2008 Convocation Address
Opening Convocation - August 24, 2008
Convening of the College by President William G. Durden '71
Welcome to the official opening of the 2008-2009 academic year of Dickinson College. I extend special greetings to the members of the Class of 2012 and transfer students who are about to become life-long Dickinsonians. I also welcome our special guest, Christina Volke, Dean of Students at our partner university in Bremen, Germany. She is with us this week to observe the beginning of an academic year at a United States undergraduate institution.
At the end of our opening ceremony, our incoming students will participate in one of Dickinson’s most treasured traditions when you ascend the Old Stone Steps of Memorial Hall to “sign in” to the College. Several years from now, you will reverse this symbolic action when you descend these same steps to receive your diploma and move beyond these limestone walls to engage the world as Dickinsonians. The seniors in the audience will experience this ceremony in but eight very short months.
As you “sign in” to the College, remember that you are following thousands of Dickinsonians who have preceded you up these stairs and have gone on to distinguish themselves in their service to society. These are the Dickinsonians with whom you will soon share a common bond for a lifetime.
When you ascend the Old Stone Steps, be sure to glance to the right at the statue of our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. You will hear much about Dr. Rush over the course of the next four years—some might argue too much! But never forget that the inspiration for Dickinson College and the uniquely American approach to a liberal arts education that you will receive here is directly attributable to this remarkable, forward-looking individual—a pioneer in American education who foundered three universities. Indeed, Dr. Rush’s timeless vision of the purpose of a distinctively American liberal arts education continues to give us both daily guidance and long term aspiration. And it continues to be controversial as it seemingly pits a “useful” education against one that exalts “learning for learning’s sake” alone.
Within a few short weeks, we will, in fact, celebrate the 225th anniversary of the enactment of the charter that established Dickinson College. On September 9, 1783 just days after the Treaty of Paris concluded the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania General Assembly agreed to create “in the borough of Carlisle, in the county of Cumberland … a college … forever hereafter called and known by the name of ‘Dickinson College’.” Named for John Dickinson, then governor of Pennsylvania, Rush intended his new college to offer a liberal education that would serve as nothing less than the foundation of the new democracy and educate those persons who would advance the new form of government through learning in all realms of inquiry.
What is the purpose of a Convocation speech by the president at Dickinson? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, these words intend to introduce new members of our community to the distinctive purpose to which we dedicate ourselves at the College and to remind those who have already been with us of our ambition in undergraduate education. Secondly, the speech is intended to frame a significant aspect of conversation and community action for the coming year. The comments are intended to be disciplined, but also, intellectually provocative. I expect they will elicit a negative response from some members of our community. So be it. We as a college are not unaccustomed to the controversy inherent in the democratic process. But I hope and intend for them to open up a space for informed conversation and engagement that will advance us as an intellectual community. So let us begin.
I know that you have read and discussed the College’s charter this weekend. The first two sections, in particular, reveal the persuasive and guiding hand of Dr. Rush and lay out with remarkable economy of words the purpose for which Dickinson College was founded.
There is that strong emphasis on the “usefulness” of a liberal arts education. There is the firm acknowledgement that education and the dissemination of knowledge must be indispensable foundations of this new form of government—the United States of America. And there is the explicit expectation that those who are to be educated at Dickinson College will become the leaders of their generation through their ability to find and engage the useful in a liberal education.
Allow me to delve a little deeper into Dr. Rush’s intentions. One of the most important things to understand is that by emphasizing the “usefulness” of a liberal arts education, Rush was consciously rejecting the curriculum then prevalent at European universities and in other American colonial colleges—Harvard, Yale, King’s College (Columbia—but not Princeton, Dickinson’s historic sister college and also influenced deeply by the Scottish Enlightenment. He firmly believed that a new distinctly American curriculum should be structured to confront directly the opportunities and challenges of contemporary society and seek those connections to new knowledge that would be useful to advancing a nation and its people.
Rather than focusing, for example, solely on the speaking and writing of ancient Latin and Greek as was the practice at these institutions, he thought American students would be better served by studying contemporary languages such as French and German, and even Native American languages—a particularly bold recommendation for his time. These languages, Rush maintained, would have more direct communicative utility as America established its position in the transcontinental economy. For those classicists among us today, it is consoling to know that Dr. Rush held no objection to reading Latin and Greek for the insights into ancient cultures they provide and the ways they illuminate conduct and frame intellectual and ethical challenges in the contemporary world.
Rush was also a strong and early proponent of making the sciences—particularly chemistry—a central pillar of the liberal arts curriculum in the United States. Trained as a physician, Dr. Rush instinctively understood that the sciences would generate much of the new knowledge and new discoveries that would drive the economic and social development of the new nation. As the leaders of the nascent democracy, Rush believed that Dickinson graduates must understand and promote the central role scientific innovation would play in America’s future. It is for this reason that Dr. Rush chose the telescope to represent liberal learning on the Dickinson College official seal—an instrument of scientific research that looks out to into the known but is always seeking the “yet-to-be discovered.”
Dr. Rush, in short, believed that the most effective liberal arts curriculum combined a rigorous study of traditional disciplines with emerging and very contemporary subjects—some of which will always remain to be discovered. This distinctively American approach to a liberal arts education was not static or somehow isolated from societal influence. On the contrary, Rush believed the curriculum should be fluid, subject to periodic revision and always responsive to contemporary issues and concerns. This is who we are as a College. And as a student at Dickinson you now belong to this “activist” tradition of the liberal arts.
Dickinson has remained true to Dr. Rush’s vision. Our curriculum is constantly reviewed and appropriately revised to ensure that you, our students, are prepared to meet every level of human challenge. We have taken most seriously Dr. Rush’s notion of the activism and usefulness inherent in the liberal arts. In recent years, for example, we have added new languages to reflect the emerging importance of new nations and cultures around the globe. We have developed new majors and concentrations that cut across disciplines to form the intellectual crossroads from which new knowledge and innovation will spring. And individually, as you will soon experience, our faculty creatively and continually strive to make their classes relevant, when appropriate (and it is not always so), to the contemporary world—an endeavor that is supported and complemented by the activities of the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues.
In the 1980s, the College implemented a major institutional curricular shift by consciously deciding to make global education a campus-wide defining characteristic of a Dickinson experience. Just as Dr. Rush would have wanted, we anticipated the demands of the global society of the 21st century in which our graduates would be expected to live and lead. And we responded by purposely setting out—and succeeding—in creating one of the best study abroad and global education programs at any college or university in the country. As Dickinson students, you will be the beneficiaries of that insightful curricular change which occurred two decades ago.
This year, with great excitement and anticipation, we will launch another campus-wide curricular initiative with the creation of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education under the direction of Dr. Neil Leary and with the initial support of a $1.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. This new, comprehensive ambition is wedded inextricably to our continuing leadership in global education. It is, moreover, totally consistent with Dr. Rush’s original vision. Over 200 years ago, Rush recognized how critical America’s vast natural resources would be to the ultimate success of the country. In a 1788 essay on higher education curricula, he even went so far as to advocate for the inclusion of subjects that today would be called “forestry” and “conservation.” It is now time for us to become better stewards of our natural assets by envisioning them, as Rush did, as central components of America’s bold experiment with democracy.
Why have we chosen environmental sustainability as our next campus-wide curricular frontier at this particular time? Why do we feel that a deep understanding of the ecological challenges that confront us in the 21st century should, along with global sensibility, be a defining characteristic of a Dickinson education?
Your generation faces an unprecedented challenge. Oberlin College professor, David Orr, put it this way:
…those now being educated will have to do what the present generation has been unable or unwilling to do: stabilize world population, reduce the emission of greenhouse gases …, reverse the destruction of forests everywhere, and conserve soils. They must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to run civilization on sunlight. They must rebuild economies in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long term. They must begin the great work of repairing, as much as possible, the damage done to Earth in the past 150 years of industrialization. And they must do all of this while they reduce worsening social, ethnic, and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda.
These are the preeminent challenges for your generation. These are your issues for your time. They will determine the fate of peoples, the forms of governing, the engines of economies and the continuing health of all species. They are at the very heart of our efforts to arrive at a delicate and necessary balance between the human and the non-human. It would be educationally irresponsible and a betrayal of our legal obligation to serve the public interest for us as a college not to confront you directly with these pressing environmental issues.
The environmental status quo we have inherited for the 21st century will, I believe, require us to fundamentally rethink our notion of progress. For the past half century, we have been mesmerized by our faith in technology and the belief that discovery will solve every problem. Technology will certainly have a leading role in our effort to sustain and stabilize the environment. But we must abandon the notion that we can simply continue life as usual until some technological breakthrough comes along to clean up our messes.
The scope of the environmental challenges we face will also require that we engage in a reexamination of some of our most fundamental values. As Americans, in particular, we are accustomed to thinking in terms of limitless resources. Endless plains, amber waves of grain—you know this familiar refrain that obviously implies a bountiful supply of natural resources. These are all deeply engrained values in Americans and expectations that explain the story of our country. Our nation, however, no longer operates in isolation. We are part of a vast global reserve of natural resources that are rapidly becoming inadequate or incorrectly deployed to serve a highly populated, highly aspiring world.
These multifaceted and global challenges cry out for attention from those whose liberal arts education allows them to embrace such daunting complexity. I assert that those members of your generation who will become the path breakers in finding remedies for these global ecological problems will be those who have received a first-class liberal arts education. As a Dickinsonian, you will possess the learning, skill and intellectual flexibility to allow you to readily traverse and combine traditional disciplines to arrive at a comprehensive and workable roadmap for advancement. Your Dickinson education—enhanced by the new environmental and sustainability initiative—will prepare you to confront with knowledge and skill these enormous unprecedented challenges.
Our approach to the study of environmental and sustainability issues is intended to be thorough, well-researched, objective and, thus, ultimately useful. Regardless of your chosen course of study, you will encounter these topics through various disciplinary lenses. You will begin to identify and comprehend patterns that extend within and among disciplines and, by so doing, grasp their larger context. Far from jumping on board every popular environmental cause, our approach will be rooted in sound academic practice thus allowing you, again to quote Professor Orr, to distinguish between “ecological sense and nonsense.” Constant assertion of mere opinion—what you arbitrarily believe to be the case (often a source of nonsense) divorced from the dogged pursuit of what is in fact the case (or most likely the case given the evidence at hand)—is unacceptable to this intellectual pursuit and contrary to a Dickinson Dimension.
A college-wide environmental sustainability initiative will, of course, by definition extend beyond the classroom to the residence hall and throughout campus operations. We have, in fact, already made significant adjustments to the way we power and operate our campus. Dickinson purchases 50 percent of its electricity through wind power—the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road each year, or planting 130,000 trees. The College produces over 100 gallons of biodiesel fuel per week—using French fry oil from Dickinson and Gettysburg College—that is used to power our trash truck, maintenance equipment and my car. The next time you eat a salad in the Dining Hall, you are probably eating produce grown on the College Farm which is dedicated to the promotion of sustainable agriculture. And that long grass and natural habitat you encounter in various corners of campus—these are sustainable landscapes that significantly reduce emissions associated with fossil fuel-powered equipment such as mowers and leaf blowers.
We are even using the concept of sustainability to inform our endowment investing strategy. Over the past year, the Socially Responsible Investment Discussion Group comprised of students and faculty has been meeting bimonthly to understand Dickinson’s investment practices and to discuss ways to make these policies more socially responsible. The group will talk about its work at an all-College Common Hour on September 25th and I urge you all to attend and to visit the Web site they have created (www.dickinson.edu/finops/investments).
All of these efforts have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, Dickinson was named by the Kaplan College Guide and Newsweek magazine to a list of 25 environmentally responsible colleges. While not a strict ranking—a PR ploy we specifically avoid for admissions and other purposes—we are pleased to be listed in the company of this prestigious and extremely environmentally conscious group of colleges and universities. The only other liberal arts colleges cited are Oberlin, Middlebury, Carleton and the most innovative, Berea.
But we can do so much more! Last year, through the good efforts of the entire campus community—and specifically students—we reduced our use of electricity by 15 percent. We must do better. Our goal for this year is to reduce our CO2 and H2O consumption by an additional 10 percent.
Make no doubt about it. This will require all of us to make changes in our personal behavior. If we, as a community, are committed to exploring thoroughly all avenues to effect environmental change, this ultimately means that each and every one of us must take stock of our own carbon footprint and begin to alter ingrained patterns of behavior.
You may wonder what you, as a single individual, can do. When I was in Germany this summer, I read an astounding statistic: an individual American, on average, uses twice as much energy as a German or Japanese citizen—both living in most highly developed nations with comfortable, contemporary lifestyles. This is simply unacceptable and harmful to the continuance of our democracy—it is simply not useful in any Rushian sense.
I fully realize that I am asking you to make what you may consider major modifications in your daily lifestyle. I am suggesting that you embrace Dickinson’s commitment to field studies and make your field the space where you live and how you travel. Continually evaluate your own behavior. Make a point—as the Green Devil stickers placed all over campus remind you—to turn off the lights when you leave a room or simply don’t turn them on if there is sufficient natural light in the room. Do you really have to take a ten-minute shower when three minutes or so is all you need? What about using a ceramic coffee cup or a refillable water bottle? Do you really need to run the washing machine for one article of clothing? Do you really need to run high-energy consuming copiers for what might be unnecessary duplicates of written materials? Do you really need all of those appliances and electronic gadgets in your room? And how about walking? Do you really need to drive from your residence hall to Biddle Field or the Kline Center to “work out” when you could augment your fitness level by walking there instead—it is hardly a great distance? And if the distance is really too far to walk—if you live off campus—remember the Dickinson red bikes that are available for your use at DPS.
Reducing the College’s overall consumption by an additional 10 percent will require each of you to individually reduce your consumption by 25 percent. If this seems out of line, consider your colleagues who live in the Center for Sustainability Living, or Treehouse. They have been able to achieve reductions of more than 60 percent just by focusing on their individual carbon footprints and changing behaviors. Surely you can match them by less than half!
I realize that change, however small, can be uncomfortable. You are secure in what you know and can only divine disaster in what you don’t know. But change is an inevitable and necessary part of life. And, yes, the world does continue—often, quite well— in a state not formerly familiar to you. And it is a good thing to be made uncomfortable through change—it is a most necessary part of developing character. Indeed, I hope that you experience many moments of instructive discomfort during your years at Dickinson. Your Dickinson liberal education—fully embraced—will ask you to directly confront and come to grips with the very notion of fundamental change and ask you to reevaluate what you know or believe you know even though you might end up reconfirming a good deal of your existing knowledge and beliefs after thorough examination.
In the past, we have encountered some resistance to adopting behavioral changes by students who claim this is sustainability thrust down from above. How, some have asked, can institutional change occur without their explicit personal approval? Why, others have inquired, do we have to inconvenience ourselves with sustainability limitations when we are paying a great deal for our Dickinson education and are, therefore, entitled to all that we might want without restraint? Of course, such financially boisterous (even arrogant) comments may well be passé. As a global community, we face the realities of an extreme financial slowdown with sinking expectations that reach well into our individual lives no matter how immune we might have thought ourselves from the limitations of the common herd.
I would argue that it is not Dickinson that is mandating behavioral change. Rather, it is the status quo of our new global environment and our global community of concerned peoples. I need only remind you of the highly unstable price of gas throughout the world to make the point that our sense of boundless, inexpensive resources is a thing of the past—whether we personally have the money or not. We may debate and discuss the ways in which we must alter our behavior, but change we must. And, yes, our behavioral change at Dickinson in and of itself is not going to solve our environmental issues globally. However, those habits of mind and action that you struggle with and, I hope, embrace here will act as a multiplier factor when you later are active in your respective communities through leadership, dialogue, informed advocacy, research and policy. Dickinson is your laboratory for later usefulness.
We have before us a remarkable opportunity to embrace change as a community of inquiry. To accept change, you must be willing to explore your level of discomfort and not be afraid to voice well-reasoned opinions and concerns. We encourage you to engage in spirited conversation about environmental and sustainability issues with your peers, your professors and campus administrators. Don’t hesitate to responsibly question new campus policies and seek evidence of their effectiveness. Think broadly about the state of the global environment. Talk with those who have studied abroad about environmental concerns and policies in other countries. Quite simply, “Engage the World.”
Most importantly, heighten your awareness of how central and significant the topic of energy and the environment will become in virtually every walk of life. Already, sustainability has become a well-debated subject in philosophical, ethical and sociological thought. Increasingly, it is the topic of prose and poetry and the subject of visual and media artists. The responsible allocation and use of environmental resources already promises to dominate the fields of policy studies and finance. And as you look to the world beyond these limestone walls, the array of professional opportunities in fields related to environmental sustainability is already prolific and constantly growing.
Make no doubt about it. You are attending Dickinson at a very exciting and important time. We, as a campus community, have chosen to focus comprehensively on one of the most important challenges of the 21st century. We have made a conscious decision to build upon our already impressive academic and operational commitment to environmental sustainability and make it a defining characteristic of a Dickinson education, just as we did with global education some two decades ago. We have quite simply chosen to confront you directly and inescapably with the preeminent challenge for your generation.
I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity for engagement with the issues of your generation both in and out of the classroom. I know that the majority of you will do so. But I am a realist and I, too, learn from experience. I know that some of you will be inclined to enter your college career luxuriating in uninformed cynicism, lethargy and indifference. But let me suggest that what was “fashionable” behavior in high school is no longer so. Passivity and the cultivation of indifference will not prepare you for a life of engagement and fulfillment. Nor will those behaviors that compromise the quality of our community of inquiry. Disruption and inattention to speakers and others who enrich our campus life are demonstrations of pure self-indulgence and immature ways of being that are totally inconsistent with the vibrant and engaging environment we offer. Passivity, the cultivation of indifference, insincere cynicism and disruptive inattention are but immature self-indulgence, a glorious waste of your and our time and unworthy of all the reasons for which you have chosen Dickinson as your undergraduate institution and we have chosen you to be among us.
The next several years will be, perhaps, the most formative period of your adult life. Take full advantage of your time here. Seize every opportunity and view every challenge as an occasion to learn. And, yes, “own” Dickinson and own you education. These years will become what you make of them. You are as responsible for your education as much as, if not more, than we. As a Dickinson alumnus, I envy the journey you are about to take and I wish you well.
In just a few moments, with the ring of this exact replica of the Liberty Bell, I will officially open the 2008-09 academic year for Dickinson College. The ringing of the bell is a relatively new tradition for Dickinson—one that will mark the very moment of your matriculation into the College as a new student and your commencement from these limestone walls as a graduate.
This bell was presented to Dickinson last fall by the parents of a 2005 alumnus. One of a very limited edition, it was cast in the same foundry in England as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and is to the scale one-fifth the size of the original—but it has not yet cracked!
The Liberty Bell is significant to Dickinson College for a number of reasons. The bell was originally commissioned by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Speaker, Isaac Norris, oversaw its casting and the selection of the bell’s inscription “to proclaim liberty throughout the land.” Norris was to become John Dickinson’s father-in-law, the individual for whom, of course, our College was named.
Equally important, this replica of the Liberty Bell symbolizes our revolutionary heritage and our commitment to democracy. It reminds us that our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and many of our earliest supporters were signers of the Declaration of Independence and drafters of the US Constitution. As such, the ringing of the bell serves as an inspiration to all of you to become the active citizens and leaders of your generation.
And now, I officially pronounce the beginning of the 2008-09 academic year. New students, I now invite you to ascend the steps of Old West to sign in to the College and to officially begin your lives as Dickinsonians.