"Most of the reading we do these days tends to be highly superficial," Cornell's 10th president Hunter Rawlings told some 200 people in Goldwin Smith Hall's Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium Nov. 18. "It is the idea of Googling something, or as John McCain would say 'doing a Google,' to find some information that you need for a particular purpose."
In his talk in the Last Lecture series, Rawlings, now a professor of classics, focused on the importance of being a "close reader" -- something, he said, that is an integral part of becoming a scholar, even though it is increasingly overlooked.
He began to appreciate the value of close reading when he was a graduate student in classics at Princeton University during the Vietnam War. "What I was seeing around me, of course, was friends being drafted to go to war, Americans protesting the war on a regular basis, and American society scorned by an extremely divisive structure. So how do you concentrate on Latin and Greek under those circumstances?" he asked.
He noted that it was during a class about Thucydides, a former Athenian general who authored accounts of the 27-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, that he appreciated how his own situation was reflected in the complexity of Thucydides' writing.
Rawlings then turned his attention to the fourth U.S. president, James Madison. "My students know that I have a certain bias for the diminutive Mr. James Madison. He was 5 feet 4 inches tall, so I felt sorry for him," said Rawlings, who stands at more than 6 feet, 6 inches. Like Madison, Rawlings said he, too, is from Virginia.
Madison, he reflected, was often in the shadows of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. "James Madison was the opposite of George Washington. Not a good speaker, not a good leader, not a public presence, not charismatic, but he was a thinker, who approached problems from a scholarly point of view.
"Students' ability to read James Madison is hampered by two things: a fairly unfamiliar style and … concentrated sophisticated ideas. We don't find this in today's presidential rhetoric, or in congressional speech or writing, or on television, nor do we find it on the Internet. How often are we confronted with careful, sophisticated, subtle ideas?"
Rawlings then turned to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president and the greatest speaker in U.S. history, he said. He read a passage from Lincoln's second inaugural address to show the president's ability to articulate a harsh message about problems concerning the church, slavery and the government in the midst of the Civil War.
"A masterful reader can take the rhythm and phrases of great texts, and turn them into powerful instruments to deal with terrible situations, and that's what Lincoln did in an unparalleled fashion," he said.
Rawlings closed with a suggestion: "The text supplies the reading. Don't read in half-sleep, see it as a workout, then you will become the complete thing."
The Last Lecture series is sponsored by the Mortar Board National Honor Society chapter at Cornell.
Brandon Chiazza '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.