We’ve just enacted a rather odd ritual.
You the class of 2021 stood in a circle and looked at us. We the Faculty walked around that circle and looked at you. You’re dressed in smart clothes. We’re dressed in fancy clothes.
You have just experienced what social anthropologists call a rite (that’s r-i-t-e) of passage. Rites of passage are enacted at moments of psycho-social and biological change.
This moment represents a big change for you: it’s a change in your social identity.
It represents a smaller change for us, but it’s a significant one none the less – it marks the start of a new and exciting academic year.
But for me, standing here tonight, it represents a rather bigger change than it does for my esteemed colleagues. That’s because I’ve never addressed an audience of this size before. So I’m on a big threshold here tonight, just like you. You are now officially undergraduates. I am now officially the convocation speaker. (And I want to thank the student who came up to me on Saturday and said how much she was looking forward to being in my Core class. You don’t know how much that inspired me.)
We are all of us here tonight linked together as an academic community. We will be again, one more time, and one more time only, when you graduate.
You know why you’re here this evening. But what’s my role?
In a ceremony that commemorated those who laid down their lives for Athens in 431 BCE, the statesman Pericles ascended the podium, just as I have done, and addressed the Demos, the Athenian people. (I’m a classicist, so I go in for classical allusions.) We’re told that Pericles was – I quote – “a man chosen by the People, recognized for his eminent wisdom.”
I have to tell you I wasn’t chosen by the People, and as for eminent wisdom, well, I’m just going to try to say one thing you might remember in four years’ time. I suppose I should start by giving you a bit of advice.
Number one, be critical.
We, the Faculty, won’t deliberately mislead you, but each of us only represents a partial point of view, because, as we all know, there’s no such thing as objectivity. So cleave to Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty and you can’t go wrong.
Number two, be prepared to be uncomfortable.
We want you to be safe. We don’t want you to be comfortable.We want to knock your socks off. We want to put ideas in your head.
Socrates said the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Unexamined beliefs also aren’t worth having. So be prepared for us to get you to question anything and everything, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable — or rather precisely because it makes you feel uncomfortable.
You’ll be all the stronger, even if you end up at the exact same position afterwards.
I always keep dear to my heart something that Oliver Cromwell, a great English Republican, in a striking phrase said: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Number three don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re troubled, if you’re anxious, if you’re depressed.
There’s no dishonor, no disgrace. Shakespeare, I’m convinced, suffered from depression. So did Beethoven. So did Winston Churchill. So did Picasso.
Number four, accept the fact that life won’t always be just to you.
There’ll come a time when you think you deserve an A and instead you get a B minus. So my advice here is, deal with it.
If you read the Iliad in Core Legacies, which at least seven of you are this semester, because you’re in my Core class, you will meet Achilles. He’s the best fighter in the Achaean army and he gets dissed by Agamemnon, so he withdraws to sulk in his tent, and as a result of his sulking he causes the death of his best friend. So by defending his honour, he destroys what is most precious in his life. Complaining about a B minus won’t land you in a similar situation, but you get the general point, I hope. We all want the world to behave justly to us, and it just isn’t just.
I’ve just quoted from the Iliad, one of the books you may encounter. You’ve come to a liberal arts college. We, the Faculty, have declared that you can’t graduate from Colgate unless you open yourself up to some extraordinary minds — to Homer, Aeschylus, Plato – duh – but also to Darwin, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf. And you need to know a foreign language. And we hope you’ll go abroad. And you have to take science if you’re a humanist. And so on. Because you didn’t come here just to prepare for your careers. You came here, in case you don’t know it, and this would be a good moment to find out, to prepare for life.
I’ve had a hell of a life at Colgate. I’ve been here for 31 years. When a student asked me last year how long I’d been at Colgate and I told her, there was a long pause. Then she said slowly, “Are you OK?” She wanted to call the paramedics.
I had no idea what I was letting myself into when I applied for a job here. I’m not a prayerful person, but after the interview, being driven back to the airport in the worst blizzard I could ever have imagined — I grew up in Britain where we have civilized weather, civilized rain — I prayed, yes, I prayed, that I would never see this place again.
And it’s proved a perfect fit. For 31 years. So be prepared to be surprised here.
Not only did I know nothing about Colgate, I also knew nothing about American higher education. When the taxi driver drove me to Colgate for my interview, he said to me casually, “So you teach German, do you?”
I thought he might be a secret member of the interviewing committee, so I rather rashly said, “Er, yes.”
I thought Colgate was the kind of university where you teach Greek and Latin and perhaps a little bit of German if the German professor is sick and a little bit of Physics if the Physics professor is sick, and then perhaps you teach Women’s Hockey.
It later emerged that the taxi driver had driven a candidate for a position in the German department on the same day and had assumed I was in for the same job.
Had he applied Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, he wouldn’t have made that rash assumption.
Sitting before you are kingdoms, continents, universes, multiverses, more than 200 in total. Each one is a treasure chest of learning and yearning, of experience and endeavour, of wisdom and weakness. They are rich, they are diverse, and if you let them into your universe, they will inspire you and change your life.
We lost one of our dearest faculty members recently, Bruce Selleck, a geologist, a former Dean of the Faculty, and his wife is with us this evening. He was a multiverse, and his spirit abides. He gave the convocation address 25 years ago. Whom the gods love die young. As Hamlet’s friend Horatio says when Hamlet breathes his last, “Good night, sweet prince.”
Colgate certainly isn’t the institution I just first imagined. It demands excellence from its faculty in both teaching AND research.
Our administration is no less extraordinary. They will treat you like a human being. Of course, bad things occasionally happen. They happen everywhere. But this faculty, this administration, this community, will always try to do their best to safeguard you, to protect you, and to strengthen you.
No-one gets to teach at Colgate who is mediocre. And you’re not mediocre either, and if you think you are, because you have issues with self-esteem, I hope you’ll discover someone who will convince you, very soon, you’re not.
I’m only here by dint of hard work. Not because I’m an outstanding intellect. I’m just dogged. Be dogged. (I’m tempted to bark at this point).
You’re here to enjoy the best years of your life, right? I profoundly hope they won’t be. I profoundly hope your lives will get happier and happier as you get older and older. I’ve never been happier than I am at this moment. I’m all the stronger for all the wonderful people who have entered my life, a few of whom have wounded me grievously.
On a TED talk I listened to recently about PTSD, the message was, “Let’s be kind to each other out there. You never know the depths of another person’s suffering.”
Respect and value each other, respect and value the people who work for you here, who clean the classrooms, empty the trash, patrol the campus, serve you lunch, work in the gym.
We are the privileged ones, all of us here in this Chapel tonight. You because you are about to go on a rollercoaster ride through human learning lasting four years — and will meet us. We because we have the best job in the world — and will meet you.
I’ll let you into a closely guarded secret. We’ve not done a great job, my generation. We’re handing you a fractured world. You’re going to have to deal with overpopulation, climate change, state-sponsored terrorism, nano-technology, and Artificial Intelligence.
The English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently pronounced that Artificial Intelligence could spell the end of the human race. But you’re not going to let that happen. You’re not going to let that happen because we’re going to give you the tools to prepare you for whatever lies ahead.
I once went to a lecture by the Indian spiritual philosopher Krishnamurti. The Vietnam War was at its height and he was talking about peace of mind and a woman in the audience called out, “What is the point of my peace of mind when so many terrible things are going on in the world.”
“You are the world!” he shouted back at her. And that’s what I shout at you tonight, you are the world. So whether you’re religious or atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Moslem or Christian or Hindu, embrace diversity. You know that. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. That’s our only future, if humanity is to survive.
The rite of passage that we enacted here tonight signals a moment of vulnerability. You are stepping from the known to the unknown. Rites of passage often include water and fire, because passing thru water and fire involves risk. Rites of passage have been performed the world over from the beginning of time, to help people cross from one status to another.
But the threshold you are passing over tonight is not just one of risk. It’s also one of challenge, of opportunity, and of growth. It’s our job — that’s to say, the job of your faculty and your administration — to bring you across this threshold to a fuller consciousness of your place in the world, and to a fuller understanding of the world itself.
It’s your job to reach out to us and to the world we’re going to explore together, in all its wonder and turmoil and complexity and majesty.
I want to leave you with one image. If you don’t remember anything else — just this one image. In the 1890s, when there was no campus to speak of, the faculty and students alike carried the stones from the quarry up on the hill to build East and West Hall. They did it together. A joint enterprise. And this is a joint enterprise. You inspire us, just as my student inspired me on Saturday, and just as we intend to inspire you.
So we’re all standing on the threshold of great things here tonight. We’re in this together. Let’s get to work.