September 5, 2011

Opening Convocation 2011, the assembly of faculty and students that formally opened the academic year, took place on Labor Day at 7:30 p.m. in Johnson Chapel. Watch President Biddy Martin’s Convocation Address. Watch video below, and see photos on flickr.

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President Biddy Martin
Convocation Address
September 5, 2011

Good evening and welcome. I have just a few simple messages for you tonight, our faculty, staff and the Class of Irene. The first is this: I am glad to be one of you. 

In my first 10 days in Amherst, I have found the college to be magical. I have had occasion to appreciate its beauty, its friendliness and its intellectual intensity.

I arrived in Amherst on a rainy, dark night about 10 days ago to find that my transition had been made easier by the competence, the thoughtfulness, the kindness of the staff at the President’s House and in the President’s Office—also the staff at the museum and the staff in Facilities.

In addition to other contributions, they had unpacked many of the hundreds of boxes that arrived from Madison, Wis., on the day before. And they had placed my things in a way that allowed my dog, Oscar, immediately to disappear into a house in which he had never been and find his favorite toy on another floor. He got an immediate smell of home, and I thank everyone involved, by way of a little displacement, for their kindness toward me.

I have loved being here for these 10 days. One of the first things on my agenda was getting briefed on preparedness for the hurricane. I observed again how dedicated, how able and thoughtful the staff and administration of the college are.

On Saturday, I took one of my several late-night walks to the War Memorial, or Memorial Hill, as I believe you call it. “Late-night” would not be late for those of you sitting in the balcony. On my way across the quad, I was recognized by a member of the staff in the Dean of Students’ Office, who introduced me immediately to a new student from Zambia. Their friendliness was a balm.

I returned to the memorial this past Saturday night and was wondering aloud with friends about whether there are any ROTC students at Amherst College and what it means to have a professional military. No sooner had we ended our discussion and concluded that there are probably none here, then two new students appeared at the War Memorial and explained, when asked about their interests, that they were taking ROTC courses at UMass Amherst. We had a delightful conversation, and I thank them both for their willingness to talk about their interests and experiences.

On Monday, those of you who are new students and I had the pleasure of listening to Sen. Christopher Coons [’85] talk about the nation’s political ills and make a passionate plea for a renewed sense of the public good. I was impressed that night by your avid interest in Sen. Coons, by your questions, and by your request for more time with him. I was glad that he agreed to speak with you well past midnight.

I was also treated that night to Austin Sarat’s questions to Sen. Coons over dessert, and during the earlier dinner, to Professor O’Hara’s description of the course she’ll be offering this semester on the biochemical effects of stress.

I enjoyed conversations with several of our students and received one of the loveliest notes from a student I’ve ever received, from Rachel Brickman [’12].

I have loved the frequent and almost offhanded references to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, the pealing of the chimes, Jack Cheney’s laugh. I loved seeing Richard Wilbur’s name on the door of a faculty office in Johnson Chapel.

I have been inspired by the programmatic and architectural promise of a new science center; fascinated by Lizzie Barker’s detailed descriptions of the art in the president’s house and the stories about programs to come in the Mead Art Museum. I received and read a note and an essay from William Pritchard. That was a thrill.

I have been amused, over the course of 10 days, by Greg Call’s invitation to take what he calls “the geodesic route” from Converse Hall to Alumni House; by the Orientation event called Voices [of the Class]—upperclass students’ parodic performance of new students’ essays. Did you enjoy that? I did, too. It was hilarious. It also showed the talent and the thoughtfulness of our new students and your ability to laugh at yourselves.

I have loved seeing the play of light and shadow on the grounds of the campus and its buildings when I leave Converse Hall at night; being welcomed home into the light of this gorgeous house across the street, which I hope to share with all of you over time.

I have felt comforted by the trees everywhere, which seem to impose a certain silence and enjoin a certain humility.

I conclude, at the end of my first 10 days at Amherst College and my first week of Orientation, that I have joined a community that loves the work of the place, the work of liberal arts education—a community that is excited by the world of ideas and the promise of reasoned debate. This love of the work is not apparent everywhere in higher education, and it has been a treat to experience how palpable it is at Amherst College. I hope we can work well together, not only to preserve it, but to enhance its contributions. 

We are, to put it mildly, living through a very challenging time. We start our careers at Amherst College at a difficult time, but also at a time of remarkable opportunity. We start at yet another period where there are vicious attacks on higher education and on the liberal arts, both from within the university world and from without. You may be thinking, therefore, that I idealize Amherst College at my peril. We will have plenty of time to talk about criticisms of higher education and to talk about the challenges to the liberal arts, to take seriously the legitimate challenges and to fight back against the illegitimate ones. What I’d like to do tonight is invite all of us to treasure what Amherst has and represents—an unapologetic love of inquiry, wherever it leads, without artificial obstacles to its pursuit or to those who would pursue it. 

When I was introduced here this summer, I emphasized that the love of learning does not guarantee that the learning will be easy. All of us will find it difficult, at times, to do the unlearning that makes genuine growth possible. Why will we find the unlearning and the learning difficult? In part, because what we think we know and believe has been learned in our attachments to the people who have been most important to us. Our old ideas and perspectives, even our ignorance, are things to which we are loyal because of our attachments to the people from whom we have absorbed so much implicit learning. Sometimes those views are hardened by the fear of separation from those we love or made brittle by a fear that we will be rejected by those from whom we have learned.

We are giving ourselves, nevertheless, the opportunity to experience the exhilarating, even if occasionally painful, moments when our efforts to embrace new knowledge put us at odds with others and even with ourselves. How will you respond to those moments? How will any of us respond to those moments? There’s no one is this chapel who has finished the difficult work of learning and change. Some people will respond to the fear of loss by digging in their heels, resenting and resisting change, even when it seems part of becoming who they are. Sometimes, out of fear and loyalty, we do the opposite and reject wholesale what we thought we believed and loved. That wholesale rejection and opposition is always only a reversal of loyal attachment and always worth examining for its emotional grounding and its lack of basis in thought or reason.

Learning is not linear; it is not additive; it is not always easy—not the kind of learning that Amherst College will expect of us. And it will be important that we help each other as we’re transformed by this learning, that we let ourselves be transformed and help one another in that process, so that we can meet the challenges of the world around us.

As for the world around us: it is not really around us; it is in us, of course. It’s tempting to offer a litany of the various challenges we face. We could all generate the list; we could do it almost chorally. The economic situation is terrible, worse in the United States and Europe than expected. The stock market appears to have been unnervingly volatile, with wild swings between fear and greed. Arab Spring is remaking the world. It holds out great hope and uncertainty.

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Washington and the media are focused on a presidential election that is more than a year away, and, in the face of tremendous problems, it seems there is very little, shockingly little, deliberative public discussion that would be adequate to these problems and the confusion felt by great portions of the American public.

So much news and commentary seem to take the form of alarm, predicting the next disaster, intent on using the spectacle of calamity to create a sense of dread and anger.  We see the effects of dread and anger everywhere. The media appears to appeal to the affect junkies that we have become, or that it would be profitable for them to have us become. One of the urgent questions before us is how to understand upheaval and change, and how to help direct it, without resorting to easy forms of coherence or ideological rigidities—how, instead, to synthesize increasing levels of complexity in ways that are meaningful, adaptable, increasingly adequate and sometimes even elegant.

The country, whatever that abstraction means, seems to be mired in short-term thinking, emotional reaction, confusion about what matters. In a “winner-take-all society,” as economist Robert Frank has called our own society, we have become undisciplined and thoughtless, consumer-oriented and focused on rankings for our sense and definition of value. We lack a sense of futurity that would inspire consideration of the consequences of our actions. We are not fully present to ourselves, to one another, to the future or to the larger good. I say all that as though it were true across the board. The same “we” that I invoke in these laments could also be the subject of other sentences: “We long to hear reasonable accounts of political, economic, social and cultural change. We long to be part of guiding it. We want to have an impact on the problems we face. We long to hear serious deliberation among our elected officials.”

You who are in the Class of 2015 are among those who will invent new ways to communicate and to deliberate, using, as Sen. Coons pointed out, new technologies, which as yet do not seem to have yielded the forms of community that we need to build. If I say the liberal arts are crucial to meeting our challenges, it’s not just because it’s required at a Convocation at Amherst College. It’s because I believe it, and if I didn’t, I would not be here. 

I don’t know where else we will find the intellectual support for the creative and disciplined thinking that will help us out of what seems like a political and economic morass. 

Sen. Coons described a day in the life of a senator as a space of “utter distractedness.” Utter distractedness, he said. Ideological division is one problem. The lack of any form of deliberation is a bigger one. There is no deliberative body in the chamber, he said.  Interactions, if they occur at all, occur in hurried conversations in hallways, interrupted by text messages, phone calls and ritualized constituent visits. The efforts to reach meaningful compromise are rare, and when they seem on the verge of succeeding, they’re quickly undone, he said, by calls from the party disciplinarians. His description of a day in the Senate was an appeal to have the values of the liberal arts extended so that we can reestablish or reinvigorate a genuinely public sphere. It will not be enough simply to laud the liberal arts or to talk about their value. In order to have an impact, we will need to instantiate their benefits and live their promise on our own campus. We need to work together to extend the influence of what Amherst values out into the world.

Amherst is a gem. It is an ongoing experiment—one in which we, who are new, are about to get involved. Amherst College has recognized and acted on the fact that giftedness is not the province of privilege. It is not the province of any one group. The failure of governments, institutions, the private sector and what we call “ordinary citizens” to recognize talent in every community and every part of the world and to create opportunity for that talent to flourish is a failure that puts everything good at risk.

Let us work in the other direction, enhance Amherst’s commitment to access, to affordability, to diversity and to justice and extend it beyond our campus in ways not yet imagined.

I am glad to be one of you. I celebrate and honor each one of you. I look forward to working with you, and I hope together we can make Amherst not only an example but also an instigator of the change that we need in the world.

Thank you very much.