Welcome Class of 2014
September 5, 2010
Welcome, newest Poets.
Just a few short months ago, over the hill in Memorial Stadium, we gathered together as a community to celebrate another group of students. These students were about to graduate from Whittier College.
Our 2010 graduates—now so mature and self-confident—once sat right here, where you are sitting. Probably, they too experienced the excitement and trepidation that you may feel, and they too could not envision the day some years hence when they would earn their diploma.
Our graduates did remarkable things between this first evening of convocation and that morning commencement ceremony. They published research with faculty mentors, created music and art, wrote short stories and long essays, and many, many, many class reports. They traveled with favorite professors to France, China, Morocco, Rome, Chile, and South Africa. They started lucrative businesses and new campus organizations, led teams to victory, and thrilled audiences with their stirring voices. And they built skill and talent and tested career interests as interns at myriad places both here and abroad. Now these Poets are entering the best graduate and professional schools in the country, or starting careers in a broad and impressive array of fields. They are ready for the challenges to come because of this College, which you are about to enter.
The graduates of 2010 were treated to one of the most gifted commencement speakers I have ever heard: the author Tim O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien, who is an honorary Poet and proudly wears a "Fear the Poet" cap to his speaking engagements, advised our graduates to, essentially, grow a second head... Sounds odd, I know. But listening to his commencement address, I thought of the preface to another book—this one by former Whittier Professor Albert Upton. The memorable passage encouraged generations of graduates to see with two eyes.
One author speaking a few months ago and another writing decades long past — each capturing the essence of a Whittier College education.
The people who founded Whittier College in 1887 were Quakers who ventured into the wild, wild West, establishing both a town and a college, and naming them after John Greenleaf Whittier. Mr. Whittier was by then a well-known poet, a newspaperman, an abolitionist, and a Quaker whose poetry was used—ironically—by President Lincoln during the Civil War to urge men to fight.
What was the mission of the Whittier College back then? It was to educate students to respect people of all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities, races, and places of origin; to serve their community; to look beyond national borders and understand the world; and to think broadly, converse cogently, and learn how to listen.
Our College has held to this lofty mission throughout its history. The author Jessamyn West, a member of Whittier's Class of '23 and best known for her novel "Friendly Persuasion," sat at graduation one day many years ago watching the students file across the stage as their names were called. A member of the Board of Trustees at the time, she remarked that there were more Muslims at Whittier than Quakers, and that John Greenleaf Whittier wholeheartedly would approve.
Well, John Greenleaf Whittier would be mighty proud to look over our campus today and see students of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds and students gathered from all over America and — as represented by the flags behind me - from so many countries of the world. Such is the beauty of living, working, and studying in this most diverse of the selective liberal arts colleges that there is no typical Whittier student.
As one who served his community in so many ways, John Greenleaf Whittier also would approve of the varied ways that Whittier College Poets let their lives speak through service. He would be proud of the thousands of hours that students devoted last year to mentoring young children and working with aged adults, the time spent on cleanup campaigns and political campaigns, and spreading knowledge about physical fitness, financial literacy, and green technology throughout our community. Mr. Whittier would know, as our founders knew, that through service our students grow in insight and understanding.
Here today, as intended at this College's beginning, you will learn from faculty who revere breadth of knowledge as much as depth and who will teach you to see the world's challenges from multiple points of view and through starkly different and sometimes conflicting modes of analysis. The faculty will open your minds to new knowledge and experiences, and prod you to question and to doubt.
We are rightly proud of our small class sizes and of the active role you will play in your learning. But we are equally proud that here at Whittier, in classes and out, you will learn to listen. Our Quaker founders believed in the value of sitting in silence. Silence — they asserted — permits listening to the "small voice within" that calls us to do good. Silence also opens us to hear the disparate voices of others and prepares us to find common ground.
By training, I am a social psychologist, and all of my professional life I have studied how people make decisions for themselves and in groups. Typically, the answer is: not well.
Psychologists regard human beings as "cognitive misers." This is not a compliment. We humans judge too quickly; we make assumptions without proper information; we reject some people and accept others on the flimsiest of surface characteristics; and we much prefer to affirm our preconceptions rather than open ourselves to uncertainty. It is normal and human to be a cognitive miser, but it is not smart.
The good news is that, with practice and deliberation, we can rise above this human fault. Commencement speaker Tim O'Brien understood this when he advised our graduates last May to carry with them from this campus at least two heads. Encourage those heads to "gab away" at each other, he said, creating "pesky, irksome ambiguities and complexities ..." that remind us of all that we do not know.
And our revered Professor Upton understood this as well. "Did you ever notice," his book reads:
...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 ... could make all views ... combine ...to make sense?
Two heads for thinking, two eyes for seeing, and plenty of ears for the silence that prepares you to listen. If there is any college in America equipped to educate graduates to rise above all human frailties, it is Whittier. Due to our faculty's dedication to our founding mission, the breadth of our curriculum, and our unique diversity, you have an unparalleled opportunity to rise above. And given the positions of leadership that you will assume once you leave this school, you have an obligation to do so.
Newest Poets, on this beautiful night, I suspect that you are not yet pondering the obligations you will incur upon graduation. You are probably thinking about the next few hours and about tomorrow and about Thursday when classes start and your adventure truly begins. But your family, your faculty, and all who are gathered here with you tonight know that your time on this campus will pass quickly, and that there is a world that awaits the education you will receive here.
You have chosen well in choosing Whittier College; and you have been granted a gift. Tonight sit in silence, listen, and commit yourself to take advantage of all that this extraordinary gift can bring.