Opening Convocation, August 2010
Joseph Urgo, PresidentSt. Mary's College of Maryland
Who teaches? Who learns? Where does education start, and when does it end? These are my Convocation questions. They are grand questions, all-encompassing, befitting a beginning. A convoking:a group of people formally assembled for a special purpose. Let's make it our purpose to answer the questions, Who teaches? Who learns? Where does education start, and when does it end?
When I am getting ready to answer hard questions, I often reach for poetry. I'll be reaching for some this morning. Let's begin with Wallace Stevens, *"The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract," because it is into the abstract that I wish to enter for the next ten minutes or so.
This day writhes with what? The Lecturer
On This Beautiful World of Ours composes himself
And hems the planet and haws it ripe...
... Helplessly at the edge, enough to be
Complete, because at the middle, if only in sense,
And in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.
Enjoyment! The pleasures of learning! Is it possible? Is it possible to teach "And in that enormous sense, merely enjoy?" Aha! A clue from Wallace Stevens leading us to Who teaches? Who learns? Where does education start, and when does it end?
We live in an age of data driven truthfulness: it can't be true, we are told, unless itis verified, assessed, ranked, and catalogued. All well and good in proper proportion. On this matter I consult another poet, this one whose poetry comes most powerfully in the form of the essay. Ralph Waldo Emerson opens his famous,"Self-Reliance," with a challenge: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men [and women] – that is genius."
And he continues to speak of education, in words as appropriate to institutions as individuals.
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is that he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
I worry, my dear students, that you will become consumed by material concerns too soon. Nothing halts wisdom quicker than material distress: your major, your career, your future. We bring you to St. Mary's College, we feed you, provide for all your creature needs, so that you may devote yourselves wholly, now, to your intellects and to the needs of your souls. We want you to learn to trust yourselves, to recognize "the power which resides" in each of you. Small colleges produce leaders not because the students are smart, which of course they are, but because formative time in a small pond provides a fish with a sense of self that will endure all currents to come. To our students, I say, look at your hands—what can your hands make? Can they make art, can they make music, can they calculate, can they make poetry, can they make another man or woman smile? And your eyes? What can they see? Do they know beauty?, do they awaken at aesthetic order?, do they find pleasure in what is done well, once, and then discarded for the experience of creating again?
And to the faculty: I am mindful of yet another poet, this one the ancient philosopher, Plato, who speaks of education in The Republic, characterizing inferior teaching as such:
But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.
Plato, as often, is humbling. He reminds us, or Socrates, as Plato reported, reminds us, that we ought not suffer under the delusion that we put knowledge into young minds—that we educate them. As educators, we are not our students' investment counselors, filling their portfolios with facts and assets. I worry about teachers who think otherwise, but am safe, I believe, in thinking them far from the shores of St Mary's River.
Our new,first-year students possess, but cannot yet extricate. As such (to mine the fanciful metaphor), St. Mary's College employs not professors but treasure seekers. The physicists with their contraptions heavily studying light, the economists with their data sets, the English professors lugging OEDs on DVDs – all digging with Socratic souls on fire, to remove buried depths of knowledge from distracted undergraduates, who barely know what they know. We mine the depths! And we are haunted by the Meno, another Socratic dialogue:
"And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?"
If we are successful, we elicit from St. Mary's students the lifetime habit of inquiry and self-examination out of which wisdom may, on occasion, emerge. And now we have the second clue, to Who teaches? Who learns? Where does education start, and when does it end? when we see that it lies within us all, and has long preceded our arrival.
As a result of my inquiry this morning, I expect no surprise that I leave you now with one additional poetic insight, this one titled "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," by John Ashbery, a contemporary. This is the final clue, after enjoyment and looking within, to answer my questions, Who teaches? Who learns? Where does education start, and when does it end?:
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
We all teach and we all learn – ours a community of knowledge: creation, giving and taking, living and playing, --study, experiment, wrong turns and righteous posturing all at once and for now anyway, as we look at our watches and cell phones and mobile devices and see that we are here, at Convocation, opening the academic year, verified and catalogued, 2010-2011, the 170 academic years since 1840, when the monument school laid the foundation for our inquiry. It is here that we enjoy learning, we look within for knowledge and creativity, and we probe one another in acts of intellectual exchange. We are, each of us, both subject and object of our inquiry.
First-year students! Your class of 2014 and I shall have a special tie, as I am a first-year president, spending a lot of time in Calvert Hall, with my new roommates there, people I have just met, and gee I hope they like me and don't think I am dumb. Sometimes I can't believe I'm here, that the Dean of Admissions, I mean the chair of the search committee, said okay he can come here. Do what I do, assume that these people are smarter than us and if they think we can do it, maybe we can, so let's not make them think they made a mistake. Let me know throughout the year how you're doing, and I'll do the same. Enjoy this year of firsts—new classes, new assignments, new friends. Remember that what lies within you is your best asset, and know that you are surrounded by some of this generation's very best minds, including your own: Resources that will stimulate you to further enjoyment, and deeper insight into who you are and what you can become—and how your presence might illuminate the life of someone else.