Thank you, Mark, for the honor of receiving the Presidential Medal. I am very grateful for this. And congratulations to David Rickey, who embodies the very ideal of community service. I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak today, to the faculty, administration and the students, especially the Classes of 2010. It is an enormous pleasure to welcome you to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. You’ve made an astute choice, as you are beginning to discover.
I want to start by telling you how my life was changed here. Thirty-four years ago, when I was in my first week as first-year, I had two important encounters. One in my dorm, Hirshson House. Walking down the hall one day, I ran into a Hobart freshman, a small, slender guy with tightly wound black hair and tortoise-shell glasses. His name was Robert Jones. He stopped me to talk about a course we were both taking called Myth, History and Theory. I think he had overslept for the second class and wanted to know what he’d missed. It was a seemingly inconsequential conversation, one of dozens I must have had that week. But he was funny, smart and full of nervous energy, and he quickly became my best friend. We took many of the same courses and got to know each other well, but I hadn’t really seen him as a man of valor until one afternoon late in the spring of our senior year.
We both had apartments on South Main. His was sunny and pleasant; mine—in the basement of a building across the street—was dark and gloomy. As I got up from my desk one day, something caught my eye in the corner by the closet. It was a large, well-fed snake, fast asleep. There was no question about what to do: I ran (quietly) to the phone in the kitchen and called Robert. He was there within minutes—in sturdy work boots and a yellow slicker with a hanger in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. I could see immediately that he was just as squeamish as I was, but he gallantly got to work, chasing the snake through the apartment and poking it with the hanger in an effort to get it into the bag. I am not proud of my role in the episode. As he emitted small shrieks of disgust in his pursuit, I was overcome by semi-hysterical laughter. (And this was the height of the feminist revolution.) But he bagged the snake, and won my trust and admiration forever.
The other serendipitous encounter I had that first week was with another anxious first-year: me. I had drifted somewhat aimlessly through high school, not working very hard or learning very much, and although I was excited to be here, I had no idea, really, what to expect. The Myth, History, and Theory class was one of the early interdisciplinary courses at the Colleges (Hobart and William Smith were at the vanguard of the movement), and the lectures were by a history professor, Marvin Bram, and a religious studies professor, Mary Gerhart. Suddenly, as I listen to those two brilliant teachers in Albright Auditorium, I began to absorb some of their energy and passion. It was as though I’d been half asleep for 18 years and suddenly was wide awake. I had that sense of exhilaration again and again in my years at these colleges—some professors who are still teaching, like Eugen Baer in the Philosophy Department and Grant Holly, Peter Cummings, and Dan O’Connell in the English Department.
Robert had the same experience. We both took many courses in religious studies—a discipline I’d never even thought about before, and Mary Gerhart became another lasting friend, as did my imperious English adviser, Katy Cook, and my subversive Honors advisor, Claudette Columbus. Professor Gerhart introduced me in class—amongst many other things—to the novels of Iris Murdoch. (Soon after I got to The New Yorker, I worked on a lovely story written by Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, about her struggles with Alzheimer’s. It later became a book, and then the movie, Iris, starring Judi Dench. Twenty or thirty years from know you too will be spinning off, in unexpected ways, what you learned in class or on the lake or in the library.)
Professor Columbus taught me not to take literature (or public speaking, for the matter) too seriously. When we were reading Wuthering Heights for my Honors thesis and discussing Catherine’s tempestuous romance with Heathcliff, she asked me to think about some of the surprisingly suggestive imagery and language in the novel—all the more surprising given that Emily Bronte was not only a spinster but also the daughter of a clergyman. My adviser referred me to a passage describing a looming mass of rocks where Catherine and Heathcliff secretly meet on the moors. I wasn’t quite getting it, so Professor Columbus was more explicit. “Think about it,” she insisted with a smile. What is that outcropping called? “Pennistone Crag?” I answered. She looked at me mischievously and said, “Pennistone Crag?”
Teachers in my high school didn’t talk like that. Your education here like every aspect of your new lives—will be far more challenging and provocative than it’s ever been. You are experiencing a kind of freedom you’ve never had before. You’re done with the regimented high school curriculum, and you’ll be taking mostly courses you want to take. You parents aren’t around to nag you. But guess what. You’ve chosen to go to a small liberal arts college rather than to a large university, and you can’t disappear here. There will be days when you wish you could zone out in a lecture hall packed with 800 students or avoid your biology professor in the bookstore, who will ask you why you didn’t show up for class. You think you’ve left home, but you’ve just joined a new one.
Katy Cook was the head of the Honors program here for ten years and wanted to know during my junior year what I intended to do my Honors project on. Unprepared, I mumbled something about not being sure I wanted to do it at all. “Of course you’ll do it,” she announced, and that was the end of the discussion. It wasn’t the end of her influence in my life, though.
For the next fifteen years, every time I wrote a piece for The New Republican, where I was working as editor, Katy sent me a full critique. Then I got pretty busy—I had two daughters, moved from Washington to New York and went from Newsweek to The New Yorker. When I finally saw her again—at a small party on Mary Gerhart’s veranda—I was looking forward to a genial evening. Katy, by then, was a frail, elderly woman, asking politely about my husband, my children and my work, and she listened intently. She became almost grandmotherly. But then she replied, “Yes, yes all that sounds fine, but editing is not very fulfilling, is it? What about your writing?” When I told this story to Robert, who by then was an executive editor himself, at HarperCollins, and the author of two well-received novels, he reminded me what she’d written on one of his papersfor her Russian Literature course: “You use the language of a street person.” Katy was forever his most exacting goad, too.
People used to ask whether a liberal arts education prepared students for their careers. These days the question is whether you all will be able to compete with graduates in China and India, who work harder and are more single-mindedly driven to succeed than American kids. The term “globalization” didn’t exist when I was a student. Nor did Google, the laptop or YouTube. The Human Genome hadn’t been sequenced, and Bill Gates, still in college himself, knew nothing yet about running a multi-billion dollar corporation or about being (along with his wife, Melinda) the most influential philanthropist in history.
But of course there have been equally stunning developments of different kinds in the last several decades: global warming; the rampant spread of AIDS, TB and malaria in the Third World; the rise of Islamic terrorism and of the West’s “war on Terror.” You will inherit both the astonishing opportunities offered by entire new fields and the consequences of the recklessness and myopia of my generation. The importance of understanding other cultures has never been clearer. The lesson to be drawn in Iraq from depredation of the Roman Empire and the British Empire should humble all of us. Before too long you will be the ones working toward a safer future for yourselves and your children. That’s a daunting prospect, but if you take full advantage of the many kinds of education available here, you’ll do well after you graduate and also do good.
Every year The Harvard Business Review devotes a section in one of its issues to “breakthrough Ideas.” One of the people they consulted for 2006 was the educational expert Howard Gardner. Citing a conversation he’d had with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, he said that he too had come to believe that the most valuable personal trait of the 21st century will be the ability to synthesize information. That means being able to intelligently decide what information to heed, what to ignore and how to organize and clearly explain what you judge as important. These are the skills you will be honing in every course you take here and that you will be applying in whatever career you choose.
Many of you are now in your first week of college. I would say that the true freedom provided by a liberal arts education is the freedom to open your mind. That means taking leaps of faith, being able to see the logic of an argument you profoundly disagree with, assimilating difficult, often unsettling ideas, and learning to think critically and act humanely. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but don’t make the unforgivable one I made when I was here: taking only the courses that feel comfortable to you. Choose classes in areas that are alien and intimidating. One of the reasons I never have a boring day at the office is because I am not afraid anymore to betray my own ignorance. I assign stories about subjects that I want to know more about and that I think are important or funny or strange or controversial. A few weeks ago, I published an article by Sylvia Nasar, the author or A Beautiful Mind, which described a major new development in topology, an area of higher mathematics I’d previously known nothing about. That same issue had a story about stagefright by John Lahr, whose father Bert Lahr, played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. After describing the often paralyzing terror that actors from Laurence Olivier to Nicole Kidman experience when performing, Lahr ends the piece with a coda on courage.
Over the next four years, may you find your Roberts and Katys. May you have countless exhilarating days—and some baffling and frustrating ones, too. And as you plan your own curriculum and delve into the mysteries of Shakespeare and Islamic art and the biomedical and African politics and Plato, don’t forget the advise of Gandhi, who knew better that anyone the meaning of fearless engagement: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Dorothy Wickenden '76, executive editor of The New Yorker, delivered the Convocation Address
August 30, 2006