Nick Ruth, Professor of Art and Architecture
August 31, 2015
Thank you, Provost Ufomata and greetings to you President Gearan, members of the Board, my colleagues on the staff and faculty, returning students and, of course, to the classes of 2019.
It’s an honor to have the chance to speak to you this afternoon, especially to have the opportunity to welcome those of you who are the newest members of the Hobart and William Smith family. It is an honor because you are already an accomplished group of people. You are successful students who have completed high school, excelled on tests, produced creative works, competed athletically, and served your communities in a wide variety of ways. On the basis of what you’ve achieved, you’ve also gotten into a great college. So, I’m impressed, and I’m glad you’re here.
Now that you’re here, you’ve got some things to consider. What has gotten you here has been being good at things. You’ve done a lot of figuring things out over the years, figuring out what the rules are and what people want from you, and then you’ve practiced and improved and gotten really good at things. And what you have learned is yours, you know it well and you own it, and you don’t have to think about it anymore.
But I would like to offer you a distinction to mull over. I think there is a difference between being good at things, things like Biology and English and Art, and being good at college.
Just what does it mean to be good at college? As far as I’m concerned, being good at college is way more difficult and interesting than being good at things. There’s more to it than doing what is asked of you, meeting deadlines, and showing up. There’s even more to being good at college than getting involved, which of course you should do.
So, let me recommend an approach that I think works, and that I hope you will find both effective and inspiring. As you begin this next stage of your education and your life, do the following: do everything you can to make the familiar seem strange.
This is difficult to do, but it’s worth it.
Why work so hard to disrupt the comfort and certainty that you have earned by being good at things? Why challenge the assumptions you have been raised with? Well, there are lots of good reasons, but here are two of the best: one, by recognizing how what you take for granted makes you a person of privilege, you will become a more compassionate person; and, two, relying less on all the mental categories that tell you how something should work puts you and your senses back in charge, so you, with a sense of discovery and wonder, can figure out how it does work. In both cases, newness is what’s at stake, and newness leads to insight and a more vivid picture of the world and your place in it.
The novelist Walker Percy, who was also a serious student of semiotics, wrote something on this subject. His 1975 piece called “The Loss of the Creature” is an indictment of the deadening relationship between systems of classification and consumerism. For instance, he goes on at length about just how difficult it is to really see the Grand Canyon because of the way in which we inevitably and unavoidably compare that experience to everything we have ever seen or heard in the past about what it is supposed to be like. Having been “sold” an ideal version of the experience in advance, we snap a picture, feel satisfied that expectations have been met, and head to the gift shop. He has similar things to say about education, so I don’t really want you to read his essay, because if you did you would probably drop out and go surfing, and then I wouldn’t get to stand here in this nice dress. But I’ll offer one quote that animates my theme. Percy says, “I propose that English poetry and Biology be taught as usual, but that at regular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards.”
Percy is saying, to students and to teachers, and to anyone who will listen, that when the familiar becomes strange, through trauma or surprise or passion or force of will or transcendent teaching, something alive happens, and that something is learning, the kind of learning that feeds your soul.
So, at this time of beginning, I challenge you to reject passivity, worry less about doing what’s expected, question your assumptions, pay attention to your senses, do less labeling and do more discovering, do get involved, use your voice to test your beliefs, make the familiar strange, and get good at college. Who knows, you might just learn something.