Associate Professor of History
August 27, 2013
Good afternoon - it is my pleasure to join our staff and faculty, Deans McNally and Baer, Provost Ufomata, and President Gearan to welcome you all to this convocation and to the start of the academic year.
One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 1, 1863, Confederate forces met the Union Army at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The ensuing three-day battle was a major victory for the Union forces, a crushing defeat for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern
Virginia, and a critical turning point for the Civil War.
Nine weeks ago, about 250,000 people (maybe even some of you) went to the Gettysburg National Military Park to commemorate, remember, and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle. These visitors had the chance to listen to lectures by renowned historians, witness massive battle re-enactments, or even to sit around an authentic civil war era campfire. That a quarter of a million people chose to spend some of their limited summer vacation time celebrating the valor of long-dead soldiers, exploring the quiet fields which once had witnessed such unprecedented violence and destruction, or simply being present at the commemoration speaks to the immense power that the past can hold over us.
But is this really such a good thing? Robert E. Lee himself didn’t think so. In 1869, four years after the end of the war, Lee was invited to Gettysburg for an early commemoration of the battle. He declined the invitation. Lee said that he thought, “it wiser ... not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” While the man did lose the battle, and probably didn’t feel too great about celebrating that loss, he was also onto something larger, I think. The past, he felt, could have too strong a hold on us -- so strong that it could endanger the future.
Today, at the start of your college life, I’d like to urge you to follow Lee’s course. Let your past inform who you are, but don’t let it control your future. What do I mean by this? I am not suggesting that you jettison everything that has brought you here today. But I am recommending that you hold yourself open to the new experiences that the next few years at HWS will bring.
What might this mean, specifically? Well, did you love sports in high school? That’s great -- but try art or computer science or dance or modern poetry here.
Loved English in high school? Take a class in physics or economics or anthropology or media studies.
Stayed home most nights with your Xbox in high school? Unplug here - go see a play, try out for a play, try out for a team sport, join a club, volunteer, get involved.
Were you overextended in high school? Hang out in your dorm here playing Xbox with your new friends.
Were you into history? That’s great -- you should stick with that. No, just kidding.
All I am really trying to say is that at HWS you have the chance to stretch yourself into new spaces, to become something more than you have been. By taking chances to do that, you will establish a life-long pattern of exploration, of growth, and of change that will serve you well in your future. And your future is, of course, what college is all about.
This week, Americans are celebrating another historic event -- one made tragically necessary by the refusal of Robert E. Lee’s fellow white southerners to follow his advice and let go of their pasts. This week we recognize the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and celebrate the brave activists who fought for racial equality in America. Exactly fifty years ago tomorrow, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In this speech, King looked not to the past, but to a future in which
America transcended its racist history. He told the assembled crowd that he had come to Washington to “remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
You all are here to begin your future adult lives. As you start them, let your past inform, not control your future, and be open to whatever the “fierce urgency of [YOUR] now” may bring.
Thank you, and good luck.