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Text of today’s Class of 2009 Convocation Address by Edward J. Kerns, Jr., Eugene H. Clapp II ’38 Professor of Art and director of the Williams Visual Arts Building:

Mr. President, Madam Provost, students and colleagues, parents and friends, welcome! Welcome to all of you. I am honored to greet you on behalf of the faculty and to deliver the convocation address for the class of 2009.

I know all of you are excited, hopeful, and somewhat anxious about what’s to come over the next four years. As an older character in this evolving play, I too still experience the excitement of a new academic year.

Twenty-five years ago I started teaching at Lafayette and, in my earnest effort to do a good job as a new professor, I tried very hard to give complete, detailed answers to students’ questions. In fact, I gained something of a reputation for rather long answers.

And as a new professor I read with great interest the comments made in student evaluations about my teaching. One student wrote, “You can ask Professor Kerns almost anything, as long as it is not too complicated”! He was, of course, referring to the long answers and meant well, but this particular evaluation is where I finally was impressed with the great value of brevity.

So knowing full well that convocation speakers are not high on the list of things people remember about their college years, and with the admonishment of students past, I promise to be brief.

Your class profile is very impressive, as my friend Carol Rowlands [director of admissions] has pointed out. I have met so many of you already and I am delighted with what I see and hear. You are already engaged in lively discussions of the orientation theme, “Imagining America,” which addresses issues of identity, human security, and dialogue in our post-9/11 society.

I believe that the success of our ongoing discussions is dependent in large part on how clearly we can see the connection of our inner worlds to the world outside ourselves.

The Canadian writer Charles Laughlin, who authored a book entitled Brain, Symbol, and Experience, says one of the hottest topics today is “interconnectivity,” what he calls “the intricate relationship between consciousness and the life of the world, the mind of the thinker, and what he or she studies, and the web of relations between objective information and subjective experience. . . . “

This type of discussion is now playing out in the sciences, neuroscience in particular, and has long been a part of the humanities and social sciences. In the arts, connecting the inner world to the outer world is the expressionistic foundation of what artists and musicians, poets and performers do in their work. What is so great about this broad discussion is that it is nothing less than a discussion about the very nature of consciousness, which is in turn raising new questions about the philosophy of mind.

As Laughlin has indicated, there is an increased interest in the role that beliefs and values play in creating new knowledge and, because of this, an increased desire on the part of many to find ways of reconnecting the academic disciplines. New interdisciplinary approaches are demonstrating the interconnectivity of our human experience. We are truly defining each other by what we think and what we share.

As Laughlin puts it, “the intuitive, the visionary, the transcendent, the relational, the spiritual as well as the analytic and the material” are interconnected and morphing into new approaches in the creation of knowledge.

As James Wright, president of Dartmouth College, has noted, the transition you are now making from high school to this new situation represents a significant shift in the way you will experience learning. For most of you, high school was a place where your education was pretty much designed and controlled by others, but now you are going to have the opportunity to have considerable control over your own education. “The initiative for your daily experiences will shift to the decisions you make for yourself,” Wright says, and you should approach this new responsibility for self-leadership with confidence and excitement.

Leading yourself is not just about pushing hard. It also includes a large portion of compassion for yourself, and by that I mean: When you need help, ask for it; when you need rest or play, make sure you get it; and, above all, stay in touch with your families – that base of familial support is most important.

Today’s convocation is the event that symbolically joins you to this learning community and your new responsibilities. All of you will bring different viewpoints and aspirations to this new educational mix. You will soon find that the diversity of thought represented by your classmates and professors will be quite a strength when you are evaluating your own thoughts about identity, human security, and civic dialogue.

Academic life is often defined by rigorous debate in which the debaters assume that they each have the right answer. But it is also defined by dialogue, which assumes that many people have parts of the answer and that through discussion common ground can be found.

Martha Nussbaum, the American philosopher, says, “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current reference points and ways of thinking are neutral and natural.” By looking at ourselves, she says, “in the lens of another we can come to see what in our practices is local, and what is more broadly and deeply shared. . . . So, in a sense, if one is ignorant about the rest of the world, in many crucial ways one is ignorant about the self.”

You are now in a larger context in which to explore your own ideas, and this context may seem uncomfortable at times, because new situations can be uncomfortable. So I offer three hopes for you.

My first hope is that you will develop what James Wright calls “an intellectual impatience that does not allow you to be quite satisfied with what you already know.”

My second hope is that you will develop the ability to hold in your mind multiple perspectives at the same time and to synthesize them into a broader context in which you examine your ideas.

My third hope is that you will soon be able to recognize the difference between disagreement and what Anna Quindlen calls “ideological prize-fighting.”

I have these hopes for you because so much can be learned from those who do not share our own views, and, in the marketplace of ideas, opponents do not have to be enemies. In fact, we can regard them as some of our best teachers.

At Lafayette, we need each other. We need each other in order to test our own beliefs. That is the basis for intellectual growth.

In a letter to college presidents around the country, Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, clearly articulates why all of us should participate in this discussion of identity, human security, and civil society.

Dr. Berresford and her Ford Foundation colleagues write, “We are deeply troubled by reports of growing intolerance and increasing restrictions on academic freedom on college and university campuses. In the wake of 9/11 and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East, the tone of public debate has become increasingly polarized, and in some cases, we see attempts to silence individuals, faculty and students alike, who have controversial views.”

Many of our fellow citizens believe that these problems are symptoms of the nation’s larger and more complex challenge of sustaining informed political and civil discourse. Many more believe that our public dialogue is failing us. The central question for all of you as young citizens is, Should unexamined, partisan spinning continue to dominate our national conversations, or should your generation take the lead in repairing our country’s ability to talk about difficult subjects in a consilient and civil manner?

As you begin to identify and shape your personal destiny during your years here, I ask that you also identify ways in which you can contribute to our national need for a new civic activism based upon dialogue and respect for the power of differences.

In a recent Newsweek column entitled “Life of the Closed Mind,” Anna Quindlen cites a study done by Grinnell College professor Carol Trosset which found that “the most common discussion model among college students was stating what they were certain they already believed, not learning about what they did not or exploring the views of those with whom they disagreed.”

I am asking you – we are asking you – to do otherwise. Think of learning as a dynamic tension between competing views. Victor Frankl, the noted neurologist and psychiatrist, said, “what we actually need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of our efforts. . . . [W]hat we need is not the discharge of tension at any cost . . . but the call of potential meaning to be filled. . . .”

Lafayette is a powerful learning environment. It is a matrix of opportunities. It will serve you well if you keep an open mind and a willingness to engage. Michael Phillips, a PBS radio commentator, points to the uniquely American way in which dialogue frequently occurs between strangers in this country. “Like jazz,” he says, “it is temporal, improvisational, and highly personal.” And like jazz, it is an art form that is uniquely American.

“We take for granted [Phillips says] the ease with which we Americans can speak to nearly anyone who sits down next to us on a bench, bus, or on a ski lift, or who stands next to us in line at a movie, grocery store, or while waiting for a late train. But [dialogue] is an American art. The grounding for our special art isn’t found anywhere else in the world. We usually find out how uniquely American this is if we try to talk to a person from another country. . . . Free wheeling casual conversation is difficult for non Americans. . . . This art form grows out of our cultural roots. It comes from the intellectual soil of our founding fathers, who disdained and prohibited titles and nobility in our Constitution.”

We believe in public conversation – the town meeting, the public square, and the protest. And it comes from our art as well, not the art of social realism, which glorifies the state, but from the personal visions of individual artists. “Our tradition of universal education and elective public office (we have over 600,000 elected officials) [also] elevates public conversation to a level of great importance,” Phillips notes.

So I ask you to do your part to preserve this uniquely American approach to dialogue, this jazz of words, which is ours alone.

This year, 2005, is the one-hundredth anniversary of what is sometimes referred to as the “miracle year of 1905” by historians of the 20th century.

That was the year when Sigmund Freud wrote about the unconscious in preparation for his Clark University lectures; James Joyce completed Dubliners; Pablo Picasso’s cubist vision changed the space of art to being about culture, not nature alone; and Albert Einstein published four little papers that revolutionized our view of space, time, and matter. These intellectual landmarks share a profound structural interconnectivity, and these great thinkers have been claimed by all of us as citizens of the world. What a great anniversary on which to start down your own path of discovery!

Einstein said, “Never regard study as a duty but as an enviable opportunity to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of your community, to which your later work belongs.”

Class of 2009, this is your time. The doors to your future are open. Let’s begin our intellectual journey together, and let us not forget that the diversity of thought represented by all of us protects the ability of each of us to maximize our own unique potential.

The doors are open – come in! Good luck to all of you. Thank you for this opportunity to wish you well.

Categorized in: Academic News