1994 Convocation Address - Pilgrims, Scholars, and Hitchhikers

Convocation 1994
Tom Gerety

When I was a little younger than the freshmen gathered here today, I went on a pilgrimage. It was a religious pilgrimage, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and drew students from all over Europe and beyond. It was only a two or three day affair, but we hiked several thousand strong along back lanes, among great golden fields in the farm country outside Paris. We camped out, we sang, we argued about religion and how we ought to live our lives. On the last night, we marched uphill into the village with candles in our hands. The steep streets filled with faint ambling lights. It seemed for a moment like the fourteenth century. I had never done anything like this before. Except for marches on Washington and New York in the sixties and seventies, I have never done anything like it since. I recall it today because of the powerful sense it gave me of belonging to a faith, to a march, to a purpose. Long after I had abandoned the faith (and I was none too sure of it at the time), I remembered the bonfire, the arguments, the sense of oneness with this small army of religiously earnest European university students.

I want to talk about the sense of community and its place in your experience--in our experience--here at Amherst. In taking up this theme, I know that it is at once an elusive and sensitive one, taken up many times before by deans and president, here and elsewhere. A couple of generations ago no one talked about community because everyone took it for granted. Places like Amherst were made up then of young men from pretty similar backgrounds, some richer and some poorer, a few from overseas and a few on scholarship. Was the sense of community stronger then than now? At the very least, it was easier to assume if not to achieve.

I speak of a sense of community, not simply community. I have several reasons for this: First, the community of Amherst College is not something I can talk about now with much confidence or certainty. Like the new students, I have just arrived and look around with eyes that may or may not conceal bewilderment and anticipation. Second, I would hope, by speaking of my sense of community, to pull this concept a little closer to my own experience. We can be fairly sure, most of the time, of our own feelings about an ideal, even an indeterminate one. Finally, I want to begin and end this talk with a slight distance or detachment from the ideal of community. And I say this not out of cynicism or even skepticism about the ideal we invoke with the word community.

I believe in community, but I believe in it more or less the way I believe in love. We seek it more often than we find it; we find it in odd and surprising ways; it is real but it is also fragile, uncertain, and sometimes ambiguous.

In a wonderful if pompous image, Hegel once said that the owl of Minerva--the classical symbol of wisdom--spreads her wings in flight only when night falls. We can never understand an age, he suggests, until it is gone, or going. Community may be an ideal that grows more vivid the more we are estranged from its reality--in neighborhoods, countries, or colleges.

Let me begin with the help of an earlier Amherst president. Coming out of the Faculty, where he taught and wrote about American history and culture, John William Ward engaged in a bold act of protest early on in his presidency. In the spring of 1972, he made a small pilgrimage of his own to the Westover Air Force Base. There he led a protest and was arrested along with many professors and students. This brave but controversial act put him at the center of a bitter divide about where the expression of personal conviction ended and the responsibilities of his office started.

He gave a poignant convocation talk on community in this chapel a few years later, in 1976. What he said then is striking to me in its directness and honesty about community at Amherst. I have to believe that what happened at Westover shaped his reflections.

The scholarly roots of our use of the word community seemed clear to President Ward: as the discipline of sociology invented itself out of history and philosophy in the latter part of the nineteenth century, some of its greatest figures, in England, France, and Germany, distinguished among historical periods by creating typologies of various ways of living. Like the philosophers who inspired them, they saw one model emerging from another. Often the typologies were set at poles to one another, status versus contract, sentiment versus rationality, and so on.

The important typology for Bill Ward was the one that every student in sociology and political science learns in German, the typology of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. There is a kind of hot and cold in this dichotomy, a Yin and Yang. We usually translate Gesellschaft as society: it represents rationality, contract, and purpose in human relations, often without regard to feeling. In everyday German, eine Gesellschaft can be a company, a corporation, or a large gathering. Gemeinschaft, on the other hand, means community, and represents warmth and intimacy, with roles or status assigned not by contract but by givens like birth and kinship. Ward stated with no hesitation that Amherst represented the former rather than the latter: As we consider Amherst College, he said, clearly we are an instance of Gesellschaft, a contractual association. We come together from fifty states and foreign countries by virtue of what we can do, not by reason of who we are. We are not kin, we did not grow together in the same neighborhood, we are not bound by a common faith or an ethnic identity. It may sound cold to put it this way, he suggested, but it is the truth.

At this distance from his speech it is easy to say both how right he was about this, and how wrong. We are a contractual, rational association, bound together by our purposes, but we are also one that is small, residential and suffused with ideals about mutual concern, support, and friendship.

The typology of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft pushes us, I think, towards exaggerated exclusions, towards either/ors: it is this or that, rational or irrational, contracted or else assumed. But communities, as I have known them, are something of both. Yes, purposes structure communities and bind them under duress. Still communities remain compounds of purpose and feeling, thought and emotion, ideals and histories.

"We come together," Bill Ward said, "not out of love or friendship but for learning." Yet it is precisely this purpose, our shared commitment to learning, that can make us friends and allies in our enterprise.

In an archaic usage we should never abandon, professors and students are both scholars: we are schooling together, inquiring together, the students hitching rides, as it were, and the professors offering them. That is the heart of any curriculum. Bill Ward himself spoke more than once of "the fellowship of the mind..." His words are not so very far from those of Janet Morgan in the late Henry Mishkin's "Hymn to Amherst": "Those who teach and those who learn," she said, "build a living city"--a living community. In another verse, she spoke of the College as "bound by friendship's charter."

Yet communities of learning can and must have an edge to them. Professor Emeritus and former Acting President Armour Craig likes to say that the Amherst faculty is characterized by a certain irritability of mind. I take it that he means the phrase in an almost wholly physiological sense: not that we are a grumpy, irritable lot, but rather that the Amherst Faculty is sensitive, at times acutely sensitive, to the world around it, to changes, nuances, differences: in short, to ideas. Armour's metaphor touches on a core notion of intelligence as liveliness of mind and thought. It also suggests the necessary irritation that characterizes teaching and learning. In one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates styled himself a rayfish, with a sting sharp enough to stir his pupils to learning.

Most of us have experienced a sense of community in other settings: on teams perhaps; with the stage crew and actors in a play; in a synagogue or church; when relatives gather for a family wedding. Sometimes that sense of community is keen though fleeting. I remember this feeling as a hitchhiker with Adelia, in the years before we were married (when hitchhiking was still safe). Someone would pick us up, at an empty intersection on the edge of Wichita, say, someone who might be scruffy or neat, drunk or sober. There was joy in their stopping for us, often after a long wait or a sweaty trudge out of town. (In Vermont, I remember, you could hitchhike for half a day with no one stopping at all, as if the thumb up on an outreached arm was understood there as a sign of malevolence, or perhaps quarantine.)

Whenever someone did stop there was always a variant of the same question: How far are you going? Where are you headed? On these questions hung a lot, for both sides. Do I tell them exactly where I am going? How much can I trust them with this information? Maybe they re up to no good.

Once, outside of Denver, a man in a Mustang picked us up at dusk. He said he was headed for Illinois--more than a thousand miles away. After a while, he asked if I drove. Sure; we both do, I said. Well then how about one of you take the wheel while I sleep? We drove all night, as he slept in the back, at a speed you could do even then only in the West. He let us off at dawn the next day on an interchange outside Chicago.

I offer this example because it is dear to me and because it gives us the barest elements of any community: we were all headed in the same direction; we were all in a hurry; he was sleepy but had a fast car; Adelia and I were wide awake with the excitement of our trip; both of us could drive. The three of us had a common purpose and matching needs and strengths. It was a contract all right, but there was warmth in it, a sense of openness to one another, to a brief purposeful friendship, requiring a brief but palpable trust. Not least, in the foggy dawn outside Chicago, there was gratitude.

When one freely chosen way crosses another, when one person can help another on the way, there is an exhilaration, a delight in a kind of friendship, if only for a limited purpose, if only for a time.

You can learn a lot on your own, I know. But think for a moment of how much of what we learn we learn from others. Every kind of instrument with which we learn was invented by someone and painstakingly perfected by others. The car, the shoe, the course, the college: all of these are the handiwork of people like us, setting out on paths and trying to figure out ways to make them smoother. None of us can deny the ambiguities of human invention and learning. The power of knowing is a power for good and evil. But it is a power multiplied many times over because we human beings are teachers to one another. We learn from what others have learned before us. A college like this one has three essential features of human architecture: First, and most important, it is built around a specific relation between teachers and students, a relation that I call, simply, teaching as conversation. Second, it is built around a relation between its scholars--all of them--and their scholarship, a relation of commitment, often passionate commitment, to the ongoing refinement of the intellectual disciplines in which we acquire and organize knowledge. And, third, it is built in the faith that students will learn much of what they can learn from one another, in conversations in the dormitory and dining hall; in arguments on the playing fields and in the laboratories; in discussions in theaters, studios, and coffee houses. All of these conversations will fail utterly if we have too little confidence in one another, too little trust, to engage each other passionately and seriously.

What I want to say to the students who are here tonight is this: The community of Amherst is an instrument of learning and exploration. Never let it become morally small or imaginatively confining. The differences among you will serve your learning. The obvious differences are those of background--of race, of gender, of outlook and origin. But the less obvious differences will serve you even more, the differences of intellectual temperament and approach, of insights that compete, of conclusions that clash. Across all of these differences there will be, I am sure, friendship and warmth and gratitude. But there will also be anger, disappointment in one another, and what we call too lightly disillusion.

Do I sound too much like Walt Whitman if I say: all of this is to the good, to the purpose?

The community we have at Amherst--the community we seek at Amherst---is not one of unalloyed warmth and fellowship and commonality. Neither rigor nor freedom in our learning will flourish without sharpness and passion and difference. Conflict and argument are essential to you and essential to what we do here. Do not shy from conflict in your learning anymore than you shy from complexity. Respect one another, but challenge one another. Get to the bottom of your--our-- conflicts. What are the principles we argue over? Which are the prejudices? Fight hard where you feel you must. But never presume that you are completely right and your colleagues completely wrong. Understand what separates you as well as what joins you.

There was a time, and it was a long time, when colleges such as this one were all of one race, one gender, one region of one country. That time is gone. The community of that time was no doubt a good one, where learning and teaching held challenges and glories of their own. But the community of our time can be immeasurably better. We know all too well what stands in our way. We are diverse in more ways than we can count. We live in an age of suspicion and mistrust. There may be much to fear from our world, and from one another. But the very multiplicity of our selves makes community a more thrilling and more rigorous achievement for all of us. From out of our differences, we can learn--and we can teach. And the community we create here, on this hill, will stand as a model for the communities we must build together throughout this land and throughout our world.

I am proud to join you in this adventure.
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