2017 Convocation Remarks
Welcome to Dickinson College. Welcome back to our returning Dickinson students, faculty and staff, and welcome to our new students, who have just recently arrived here in Carlisle from all over the country and from all over the world.
For our students from Texas, please know that we are thinking about your families, and if you have any concerns, please reach out to your college Deans.
Like all of us here, I was drawn to this wonderful school by its sterling reputation, both for academic rigor and for the vision and the values that have informed it since it was chartered 234 years ago.
Dickinson College was born at the dawn of American democracy, founded by Benjamin Rush, an important figure in the American colonies and a signer of our Declaration of Independence. The college was established here on what was then the western frontier of a new nation.
Chartered as the first college in the new America, Dickinson, from its outset, has sought to prepare broadly educated leaders for our new democracy. That was Rush’s intent. We honor it still.
He founded his college to help build a new, a different sort of nation, and now we are called upon to ensure that you—our students are prepared for the challenges of a very different America, a very different century and world.
It is a world being daily transformed by astonishing discoveries and innovations, the spread of unprecedented global prosperity, improved health and longevity. We often forget that we have seen more progress in human development in the past 60 years than in the previous 600.
For such progress to continue, we need to nurture creativity and research of all kinds. The scholars who constitute the Dickinson faculty are doing precisely that. I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to be enormously impressed by the women and men who are giving their lives and their talents to the advancement of knowledge and to the education of our students on our campus.
Although we have seen great progress, we must also face our enormous challenges: climate change and environmental degradation, growing inequality, bigotry and hatred, terrorism and transnational diseases. Responding to these needs, Dickinson College has been at the forefront of both sustainability and global studies; we will continue to build on this distinguished and important work and become a leader in intercultural competency and civic engagement.
You Dickinson students, new and returning, must be prepared to apply your knowledge to solve problems of a complexity—and at a pace—that very few of us can now imagine. You must be educated to learn from and deal cooperatively with people quite unlike yourselves, here at home and around the world. At Dickinson, our centuries-old tradition has been to strive for a useful education for the common good. In this, as in 1783, Dickinson is still on the frontier, is a pioneer.
We are proud at Dickinson to declare that we are a liberal-arts college. The liberal—the liberating—arts and sciences have come under assault by those who don’t understand how this kind of education opens minds and encourages us to see things in new ways.
Clearly, our futures depend on such new visions. Such an education, we know, leads us to make new connections and create, adapt, identify and solve new problems. In a world where many sorts of knowledge are outdated in just a few years, we all must continue learning and trying new things—for the rest of our lives. A liberal-arts education teaches us how to do that.
Benjamin Rush believed as passionately in education as he did in freedom. He held that: “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.” This is as timely an observation now as it was at the dawn of this country.
And freedom was a new thing in his world.
Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom of the press. These freedoms are still unimaginable in much of the world, and everywhere they are always at risk.
As one of our new international students observed last week at a student orientation session, “I came here to America, I came to Dickinson for freedom, as I do not have it in my country.”
The pioneers of Dickinson College had also been brought up in a world without freedom. They were taught to become good subjects of a king. After the revolution succeeded, they needed to imagine what a college should be in this new and unprecedented nation with new freedoms—what should it do, what should it teach, and why? These are perennial questions.
He realized that a new country with new freedoms required that we escape the tyranny of received but unexamined ideas to which we cling. Now, as at the beginning of this country and this college, we have to escape the passive acceptance of whatever is current in our place, in our time, among “our” particular people.
We need the freedom to escape our narrowness, our parochialism, our unexamined preconceptions and assumptions, our unconscious biases. Coming to deeply understand the very profound implications of this, the human condition, is at the core of a liberal education, an education entertaining new thoughts, considering new ideas, seeing things from multiple perspectives, thinking very long and very hard and trying desperately hard to find what kernels of truth we can in the world.
Providing a liberating education, a useful education, and working for the newly conceived common good was the aim of our founders. It continues to be our aim today.
Achieving the common good requires that, working together, we forge common understandings and goals. It requires, it seems to me, a level of tolerance and civility now widely under attack by many different sorts of people—but incivility is incivility, intolerance is intolerance. Neither has a place in a college that truly values the liberating arts, where disagreement is expected, honored, celebrated.
Today the common good, at Dickinson and in our society and world, must be forged by people with very different backgrounds and views. Today at Dickinson we are welcoming the most diverse class ever in our history. Again, we are pioneering. Again, we are at the forefront of our precious America.
As Dickinson College welcomes a class that looks like all of America and all of the world, we do not shirk from the very hard work of trying to understand one another, to listen to one another, to learn from one another—and never to silence one another.
We do this because we believe that the search for truth is the foundation of a free and good society. We do this because we believe that the common good can only come from the open and respectful exchange of honest ideas amongst everybody. Today, as you sign in, new students, you will see the words that all of us commit to:
Dickinson College is a scholarly community dedicated to freedom and civility, to the advancement of learning, to honor, to integrity and to mutual respect of everyone in all of our interactions—with each other and with the world. In joining this community, I understand that it is my responsibility to help shape this institution and the lives of those who live and labor here for the betterment of our alma mater, of our community, of our nation and of the world.
Today Dickinson College welcomes the class of 2021. Welcome to a great educational adventure. As in 1783, we are creating a new, useful education for a newly emerging world. And that education aims for the common good, aims at something much greater than mere individual success.
We are all in this together, and it is going to take all of the talent, good will, intelligence and drive this species can muster to transcend the challenges that today’s student generation will have to face.
Our future will require liberally educated young people—educated in freedom with a breadth of vision, a ferocious curiosity, a courageous depth of knowledge and a commitment to the common good.
Such an education is our mission here. It has been our mission since the birth of this nation.