"Elementary" by President Scott R. Olson

Delivered Aug. 15, 2016, by President Scott R. Olson as part of Winona State University Welcome Week.

1. The Big Story

We will be the place that keeps faith with the biggest story, abides the wisdom of that story, and speaks the truth. You are the clergy of this secular spirit. You are its evangelists. If our thoughts and passions and beliefs and actions align, nothing can stop us. If our minds and our hearts and our spirits and our hands work together, we can achieve anything.

We are a part of that biggest story – bigger than us, bigger than WSU, as ancient as the very things that make us human. That story began when someone taught someone else how to start a fire with flint, when someone taught someone else how to make a stone tool, when knowledge and wisdom possessed by one was shared with another. That story weaves its way through the Academy and the Lyceum in Greece, through the scriptoriums in Europe, through the Griots in West Africa and the scholars of the Ming Dynasty, through the Universities of Bologna and Oxford and passes down to us today.

One very ancient idea in this story comes to us from the Greek philosopher Empedocles around 450 B.C. It’s the idea that the world is made up of elements – that everything can be broken down to some basic building blocks that combine in different ways to make it so. That idea still undergirds the story.

You are familiar with these four Empedoclean elements: water, fire, earth, and air. The Chemists here will point out that Empedocles was off by about 114 elements and counting, capped with the noble gas Oganesson. The elements of the physical world are found on the Periodic Table. But Empedocles was also right – Water and Fire and Earth and Air actually are elements, just not of the physical world. These are instead elements of the Cultural world. Things can be figuratively true just as they can be literally true.

One overt example of how these four ancient elements still abide in Western culture can be found in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” which is based on 1 Kings, xix. 11, 12. It has the four elements imagery:

A mighty wind rent the mountains round, brake in
pieces the rocks, brake them before the Answer:
but yet the Answer was not in the tempest.

And the sea was upheaved, and the earth was shaken: but yet the Answer was not in the earthquake.

And after the earthquake there came a fire:
but yet the Answer was not in the fire.

And after the fire there came a still small voice:
and in that still voice, onward came the Answer.

2. Elements in Fours

Getting in on the ground floor of Western Culture, these four elements became the building blocks of how we perceive the world – of archetypes, of symbolism, and of stories themselves. This idea of four elements is pervasive.

You may also be familiar with the concept of the four natures of every human, which has origins in Aristotle, Sufi philosophy, and Cartesian Dualism, and this is the idea that a human is likewise composed of four elements: the mind, the heart, the body, and the spirit.

Each of these physical elements corresponds to one of these four human elements. Water corresponds to The Mind – we talk about how thoughts flow, for example. Fire corresponds to The Heart – how many songs have there been to equate love and passion with flames, burning, etc.? Earth corresponds to The Body – for example, some Christian burial rites use the phrase “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” which is based on a passage from the Torah in Genesis 3:19. Air corresponds to The Soul – think of the many images of heaven or deities being in the clouds, such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Amun in Egyptian mythology or the Aztec god Tonatiuh.

A professor of mine at Northwestern, Professor Frank McConnell, liked to talk about four basic archetypes that underlie Western storytelling. His idea was to broaden Northrop Frye theories of literature into all domains of storytelling. Frye equated the four seasons of the year with four literary genres:

  • Spring equates to the literary genre of Comedy;
  • Summer to the genre of Romance;
  • Autumn to the genre of Tragedy; and
  • Winter to the genre of Satire.

And McConnell tried to show that the protagonists of each genre represented a particular archetype.

There are many other examples of a “four elements” approach to structure. Rousseau identified four types of Law as being Order, Relationships, Crime, and Conscience. There is the quadrivium designed by Plato, his “grad school” for the trivium, which he said had the four elements of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Martin Luther identified Four Solas, and so on. So, this idea of four elements is pervasive in Western culture. And it even exists outside Western culture, such as the Dakota and Ojibwe Medicine Wheel, with Four Winds, Four ordinal Directions, Four aspects, and so on.

3. Archetypes

In his book Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film and Literature, McConnell identified the four archetypes which correspond to Frye’s four genres as Kings, Knights, Pawns, and Fools. Kings are protagonists of comedies, Knights are protagonists of Romances, etc. I don’t quite agree with his system because his was a patriarchal approach using gender-specific icons, and because no one is a pawn in his or her own story, so I will use slightly different archetypes. For our purposes the four archetypes are:

  • Monarchs or Leaders;
  • Warriors or Fighters;
  • Critics or Builders; and
  • Mystics or Prophets.

These all correspond. Water corresponds to the Mind and therefore to a Monarch, to a leader, someone who thinks and leads. Fire corresponds to the Heart and therefore to a Knight, a Warrior, someone who strives and fights in service to a cause. Earth corresponds to our body, our hands, and therefore to a classical Fool, like Jacques in “As You Like It,” a critic, someone who sees what’s wrong in the world and ideally endeavors to fix it. And air corresponds to our spirit, our soul – and therefore to a mystic or prophet who predict the future and inspires us.

So, as leaders, we are about Thinking and Leading. Leaders dream, envision, mobilize, and enable. We are all leaders. As Warriors, we are about Striving and Fighting. Warriors explore; they go on quests. We are all Warriors. As critics, we are about Fixing and Making. Critics diagnose and repair. They build. We are all critics. As prophets, we are about Inspiring and Believing. Prophets innovate and evangelize. We are all prophets.

Combining and recombining these elements creates almost every story you can imagine. Just as combining different physical elements creates compounds, these elements create stories.

So how does this actually work? What are some examples? In Arthurian Legend, Arthur is the thinker, the rightful but initially undiscovered Monarch, whose power comes from the water of a Lake. Lancelot is the fighter, leading with a Heart so passionate it is at times even too strong, leading him into conflict with the Mind. Parsifal is the fool, so pure and so outside of society that in some tales he is the only one who can actually see the Holy Grail. And Merlin is the mystic, the inspirer, conjuring spirit and air and leading Arthur to his truth path.

STAR WARS hews closely to the Arthurian mythos, George Lucas being a dedicated student of Joseph Campbell. Consider the parallels: Luke is the rightful leader. What does he farm on Tatooine? Water. He is a boy who doesn’t know he is the future leader, the rightful heir. He inherits his father’s sword. He goes on a quest. He learns. He becomes the rightful leader. He is Arthur. Han Solo fights for a cause, leads with his heart, becomes a rival of the rightful monarch for the affection of his true love. He is Lancelot. Leia is the critic: dispenser of critiques and insults, but with an idea of how the world can be made better, and an ability to build it. Obi Wan and later Yoda play the mystic, the Merlin. They train the monarch in missing hidden knowledge. Both becomes ethereal, like air.

But STAR WARS is a rather obvious example. Please consider THE WIZARD OF OZ. The Cowardly Lion is a creature of the forest, of the earth. He dreams of a better world and criticizes the one he finds himself in. Now I want you to notice that each of these characters seeks what they think they lack but already have. What is courage? Is it doing what you DON’T fear? Or doing what you fear? Dorothy Gale is a creature of the air. She can fly. She can make houses fly. What do the residents of Munchkinland think she is? A witch – a kind of mystic. What does she seek? Home. Home: the place of our spirit. Does she have a home? The Tin Man is almost literally a knight: in armor, with a weapon at his side. What does he seek? A heart. Who is the most emotional? By the way he literally has fire inside him: at one point he has steam coming out of the funnel on his head. And then the Scarecrow. What does he seek? A brain. Who is the smartest one? Who is always thinking up the next plan? The rightful king: you will recall that Dorothy leaves him in charge.

We can go on and on like this. In THE BREAKFAST CLUB we have Brian whose name is an anagram for “Brain” and who ultimately solves the riddle and writes the essay. We have Claire whose every decision is led by her heart. We have Allison who is outside the group but can mystically see the truth. And we have Bender, the unhappy critic, whose name means to change things. In THE FANTASTIC FOUR, we have Reed Richards, the leader of the group and the world’s smartest man, who is essentially made of liquid. We have Johnny Storm, the passionate one, whose superhero name is “The Human Torch.” We have Ben Grimm, made of rocks, embattled with society’s injustices from the way his girlfriend is treated to the indignities of the Yancy Street Gang. And we have Sue Storm, the soul of the group, who has the properties of air. Most followers of the Beatles can tell you that John is the leading mind, Paul is the loving heart, Ringo is the Joker, and George is the spiritual mystic. Our colleagues working on this year’s Digital Humanities theme are probably aware that fire, water, ground, and flying are types of Pokémon Go characters: Squirtle is a water Pokémon, for example, and Charizard is a fire Pokémon. On GAME OF THRONES the rightful monarchs are Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, the Knights are Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister, the Critics are Tyrion Lannister and Little Finger, and the Mystics are Arya and Bran Stark.

4. The Elements of Winona

So we can find these elements in many stories, but these elements, these aspects, these archetypes, and this story are ultimately about us. We live out stories. This is the central idea of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses: that our lives are allegorical, that we re-enact epics every day, that each of us is Stephen and Telemachus; Molly and Penelope; Bloom and Odysseus.

So, I think we are all living out a story. I don’t expect you to have been paying close attention these five years, but the titles of the major speeches I have given here correspond to the four elements:

  • The Great River Part 1
  • The Great River Part 2: The Island of Hopes and Dreams
  • Lux Aeterna, which means eternal light or eternal flame
  • Terra Firma, which means solid ground
  • Air Apparent

And the imagery within each of these speeches likewise intended to call these story elements forward. In the 2012 “Great River” speeches, there was imagery of water, mind, leading, and monarchs. There was a metaphor of thinking and learning as a flowing river. I tried to appeal to the thinker and leader in you. In the 2013 “Lux Aeterna” speech, there was imagery of fire, hearts, striving, and knights. There was a metaphor of an illuminating flame. I tried to appeal to the striver and fighter in you. In the 2014 “Terra Firma” speech, the imagery was of earth, hands, making, analyzing. The metaphor was a solid tower. I tried to appeal to the fixer in you. In the 2015 “Air Apparent” speech, the imagery was of the air, wind, spirit, believing, and prophets and clerics. The metaphor was the wind in a sail. I tried to appeal to the prophet in you.

So, I’ve taken five years to tell this part of the tale, but I’ve done so to make a major point. Some do complain I take a long time to make a decision, so I won’t blame you if you think this long build-up is ridiculous. But I see it this way: the big story began 2,500 years ago or more. Our local version began almost 160 years ago.

Can we think in terms of the “long now”? I borrow this phrase from visionary Kevin Kelly, who helped establish the WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE and CO-EVOLUTION QUARTLERLY with Stewart Brand and who is now building a 10,000-year clock in the desert of West Texas. I think it chimes once a century. The point of such a thing is to think deeply about the far-distant future.

We should always do this. We are here because our ancestors envisioned … well, something like this university. So I don’t like to get caught up in a fad, but things that are eternal, and true, and slow. This is how we can differentiate. The very best things about WSU are things that have been here forever, and will be here forever.

So what’s this got to do with you? Our story together, and your story, will be the story of the interplay of these elements. Each of us is a dreamer, an explorer, a builder, an evangelist. This is, by the way, the essence of Brian’s essay – his solution to the puzzle – in THE BREAKFAST CLUB. My job – the whole Administration’s job – is to do our best to drive resources to every aspect of you and your work so that you can do your best – so that you can be an epic hero and the best dreamer, explorer, builder, and WSU evangelist you can be.

5. The Story Ahead

The year ahead will have many challenges, and will cause us to doubt, to sweat, to lose our breath, and if we aren’t careful may even cause us to bleed. The fundamental question for me is this: can we be revitalized, and even made new, in ways that are true to what we have always been? Can we marry the best aspects of a liberal arts college – high standards, a philosophy of questioning, a beautiful and inspiring environment, strong Liberal Arts programs at the core, international opportunities, and personalized experiences – with excellence in the professions and graduate education and responsiveness to the needs of our communities?

Of course we can do this, and in many ways we do it already, but can we be the best at this? What would that take? What if we could bring back the “Winona Model” for the 21st Century? For those of you who are new here, the “Winona Model” was a way of learning known around the world. What would it look like today? What if just as folks will now forever say of a double-layout with a half twist with a sightless landing, “Oh, that’s the Biles” after Simone Biles, they would say about our way of approaching excellence in education, “that’s the Winona Model.”

Well, first, we must hold to our values. I would point out four of them for special emphasis this year:

  1. Like monarchs, we must ensure we value equity as a human right and Diversity as a core value. For those of you who worked on last year’s theme, who organized the Teach-In, and who built our new Ethnic Studies Program: thank you so much! And yes – we will invest heavily in Inclusion and Diversity.
  2. Like knights, we must be questing outward, into our communities, through international engagement, to explore the world, improve the world, bring the world home
  3. Like critics, we must speak up for our campus autonomy, determine our own direction, for the ability to make the best decisions for our students and our communities.
  4. Like prophets, we must ensure that our freedoms are preserved, and more importantly, we must commit ourselves to ensuring the freedom of others, be open to grow and change, even though that can be very hard. This needs to be both a safe and welcoming environment, and one where we are all challenged and we all learn and grow. To me, this is the true spirit of a university. I think this value may be threatened this fall, so I ask you to stand with me on this. The way to do this is to work on perseverance – the ability to channel our righteous anger at racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ violence, and all injustice, and channel it first into our students’ and our own strength and persistence, and then into “improving our world.”

I’ve already asked many members of this community for their ideas and their actions to help us all persevere, especially our students.

There are Four Opportunities, places where others outside the university are excited right now to drive resources to us to help us be our best. Sometimes I call these the Four Pillars. They are:

  1. Water is thought is the mind, and is leading, and is the Education Village.
  2. Fire is heart and passion, and is questing, and is the Arts, such as the Laird Norton project
  3. The earth is our bodies and our hands, is building, and is the engagement with this beautiful place, our facilities master plan, our “Tree Campus USA” arboretum, an indigenous learning garden, and improved recreation and athletics facilities.
  4. And the air is spirit, believing, and is innovation and entrepreneurship, such as the new Business Engagement Center and the “Warrior Tank” project.

And this year, we must lay before ourselves four temporal goals, emerging from our Strategic Plan:

  • One, we need a renewed focus on Enrollment Management and our Budget. There are new challenges to our enrollment from neighboring states, and this Fall we saw them manifest concretely. This has a downward pull on our budget. One reason for our challenge: we will hold to our standards. Period. Carl and his team do an amazing job, but we all need to lead on this. We are all admissions officers. We still have a strong fund balance and a number of resources already identified and already discussed with bargaining unit leadership that we can capture to help us in the short run to balance the budget, but we need to think further out than the next two years.
  • Two, in order to ensure that our excellence is something that abides, this year we need to continue moving forward on the Academic Planning process. Our quest forward requires a map. We are all planners.
  • Three, one of our best opportunities for growth is in Rochester, so we need to support its mission. It complements but does not really compete with the mission in Winona. Winona is very traditional and residential. The average age of our students in Rochester is 33. That’s the average age. Building WSU Rochester helps the overall university budget and helps us all. We all must help Rochester grow
  • Four, the evangelists in University Advancement and on our WSU Foundation Board see some great fundraising potential in three key areas this year. Donations to the university have been growing steadily and the last few years have held records in one way or another. These resources provide direct aid to our students, but also support academic and co-curricular programs that help our students be successful. We are all development officers.

So: four eternal elements, four pressing values, four engaging pillars, and four short-term goals. Each of these must be approached with mind and heart and body and spirit. Each of these must be approached with thought and passion and work and belief.

If we act this way, it will be good for our community as we improve our world. It will be good for our university as we grow stronger still. It will be good for our students as they achieve their dreams. It will be good for our team as make decisions transparently and together, and maybe even have some fun. And it will be good for you as are even better able to succeed in your chosen vocation.

I started by saying we are all part of a story. I mentioned that for Northrop Frye there are different types of stories, different genres, and that for McConnell the type of protagonist is related to the genre. Monarchs are the protagonist of Epics that make us think. Knights are the protagonists of Adventures that flame our passions. Critics are the protagonists of Satires that stir us to anger and action. And Mystics have Lessons or Parables that help us believe and be better.

And of course the experience of WSU – the story our students live out, and that we live out ourselves, must ideally be all of these:

  • The story of WSU should be an Epic that engages our minds.
  • The story of WSU should be an Adventure that impassions our hearts.
  • And the story of WSU should be a Critique that activates our hands.
  • The story of WSU should be a Lesson that inspires our souls to seek that which is true, right, and good.

Integrating our work and striving to epitomize these facets of the human experience is not free however. Helping our students become fully human is not free. It comes at a high price. The price of having a heart is blood. The price of having a soul is breath. The price of having hands is sweat. The price of having a mind is doubt. But do not fear blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt. These are necessary.

Without blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt there would be no Taj Mahal. Without blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt there would be no Great Pyramid. Without blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt there would be no Sistine Chapel, no Machu Picchu, no Handel’s Messiah, no Desmoiselles D’Avignon, no Angkor Wat, no Citizen Kane. Without blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt there would be no America. Without blood, or breath, or sweat, or doubt there would be no Winona State University.

This is price of excellence, and it is costly. But consider its nadir: a world that is mindless, heartless, acquiescent, and cynical. You are building that better world. You have paid that price, and knowing you as I do, I don’t doubt you will pay it again this year and every year. You give your blood and breath and sweat and doubt to this place every moment.

You could have done a lot of things with your life. You could have been rich. You could have been famous. But you have sacrificed, and you have chosen the noblest profession, all of you, every one of you, every AFSCME and MMA and MAPE and ASF and IFO and MNA and Administrator: you have chosen that profession that helps others achieve their hopes and dreams. There is nothing more noble than that.

But as Bruce Springsteen said about THE RIVER at his concert in St Paul on Leap Day 2016, summing up what that album was all about: "You have a finite amount of time ... to do something good." Or as Marcus Aurelius said in Book Two of his Meditations:

We are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth … Every moment, think to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice.

Elements are building blocks. They are meant to be combined. Perfection lies in their harmonious unity. What is this thing that unites us? That unifies at all? What is that thing which combines the passion of our hearts, the thoughtfulness of our minds, the work of our hands, and the spirit of our souls? Why – it’s you! It’s always been you. YOU have ennobled us. You are the unifying element.

There are two sentences I have used in every major speech I have given since becoming your president, and I began this speech with them:

If our thoughts and passions and beliefs and actions align, nothing can stop us.
If our minds and our hearts and our spirits and our hands work together, we can achieve anything.

We are part of a bigger story – bigger than us, bigger than WSU, bigger than America. We are heroes of an elemental tale. The tale has water that can carry us up or down a great river and from there to every place in the world. The tale has a flame, an eternal light, that you can see throughout Winona but also far away in Rochester, St. Paul, Chicago, Argentina, Tanzania, Australia. The tale has a solid tower built on solid ground, built by our ancestors, and to be stewarded by our descendants. And the tale has a wind blowing through it as buoyant and liberating as our dreams.

And the story goes like this:

On this great river, a bright flame shines from a lighthouse, perched on an ancient rock, as wind fills our sails, guiding us toward an epic, an adventure, a lesson, and a critique, and toward a tomorrow that will always hold its promise before us forever and ever.

Aurelius, M. (1916). Meditations. C.R. Haines, Ed. And Trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joyce, J. (1922). Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare and Company.

McConnell, F. (1982). Storytelling and mythmaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.