2009 Convocation

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President Anthony W. Marx
September 7, 2009
Johnson Chapel

Class of 2013:

This week, meeting your classmates, you have come to appreciate the reality behind the college’s rhetoric about the amazing mix of students we attract. Extraordinary abilities led each of you here. And you bring a huge variety of perspectives to bear on your studies and the friendships you will make here for life.

You were not brought here to answer for any one group or activity. Rather, we know you will hold onto some aspects of who you are now and let others go as you open to new conceptions of yourselves. Some of the things you loved to do before, you will find crowded out by new enthusiasms. Identity is more fluid than you might have thought. Fellow students, here and in the years ahead of you, will guide and provoke you in this life learning.

This evening we formally introduce you to your guides in the learning that is to be your focus at Amherst: your professors. These next four years will be unique in your lives, a time devoted to the life of the mind: reading, researching, experimenting, creating and debating, widely and deeply, but not yet professionally.

The learning from your fellow students, and from activities outside class, supplements what happens in the classroom. To lead you in that central academic journey, Amherst sustains a great faculty, whose scholarship enriches our world.

You will see this right away, as I have had the honor to over the past six years: in the spark in the professor’s eye when describing the new course they are teaching, the student paper that disappointed and the one that blew them away, the new ideas their research has fired which they can’t wait to share and even test with you. Your professors, this faculty, will change you forever.

I know. It happened to me.

When I was an entering first-year student at a great liberal arts college, I had assumed that I was fairly well prepared. In high school, I had been able to memorize and recite with the best of them. But I was not prepared.

Having enrolled in a set of courses on Western history and culture, I came into contact in particular that first year with Professor Louis Mink. Professor Mink was a scholar of that giant of Western philosophy Immanuel Kant and the editor of a major academic journal. His hobby was to annotate James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake.

I found all that not a little terrifying. Then Professor Mink asked me to come see him to talk about my first paper in his class. I recall stumbling out of his office a couple of hours later, not sure what had happened, exactly. It felt like someone had taken a crowbar to my head and started to pry it open.

Mink once wrote that students sometimes complained that he was so intense, so unrelenting, it hurt. He said he knew exactly what they meant, as those headaches from trying to use your brain happened to him all the time.

On this campus, there are as many potent, subtle forms of instruction as there are professors. Historian Richard Teichgraeber ’71, in a memoir of an Amherst professor he revered, John Moore, writes that “No one formula … captures … successful teaching,” and that Professor Moore in fact “violated many of the techniques we … think of as essential for effective teaching. In a room full of students ... he spoke softly and quickly, and ... seemed to want to teach less by talking than by listening intently when others talked.”

Yet, moved by Moore’s “authoritative but kind voice,” he found himself empowered by the professor’s “decidedly un-condescending encouragement to think again, to get it right.”

Reflect on that a moment. Prepare yourself to be in the presence of that kind of attention, which you will face here. Prepare yourself to take the initiative intellectually, above all else you do here, to read the assignment again, to pursue a loose end on your own, to search the Web about an author and read more. Consider the care you will take now to “get it right,” to develop a truth, even if a fleeting one, when you are being listened to intently by a great scholar who stands poised to see that you get it.

That’s why we call them “the faculty.” The wealth of these teachers’ scholarship and their deep love of teaching go hand in hand. It is the same engine driving both. The scholar’s discipline informs and charges the joy to be taken in your learning.

Before such professors, you discover it impossible not to want to pry your mind open—impossible not to give of your best. As we do.

When my teacher Louis Mink died, years after my schooling, he was described in another college chapel as “the soul of the college.” Here, in this chapel where you gather at the heart of Amherst, for the first time, you are meeting the soul of this fair college, your own Louis Minks and John Moores. Your mind will be engaged by dozens of them before your time here concludes. They are Amherst’s best gift to you. Open to your work with them, even when it seems to hurt—especially then, for invariably that means you are onto something. Be not shy with us as we press you further.

Now, one might ask, if we can speak with such certainty of the talents we all bring together here on this hilltop, can we as clearly declare why we do so?

That question has been asked since colleges and universities began—indeed, since Plato’s Academy. At Amherst, we provide the answer explicitly in our Mission Statement, but I would like to explicate that statement first by acknowledging a kind of argument that is offered in counterpoint to it.

The argument has been suggested recently by Professor Stanley Fish, a very prominent academic and former dean, now of Florida International University, in his book Save the World on Your Own Time. Professor Fish is famous for enjoying a good argument, and I am happy to try to oblige, though I do agree with much of what he says.

First, Fish declares that our legitimate responsibility as faculty is to “introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry” and to provide you with the “analytical skills… that will enable [you] to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research.”

He is absolutely correct. Our job is not to indoctrinate, for as President John F. Kennedy said here 45 years ago, we are “not engineers of the soul.” We are not here to tell you how to vote, which Fish correctly disdains.

But my interlocutor does not leave it there. He asserts that to avoid entanglement with any political or social agenda of the day, we should focus only on the academic pursuit, for its own sake, in isolation from the world.

Now, I strongly agree as to the essential place for pure research and teaching guided by personal passion, with no other obvious purpose. Much of our labor here could not succeed without being prized in just this way. Often one sees no obvious economic or social utility to it, even if much of the work proves later to have benefits beyond those we might have predicted.

Still, I am wary of the too-easy suggestion that our work on this hilltop is “separate from the ‘real’ world.” Exploring the intricate patterns of science, we move only more deeply into the laws and beauty of nature. When we explore a great work of art, literature or social analysis, we do not separate from the world but instead appreciate its intricacies and add ways of understanding how people live, think, act, speak and are inspired.

But Professor Fish goes too far—or perhaps not far enough—in his suggestion that making “good researchers” and training our successors to do academic work is all that we are here for.

Although we of course treasure and value that some of you will follow us into the profession of academe, we know most of you will not. Yet Fish suggests that we should focus only on teaching you academic skills without regard for the abilities and “moral character” you also develop, and that our work has no use “whatsoever ... to those with no investment in the obsessions internal to the [academic] profession.”

My own view is this:

While our primary task is to train you in the scholarly ways the good professor Fish describes, I fear it sells you and us short to deny the impact our academic pursuit will have on each of you. For instance, when we are discussing, in a class, a moral dilemma—for example, a conflict between justice and mercy—we do not try to decide it there. But surely our teaching of how to analyze such a question does inform your decision. As another great Amherst teacher, Scott Buchanan ’16, put it, “the thing you’re after in a good discussion [is] individual insight ... not ... agreement or a doctrine.”

Nevertheless, Professor Fish argues that “moral capacities have no relationship whatsoever to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures.” He proposes instead that we have no “responsibility for the effects of our teaching ... [that] we are responsible only for its appropriate performance.” And, in his own field, as a great scholar of Milton, he suggests that “poems don’t ask us to do anything except read them.”

At Amherst, we cannot help but use our minds more broadly. Our studies inspire and provoke us. We run statistical programs, perform laboratory research and read and write poems not just for the intellectual exercise or to acquire isolated skills but because such pursuits show us what people and nature are, what in all the world moves us and, yes, what kind of persons we want to become.

Academic work brings us closer to the world. It makes life more intelligible to us, moving us more deeply into the vital work of imagining and creating it anew. Indeed, the world cries out for just that broader intelligence, that well-informed creativity.

To deny the inspiration of our disciplines and the ways they develop our moral reasoning, intuition and creativity is to both impoverish what we achieve here and to deny society the insights, energy and inventiveness it rightfully expects of us.

Therefore, I believe we should inspire you to be faithful to values you develop even as we also teach you to keep questioning them—to beware, as Buchanan said, “th[os]e familiar roads where convention puts vision to sleep.”

We act as agents of change in you. Not by pursuing for you any predetermined values or notion of social utility but by steadily, incisively, creatively questioning both ourselves and you.

That habit of deep inquiry, by its very nature, ignites this broader vision and inventiveness I have described. Now, Fish suggests that since we cannot always be sure of achieving this vision, we should instead “aim [only] for ... what [we] can reasonably set out to do.”

But aiming low has never been for us. Since at least Plato, academic work—the life of the mind—has stood in fruitful, productive tension with the life of action in society. That is why the first sentence of Amherst’s mission states unequivocally that we educate you to “advance knowledge” where your passions lead. After all, you cannot fix the world unless you understand it, and for that, scholarly discipline and critical reading is essential. Only then are you meant to “engage the world around [you] and lead principled lives of consequence.”

We call you now into the world of ideas, and we will call you “to link learning with leadership.”

Thus, in all aspects of our lives together here—in the concert hall, in the art studio, through student clubs, on athletic fields, in dorms, in the admissions office, in our respectful appreciation of our hardworking staff, in relations with all our alumni, as an investor and in our community engagement—the college also seeks, as an institution, to supplement and exemplify that inquiring energy of the classroom, the bright light of that fire kindled deep in each of your minds.

As Stanley Fish rightly says, we are in the education business, not the democracy business. But what that business entails is made clearer today by Diana Walsh, former president of Wellesley and long-serving trustee of Amherst. She reminds us that, in our land now, and thus on our campuses, we need not only an economic fix but a moral fix, if we are going to make our lives not self-indulgent but significant.

We build toward that fix in a variety of ways. Yes, being cultured is cool, as a colleague recently affirmed to me. But also, through acculturation here, the pursuit of disciplines, one is striving to become a better person of better judgment. That is our job, especially now: to help you imagine and add to what we mean to each other and the world.

A few years ago, our distinguished and now sadly departed alum, taught well by those in this room, the writer David Foster Wallace ’85, impressively described how we set out for that moral consciousness we seek. He began with the old story about fish. (Not Stanley; real ones.) You may know it.

“Two young fish, swimming along, happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two fish swim on a bit; then one looks over at the other and says, ‘What the hell is water?’

“The point,” Wallace says, “is ... that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and to talk about.” That seeing is part of what we are here to get you to do.

Echoing Buchanan’s caution against that “familiarity which puts vision to sleep,” Wallace reminds us to open our minds when he admits that “a huge percentage of the stuff ... I tend to be certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” Here now, in these four years, is your chance to learn, as Wallace advised, “how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and ... how you construct meaning from experience.” We do this when we “get free” of the “natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

It is to that purpose that you have come to Amherst. Tremendously gifted as you are, we invite you to begin now the practice of both understanding your own perspective and of looking beyond it. Study with your teachers here, who stand ready to help you pry your minds open. Dive in, seeing where you are for what it is, not assumed, and not assuming that is all there is.

Look around you. As David Foster Wallace said, “This is water.”

Welcome to Amherst College.