Sharon D. Herzberger, 14th President of Whittier College
November 12, 2005
"Did you ever notice - on waking one morning - that what your right eye saw of the pillow and sheet was not what your left eye could see...By wriggling about, trying to place the left eye where the right eye had been, you might almost manage to make the two views coincide. Squinting so, did you not feel you were on the track of some ultimate vision beyond vision itself, where what was seen (but with no physical eye) could make all views, and the viewings, combine, in their likenesses and their differences, to make sense? Two eyes - two minds...each forever hopefully or despairingly trying to see what the other sees."
This quotation, from the literary critic I. A. Richards, in the foreword to Dr. Albert Upton's volume, Design for Thinking ("D4T" as reverent alumni call it), captures the essence of a challenge humankind has experienced since our beginning - seeing the world from multiple perspectives and making sense of what we see.
Albert Upton was one of those Whittier professors whose teaching transformed generations of students by opening their minds to new ways of seeing, leading to new ways of communicating, which led, in turn, to new ways of knowing and interacting with our world.
Dr. Upton's instruction was so important, alumni tell me, that decades later his lessons continue to guide their lives. These lessons are no less important today.
Everywhere we are faced with serious challenges and abundant opportunities. Our world, as the title of a recent influential book so states, is now flat. The internet revolution has given people throughout the globe access to information heretofore unimaginable and the capacity to communicate, collaborate, and connect. Yet, too often we fail to see from two eyes, two minds.
Cognitive and social psychologists refer to human beings as "cognitive misers," and as I told our incoming first-year students at Convocation in September, this is not a compliment. Human beings have enormous brain power, but we are lazy in using it. Being cognitive misers leads us to make all sorts of mistakes. We form impressions too quickly, make assumptions that are not accurate, reject some people and accept others on the flimsiest of surface characteristics, and base judgments on stereotypes, rather than search for the more complicated truth. And what goes around, comes around. Just as we judge too quickly, we have all had the experience of being judged in this way. While we may not like this depiction of ourselves, it is normal for us to be cognitive misers; we are, after all, just human.
One outcome of cognitive miserliness stands out. We assume that members of our group - whatever group we are thinking of at the time - are like us, while members of the other group are not. The proclivity to categorize by groups afflicts individuals, communities, and even nations. You have heard the language many times: us versus them, with us or against us. This is cognitive miserliness in the flesh.
The good news is that with practice and motivation we can rise above our human nature.
We all recall books that had an impact on our lives. One of mine was Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, later turned into one of my favorite movies. My husband David and I never tire of watching the tale of Atticus Finch, a father and lawyer, who defends Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of rape by a wretchedly poor, white girl in a small Southern town. So many stereotypes are at work: race, class, gender, mental illness, life in the South. But the story unfolds through the eyes of a little girl named Scout whose wise father teaches her in word and action to see the world around her in a different way and, above all, take care with how she judges and thinks.
We face a world where inter-group strife abounds, and where misunderstanding, stereotyped thinking, and hasty decisions lead everyday to tragic consequences. The world we face requires us to shed every ounce of our miserly nature, to be more than just human. The key to being more than just human is to find the commonalities among us and to celebrate the remaining differences. As Atticus tells Scout: "There is a simple trick to getting along with others; get inside the other's skin and consider things from the otherâ€™s point of view."
Think of Senator John McCain's experience of being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Soldiers are taught to hate; hatred is an essential element of participation in war. In his new book, Character is Destiny, McCain confesses the hatred he felt toward the Vietnamese and particularly his captors. But he also tells a story of a night when hatred disappeared.
One day he was caught breaking a prison rule against communicating with others and was punished by being bound tightly and painfully in ropes and put in a special cell. That night a guard surreptitiously entered his cell and loosened the ropes, returning before going off duty to tighten them again. McCain occasionally saw that guard again, but they never acknowledged each other until some months later. On Christmas night McCain was allowed to leave his cell and spend a precious few moments outdoors. As he stood alone looking at the vast sky above, the guard walked up and carefully drew the sign of a cross in the dirt with his shoe. For that moment in that place two men with roles and histories a world apart found an unanticipated connection.
Literary critics talk of "defamiliarization," a technique that shakes up the familiar and forces a new way of seeing and thinking. Defamiliarization is the salvation for cognitive miserliness. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."
When we settle - when we arrogantly and misguidedly think we know - it is easy to separate the world into us versus them. But when we are unsettled - when we see likenesses and differences through two eyes and two minds -- we see us in them and we make sense.
If there is one forum where we can hope to overcome our common cognitive limitations, it is a college. Where else but a college do intelligent people come together for the sheer love of exploring ideas and each other; where else but a college can people, freshly arrived from varying backgrounds and experiences, mix and learn from each other so freely; where else do people have the luxury of structured and unstructured time to search for commonality and find humanity.
Only in a college. And there is no college in America better designed for this purpose than Whittier.
From its inception in 1887, Whittier and our Quaker founders eschewed class, race, and national distinction and treated all people as equals. And today, although independent of our Quaker forbearers, we are proud that both our law school and our undergraduate campus are among the most diverse in the country and that we live our commitment to one human family.
Such is our diversity in race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic circumstances, nationality, political ideology, and outlook on life that there is no typical Whittier student. Our students have opportunities by day and by night, through informal interaction even more than through direct instruction, to experience life in another person's skin and to see the world from others' perspectives. They learn to respect difference not in the sense of the melting pot, which brought hope and comfort in predictability and blended sameness; but in a way that unsettles, that awakens the mind, promotes learning, and prepares for a world of complexity.
It is not only through interaction across lines of difference that makes our College exemplary and brings such hope. It is also our tradition of listening respectfully.
Whittier College values words as a complement to action and teaches on both campuses that we must "let our lives speak" through service. We graduate - as throughout our history - an inordinate number of young people who proudly serve others and who become leaders in service to their communities. And, as much as we value letting our lives speak, we also honor words themselves, whether these words emanate from the "small voice within" or from the diverse voices of others.
Our Quaker heritage teaches and demands a commitment to honoring others' beliefs and a respect for individual opinion that requires listening fully and respectfully. Listening fully and respectfully is not the listening one sees on most talk shows today, or in the halls of Congress, or even during everyday conversations among acquaintances. Listening fully and respectfully requires seeing with two eyes and two minds, putting oneself in the position of the other, searching for commonality across lines of difference, learning which differences matter and which do not, and finding the threads of agreement that sew connection.
You may have heard the old joke about a college president being like a cemetery proprietor: you have a lot of people under you, but no one is listening. Well, at Whittier, we - including this College president - take pride in learning to listen. For our Quaker founders, listening honored individuals, built consensus, and produced thoughtful decisions. It serves the same function at Whittier now, and through our best efforts it promises to serve this function in communities wherever our graduates reside.
I am so proud to be part of Whittier College. Our undergraduate curriculum - based on the best of our heritage and centered around community, communication, cultural perspectives, and connections - and our deliberate pedagogy - of linked courses, paired courses, and service learning - provide a roadmap to defamiliarization and to rising above cognitive miserliness. Our Law School's motto, "In Service to Justice and Enterprise," captures our commitment to changing the world and characterizes the essence of the education we offer to our students in classrooms, clinics, externships, and experiences abroad.
I have been a faculty member for more than 30 years and I have never encountered a faculty willing to give more of their time and more of their energy to students. I have never encountered a faculty so committed to transforming their students' lives, a commitment that extends to relationships and partnerships for learning well beyond students' years on campus. Through our curricula, our diversity, our proud heritage, and our superb faculty, we will fulfill the aspirations of those who founded this great College and those who have left their mark on earlier generations.
Our namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, published the poem "My Triumph" in 1870, a time when he had already achieved much in his outstanding life. He was a venerated poet, had given birth to a thriving political party, and had seen his work as an abolitionist come to fruition. Yet, he recognized that much work remained for others to carry on. "My Triumph" can be read as a fitting tribute to a college, a province of learning dedicated to an idea and an ideal - that our students will lead the world to a better place. He wrote:
...Let the thick curtain fall;
I better know than all
How little I have gained,
How vast the unattained...
Others shall sing the song,
Others shall right the wrong, --
Finish what I begin,
And all I fail of win...
Hail to the coming singers!
Hail to the brave light-bringers!
Forward I reach and share
All that they sing and dare.
The airs of heaven blow o'er me;
A glory shines before me
Of what mankind shall be, --
Pure, generous, brave, and free...
How privileged we are who dedicate our lives to a college - especially those of us so dedicated to this very special college. How privileged the students we serve. Today, as we applaud our history and look to our future, let us be mindful of our namesake's message and let us celebrate Whittier College and the Poet in each and every one of us.