Just Human

President Sharon Herzberger 
Convocation Address to the Class of 2009
​September 4, 2005

Good evening.

You have entered a College that stands for something and with a rich history that we honor.

Whittier was established in 1887 by Quakers, a group whose contributions to this world are myriad. I suspect that few in this audience are members of the Society of Friends, as Quakers are sometimes called. At this point they number only about 600 thousand around the world, making Whittier"s connection to the Friends even more precious and special.

Whittier has had no formal association with Quakers since shortly after Richard Nixon graduated from Whittier in 1934. The young Richard Nixon campaigned successfully as student government president to bring dancing to our campus, which served to move Whittier away from our strict Quaker roots.

While a formal connection to the Friends no longer exists - and much more has changed than the fact that dancing is now quite readily available on our campus - the Quaker legacy is a strong one.

I will talk this evening for just a few minutes about our Quaker heritage, and then I will talk for a few minutes more about what this heritage means to you, our new Whittier students.

Friends believe that simplicity, silence, and stillness allow us to "hear the small voice within," which guides us towards the light of wisdom and truth; that we must honor and respect all individuals; and that words only complement actions, and instead that we must "let our lives speak."

For their small numbers, Quakers have played important roles in history. Founding great colleges such as Whittier, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Earlham and opening their doors to all. Eschewing class, race, and national distinctions and treating all people as equals. Practicing pacifism and nonviolence. And helping thousands of people through letting their lives speak - against slavery in this country, against starvation of the Germans following World War I, against the treatment of Jews preceding World War II, and for the rights of Native Americans whose lands were encroached by settlers moving West.

These practices earned the American Friends Service Committee the Nobel Peace Prize, with a citation that proclaimed: "It is the silent help from the nameless to the nameless which is their contribution to the promotion of brotherhood among nations."

Shortly after the Quakers settled in this area, just a little way from where we are now, they created this College. They were spurred to action following a riot in a local saloon. Those involved were humbled by their uncharacteristic actions and believed that a college would bring a civilizing force in this wilderness community.

They named the College, as they had named their town, after John Greenleaf Whittier - fellow Quaker, renowned poet, newspaper editor, and as a fierce abolitionist, one of the founders of the Liberty party, the precursor to today's Republican Party and the party of Abraham Lincoln. John Greenleaf Whittier once said that he would rather be known as an "ardent friend of republican principles" than achieve a reputation with his poetry. But a grand poet he was, all the same.

This is the College you have joined - developed by Quakers and named in honor of one of the nation’s great activists, moral leaders, and public intellectuals.

We call ourselves "Poets" in honor of our origins, and whether you are competing as a Poet or watching from the sidelines, you will be a proud defender of that title.

As you become acquainted with Whittier's traditions, values, and ways of being and knowing, you will see how much we owe allegiance to our Poet and Quaker past.

Our College has always been committed to the belief in one human family, equality of all persons, and international friendship. From its beginnings Whittier enrolled both men and women and graduated people of color. Three women and one man graduated from Whittier College's first class. Alumnus and Whittier historian Chuck Elliot '67 proudly points to the fact that men and women were subject to the same requirements, with the exception of "physical training." Our first black graduate, George Anthony, Class of 1899, became a physician. Our first Latino graduate, Edward Guirado, Class of '28, became a lawyer and later a trustee of the College. One time when the acclaimed author and Whittier graduate Jessamyn West was back on campus, she remarked that there were more Muslims than Quakers and that John Greenleaf Whittier would have approved.

Today on the Whittier campus we have students and faculty from religious, ethnic, and racial groups spanning the globe, and Whittier is officially designated as a Hispanic-serving institution by the federal government. Students from many countries are learning together and taking advantage of each other's rich experiences.

Our College has always been committed to service and good works. Our history is rife with stories of Whittier students and faculty letting their lives speak, whether it is by collecting books and toys for Japanese-American children forced into concentration camps during World War II or collecting funds for tsunami victims just last year.

Today service is an important part of your education here. You will participate in Helping Hands Day, the Fifth Dimension Program, and the many other service opportunities that have earned us - through our Whittier Scholars Program - the distinction of being named by the Templeton Foundation as one of the "Colleges That Encourage Character Development."

Our College has always been committed to consensus-building and respect for individual beliefs that this implies. This is what I ask you to take away from my talk tonight and what I have come to value so much in this College of ours.

Consensus for the Quakers and for us is a tool for creating community, for paying respect to individuals, their viewpoints, and their experience. Building consensus requires active listening, true listening. It is not the listening one sees on most talk shows today or in Congress or even in most everyday conversations. It requires attending to the meaning underlying another's speech and putting oneself in the position of the other, working hard to see what the person is trying to convey. It requires concentrating on the other as opposed to preparing one's own retort.

Consensus requires searching for commonality across difference, understanding which differences matter and which do not, and then finding the threads of agreement that allow us to work together to accomplish goals.

Let me be clear: Consensus-building involves asserting strongly held convictions and may not involve compromise at all. But it is a process that leads to informed positions and much mutual understanding.

Consensus-building takes time and effort, and the results are worth it.

I am a social psychologist and all of my professional life I have studied questions of how people make decisions for themselves and in groups. The answer typically is: Not well.

Cognitive and social psychologists call human beings "cognitive misers." This is not a compliment. Human beings think only as hard as we must think before coming to a conclusion and rendering a judgment. In other words, as a species with so much brain power, we are lazy in using it.

What does this mean for human interaction, not to mention interaction across groups and across nations? Well, we seek only readily available information, rather than dig below the surface. We seek information consistent with our existing beliefs, rather than information that would shake our beliefs. We base judgments on stereotypes, rather than search for truth.

Being cognitive misers, we assume that members of our group - whatever group we happen to think of at the time -- are more similar to us than they actually are and that members of our group are more different from members of other groups than they actually are. Athletes will assume that they have more in common with other athletes than with their non-athletic peers; Democrats will assume that they have little in common with Republicans. Women will assume that we are more similar in beliefs, attitudes, and personality to other women than to men.

Being cognitive misers leads us to make all sorts of mistakes in today's complex world. We judge people too quickly, make assumptions that are not accurate, and reject some people and accept others on the flimsiest of surface characteristics and information.

Do not misunderstand me: It is normal and human to be a cognitive miser. However, that does not make it right and it definitely does not make one smart.

In the coming weeks, look around and you will find examples of miserly thought. You may be too young to remember the last time a Supreme Court Justice was confirmed. Regardless of your politics, you will find that the confirmation process is not a pretty sight, not with one side pilloried by the other and not with the candidate whose life work is defamed facing an inquisition. Study the hearings in progress now to replace Justice O'Connor, watch the upcoming hearings to replace Chief Justice Rehnquist, and view cognitive miserliness in the flesh.

Study the talk show discussion of the response to Hurricane Katrina. On one hand will be people who profess to see nothing good in the responses of those who tried to help: Government is bad, bureaucrats are stupid, and the police are cowardly. On the other will be people who see individuals and families left behind in devastated areas as irresponsible and criminal.

We are still in the midst of rescuing people and delivering whole communities the basic necessities of life, but we are already judging, already firming our positions, already drawing the battle lines of us versus them.

Study any conflict in the world and you will see the makings of war -- sides lined up, with us or against us.

Think about a time when you were misunderstood, when someone leapt to a conclusion about you too quickly. And lest you think that you are above all this, think about a time recently when you made assumptions without foundation or judged someone without knowing all that you could know.

If there is any college in America prepared to educate citizens who will rise above these human frailties, it is Whittier. Because of Whittier's Quaker legacy - our commitment to respecting individual opinion and experience building consensus - and because of our diversity - which exposes all of us to the similarities across human-kind and builds respect for difference - students here have an unparalleled opportunity to be better than "just human." And, given the positions of leadership that you will assume in communities around the world once you leave this place, you have an obligation to be better than just human.

As you have heard, the faculty of Whittier has created a curriculum designed to remove all traces of cognitive miserliness, a curriculum centered around what we call the "four C's:" community, communication, cultural perspectives, and connections. Through this curriculum, which wends its way through classrooms and throughout out-of-classroom life, you will learn in small communities of people who have opportunities to look below the surface and study the complexities that defy simple categorization.

Within this community, you will learn to communicate well and learn that true communication requires understanding the other and a process for making the other understand you. You will come to see cultural boundaries not as barriers, but as lines of distinction and as invitations to mutual understanding. And you will make connections between what had seemed to be conflicting ideas and between what had seemed to be disparate peoples.

There will be many opportunities for this kind of learning to occur. However, as they say, the "devil is in the details" and the best of intentions can be thwarted all too easily.

Students sitting out there on this beautiful night and faculty who have such high hopes for this class, let us promise to be true to our founders' highest aspirations. In conversations with each other in residence halls and over dinner, in our work together within courses and without, let us strive for the learning which builds consensus and brings us together. In doing so, we will have achieved much and we will have prepared the next generation to be leaders in a world that will demand their very best.

Thank you.