Convocation 2012

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September 4, 2012

Amherst marked the beginning of the 2012–13 school year with Opening Convocation at Johnson Chapel on Sept. 3. The first formal gathering of the first-year class, the annual ceremony enables the college’s president and the faculty, dressed in their academic regalia, to officially welcome the new students. Every year, it features a procession, music by the Choral Society and the awarding of master of arts degrees to faculty who have reached the rank of full professor but aren’t graduates of Amherst. (View photos of the entire event at the Amherst College Flickr set.)

In this year’s Convocation address, President Biddy Martin commended the members of the Class of 2016 for having the courage to learn, to be challenged by new ideas and to “combat our own willful ignorance.” “Critical thinking cannot be programmed, but it can be exemplified,” she explained to the audience of first-year students, faculty, staff and others. “It is our job to exemplify it by turning our analytical skills and our patience outward but also inward toward ourselves. The quality of this institution depends on the willingness of our students and faculty and everyone else who works to put their ‘taken-for-granteds’ at risk.”

She discussed the relationships the students would cultivate at college and reminded them of the value of their Amherst education as well. The latter, she told them, is “a launching pad or platform for the work that needs to be done to address the monumental challenges in the world—economic, political, cultural, environmental.… It’s an opportunity to learn not only how to think but [how] to relate to people from every conceivable background, how to engage the world and how to lead.”

Prior to speaking to the first-years, Martin conferred honorary master’s degrees on Catherine Epstein, professor of history and chair of her department; Jeffrey Ferguson, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Black studies and American studies; Caroline Goutte, professor of biology; Amelie Hastie, professor of English and film and media studies and chair of the film studies department; and Nasser Hussain, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought. She also acknowledged Scott Kaplan ’95, professor of computer science, who was also promoted to full professor but already holds an Amherst degree.

President Biddy Martin’s 2012 Convocation Address

TRANSCRIPT

Good evening, and welcome once again. We are gathered to mark the beginning of the academic year, to celebrate teaching and learning and to affirm their importance. We are lucky to be learning and teaching in a community of smart, curious and creative people. By the very nature of this event and its rituals, we commit ourselves to one another and to a larger world that desperately needs its Amhersts. We are all eager just to get on with it, but it makes sense to dwell, even if only briefly, on our work, our relationships, and, perhaps, even our fun.

I know the faculty feels fortunate to be teaching a student body with your talent, curiosity and diversity. You, who are our new and continuing students, are lucky to study with faculty who are contributing to their scholarly fields, creating new knowledge across disciplinary boundaries and investing their creativity in the art of teaching. The Amherst faculty treats teaching with same seriousness they bring to original research. I know from experience that such seriousness is rare. 

In their senior survey, members of the Class of 2012 reported that their favorite teachers were the ones who had the highest expectations of them, who demanded their best work. This is a place that reveres the life of the mind and challenges us to continue a long tradition, a 191-year-old tradition of setting high standards.

In a meeting of Amherst alumni in the chapel last spring, I was asked by an alum what motivates serious scholars to spend their careers teaching undergraduates; “What’s in it for them?” I believe he asked. I had a response ready, based on my own experience as a teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students, but I caught sight of Professor Sarat, a political scientist, who happened to be standing in the back of Johnson Chapel; I asked him to come forward and give the audience his perspective—and he was glad to oblige. I want to read the summary account he sent me later, because what he said is representative of Amherst faculty as a whole. I cannot imagine any member of the faculty who would not agree. “Amherst classrooms at their best,” he said, “are places that combine love, challenge and hope. We want our students not just to learn, but to love ideas, images, mathematical equations.”

“Love,” he cautioned, “cannot be programmed, but it can be exemplified.” We want our students not only to learn, but also to love learning. He continued: “At our best, we try to put our students in a place of productive discomfort … we want to unsettle their taken-for-granteds. We want to challenge their moments of complacency. The return for those of us who teach, of seeing students take up the challenge, venture into that place of productive discomfort, is being inspired by their courage and reminded of what it is like to move beyond our own comfort zones.”

He concluded by saying, “I guess it is all about what they and we are willing to put at risk.”

I like the combination of challenge, love and hope. I like thinking about what it means to put our assumptions, even ourselves, at risk, within what is ultimately a pretty safe environment. If anyone among you doubts that it takes courage to question what we think we know or put our beliefs at risk, you need only look at the ideological rigidity in the world around us and consider the tenacious refusal in broad swaths of the public to accept scientific conclusions or listen to the views of others.

It takes particular courage to combat what we might call our willful ignorance, but we are here to do just that. By “willful ignorance,” I mean the active suppression of knowledge or truth, the kind of ignorance that cannot be changed by the mere addition of new information. In moments of uncertainty and fear, we are particularly prone to indulging our ignorance, and the times are nothing if not uncertain. Our resistance to change is purposeful, but often only at an unconscious level by virtue of our stubborn internalizations.

Last week, [DeMott Lecturer] David Nevins [’88] told you that the most creative periods in his career have often been the most anxiety-ridden; they have come when he was making the transition from one job to another, before he knew the rules and had not yet internalized them. He encouraged you to take advantage of the transition you are making, giving yourselves permission to think otherwise. Permission of that sort requires a fight, because we are largely unaware of the structure of our ignorance, and our prejudices can be forms of love for those from whom we learned or absorbed them. Critical thinking cannot be programmed, but it can be exemplified, and it is our job to exemplify it. The quality of our institution depends on the willingness of students and faculty, and everyone who works here, to put their “taken-for-granteds” at risk.

Amherst sometimes seems like a treasured island, a respite from the inanity or insanity or the ugliness in the world, but it is not an island, and we don’t want it to be. We want it to be a platform or a launching pad for the work that needs to be done if we are to address the monumental challenges we face—economic, environmental, political, social, cultural and psychological. Amherst provides an opportunity to acquire the skills and the quality of thought that is adequate to the problems; it is also an opportunity to learn how to engage and build relationships with people from all over the world; it is an opportunity to learn how to lead.

When I was in London visiting our alumni this summer, I asked some of my interlocutors how they accounted for their love of Amherst. “It’s a place,” said one, “where it was cool to be smart.” We are fortunate to be in a place where it is cool to be smart; cool to be different; cool to be an athlete who puts academics first or finds the right balance between the two; cool not to be an athlete; cool to sing, to dance, to stay up all night studying, even when there is no exam the next day; cool to grasp and appreciate the nature of reality and the complexity of our lives.

I have lots of wishes for you, but I will emphasize two: first, that you reject the substitution all around us of only dimly related bullet points for genuine analysis. I hope you will use your time here to hone your intellectual skills and use them to reach for an understanding of the world—one that integrates the different modes of thought to which you will be exposed; one that displays close reading, critical thinking, analytical reason, creativity and a commitment to clear, compelling exposition. I hope you take full advantage of Amherst’s commitment to great writing and to other forms of creative expression. I hope you go beyond scattered “bullet points” or decontextualized data to a working understanding, or an approach to understanding, that honors imagination, distinguishes between fact and fiction and remains open to new knowledge.

Second, I hope you find ways to let your leisure time be inflected by your intellectual development. It is popular here, as well as at other colleges and universities, to oppose play to work. “Work hard—play hard” becomes a kind of mantra, and sometimes a misguided one. I encourage you not to think of work and play as oppositions. Satisfying play is not the absence of work. It, too, takes cultivation and learning. And work is neither successful nor satisfying if it lacks experimentation, whimsy and fun. Play can be deadening when it is conceived only as an escape from thought. It is possible to relax and have fun, even to be a little oppositional, even a little bad, without suppressing all awareness and judgment.   

You are here to learn not only how to be successful at work but also at play, and much of your playing will occur in relationships with your peers. Indeed, relationships will be a significant focus of your experimentation and growth while you are here—the friendships, love relationships, sexual ones. At least some of you will take an interest in sexuality. Good experiences and relationships cannot be programmed any more than the love of learning can, but they can be exemplified, and they will benefit from the work of thought. I will close with a good example of thought when brought to bear on questions of love and sexuality. In the early part of the 20th century, the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote a letter to a young poet offering advice about the relationship between love, sensuality and work. Rilke warns the young poet against the tendency of young people to abandon themselves in pursuit of love or of one another, and he offers an account of love and marriage that has been cited many times over the past hundred years:

Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation …

but young people fling themselves at one another, when love takes possession of them, scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their untidiness, disorder, confusion … And then what? Each loses himself [herself] for the sake of the other and loses the other and many others still to come. And loses the expanses and the possibilities, exchanges the approach and flight of gentle, divining things for an unfruitful perplexity…

Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And our acceptance of it is not what’s bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as a distraction instead of a rallying toward more exalted moments … In marriage [relationships] the goal is not to create a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries. A good marriage [relationship] is one in which each appoints the other guardian of his [her] solitude.

This last sentence is one of the most frequently cited passages in the letter. “A good [relationship] is one in which each appoints the other guardian of his [her] solitude” or separateness. Use your leisure, your play, your relaxation and your relationships with one another as a rallying toward the project of becoming who you are and letting others be engaged in the same work. Respect yourselves, your own boundaries and the boundaries of others.

Take yourselves and your fellow classmates seriously. And, in the process, enjoy! Welcome and welcome back to Amherst.