Remembering Louise Forsyth

Liat Weinstein, Online Managing Editor

It is with great sadness that The Polygon commemorates an esteemed and loved history teacher, Louise Forsyth, who passed away in August. Forsyth taught AP European History, AP World History and other history electives during her 28 years teaching at Poly. She served as chair of the history department until 2011 and delivered a Kastendieck lecture on the Soviet Union’s Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region of the Soviet Union and 20th Century Politics & History, in 2014. Forsyth was a voracious reader, traveller, and historian. In 2012, while conducting research at the University College of London, she continued teaching at Poly, giving lessons to her AP European History students over Skype. Forsyth was also an involved activist, advocating for organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood.

Forsyth’s longtime friend and colleague Susan Beiles said, “Louise knew intuitively that there’s no better way to understand someone than to listen, and listening takes time and it takes reflection. She knew how to be fully engaged in the moment. Character was the essential value upon which she built her life. She stood up for the ethical values and was a model of empathy and moral justice. Louise always found time for thinking and listening and for meaningful dialogue. From the moment I met Louise, I was immediately drawn to her warmth, extraordinary intelligence, integrity, compassion, and sincerity and I counted her among my dearest friends. She was genuinely altruistic, a woman who displayed a profound respect for family, friends, and community.”

Below is the speech Forsyth delivered at the Class of 2015’s Commencement in June 2015, her last year before retiring. In it she discussed the value of a liberal arts education.

“Headmaster Harman, Scott, Susan, Bud, Mike, Lori, Gerry, parents, friends, fellow teachers, students, greetings all! This is a day of well-deserved pride in accomplishment, a day of transition, and a day of acknowledgement. Congratulations to each and every one of you students, and congratulations to your parents, whose love and care guided you and brought you here to Poly and to the happy conclusion of your high school years.

You, the Poly Class of 2015, are a remarkable class. It was because you were so wonderful that I decided this was the year to retire. You started the year with a terrible tragedy in the loss of your friend, Will Griffo, whom I was just getting to know and could already tell was a wonderful young man. You faced other challenges, as well, as a class, but you genuinely, and impressively, cared for each other, showing empathy, Mr. Cox’s word for the year. You were so much fun to teach, so thoughtful and smart and interesting and energetic and engaging, that I wanted to go out with you! I thank the 36 of you in my classes for making my last year here such a joyous one.

It’s strange to be on my own way out from Poly, after 28 years. Both you students and I are off on an adventure, our futures open-ended, new, and unexpected opportunities and experiences await. Of course, you’re at the beginning of what will be long and fruitful adult lives, and I’m at the other end of the spectrum. For me, it’s the time for me to find out if I have a book, a real book, in me. Every year including this year, I’ve thought or said out loud ah, there’s a book in that young man or this young woman. And sometimes, sure enough, there has been a book. How proud I’ve been of these works, and the other wonderful accomplishments of so many former students, and I like to think I’ve had an infinitesimal part in midwifing them. Now it’s my time to try to write my own book. So that’s what I’ll be doing—working on the project that was the subject of my Kastendieck lecture last year. I’ve had a wonderful time here at Poly, and Poly has been very good to me. Since the fall of 1987, I’ve been entranced with Poly, with this marvelous campus, with smart and delightful colleagues, with the many opportunities I found here, but most of all, with the wonderful Poly students, diverse in every conceivable sense of the word, always very much individuals, never cookie cutter, never ordinary, never run-of-the-mill.

What do I have to say to you, my fellow adventurers, that isn’t trite? What would have meaning to each of you? The only answer I have is to be authentic and share with you my own ruminations about what has been the meaning of my 35 years of teaching and the value of a liberal arts education.

And once we go beyond the trite and the predictable response, this is no small or easy question. Today, all over the educational world, it is being asked. Why do we need to teach students any concrete knowledge when in a flash of a second, they can whip out their cell phones and find out just about anything they need to know? Maybe, some educators are now saying, we only need to teach students the skills they need to access information from the Internet and make sense of it in useful ways. Beyond the educational world, the value of a liberal arts education is also being challenged. There is practical value in it for sure. It’s our basic training for professional careers. It gives a person the right patina of cultural sophistication to wear like one wears a good suit—a smattering of poetry to recite at opportune moments, just enough history to make rudimentary sense of the barrage of news from all over the world, a little bit of art so you can walk through a museum with some cool, etc. But if that’s all it is, then schools would be little more than factories and teachers’ work would have little meaning. I firmly believe that there is some real value in a liberal arts education beyond these practical ones.

Looking at the term liberal arts gives us insight into its essential meanings. The first word—“liberal”—is an object of disdain for many of my students—as it was for us in the 1960s, and I’m sure to many of you in the audience. One of my favorite students has “NOT A LIBERAL” in big type pasted across her computer. The word liberal has had a long history and a wide variety of political meanings, but today I want to use it in its essential meaning. It comes from the Latin liber, which means free. To be liberal is also to be generous, open-minded, or free-spirited, and in this, the broadest and truest sense of the word, we are all liberals, because liberty is at the heart of the American dream.

Now the second word of the phrase—Arts—is less complicated. It comes from the Latin and Italian word arte meaning the skill or knowledge to accomplish something. So inherent in the term liberal arts is the promise of that study of these particular arts or ways of thinking about and doing things, what we might call academic disciplines that will free you—from what, and for what, one asks? And that’s the question for me today.

At the very least, the study of the liberal arts, we teachers deeply believe, will free you from pettiness, from falsehood and delusion, from demagoguery. It gives you deep knowledge, without which information itself is rootless, trivial. It also helps you see the interconnections of all human activity, and the mutuality of humans and the physical world. Oh yes, schools and universities have departments and majors, each loving their own bailiwick and thinking this particular section of the universe is the most important—I, too, think I am guilty of that with regards to the study of history—but just as you are not separated into narrow compartments as a person, neither is our world. Underneath, there’s an underlying coherence, intimate connections, and meaningful points of contact across the spectrum of life, although not usually obvious and not usually clear. A good liberal arts education gives you a sense of vast interconnectedness of life and the tools to delve as deep as you dare to go.

More personally, a liberal arts education gives you the freedom to encounter the other, people not like us. Encountering the other can be a bit scary. We Americans typically want to think that, underneath the skin, everyone is really like us. But I would say that they are not, not now around the world and not in the past. Of course all humans have the same basic needs and feelings, but the range of possible ways these can be organized and understood is enormous. The more we know people, real or fictional, met in history and literary studies or in the flesh, the more we realize that their world is different from ours and that they are not ‘just like us’—they feel and think differently about work and about children and about right and wrong and beauty, and so on. How exciting the encounter with the other is! Many of you have begun to do this in our safe and nurturing community. In your new environments, some of you will be tempted to stay with what you know, with the type of people you’re already comfortable with, doing the things that made you happy here at Poly. I urge you to discover the other, to be open to new experiences, not to resist, but to welcome the encounter with the unfamiliar. Take yourself outside your comfort zone. I urge you to talk to people whose views you don’t agree with, who follow different paths, and take part in activities new to you. If you love sports, get involved in a poetry circle. If you play jazz, try a chamber music group. Get to know someone whose childhood or culture was vastly different from yours. You’re young, so befriend an old person. If you’re an atheist, spend a couple of hours talking to a religious fundamentalist. If you’re a liberal, get to know some conservatives. If you’re a Christian, hang out for a while with a Muslim. If you’re into traditional gender roles, spend time with someone who’s transitioning. If you’re a video gamer, get out on the lawn and throw a Frisbee. If you’re a native New Yorker, get to know people from Nebraska or Nairobi. I would never have come to Poly if I had stayed in my comfort zone. I had never been through the doors of a private school until I came for my interview, I haven’t been a good athlete since when I was the girls punch ball champ on my block when I was ten, I had been a hippie and here I was at Poly, a private school with a strict, straight-jacket of a dress code and sports everywhere. The more you encounter the other, the more you understand yourself, and the richer that self is.

Lastly, let me tell you what I believe to be the key at the heart of a liberal arts education: ideas matter. To paraphrase the old 1960s phrase, “you are what you eat,” I say you are what you think. Ideas matter, what you think matters, matters more than perhaps you can know now. When you go off to college in just a few months, you’ll find all sorts of complicated issues, new and perhaps surprising problems. You’ll know you’ve been lucky to have been at Poly where there was an easy freedom and where you were encouraged to express your individuality. College campuses are fraught with tensions today, whether it’s professors or students getting into trouble for saying something judged too controversial or dangerous. The liberal idea, the democratic ideal, is under challenge from both the right and the left, from those who, often with the best of intentions, find other values more important. You’ll have to figure out what you think about these complex issues, you’ll have to take positions on these controversies. Whatever your politics, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, or further right or further left, this is a battle not to be shied away from. Engage in the battlefield of ideas, always remembering that the essential ingredient of democracy is respect for the rights of those who disagree with you. I for one appreciate this debate. If ideas are seen as dangerous, it’s because they matter. Don’t be afraid of them, don’t ignore them, do engage with the ideas you hear in class and in the dorm and around campus—disagree, argue, find out what you really think. For what are we, if not our ideas embodied in our flesh?

Now, one of the problems of our modern life is that it’s so hard to have time to read, and absorb, and challenge ideas. “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” Wordsworth said, 203 years ago. And now with Facebook and Twitter and Spotify and Instagram, and email and god knows what else is awaiting us out there—we are all beset all the time with intrusions from the outside world. Information is a fast thing, but ideas are slow. There’s no other way but to take time to read or hear, slowly and carefully, and to think about them, to challenge and to wonder and to sort out the good from the bad. There’s no better way to understand someone than to listen, and listening takes time and it takes quiet. So I urge you to slow down, now and then, turn off the phone, turn off everything, and let yourself experience quiet. Amazing things might happen. Be fully and consciously in whatever moment you’re in, whether wrestling with ideas or hanging out with a friend. Take the time to find time for thinking and listening and for meaningful dialogue.

And I must admit to having an agenda in urging you to encounter new perspectives, for I believe that as you develop your own ideas, you’ll be better able to resist joining the dark side of the force, as they called it in Star Wars. The dark side of the force is the unbridled lust for power and wealth. Now power and wealth are fine things, nothing wrong with them, but they are hollow in and of themselves, ultimately meaningless unless you do good things with them. It’s too easy—we know this from history and from everything from the shenanigans in Washington, D.C. to Mad Men to get sucked into the drive to accumulate more and more power and more and more wealth, without even knowing why. Instead, developing your inner self by figuring out what you think will help you find meaningful work for yourself, something that will be satisfying and make you proud. You want to feel good about what you do, as I have done, every day, for the past 35 years. Good work, meaningful work, satisfying work, is one of the great joys in life.

And that’s what I wish for each and every one of you, joy in life, this complicated, sometimes exhilarating, often disappointing, frequently confusing, always surprising with serendipitous blessings and unforeseen difficulties, great adventure.

Soon, very soon indeed, you and I will be setting off, leaving this very special place, this nurturing environment where each and every one of us has had wonderful opportunities of body and mind, chances to meet up with people of a wide variety of backgrounds, to explore the other, to wrestle with ideas, and to develop new talents and interests. Poly is in many ways our family, a safe and by and large happy nest. We are all, in our various ways, going off on an adventure, one you are well prepared for with the solid liberal arts education you have had here at Poly.

And if one is venturing off into a great journey, it’s a fine thing to go off singing, and that’s something I’ve love to do now. I thought long and hard about what song three generations of Americans might know, one most people here might know, and the only one that fit the bill, and is also connected in some way to what I’ve been talking about today, is “This Land is Your Land.” It’s become the unofficial American anthem, played by Republicans and Democrats alike. I invite, no, I ask everyone here today, students, teachers, parents, friends, whether of not you have a good voice or can keep on pitch to sing, with enthusiasm and spirit, and sing it with enthusiasm. Let me say the words, these good words, and then we’ll sing. They are on your programs so you can read them if you don’t know them. “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land, from California to the New York island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, This Land was made for you and me.” Written by Woody Guthrie, the song is 80 years old, but it still speaks to us today, telling us to love and protect the land, to take care of the environment. That the land was made for all of us is an affirmation of our deep democratic roots. So when we sing this joyous celebration of our America, we affirm our love for our liberal democracy.

I now invite Caesar Fabella and Erika Freeman to join me on the podium to lead us in song. Let’s all stand!

Thank you, everyone, for yet another wonderful Poly moment. Let me end now with Garrison Keillor’s sign-off on the Writer’s Almanac. Be well, do good work, and stay in touch. So I will sign off, saying with heartfelt sincerity, be well, do good work, and keep in touch. And may the force be with you!