An Interview with President Andy Benton
Here are some reflections from President Benton about the Route 66 trip:
Q: When did you first get the idea of driving Route 66 from one end to the other?
A:Route 66 has always intrigued me, I suppose. Its creation was such a bold and ambitious undertaking and the route played an important role in our nation's history. It's amazing to think about the hundreds of thousands of people for whom the road was "home" for weeks at a time as entire families moved westward over it. I drove the route last year and enjoyed the experience thoroughly. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to return with the intent of exploring expectations Americans in the heartland have about education, especially higher education.
Q: What thoughts pass through your mind as you pass through long stretches of the American landscape?
A: Time passes quickly.The scenery is rich and ever-changing and frankly it's good just to have time to think. I enjoy my work very much and having time alone like this gives me a chance to prepare to do better and consider fresh, new approaches to familiar challenges.
Q: It's hard to imagine long drives without music. Who are some of the artists you look forward to traveling with on Route 66?
A: I am taking a box of about 45 CDs with me.Old friends such as Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, and Chicago will join me in a very crowded car, and I will be content.
Q: Route 66 travels through what's often called "America's Heartland." What does the term "America's Heartland" mean to you?
A: It means "home." I love California and my friends and experiences there, but the Midwest will always be home. So much good has come from the center of America - Woody Guthrie, George Pepperdine, and Dwight D. Eisenhower are but three quick examples. It is a place of simple truths and values, and I admire that greatly. My ancestors were from the center of the country and that is important and poignant for me.
Q: In its heyday, Route 66 must have held great promise for travelers who headed west with little more than their dreams of a better life. Comment on how we are inheritors of their dreams and in many ways standing on their shoulders.
A: I have always been fascinated by the period of history sometimes called "trans-Mississippi West," or the Westward Movement and the development of America. I imagine stories of dreams and fears and hardship, rewarded by new beginnings and a host of opportunities. I admire people who move steadfastly toward their dreams. Today, I think of students who each year come to Pepperdine for an education. I suspect they come with their own different hopes and fears but I also believe they are rewarded by their effort. We are fortunate to greet them and help them along their educational journeys.
Q: The "Mother Road" as John Steinbeck called it attracts travelers from all over the U.S. as well as visitors from other countries. Why is there so much interest in an old road that long ago lost its relevance?
A: My students will tell you that I often speak of my belief that it is not just the destination that matters; the journey is important too. Along the way we learn much about ourselves. There is a certain sense of romanticism that attends Route 66 today. Making that journey is something of an homage to those who made what we have possible today.
Q: In our daily rush to reach destinations, we might not enjoy our journeys as much. What lessons might a road trip, especially one along Route 66, teach us?
A: The one who travels Route 66 is required to slow down and contemplate the texture of the journey. Speed and convenience are good and helpful, but the richness of the slower, more contemplative path has its own rewards.
Q: Are there some "must sees" along Route 66 you would recommend to others? Landmarks, towns, monuments, etc?
A: I find it all very interesting, but I am less intrigued by the artifacts than I am by the people who populate the route. Their curiosity as to why I find their lives so interesting when I am from one of the major cities of the world never fails to bring a smile. Having lunch in one of the innumerable diners and talking about life is instructive. Inquiring into what my new found friends think about the work we do in higher education is especially helpful and centering. I fully expect to return home a better university president than when I left. If I do not, I wasn't paying attention.
Q: You are a lifelong car buff who lives about a tenth of a mile on campus from your office, so buying a 2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt Edition and driving it 2,400 miles through some stunning vistas must fulfill some kind of fantasy. Tell us about your interest in automobiles.
A: Let's face it:it's mostly a "guy thing." I have had several cars I now wish I had never sold and rare is the opportunity to make amends. I wish I could offer a better explanation, but it is no more complicated than the fact I wanted an authentic American icon. I am blessed to be married to a woman who understands my occasional indulgences.
Q: Along this timeless route, you'll be meeting with a number of people about timeless values - family, community, commitment, and service. As someone who has spent most of his professional life in education, what are you seeking to learn from the conversations you have?
A: Frankly, I enter the experience holding myself to some semblance of objectivity. I am looking for signposts for our future. While Washington speaks forcefully, I am vitally interested in what others have to say as well. I am keenly interested in what America - all of America - thinks about a college education today. What is important and why? What might the mayor of a small town in Missouri convey to the higher education community if given the chance? Are people optimistic or fearful? I believe Pepperdine and much of higher education serves well today but we must think carefully and care deeply about what will be important in the future. It is that simple and that important.