2018 Convocation Address

            Good morning, again. Kim is a very hard to act to follow. Should you be moved, please feel free to snap, or clap, or a good uh-huh. All right. I think it's my role to bring this home with the third and last of our speeches. Dear students, both first years and transfer students, like our other speakers, I welcome you. I consider myself one of you. We are bound by the irrevocable coincidence of having arrived, all of us together, at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in August of 2018. Like you, I am new to my role. I'm learning about my environment as quickly as I can, and I'm feeling some trepidation. I've gotten lost several times, and relied on strangers for help. I'm hoping to thrive here, to make new friends, to work well with people I admire, and continue to grow in my profession. Like your arrival, my arrival means a change at the college, a new president at the same time as a new cohort of students.

            Ritual is important. At your convening dinner two nights ago, I had the chance to address you on your first occasion to come together as a class. One of the things I talked about is that you are now beginning to forge your collective identity. A distinctive marker of your class is that you are the first class in which the majority were born in the 2000s. This morning's ceremony is another step in the process of your collective identity formation. The noun convocation comes from the Latin verb convocare, which means to call together. You've been called together here this morning before the faculty and professional staff of the college to mark the official beginning of your studies as the class of 2022. Convocation is a bookend of sorts, a defining event in regalia, and with a ceremony that both have their roots in the oldest universities of medieval Western Europe. We are receiving you into the academic community at the beginning of your first year, and we will send you out again at your graduation, with the same pomp and circumstance.

            We're delighted to great you, eager to get to know you, and full of admiration for everything that you have accomplished to date. The brain power, the talents, the ambition of this class are formidable. That said, we also know that you came to learn, creating an environment in which you can learn to maximum advantage is, after all, the primary mission of an institution like this one. Luckily, you picked a great school for that purpose. Franklin and Marshall has been educating young people since 1787, to prepare them to succeed in the world, to lead engaged and productive lives. At the convening dinner, I invited you, in fact, I challenged you to stretch, to stretch in every possible way, right now, in your first days and weeks here, and then throughout your career at F and M. I see some stretching happening in the back of the room. Good job. The purpose of encouraging you to stretch in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways is to optimize what you take away from this wonderful place, to make sure that you take advantage in every possible way of what is open to you here.

            I encourage you to stretch intellectually, socially, physically, spiritually, and to reach far beyond what you already know, and what you already know you are good at. You have every chance to do so at this venerable school. Our faculty are sterling. The student faculty ratio is small, and favors close mentorship, providing many ways for you to throw yourselves into independent and closely guided learning. Stretching and learning will happen in expected and unexpected places, in predictable and in unpredictable ways. You have the good fortune to be a highly diverse class by any measure, which gives you a great advantage over those learning in more homogeneous circles. Diversity is a precondition for excellence. That includes diversity as measured by all kinds of identity markers, but also in terms of diversity of thought. Diversity is a necessary, if not sufficient, factor in developing analytical thinking and argument, problem solving tools, teamwork, and creativity.

            If you stick only with people who grew up the way you did, who think the way you do, you will be missing out on one of the greatest opportunities of higher education that any great school can offer. Knowing how to work in collaboration with people who think differently than you do is one of the most important lessons you can take with you when you leave. Other forms of stretching include empathy, as Professor Nesteruk just suggested. It also includes introspection, a reflecting on your experiences and learning from them, as Kim just shared. It also includes humility, a trait not always easy for accomplished people to embrace. Stretching also includes the quality of open-mindedness. There's a good deal of social science research right now devoted to finding predictors of success. One of the most reliable, it seems, is that quality called grit, a quality getting considerable press through the work of Dr. Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania.

            Duckworth's book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance from just a couple of years ago, makes the case that passion and perseverance are the keys to achievement in every field of endeavor, and at any stage of life. Another quality under discussion right now is what Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford calls a growth mindset, and Dweck's book on mindset, first from 2006, and more recently, from 2017, Dweck uses the same metaphor of stretching that I suggested. Here's a passage in which she explains why and how a growth mindset works. I quote, "Why waste time proving over and over how great you are when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners will will just shore up your self-esteem, instead of ones who also challenge you as you grow, and why seek out the tried and true instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even or especially when it's not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.

            "This is the mindset that allows people to thrive doing some of the most challenging times of their lives." End of quotation. All of this advice about how you can get the most from your years at F and M applies to your friendships, your house affiliations, your time on the sports field or at the rec center, or in the dance studio, your time with a musical instrument or in a lab, in the diplomatic congress or in your part-time job. It also applies to your choice of courses, and as of your second year, your choice of major. It turns out, in this rapidly changing world, it's hard to predict what the job market will be like when you take your first job, or your third, or your fifth, or your tenth. In an article from just a few days ago in the Atlantic, writer Benjamin Schmidt offered one of the latest analyses of falling enrollments in the humanities. The big headline on his article is a familiar line, the humanities are in crisis, but the subheading following the title provides the punchline.

            Schmidt writes, "Students are abandoning humanities majors, turning to degrees that they think yield much better job prospects, but they're wrong." According to Schmidt, "The significant drop across all humanities majors in recent years does not, in his words, reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities, or any sharp drop in the actual career prospects of humanities majors." He continues, "Instead in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view to what they should be studying, in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market." After the financial crisis, Schmidt argues, students became fearful regarding their chances of landing good employment, but he concludes based on broad and reliable data that students are basing their choice of majors on the perception that their options will be fewer, and their earning potential less, if they graduate with a degree in the humanities.

            In fact, the data proved that perception to be incorrect. Most of the differences in yearly income and employability is tied to a student's undergraduate major are actually small, and factors other than major are more important. One of Schmidt's conclusions is that, I quote, "Being the type of person inclined to view a college major in terms of return on investment will probably make a much bigger difference in your earnings than the actual major does." He adds that we simply can't know what the job market will reward by the time graduates start looking for employment. This morning, before walking over here, I read an article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education which quotes our very own head of the Office of Student and Postgraduate Development, Beth Throne. Beth talks about the difference in how we now understand career. It's not a linear trajectory. You're not committing for life. Instead, she talks about career as a buffet.

            You will be trying all through your twenties, and probably well into your thirties, and possibly into your forties, what part of that buffet you are going to take on next. The current metrics and assessments of outcome by major is one factor in a long debate about return on investment and the instrumental value of particular kinds of study and research. Princeton University Press recently published a slim volume titled, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, 2017. It reprints a highly respected article of the same name, published in 1939 by Harper's Magazine, a piece written by Abraham Flexnor, who was the founding director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, which was created to support basic research in the sciences and humanities. To Flexnor's almost 80-year-old essay, Robert [Degraff 01:41:25], currently at the institute, adds his own essay called "The World of Tomorrow." These two distinguished researchers come to the same conclusion 80 years apart.

            That conclusion, put simply, is that there is no such thing as useless knowledge. Some knowledge is simply not yet applied, a term that Degraff quotes from Nobel Laureate in Chemistry George Porter. What counts is the critically important power of human curiosity. All knowledge as it turns out is useful, even when we don't see the immediate application. The lessons to extract from all of these different approaches to measuring the value of your degree is that choice of a particular subject or direction matters far less than learning for the sake of learning, far less than learning to think from multiple perspectives, far less than pulling different forms of expertise to engage in creative problem solving. In this fine liberal arts college that is Franklin and Marshall, we will help you acquire and hone those skills. We will help prepare you to partake fully of the buffet. When you graduate, you will be part of a class that includes humanists, conversant in the biggest scientific challenges of the day, artists and performers who are numerate, and handy with a spreadsheet.

            Scientists with a skill to solve problems in a human and social context. Social scientists who can frame their work in ethical and cultural matrices. You will be diplomats who can take on the world, and all of us with you here today, including your new president, will be cheering you on at every stage. Thank you and welcome.