By Interim President Neil B. Weissman
August 28, 2016
It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you all—students, faculty, staff and guests—to the opening Convocation of Dickinson’s academic year. For me, this will be the 41st time greeting a new year at the college. Lest that seem like a lot to you, it is very little compared to the age of the college itself. Twelve days from today, on Sept. 9, Dickinson will mark the 233rd anniversary of its chartering by the state of Pennsylvania. The specific date is noteworthy. Only six days earlier, the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution, making Dickinson the first college chartered in the newly recognized United States.
As our charter indicates, Dickinson was founded for the “right education of youth, who must succeed the aged in the important offices of society.” In other words, as our founder Benjamin Rush intended, we were and are meant to prepare leaders for American democracy through a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences. Not everyone—then or now—shared enthusiasm for this mission, I might note. When Old West burned down in 1803, the college petitioned the state legislature for funds to rebuild. That petition was rejected. “I hate learned men,” said one opponent; “learning isn’t of any use,” insisted another. Happily, private donors disagreed. Those who funded the reconstruction of Old West included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall and (I hesitate to mention in the year of the Broadway hit Hamilton, but we are transparent here at Dickinson) Aaron Burr. For those who don’t recall, Burr shot and killed Hamilton! At the end of this ceremony, those of you in the first-year class of 2020, as well as our new transfer students, will ascend the old stone steps into Memorial Hall to sign into the college. In so doing, you follow in the footsteps of thousands of Dickinsonians who preceded you. And you accept the responsibility to engage in an education as a citizen leader of American and indeed global democracies—in the case of the United States, a democracy no longer new but hardly completed and, as in 1783, still in dire need of leaders.
Now, allow me to offer a bit of advice to the central actors in Convocation, the class of 2020 and our new transfer students.
Educational philosophies are usually highly autobiographical. By that I mean, we think and offer advice based upon our own personal experiences. Of course, for me the equivalent of Convocation was long ago. I still, however, remember three emotions as I finished my college orientation and started my undergraduate experience. First, I was tired. The chock full orientation program, late night sessions getting to know classmates, and my first experience with the freedom of college life away from home left me exhausted. My guess is that the lure of late night has already worked on you—and will continue to do so. So my first bit of advice is get some sleep. A dean at another liberal-arts college once articulated what he called “the reflective property of nocturnal paper production.” It states, “An essay written at 3 a.m. on the night before it was due usually reads like an essay written at 3 a.m. on the night before it was due.” I encourage you to plan accordingly.
Second, looking back I remember finishing orientation with a good deal of anxiety. Neither of my parents had attended college, so everything, and in many ways everyone, was new and usually very different for me. I naturally wondered with worry how the next four years would go. I suspect many if not all of you are wondering the same. My advice to you is to understand that anxiety and discomfort (within reasonable limits of course) are part of a productive college experience.
Some time ago I watched an alumni video for another college, beautifully done and at first very appealing. But as the video played, I began to feel a sense of discomfort with it. The reason became clear when one student in the video informed viewers that she had been worried going to the college, but when she arrived she found people just like her. That is not our goal for you. We hope that you encounter people, practices and ideas very different from your own. The encounter with the new and different may be uncomfortable, but it is an inherent and valuable dimension of real learning.
In discussing difference, I want to emphasize a distinctive characteristic of Dickinson’s ethos. We are deeply committed to an increasingly rare commodity in American culture, civility. I mean here the ability to exchange ideas with openness and respect. This desire to build bridges is part of our historic legacy. Those of you with expertise in American history will remember that for much of their later lives our second and third presidents, Dickinson donor Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were deeply estranged, each refusing to write the other. Enter Benjamin Rush. In full honesty it must be admitted that Rush could be cranky, especially when others disagreed with him. But in a signal achievement, it was he who intervened with Adams and Jefferson, bringing about a historic reconciliation. Indeed, when Adams died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his last words were an approving “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” As fate would have it, Jefferson himself had expired four hours earlier. Equally noteworthy, if less well known beyond Carlisle, Benjamin Rush had years earlier in a dream predicted that Adams and Jefferson would pass away on the same day. My point here is not to suggest that Rush had paranormal abilities. Rather, I recount the story because it serves as a model of civility, an invitation to discourse that enhances learning and enriches rather than impoverishes all who participate. At a time when Americans seem hopelessly divided and unable to engage in constructive dialogue, Dickinson is and must remain a place where we can.
I recently heard an administrator at another college complain that students nowadays lack three qualities: resilience, forgiveness and the willingness to teach. I think that is something we all need to consider. The world can be a rough and tumble place. We all inevitably have encounters that offend and anger us. So we do need to develop resilience in the face of such experiences. I am told that jewels are sometimes polished in tumblers full of rocks. Dickinson is no such tumbler, but the image is a reminder that rough moments can be opportunities for growth. Forgiveness is a part of that. I mean here the understanding in interaction with others that all of us make mistakes. At times we say and do things that belie our better natures. Often unintentionally. Which is where teaching comes in. You are not only here as passive learners, but also as teachers yourselves. When you encounter misunderstanding, seize the opportunity to reach out and engage others in dialogue. In developing all three traits—resilience, forgiveness and the capacity to teach—you should know that the college is not indifferent to your experience. We are here to support you and, when needed, counsel and join with you. Our vision of the Dickinson community is an inclusive one in which each member participates in their own way and none are excluded.
Finally, I imagine and hope that your primary emotion today is excitement. The president of a peer institution once promised incoming students that the next four years would be the most fun of their lives. (Actually, if you think about it that’s a rather depressing claim—four years of fun and it’s downhill after that.) I won’t make any such assertion. I will tell you that the next four years will likely be the only time in your lives that can be fully devoted to exploring the world around you, and to preparing for your place in it. The college operates from the classroom to the cafeteria, to your residence halls, in Carlisle and around the globe for precisely that purpose. In fact, with the exception of your family, Dickinson may be the only institution you will encounter that exists solely for you.
Turn your excitement into experimentation with the many possibilities Dickinson will offer you inside the classroom and out. Pursue the interests you bring to us. But be sure to try new things. Until the day you retire from the careers for which your Dickinson education will prepare you (and I assure you it will), you will never have another time for so much exploration. As you explore, you will also learn how to make choices, how to focus your excitement on core interests. Because none of us can do it all. But that is a lesson for later.