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W&L Law’s Murchison Celebrates the Liberal Arts in Convocation Address

In “The Liberal Arts in Practice,” his address to the Sept. 9 opening convocation of the 2015–2016 academic year at Washington and Lee University, Brian C. Murchison told the audience of first-year students, undergraduate seniors and third-year law students that the liberal arts at W&L are about “the enlargement of mind and soul, the process of questioning and discovering the meaning and worth of things, and ultimately about defining what it is to be human and what it is to take up civic and moral responsibility.”

Murchison, the Charles S. Rowe Professor of Law, has taught at W&L’s School of Law since 1982. His subject matter includes administrative law, mass media law, jurisprudence, torts, and contemporary problems in law and journalism. He served as the acting dean of the School of Law from 2006 to 2007.

Calling it “a product of liberal arts collaboration at its best,” Murchison used as his touchstone this year’s 20th anniversary of the W&L Black Lung Clinic, wherein law students represent coal miners and their survivors who are pursuing federal black lung benefits. He served as a supervising attorney for the clinic from 1996 to 1999.

Murchison told the audience, which also included the W&L faculty, how the clinic took root in the early 1990s with a W&L law course taught by Andrew “Uncas” McThenia. The James P. Morefield Professor of Law Emeritus at W&L, McThenia is a member of the W&L undergraduate class of 1958 and law class of 1963. The course, which Murchison attended, examined a West Virginia mine disaster from 1969, a subsequent strike, and the eventual passage of a law to compensate miners with occupational lung disease. The students and Murchison learned that nevertheless, 20 years later, disabled coal miners rarely won such cases against their former employers.

“Liberal arts learning can be like this,” said Murchison. “It can begin with an intensive study of facts or ideas, and the encounter with the reality of a time and place can stick in your mind. Sometimes, when the class is done and the semester is over, it’s not really done, it’s not really over. A liberal arts experience can haunt a student whose mind has been opened, even a crack. We were definitely haunted.”

After the conclusion of the course, McThenia and other law professors pursued the establishment of the Black Lung Clinic at W&L to handle the coal miners’ claims. They realized that the participating students would have to dive into many fields besides the law: history, sociology, biology, poetry, literature and written and oral communication.

“Putting all of this together is one of the things that liberal education makes possible,” said Murchison. “And the good news is that a number of people on this campus, from different disciplines, helped to make this integration a reality and to bring the clinic alive.”

Murchison touted the critical role that writing plays in a liberal arts education. “The clinical experience was very much an engagement with writing,” he remembered. “Not just things we had to read, but sentences we had to write.”

On that topic, he related an anecdote from his own senior year, at Yale University. “When it comes to writing,” Murchison said, “in some corner of my soul is the voice of a man I learned from in college, William Zinsser.” The renowned journalist and nonfiction writer, who died in May of this year, taught nonfiction writing at Yale and was the master of Murchison’s residential college. Although he had not taken a class from Zinsser, Murchison sought his advice when he was pondering whether to keep going with school, to teach or to enter the Peace Corps. Zinsser asked him, “Which of these things would present the most challenge?”

“I suppose is always the question of the liberal arts,” said Murchison. “Where can you best enlarge your mind, your sympathies, your participation in the world?” He chose the Peace Corps, where he enlarged his mind “so much that it hurt,” he said.

“I credit Zinsser in large part with helping me ask the right question. And of course, that is what writing does. To write a sensible sentence requires understanding your topic, asking questions about it until you’ve asked the right one. And in the Black Lung Clinic, that act of writing is the vehicle for bringing everything together in coherent, persuasive words.”

Echoing Murchison’s theme of liberal arts collaboration, the ceremony also included the University Singers performing “The Lake Isle,” by Ola Gjeilo, under the direction of Shane Lynch, associate professor of music. The composition contains stanzas from the poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by W.B. Yeats. Marc Conner, W&L’s associate provost and the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English, gave a mini-lecture about the Yeats piece. “This, then, is a poem that longs to go back home,” he said, “certainly an experience that many a college student will experience, whether in her first week on the new campus or at other moments during the college season.”

President Kenneth P. Ruscio presided over his final convocation, having announced in May that he will step down as president in June 2016, at the end of this academic year.

You may watch the entire convocation online.