Welcome Class of 2017

Sharon Herzberger
President’s Convocation Address
September 1, 2013

Today you enter a college with 125 years of tradition and mission.  Born of vision and the determination of those who settled the new town of Whittier, California, this College has remained true to its founding ambitions throughout its illustrious history.  And from this day forward, you will add to that history.   

I hope you learned, when you were exploring colleges and you chose Whittier, that your College is a leader in graduating students who earn PhDs and professional degrees.  About one quarter of our graduates go into teaching, a true leadership profession, and an overwhelming number of these lead schools as principals and superintendents.  Among our alumni are many entrepreneurs, people who start their own businesses and nonprofit organizations.  As you attend networking events and through guest speakers brought into your classes, you will meet numerous CEOs and presidents among the Poet clan.  And, of course, Whittier is one of the few colleges to have educated one of the 44 Presidents of the United States.  (As I like to point out, we probably have already educated a second American president; we just don’t know yet who it is.)

Whittier’s success in preparing graduates for leadership in a vast array of professions stems from our commitment to a mission established way back in 1887.   

Our founders were Quakers who migrated from the Midwest and named both our town and our College after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  And it is important to understand why.  Coming from a poor family, young Mr. Whittier was a farmer by day and a relentless reader by night.  He became a well-known newspaperman, a renowned opponent of slavery, and a devoted Quaker whose poetry – ironically – was used by President Lincoln to convince men to fight in the Civil War.  Like the students we attract to this College, he was multidimensional, principled, and smart, and he helped shape the American conscience.

With John Greenleaf Whittier as a model, our founders adopted a mission to educate students to respect people of all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities and all places of origin.  To educate graduates who would serve their communities, and simultaneously look beyond regional and national borders to understand the world.  And our mission called for an education that would encourage students to think broadly, act with integrity, and listen to disparate voices and from these voices seek common ground. 

Our College’s founders would be mighty proud to look over our campus today and see students of all backgrounds and from all over America and - as represented by the flags behind me - from so many countries of the world.  

Our College’s founders would smile with delight knowing that here you will learn through service to others and thus grow in insight and understanding.  And our founders would revel in the fact that today, as intended from our beginning, you will learn from faculty who revere breadth of knowledge as much as depth, who respect both theory and application, and who will teach you to see the world’s challenges from multiple points of view. Most important, Whittier’s faculty will prod you to question and to doubt.

Our founders would be equally proud of our adherence to Quaker traditions that remind us of our lofty aspirations for you and the place you are likely to assume in this world.  In a few minutes and then often during your time at Whittier, you will be asked to sit in silence.  To our founders, silence encouraged listening to the “small voice within” that calls on us to do what is right.  Equally significant, silence encourages us to listen to voices different from our own and to learn from them.  In a world where there is more talking than true listening, this is an increasingly important tradition.

Think about the conflicts underway around the globe -- in Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Think about the misunderstandings between Russia and the United States, Sunnis and Shiites, Republicans and Democrats, and even between the talking heads at Fox and MSNBC.  What might be achieved if we all focused on remaining silent and purposefully listening a little more!   

I’m on a mission to get everyone to read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman is a psychologist who in 2002 won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and his book illustrates the foibles of human cognition – how we gather information, how we judge others, how we make decisions about them.  His conclusion:  not terribly well.

Kahneman describes two types of thinking.  “Fast thinking” is suitable perhaps for driving down a freeway, walking up or down stairs, and greeting someone as you pass along the street – occasions upon which we can afford to be on automatic pilot.  Most tasks, however - and all important decisions - require the effort and time involved with “slow thinking.”  The trouble is that our all-too-human proclivity for fast thinking dominates, with adverse consequences that most of the time we do not even detect.   

Let me give you a few examples of the implications of fast thinking.  If I ask you to tell me what you like about the person sitting two rows in front or back of you or directly to the left, you will end up liking that person more than if I had asked what you dislike.  Fast thinking leads you to overestimate the amount of your own contributions to household chores or to a group assignment (something for roommates, classmates, and spouses to remember!).  You will feel better about buying cookies labeled “90% fat-free” than those labeled “only 10% fat.”  And I find it especially frightening that merely from looking for less than a second at photos of political candidates, we feel confident in our judgments of their competence for office.

Across the board, in context after context, and under both trivial and serious conditions humans are prone to judge too quickly and overconfidently, reject whole groups of people and accept others on the flimsiest of surface characteristics, and act on preconceptions rather than seek evidence that might open ourselves to doubt.  The outcomes of jury deliberations and the decision to start a business, buy a house, trade stocks, become an organ donor, cast a particular vote, and even mount a war all relate to our thinking – and whether it is fast or slow. 

Among the 500 students sitting before me tonight, there are probably 300 different reasons why you chose Whittier College.  No matter your reason, let me tell you one more.  Because of the dedication, determination, and sheer talent of our faculty, because of the diversity of thought and background you will encounter on this campus, and because of our commitment to founding traditions that will remind you to stop and listen, you will have unparalleled opportunities to slow your thinking and learn habits of mind that will lead you to do what is right.

And given the positions of leadership that you – like Poets before you - will assume once you leave this school, you have an absolute obligation to do so. 

Newest Poets, on this beautiful night, I suspect that you are not yet pondering your graduation. You are probably thinking about the next few hours and about tomorrow and about Wednesday when your academic 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. We know that there is a world that awaits, eager to benefit from the education you will receive here.   

You have chosen well in choosing Whittier College.  And with your matriculation, you have been granted a gift.  Tonight for the first time we will ask you to sit in silence and listen, and as you do, commit yourself to taking full advantage of all that this extraordinary gift can bring.