(Note: These are prepared remarks by Mary Ann Calo, Batza Professor of Art and Art History; Director, Division of Arts and Humanities, given at Colgate’s 193rd convocation.)
Greetings to President Herbst, Dean Hicks, my colleagues on the faculty, and of course a warm welcome to the class of 2017, our transfer students and their families.
It is a great honor to stand before you tonight and I want to thank the President and the Dean for this opportunity. You have already spent many hours in conversation with advisors and peers and received extensive orientation to various aspects of life at Colgate. The semester starts tomorrow and my job is to welcome you to our scholarly community—specifically to the classroom and the intellectual adventure you are about to begin.
You enter college in 2013 and many of you probably already know that Colgate is deeply attached to the number 13. Weirdly 13 is our lucky number and we hope it will be lucky for you. While you are attending Colgate we will also be planning for our bi-centennial celebration to take place in 2019. So you are here to learn from all of us but we will also be learning from you as we celebrate Colgate’s past and imagine its future.
As Colgate students you join an extraordinary community of individuals who earned the opportunity to be here through hard work and careful planning. I imagine you also had the support of many family members, advisors, and friends. But now you move forward on your own. Colgate offers you many opportunities for excellence; but you will need to make choices about how best to pursue these opportunities. I am asking you to think tonight about how you exercise choice in the context of multiple opportunities, and how you do that in a way that facilitates your intellectual growth but also moves you closer to your personal goals.
I will first share with you some stories about how experiences–some random and some deliberate—have shaped the lives of past students in ways they might never have expected. And I will also offer some personal observations and suggestions that I hope will help you maximize your own experiences here and allow a Colgate education to be an agent of your own transformation.
I begin with my own story. I am a professor of Art History but I started college as a Math major. Why? I was good at calculus in high school and that seemed a good enough reason to major in Math. But I ultimately lost interest in Math and shifted to Psychology. Then in my junior year I had a powerful study abroad experience. A semester in Italy opened my eyes to a universe of art, culture and personal history—my father was born in Italy—that I had scarcely known existed. (I also met my husband on this study abroad program-not an insignificant detail of my biography).
So I returned to my senior year of college an art history major in a psych major’s body. Because I went to a liberal arts college, I was able to reconcile these interests by doing a senior thesis on the psychology of creativity. I then went to grad school in art history prepared to think as much about the physical nature of perception and the development of the mind’s creative faculties as I did about artistic traditions and cultural history.
Mine is a professor’s story but I have known many Colgate students whose lives and careers were shaped by an education that allowed them to follow their passions in multiple ways and often with multiple detours.
Mark Falcone, Colgate class of 1985, was similarly transformed by a study abroad experience, also in Italy. Mark was a history major. His study of Renaissance Florence taught him about the historic relationship between the prosperity of cities and a strong civic investment in the development of great art and architecture. Mark is now a large-scale real estate developer in Denver, Colorado, where he has distinguished himself as a visionary urban entrepreneur who is strongly committed to the idea that the arts are crucial to the future vitality of our cities.
Jennifer Heldman class of 1998 is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Jennifer studied astrogeophysics at Colgate, a concentration she chose because it involved interdisciplinary scientific inquiry that combined courses in physics, astronomy, chemistry, and geology. Her childhood fascination with the solar system drove this enthusiasm and while at Colgate Jennifer spent a summer as a Space camp counselor. She went on to earn a PhD in Planetary Science and now she gets paid to study Mars.
Finally, I have recently reconnected with a former student—Julian Farrior Colgate class of 1993. Julian double majored in Economics and Art History at Colgate and then obtained his MBA. Today he is CEO of a company he founded called Backflip Studios that produces gaming software for mobile devices. Julian hires computer scientists, software engineers, and artists and relies on them all equally to sustain innovation in his company.
What do these stories have in common? They involve the kind of intellectual curiosity, imagination and mental agility that characterize the education you will receive here if you remain open to the unexpected relationships between courses, disciplines and ideas.
Learning for many of you up to now has been mostly about thresholds of achievement. You have been on your way here. You are still are on your way, but now it is to the rest of your life. It is time to stop thinking about education as jumping through hoops or clearing hurdles. In these four years you will have the freedom to explore and grow in ways that were not possible before you came and may never be easily achieved again.
Your circuits are probably overloaded by now. But when things calm down and the flush of starting college has subsided—you may well ask yourself how you are supposed to do this? On a practical level—how do you get the most out of being at Colgate?
First, be mindful of the fact that everything you do here can potentially contribute to your future. Your choice of academic major is important, but there is value in not rushing in with pre-conceived ideas. And remember that you will gain crucial insights and skills in numerous ways, not solely in the program or department you commit to as your concentration.
Course choices can and should be about experimentation and curiosity as well as utility. (Not about the time of day. We can’t all teach at 1in the afternoon.) You will need good communication skills in the workplace so take classes that require you to write. Take them especially if you do not like to write and don’t think you are very good at it.
A course in philosophy will challenge you to examine fundamental questions that have fascinated human beings for centuries. And it will also cultivate your ability to construct a persuasive argument and to recognize weakness and inconsistency of thought.
We live in an empirical world and the ability to analyze data is important to most fields. But we also live in a visual world flooded with pictures made for purposes of entertainment, documentation and persuasion. The capacity to critically engage with images is crucial to navigating contemporary life. You can learn about the rhetoric of images by making them in studio art class or dissecting them through the study of a film.
Second, many of you will enter international careers or will be drawn to global challenges and issues. Take languages; and when you do think about taking them as far as you can. Conversational skills are important to global communication, but if you want to understand how someone from another culture feels, there is no better way than to study that culture through its own unique forms of expression in literature, film and the arts.
Start thinking immediately about studying abroad and don’t make any assumptions about what you can and cannot do based on your major, your participation in an athletic team or your finances. There is excellent support available here to guide you through the process.
We encourage you to seek out a study abroad experience in a totally unfamiliar place. You can find America anywhere in the world—but why would you want to? Go to the emerging centers of modernity, commerce and democracy—go to Asia, the Middle East, South America or Africa.
If you are drawn to more familiar places —Europe for example–because of your interest in language, curiosity about your families’ history or some ongoing fascination with a particular culture—by all means go ahead.
In either case, do not go as passive consumers of foreign culture; pay attention to what you see and allow the experience to dislodge assumptions you may have held.
Third, I encourage you to be intellectually fearless but also careful. By careful I do not mean cautious—as in holding back out of fear of being wrong or being judged. I mean expressing what you think and what you have learned with care. Respect the scholarly process and give your academic work enough time to enter into it in a meaningful way.
We will push you but you also need to push yourself. Academic achievement should not be about proficiency. We live in an age in which at least something can be known about anything with a point, touch or a click. There is a huge seduction to think of knowledge as a kind of acquisition and to be easily satisfied with academic accomplishments. So when you get to the point at which you think you can demonstrate or display your learning—blow it up and start over. You should be skeptical—doubt what you are told or what you think you know. But never dismiss the possibility that there are better answers to be found if you dig deeper.
Fourth—and perhaps most importantly—resist the impulse to regard what you do in the classroom as separate from the rest of your life. There can and should be a strong relationship between how you live and how you learn. At Colgate we refer to this as “Living the Liberal Arts.” Your intellectual and personal growth will in part depend on your capacity to experience all of what you do here as interconnected parts of a coherent process.
I had an experience this summer that made me think about the relationship between daily life and the life of the mind. I spent some time with my 3 year old grandson whose mother–my daughter– was in the hospital having a baby. To distract this child from his anxiety and confusion I asked him some questions. I asked—for example—what his father did during the day when he wasn’t in the hospital visiting his mother and the new baby. He replied that he went on the train to work in his office. “What was in this office?” I asked. My grandson told me it was full of dinosaur bones. “Oh” I said “and what exactly does he do with these dinosaur bones.” Not missing a beat—the little boy told me “He eats them.”
When I saw my son-in-law later that day I asked him if he was aware that his child believed he ate dinosaur bones for a living. He thought for a minute and said “Well—it would probably be more interesting than banking.”
No disrespect meant to bankers or banking here. This young man is a very capable and successful banker who in fact loves his work. Nor is the take away that you should think or act like a three year old while you attend college.
But it did make me think about the connection between learning, thinking and living. This 3 year old is on the threshold of making a quantum leap in terms of mental development. He also lives a lot in his imagination—is in fact encouraged to do so as he approaches the age of rational thought. You too are on an intellectual threshold, but unlike a child you cannot responsibly live in your imagination. Your education will be placed in the service of addressing real world challenges and of leading a full and meaningful life. Even still—I want to encourage you to let your imagination have some play in this process we call education. This is the time to think rationally but also to allow yourself to be surprised.
Finally, while you are here I hope you will come to understand yourselves as important players in new and still emerging models of learning, social and workplace interaction, and community. I do not refer here to the need to identify yourself as a member of “Generation this” or “Generation that.” These are labels, media-generated categories useful mostly as marketing tools.
I have in mind something else—that is genuine self-awareness. You have already entered into a pivotal relationship with emerging technology; most of you take for granted things that barely existed a decade ago. You will likely work and live in an extraordinarily diverse world where no one set of beliefs dominates and nothing is culturally normative. Don’t just passively roll with this; be alert to the changes you are seeing and making. And let your education help shape your relationship to change.
We convene tonight on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s speech calling for greater justice in a better and more equal America. It is worth reflecting on what it means to begin your college experience in this context. It seems to me that Martin Luther King, among many other things, understood the historical moment in which he found himself. He sensed that things were changing around him, he saw that they could change, and he became an active agent of that change.
When you leave here you will have to be competitive in the workplace. But you will also need to know how to exercise your rights and respect the rights of others; how to engage productively with issues of civic, moral and social responsibility; how to get past your fear and suspicion of human and cultural differences and recognize their intrinsic value.
You have made the wise choice to attend a university fully committed to the model of liberal arts education. That decision has meaning. Make it work and more importantly make it matter, not just in your own life but in the world you will live in when you leave here in 4 years.
So go out there, engage, dream big, and make sure to eat some dinosaur bones. Good luck.