President Durden’s Convocation Advice—Through the Years
August 26, 2012
Over the years I have used my Convocation addresses to mentor students in a non-curricular way—to give advice that might prove helpful as students mature intellectually and emotionally. Here are some of the more provocative passages that will continue to resonate with today's students.
To the newest Dickinsonians—welcome to Dickinson. Lean into it intensely as all those before you have. Engage it with intellect, good humor and passion. Engage yourself, engage Dickinson, engage America, engage the world. And above all, preserve and always advance Dickinson College's reputation and visibility as one of America's most distinguished independent, residential, liberal-arts colleges.
Avoid those social and ideological cliques that, while seemingly offering friendship, consensus and comfort, inappropriately circumscribe your experience and connection to people and events—those groups that seek sameness and control, not diversity and exploration. Do not betray your individuality at the very moment it is prepared to grow and serve you well for a lifetime.
Serve the spirit and intention of our founder—be a revolutionary in thought and action. Challenge your own future and that of your generation with a vengeance. A life defined by feigned boredom, adolescent cynicism, preoccupation with the mundane and the trivial is not an option for a Dickinsonian. Our only path is that of an energetically engaged, useful life in issues that matter.
Seize as many opportunities as you can—but also select them carefully. Merely "being busy" is not a virtue. Remember Benjamin Rush—education must, above all, be ultimately useful. It must serve a noble purpose. To achieve this requires discipline and focus.
Liberal education favors a life of rational argument and integrity with accompanying civility based on "what is" rather than a life skillfully crafted on rumor, pretension, invention, preconceived bias and what is clearly not. The latter—like the ubiquitous talk shows—may, indeed, be momentarily entertaining. Rumor and unexamined claims are always easy and invigorating, but they are ultimately dishonest, unfulfilling and unworthy of pursuit.
High Accomplishment Pursued Modestly: Be solid enough in personal identity to think for yourselves and be guided in your choices at college by the strength that comes from such self-knowledge. I urge you now to get a grip as soon as possible on the absurdity of status anxiety and peer pressure. Discuss them and their potential effect with your new classmates here at Dickinson. Make them a subject of extended late-night conversation. Embrace rather a Dickinson dimension of self-knowledge and independent thought guided by community values. At Dickinson, liberal education does not intend you to abdicate judgment in favor of others' opinions and to be at the mercy of those who intend you to be actors on their own foolish stage. Be extraordinary rather than merely ordinary by being yourself. Be rather than seem. "To be rather than to seem" was actually the family motto of our college namesake, John Dickinson. We come by this dimension naturally.
Speaking Out Passionately for What You Know to be True and Believe Important: A second Dickinson habit of mind is to speak out passionately for what you know to be true and believe important and to do so in an informed manner. Again, at Dickinson we seek what is indeed the case, what is fact, not merely what seems to be. This habit of mind demands self-discipline. A Dickinson liberal-arts education asks of you a life of rational argument and integrity. Our community asks that you argue on the basis of what is in fact the case rather than what might be fueled by rumor, invention or your preconceived biases and ideologies and those of others. This requires restraint and hard intellectual work—we must learn to listen carefully, to investigate thoroughly before conclusion (to include the human decency of going first to the source of an issue of reputed controversy to get another perspective than that in common circulation), to make sure that we speak from a single point of reference (this is simply good scholarship), and to argue ultimately with civility—that is, to question the issue; not attack the person.
Global Sensibility: Embracing global sensibility is for you a priceless advantage and privilege for a life of high accomplishment in the globally complex world that is the 21st century. Dickinson College gives you that world.
2005: "Defying Your Generation's Stereotypes—Dickinson-style"
Note: This year, alumni were asked to provide advice to the incoming class and the quotes below are from them.
"Read the books on the reading list," wrote one alum. "You will never have as much time to read them again."
"I know I missed a huge portion of the Dickinson experience by not immersing myself fully in the academic life of the college," wrote another alum. "If I could do it again, I would not let the excitement of campus life, new friends or living 'on my own' overshadow the true gift of a college education—the opportunity to think about and explore new ideas in a leisurely and self-directed manner. Never again will I have the luxurious amounts of time to dig deeper to learn about whatever captures my interest ... Never again will I be surrounded by such ... fascinating educators and peers who were so willing to teach me so much!"
"Don't worry too much about class selection," advised another, "and I (as someone hiring you) won't either. Take the courses necessary for your major—but also take those that capture your interest. Dickinson provides wonderful opportunities for learning in lots of areas—by all means take advantage of them."
"Take risks," urged yet another alum. "Try courses out of your chosen field ... there is plenty of time and room to explore and learn for the sake of learning."
"Don't be afraid to address huge global issues with your fellow students," advised another. "Dickinson is all about the discourse of ideas and options."
As one alum put it, "What has affected my life the most is the ability to think across disciplines, to see connections between conflicting ideas, to perceive overriding themes and patterns in complex contexts. You can't learn to stretch your brain unless you approach and wrestle with new ideas."
"Learn how to write." "Learn a second language." And most importantly, "Learn how to learn. Life should be an ongoing learning process. It doesn't stop when you get your degree. Dickinson is a superb place to try out different learning styles. Determine what works best for you and make it an intrinsic part of your life."
"Study abroad, study abroad, study abroad," wrote not one, but many alums. The time spent abroad was clearly a turning point for those who had the opportunity to do so. "Dickinson prepared me to be a 'citizen of the world,' " reported one alum. Another wanted me to remind current students that "America needs ambassadors to the world who display prowess and sensitivity. You cannot know the whole world well; you cannot affect all places; but you can know one place well and be an ambassador there for our nation—one who will belie the stereotype of the well-entertained and aloof American."
Other alums spoke of the attitudes and outlooks they thought befitted a true Dickinsonian. "Lack cynicism," urged an alum. "I know it's hard these days to show idealism, but it's the only attitude that makes anything truly important happen."
"Persevere," wrote another. "Significant, worthwhile achievements generally take a long time. If you are embarking on a slightly new or different path, you will encounter many obstacles and receive little positive reinforcement. You will need perseverance."
"Dickinson is a place where you can learn not only from classes and books, but also from your relationships and experiences outside the classroom," wrote one alum. "The way you spend your time when you are not in academic pursuits will also define the way you grow and mature into the person you are meant to be."
I encourage you, therefore, to stretch your social circles. Aim to connect with those you might not normally approach. Remember, as another alum put it, "Each person at Dickinson is unique, each has his or her own story and we have so much to learn from each other. Tell the class of 2009 to not only engage the world, but to engage each other."
Allow me to close with yet one final quote from an alumna, class of 2001: "You will be successful—if you want to be. If you take advantage of all Dickinson has to offer, there is no doubt you will be prepared for the world. … It will be amazing to you how far ahead of the game you will be when you leave. ... It didn't take me long to realize that I was unique, that no one else had the opportunities I did and no one else around me was as prepared and mature as I was. I didn't have a college experience; I had a Dickinson College experience. There IS a difference."
It is counterproductive to apply the statement, "you are not listening to me," when attempting to get what you want from someone such as a faculty member or administrator. What you really mean by "you are not listening to me" is "You are not agreeing with me!" Expect people on occasion not to agree with you at this college. There are often conflicting positions toward issues, and they are equally valid.
You will probably also initially be stunned that your immediate opinions about people or events—even incidents you hear about on campus—do not receive serious consideration unless they are informed by facts (and in some disciplinary issues the facts cannot, by federal law, be revealed). Rumors need substantiation; they are not a form of entertainment. They hurt other people needlessly and they ultimately turn the source of rumors into unlikable people. The mere rush to statement and the expression of what you "feel" about someone or something are of a far lesser order in this college community (and ultimately in the wider world) than substantive, responsible communication. Such rashness is particularly inflamed by the instantaneous nature of e-mail or tweets.
2007: "The Defining Dimensions of a Dickinson Education"
I urge you while at Dickinson to study and explore the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the myths and cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Confucian teachings, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism, Postmodernism, the Scientific and Technological Revolutions, capitalism, communism and socialism. You should also seek those counter texts and theories of marginalized groups that have been largely ignored or forgotten entirely in the above litany. I challenge you to be demanding of yourself, your fellow students and our faculty and to engage fully in this dynamic community of inquiry. Do not forgo this rare opportunity—these very few years to absorb unimpeded those intellectual fundamentals that will guide you for a lifetime.
I also challenge you to use the knowledge and critical-thinking skills you acquire through your academic pursuits to engage the world beyond the classroom. Engage experience. Strive to apply your intellectual acumen to your own life and your community.
You will "engage the world" in the ultimate meaning of that phrase only when you confront and absorb conflicting intellectual material and points of view—those that extend well beyond what you already know and that often confound positions you already believe are securely yours.
2008: "Global Environmental Sustainability: An Unprecedented Challenge for Your Generation"
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.
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."
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.
2009: "Frontier Pragmatism: The Importance of Place in an Undergraduate Education"
We must, however, acknowledge that with "noise" comes responsibility. Civility cannot be assumed or simply inherited. Every cohort of students, faculty and staff has to reinvent and recommit to civil discourse not only in words, but also in deeds. Listening in a sustained and focused way is an indispensable part of speaking out responsibly. It is foolhardy merely to prepare in your mind your response to a person while he is speaking to you and in so doing, disregard understanding his position while you blithely assert yours. It is foolhardy to bring to a conversation a pre-determined ideology that you attempt to force—loudly and disruptively—upon another person simply to remain the last person talking—never growing in perception or understanding. It is foolhardy to assert that a person is not listening to you—not valuing you as a person—when what you really mean is that she is not agreeing with you. It is foolhardy to perpetuate rumors before proactively investigating their origin and accuracy or their particular context—a most common malady on college campuses that is both destructive and dangerous to you as an individual and the community of which you are a member.
You will be able to stand firm in your convictions and find the courage to be tenacious in the face of adversity if you have taken the time to validate the foundations of your views. If you have not made sure of the distinction between what is true and what is not, if you lash out rashly with accusation against or about others, if you like to be cynical and incorrect for the sake of merely being so, you will at the very least discredit yourself and most likely advance needless alarm in the community, as well as potentially malign another person or group.
2010: "In Defense of Our Commitment"
Academically we urge you to see relationships from one course to another and to take risks by enrolling for elective courses well beyond your comfort zone. Only then do you expand your pre-conceived notion of yourself and your talents. Out of class, we urge you to engage people who are dissimilar to you and to be surprised that your pre-conceived notions of the world and its people just might at this early stage be premature. What I often hear from some alumni is regret that while they were students, their preconceptions about people actually thwarted them in growing as a person. They often ask why in the world they did not talk to someone who later turned out to be quite interesting only because in their youthful pre-conceptions they thought the person was not "cool." We also encourage you to think outside your current portfolio of personal interests and consider joining or trying out entirely new groups or activities. This is the perfect place to go in new directions.
2011: "Changing More Than Just the Size and Color of the Room"
You assume the personal responsibility and exercise the restraint that permits the existence of a civil and tolerant community. By your words and actions, you create a community that is "safe" and accommodating to all responsible identities.
On a related note, your experiences both in and out of the classroom will determine your advancement as an informed, increasingly mature and tolerant person nurtured by a liberal-arts course of study and an undergraduate residential life. You will have to think more intentionally about why you are in college—at Dickinson—and who you are and wish to be as a result of your time in this community. Beliefs and behaviors will undergo intensive examination and perhaps need to change.