At colleges and universities across the country, the opening of the academic year is marked by the ceremony of convocation. We gather today, all of us, students, faculty and staff, alumni and alumnae from the Classes of the 1950s and earlier. If the weather had been better, we would have gathered on Smith Green, the physical beauty of this campus surrounding us, against a backdrop of Stern Hall, that magnificent and sophisticated site of faculty and student learning, close to Smith Hall, where the deans of Hobart and William Smith keep the traditions of these colleges alive for the students of the twenty first century.
I cannot help but note that there are students at Tulane, Dillard, Xavier Loyola and many other colleges and universities in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, who are not assembled to begin the academic year. They are scattered in shelters across the South, they have no e-mail, many college Web sites are down, and they are facing the likely loss of the first semester of this academic year.
And of course, others, not privileged enough to be members of a college community, are enduring almost unimaginable dislocation and suffering. I am confident that at HWS Colleges , a campus committed to civic engagement and public service, we will find ways to give of our time and our resources to support the rescue and recovery efforts now underway, just as we did when the tsunami struck the nations of the Indian Ocean. At that time, the campus community joined greater Geneva with compassion and imagination. To take just one example, the Colleges’ more than 400 student-athletes raised over $5000 for Save the Children, which was matched by the generosity of our alum and trustee Tom Poole ’61.
I am grateful to Rosie Mauk for coming here during this urgent time, and I hope that her example will be both a challenge and an inspiration to us as we find ways to embody our commitment to public service in direct support of the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Let that be one of our tasks for this coming year.
That commitment withstanding, there is a sense in which we stand at a considerable remove from the chaos and terror of Hurricane Katrina; at a considerable remove from the tragedy in Baghdad, where a bridge railing gave way yesterday and over 800 people plummeted to their deaths during a religious process for Shiite Muslims; at a considerable remove from the Census Bureau’s announcement that child poverty is again on the rise in this country; at a considerable remove from so much of what is sometimes referred to as the “real world.” (By the way, I’m referring to the real real world, not the MTV show.)
Students often speak of being in a bubble, members of this idyllic and sheltered community on the banks of beautiful Seneca Lake. I have always resisted the notion that we in academic life are not in the real world, that somehow, the start of an academic year is the end of the summer’s real calendar.
In classes Monday, yesterday and today, students examined the media coverage of the war in Iraq through critical eyes; an environmental studies class titled “The Fluid Earth” began to build a foundation for understanding the ecology of the globe’s water systems; students of literature probed texts in which the characters suffered and knew terror; political science classes laid the groundwork for understanding the division of responsibilities between the federal, state and local governments.
I could, of course, go on and on, listing the many ways in which the classroom responds to – and prepares you for – the world . We are the real world here. It may be that none of those classes mentioned Hurricane Katrina, but students began to make the analytical, emotional, and aesthetic connections that form the fabric of a liberal arts education. This education will shape the way you see and respond to world and local events for the rest of your lives. Through this education, you will begin to imagine the unimaginable, to understand the incomprehensible, and to predict the unforeseen. This, and nothing less, is what is found here.
One of our honorees today, Dr. George Abraham, reminds me of a very important 20th century American poet, William Carlos Williams. Like George Abraham, Williams was a physician, with a pediatric practice to working class families in Paterson, New Jersey. Like George Abraham, he was also passionately devoted to the arts – in his case, the art of poetry. In a very beautiful and meditative poem titled “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” Williams said, “You cannot get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Since I first encountered that poem, in an English class back in 1971, I have been haunted by that line. I found it again, many years later, when another important American poet, Adrienne Rich, used a portion of that potem to title a book of essays on contemporary poetry and politics. I think that we, privileged to enjoy life in an academic community – a small, special liberal arts college – should always remember that men and women die miserably every day for lack of what is found here.
At our best, in this community, we settle disputes with reason and evidence, not with violence. At our best, we do not permit gender, caste, color, sexual orientation, physical ability or economic condition to determine access to learning. At our best, we do not merely tolerate difference, we celebrate it. At our best, we value the past as much as the present, the aesthetic as much as the practical.
We are not always at our best, but it is our responsibility to call one another when we fail so that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature prevail.
To all of you who, like myself, are new at HWS, I welcome you and invite you into this remarkable and dedicated community of individuals, to become part of what is found here.
Welcoming Remarks, Provost Teresa Amott
August 31, 2005