ecology and accessibility, the campus embodies; and I allow myself to be habituated to them, so that our work in the College of Arts & Letters will be enriched by the virtues of the land grant mission in which it is rooted.
1. Stanford, Linda O., and C. Kurt Dewhurst. MSU Campus—Buildings, Places, Spaces: Architecture and the Campus Park of Michigan State University. Limited Edition edition. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002, 8.
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Ibid., 15-6.