2019 Convocation Address
Good morning and welcome Class of 2023!
A new sense of freedom.
It’s all part of crossing the threshold, that point of entry into a new adventure. There’s no way you can head into uncharted waters without a jumble of emotions. Dear Class of 2023 and valued transfer students, “convocation” means “calling together.” Here today, we, your community, have called you together to witness your transition onto the winding, exhilarating path of a Franklin & Marshall education and into the new space where you will find your voice.
How many times in the few days have you heard the word, “Welcome”? As a visiting scholar reminded us recently, to welcome someone is to define that person as new, not yet belonging, not yet at home. By now, however, you have one foot through the door. Next year, when you return, we will welcome you back, and you will be helping those just a year behind you. I had the chance to meet many of the families who carted your comforters, decorative pillows, photos of your dogs, Swiffers, and speakers up to your rooms this weekend. They will surely miss you – as much as, or more than, you miss them. But it gets easier for everyone. A second-year family I encountered yesterday on Harrisburg Avenue told me, “We just dropped him off for sophomore year, President Altmann. But it gets easier! It still hurts, but it does get easier.”
You’ll be different by the time you see your loved ones again, and we’ve alerted your families that they may find you noticeably transformed when you return home. At the Convening Dinner, I urged you to stretch in all directions while you’re here, physically and figuratively. Don’t be put off by what poet Mark Nepo calls “the discomfort of newness.” (The Book of Awakening, 2011, p. 299). Seeking and welcoming newness is the beauty, potential, and power of a fine liberal arts education, and that’s what Professor Roberts was describing about his own trajectory. He charted his own course through twists and turns to find his field, and he was indelibly enriched by the detours and unexpected discoveries along the way. It’s vitally important for us to hear that lesson from scientists like Professor Roberts as well as from people like me in the humanities, or those in the arts, or the social sciences. You can and you must build your own breadth of understanding in multiple disciplines and methodologies. It will give you joy, and it will allow you to work with, and show leadership in, groups of people who think differently from each other, with different strengths and training.
To realize your potential, you need to develop every possible area of your brain and your mind. More and more research points to related conclusions. In the area of neuro-science – and I tread very cautiously in this field so far removed from my own expertise in the poetry of the Middle Ages – recent research on the two hemispheres of the brain suggests that, to simplify the argument of psychiatrist Iain McGhilchrist, “the brain is divided into two hemispheres so that it can produce two different views of reality. One of the hemispheres, the right, focuses on the big picture. The left focuses on details. Both are essential. If you can't see the big picture, you don't understand what you're doing. If you can't home in on the details, you can't accomplish the simplest tasks.” (Summarized by Shankar Vedantum, “Hidden Brain,” Feb. 2019; interview with Iain McGhilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary ). https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=690656459
McGhilchrist argues that we in the Western world have privileged the left brain, the detail-oriented brain. But without the big-picture understanding of the right hemisphere, we can’t properly understand the consequences of what we’re doing. That need to see the big picture, to understand our work in the context of the hardest problems and the biggest questions, the new and beneficial opportunities, that’s how a liberal arts education is designed. It develops both sides of your brain.
You also need to learn to understand what people unlike you are thinking, and why. There’s no getting around the increasingly obvious observation that diversity of all kinds, especially diversity of thought, is a precursor to success.
Reporting on research into the nature of creativity, NPR social science reporter Shankar Vedantum summarized findings about the “creative spark” in these words: “While there is great comfort in the familiar, it turns out the familiar may not be the best place to cultivate creativity. A growing body of scientific research suggests one way to improve creative output is to form deep connections with people from other countries and different cultures.” He cites scientific evidence that musicians, business school students, fashion designers, all found that their creativity was greater for deeply understanding another culture. (“Want a Creative Spark? Get to Know Someone from another Culture,” July 2018; https://www.npr.org/2018/07/10/627588115/want-a-creative-spark-get-to-know-someone-from-another-culture)
What’s the lesson? First, take Elisjana’s advice. As you cross this threshold, be the author of your own story. No one else can define you. In the words of the late great American writer Toni Morrison, whose passing we mourn, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined” (Beloved, 1987). As you venture into your F&M experience, I urge you to “be willing to be surprised.” (Quoted, out of context, from the Foreword, by Wayne Muller, to The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo, 2011 [p. xi].) We’ve called you together to wish you well on this expedition you are launching. We’ll be learning from you to enrich ourselves, just as we’ll be walking alongside you the whole way.