President Herzberger Addresses Class of 2019


September 6, 2015

Whittier College, President Convocation, Class of 2019President's Convocation Address by Sharon Herzberger

​Harris Amphitheatre, Whittier College

September 6, 2015

Albert Einstein once said, “Only two things are infinite:  the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” 

This may seem an odd way to welcome students who are about to embark upon their college career, but bear with me for a few minutes, and I’ll get back to it. 

New students, let me add my welcome to those of others.  Today you enter a college borne of the vision and determination of the people who settled the new town of Whittier, California, and created a college 128 years ago.  This College has remained true to its founding ambitions throughout its illustrious history. 

I hope you learned, when you were exploring colleges and chose Whittier, that your College is a national leader in graduating students who go from here to earn PhDs and professional degrees. About one quarter of our graduates go into teaching, and an overwhelming number of these end up heading schools as principals and superintendents.  Among our alumni are so many entrepreneurs, some who got their start working with our faculty soon after they sat on the same benches where you now sit.  As you attend networking events in the months to come, you will encounter numerous Poet CEOs, presidents, and vice presidents.  And, of course, Whittier also is one of those rare 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 important roles stems from our commitment to a mission established way back in 1887.   

Our founders were Quakers who named both our town and our College after fellow Quaker and poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  Coming from a poor family, Mr. Whittier was a farmer by day and a relentless reader by night.  He became a well-known newspaperman, founded a political party, and devoted his life to the abolishment of slavery.  His abolitionist poetry – ironically – was used by President Lincoln to spur 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 and all races and ethnicities, and coming from all places of origin.  They aimed to educate graduates to serve their own communities, and simultaneously to look beyond regional and national borders to understand and appreciate people and cultures of the world. 

Our College’s founders would be 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. 

They would be satisfied knowing that you will learn through service to others and that today, as intended from our beginning, you will learn from faculty who respect both theory and its application, who will teach you to see the world’s challenges from multiple perspectives, and above all who will teach you to raise questions and to be humble about what you already know. 

What I want to emphasize tonight is Whittier’s continuing commitment to Quaker traditions that teach you about your responsibilities as a human being and as a potential leader. 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” each of us that calls on us to choose the right path.  Equally significant, silence encourages us to listen to voices different from our own, to learn from them, and to use this knowledge to seek common ground.  In a world where there is more talking than true listening, just think about what might be achieved if we all remained silent and purposefully listened just a little more. 

Read any newspaper today and you cannot help but find evidence of the need for more listening.  From conflicts between police and citizens to discord among nations, we see the ills that result from not practicing the art of listening and learning. And we can see this just as much in everyday interactions and decision-making. 

The economist Daniel Kahneman made a career out of studying humans’ tendency to engage in “fast thinking”  when slow thinking would have been best.  Fast thinking leads jurors to decide on a person’s guilt or innocence before the attorneys’ opening statements have concluded; leads voters to think they can judge the competence of candidates for office by examining their photos; and leads Florida residents to get out of the way when hurricanes with male names are coming their way, but less so when encountering those with female names. 

I am a social psychologist by training, and psychologists use a different term.  We refer to human beings as “cognitive misers” because of our tendency to make snap judgments and to seek information consistent with preconceived opinions rather than do the hard work of learning something new.  

When Mr. Einstein questioned the limitless nature of human stupidity, he was not questioning our intelligence; he was questioning our tendency to use it.  The good news is that human stupidity, fast thinking, and cognitive miserliness may be rampant in this world, but they are not inevitable. With hard work and consistent practice, we can rise above  our very humanness.      

That’s what this College is all about.  When I look out at the students sitting before me tonight, I realize that there are probably 200 different reasons why you chose Whittier College. 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 and think, you will learn habits of mind to prepare you for using all of the intelligence with which you were born.

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

Newest Poets, on this beautiful evening, I suspect that you are not yet pondering your College 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 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.