Follow the links below to read the transcripts of Denison’s 2011 Commencement speakers:
Trustee's Welcome by Walter F. Burke ’71, B.A., Ph.D.
On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Denison University, I am delighted to welcome you to Denison’s 170th Annual Commencement exercises.
First and foremost, to the graduates, congratulations to all of you on reaching the important life milestone of college graduation. Today is a celebration of your four year Denison experience. Friends, professors, and classes have all made their impressions on you, and you upon them. In that light there is much to take with you.
Yes, the Board of Trustees is the group of alums charged with making sure that the lights stay on in those dorms, and that you have the best faculty and facilities to forge a stimulating learning environment. I would submit that we are also more importantly charged with making sure that aspects of a Denison education transcend beyond this beautiful campus and follow you along your journey.
So while Denison has changed you and you have changed Denison, what we, as a Board of Trustees, hope never changes from today onward is your openness to new and challenging experiences. I refer here to the will to place yourself intentionally in positions to meet new people and take on new assignments that push you, just as you did four years ago by walking onto this campus as freshmen, knowing very little about the friends, professors and subject matter waiting for you. There was a lot of initial discomfort to overcome during the four years as you encountered challenges to your status quo. And now the result is self satisfaction with a job well done. There is a big difference however starting today. Much more of that impetus to push yourself will have to be provided by you.
Like the distinguished Denison alumni you join today, you will be called upon to lead by excellence in your chosen endeavors and in service to your community, the nation and, as we see daily in the press, the world. We have the privilege of hearing this afternoon’s Commencement address from our honorary Doctor of Humane Letters recipient, David H. Bayley, Ph.D. (Class of 1955), a distinguished alumnus who exemplifies a passionate and enduring commitment to leadership and service.
Today, as we mark the conclusion of your academic enterprise over the past four years, we look to the future you and others of your generation will create. Wherever you go, whatever you do, we know that you will represent your Alma Mater with distinction.
On behalf of all alumni who have served as Trustees through the years, I thank you, Class of 2011, for joining the Denison family. You have allowed Denison to become a part of you, and you have given the college and its community much in return. Congratulations, and welcome to the Society of the Alumni!
President's Welcome by Dale T. Knobel, B.A., Ph.D
This is the 170th Commencement of Denison University, but, members of the Class of 2011, you are graduating in the college’s 180th year since its founding in the fall of 1831. There were no graduates, of course, in the first years of the college’s existence and the Civil War interrupted the progress toward a degree for many students a century and a half ago—thus the discrepancy between the college’s age and number of its Commencements. On this special day we have heard the fanfare for the Class of 2011 performed by an ensemble of the Denison Orchestra conducted by Professor Andy Carlson. You’ve heard the fanfare before; it was written for your induction onto the rolls of the college in 2007 by Professor HyeKyung Lee of the Department of Music.
In the 180 years since its founding, Denison has evolved from a frontier academy to a leading undergraduate arts and sciences college with a national and even international reputation. It has not stood still during the last four years, either, and maybe just a few highlights of the changes around you will encourage you as about-to-be graduates to reflect upon the personal evolution you have experienced since you arrived here from high school. As I point out to graduates every year, since you arrived on campus, Class of 2011, about sixteen hundred other men and women with whom you shared this campus in the fall of 2007—the sophomores, juniors, and seniors of your first year– have already graduated and a similar number have taken their places in the classes that follow behind you. While at any point in the last four years, we have been a college of approximately 2100, you've actually crossed paths with, learned with and from, and made friends among nearly 4,000 Denisonians during your four years here, and your sense of comradeship will grow as you become reacquainted with them at reunions and at regional alumni activities in years to come.
Change has come to the faculty during your time at Denison, too. Not only have there been four years of retirements of accomplished senior faculty and key college staff, including two professors who we especially recognize today, but 42 new professors joined the permanent Denison faculty since you arrived, bringing their special skills and energies to the classroom, laboratory, and studio. And because of the generous support of alumni, parents, and friends of the college shared with Denison during the “Higher Ground Campaign” that was completed in 2008, the faculty is actually larger today than when you began, enhancing student-faculty interaction which is at the heart of a Denison education. Although you may have forgotten it, when you arrived on campus in the fall of 2007, the wireless data network, covering the campus indoors and out and allowing access to the internet from just about everywhere, was barely a year old. And now, five years later, it’s already nearly achieved old age and will be replaced by a new generation network. Just as you began at Denison, Slayter Union reopened after receiving major renovations, and just last year, two buildings on Mulberry Circle reopened after being overhauled into new homes for the Cinema Department and for the Open House: The Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at Denison. Most dramatically of all, in 2009, the Bryant Arts Center grew out of the restored and expanded Cleveland Hall, originally built in 1904. The American Green Building Council awarded the Bryant Center LEED Gold status for its contributions to the environmental sustainability of the Denison campus, setting a standard for all current and future construction at Denison.
Nor will the campus freeze itself in time after your departure today and preserve itself unchanged as you begin to enjoy your new status as alumni/ae. Twelve new tenure track professors will join us in the fall. And soon, of course, taking your place on campus will be some 605 members of the Class of 2015, men and women a little like you were in the fall of 2007, but different, too, with their own character, tastes, and perspectives.
The construction fence that went up around Ebaugh Laboratories just before last year’s Commencement is about to come down, a sign that completely rebuilt facilities for Chemistry and Biochemistry will come on line later in the summer. The big hole by the Mitchell Center is beginning to fill up with concrete and by this time next year will open as a new natatorium—which is not meant just to serve our National Champion Men’s Swimming and Diving Team and National Runner-Up Women’s Swimming and Diving Team but which they’ve certainly earned! As it comes to completion, an addition on the front of the older Gregory Pool and Livingston Gymnasium buildings will provide a new entrance and gathering area, new coaching offices and athletic training areas, and, finally, the old Gregory Pool will be renovated into a bi-level fitness area promoting healthy activity for the entire campus community. Before classes resume next fall, a renovation and addition project will begin on Chamberlin Lodge on the North Quad, converting it into another fifty-six bed apartment-style residence hall. No, Denison won't be EXACTLY the same each time you return to the hill as alumni/ae. And I hope you wouldn't want it any other way; it will be better.
But these are just road marks of the changes that have come to you as women and men. There are certainly more profound indicators of those changes in the collective accomplishments of the Class of 2011. In all, you number 478 graduates and you have earned 5 Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, 80 Bachelor of Science degrees, and 393 Bachelor of Arts degrees.
The Co-Valedictorians of the class are Lorren Ostojic, who has earned a B.A. in Communication, and John Snee, who has earned a B.A. in Biology. The Salutatorian is Kate Morely, with a B.A. in English. Actually, 97—or 20%–of you have prospered so well in your studies that you are graduating with Latin honors—60 cum laude, 27 magna cum laude, and 10 receiving the highest honor, summa cum laude–recognized by different color shoulder cords on each recipient's gown. Yesterday, I participated in the induction of twenty-one members of the Class into Phi Beta Kappa, the historic national academic honor society, joining three members of the Class who had the rare honor of being inducted last year as Juniors. On Friday, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Jim Pletcher and faculty colleagues at a ceremony to recognize graduates who fulfilled the requirements of Denison's Honors Program. And across the college, no fewer than 74 of you are recognized for the success of your senior research projects, which are the result of sustained independent scholarship and close collaboration with a faculty mentor. And if you think you are hearing (though not seeing) double as the names of graduates are called, we have two sets of non-identical twins in the class, Kristin and Michael Cobb and Jaelyn and Katelyn Johnson.
Several of you have represented your classmates especially well by attracting national attention for your academic achievements. Post-graduate international teaching awards funded through different elements of the Fulbright program are taking Sean Beebe to France, Callan Hetterich to Columbia, and Zachary Nixon and Peter Zambon to Germany. Jacob Schafer, a double major in Mathematics and Educational Studies, has been awarded a rare Woodrow Willson Teaching Fellowship, one of the many graduate fellowships being exercised by members of the Class of 2011 pursuing graduate and professional degrees across the country and around the world. Sybylle Freiermuth and Megan Keaveney earned special recognition by having their proposal to work with the economic and social empowerment of women in Mumbai, India through the Women of India Network, accepted by and funded by the international Davis Projects for Peace program.
As these forms of recognition highlight, members of the Class of 2011 repeatedly seized opportunities to challenge themselves both in and out of the classroom. Many of today's graduates participated actively on one of the 28 service committees of the Denison Community Association or in the America Reads Program, providing this year alone some 20,000 hours of documented service to area schools, communities, and social service agencies. Lauren Sabo received a statewide Charles J. Ping Award for service excellence from the Ohio Campus Compact and Zachary Goldman, Denison Community Association Chairperson, and Erica Duffy were singled out by the Granville Area Chamber of Commerce to receive the annual Kussmaul Award for exceptional student service to the local community. Today, providing visual evidence of the commitment of many Denison students to preserving the quality of life worldwide are the green ribbons worn on student and faculty gowns that have been distributed as part of a nationwide effort to give men and women at colleges and universities the opportunity to affirm their intention to consider the social and environmental implications of the work they do and the lives they lead.
For twelve of the last thirteen years, Denison has owned the All-Sports Trophy, now called the Collins Trophy, of the North Coast Athletic Conference. Last year, was the one exception when we were just edged out, but Denison women’s and men’s athletic teams made up for it by winning the trophy in style again this year. Seven of our twenty-three varsity teams took first place in conference and three were conference tournament champions. Two more finished in second place and two others in third. No fewer than eleven of our twenty-three teams qualified or had individual qualifiers for NCAA Championship competition, with the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team, under the leadership of Head Swimming Coach Greg Parini and Head Diving Coach Jason Glorius, capturing the NCAA Division III national championship. Women’s basketball ran through the regular season at 28-0, Women’s Soccer advanced to the Elite 8 in NCAA national tournament competition, and both Men’s Lacrosse and Women’s Tennis are still in NCAA tournament play. I am particularly pleased that so many Denison student athletes were recognized at the conference, regional, or national level by placement on all-academic teams, including Senior football co-captain and chairperson of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, Dan Crawford, who was recognized as the top college football student athlete from our region by the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame and was one of five national finalists from all sports for the Coach John Wooden Citizenship Cup. Distance runner and scholar-athlete Katie Navarre was selected for not one but two highly competitive NCAA post-graduate scholarships.
Many Denison students thrive upon the combination of academic challenge, off-campus service, athletic activity, and campus leadership in different proportions appropriate to their own individual interests. Some pursue these combinations with such remarkable results that they earn the acclaim of faculty, college staff, and fellow students alike. The exemplars of this are recognized as Denison President's Medalists. The Class of 2011 includes seven such honorees, who were announced at the Academic Awards Convocation in April and who will be the first to cross the stage to receive their diplomas today. They are Dan Crawford, Sibylle Freiermuth, Mark Heckman, Zack Goldman, Allison Kranek, Katie Navarre, and Shavely Peralta. I ask you to give them special applause.
As a class, 2011, you have accomplished much at Denison—much that builds in the rest of us anticipation for your achievements in the years ahead. Those of us on the faculty and staff of the college and certainly you yourselves recognize that you do not come to this day of passage entirely on your own. Consequently, before we move on to the next events in this ceremony, I’d like us to recognize the large and very special group of people who have made this day possible. We honor them for their commitment and sacrifices and thank them for their sustained love and support. Members of the Class of 2011, would you please stand, turn toward your families and friends who are here to celebrate your achievement, and join me and the faculty in expressing our appreciation with applause.
Finally, we also dedicate this day to the memory of those parents, family members, and friends whose loss during these college years inevitably makes commencement less complete for some of us. The Class of 2011 suffered the special loss of classmate Maria Toledano during your first college year. Today we remember Maria and the effect her lively personality had upon her fellow students and professors.
Denison Class of 2011, I congratulate you as we mark this day of completion for an important part of your life and this day of beginning for what lies ahead.
Senior Class Address by Eleanor Simcox Swensson ’11
First off, I want to take this opportunity to say congrats to all of my fellow graduates. For many reasons, I am extremely proud to stand today as a part of this class of 2011. We made it — here’s to all of our tomorrows.
I also want to say thank you to our professors, friends, and families for everything they have done to help us get this far. Your love and support mean the world to us, and will continue to be a source of light in dark places, needed strength during strife and shared joy in our successes.
Now, let’s get down to business.
I have to admit, when I received the news that I was nominated to speak at our graduation, I was shocked. I had never thought of myself as the “typical Denisonian”. For starters, I am a southerner, a Christian, a non-Greek, and a political moderate. I am a double major in Creative Writing and Religion, and an active advocate for gay rights. I am fiercely independent, have never worn UGG boots and would usually rather talk philosophy or watch a Disney movie with my roommates than party in the Sunsets. But, as I made this list of what I considered to be different from the average student here, I realized I had overlooked a significant quality of the Denison class of 2011: We are a-typical.
For us, the past four years were anything but predictable, anything but average. From our first semester on the hill we have been reminded again and again that the only constant of the Denison student body is its variability. We are a community characterized by change. Clashes between students and administration, rallies at the flagpole or outside of Doane, fiery Bullsheet exchanges, budget cuts, policy changes, progressive action or frustrating stagnation — we have experienced it all. In one way or another we have each felt the cyclical nature of conflict and peace, resistance and compromise.
Because of this constant movement many people, myself included, have said that Denison is now facing the difficult task of defining its cultural identity. This to me is not unlike the challenges we will face in the very near future. We are leaving the comforts of college life at a volatile time. Beyond the hundreds of steps that separate Denison from the “real world” there lays political polarity, economic downfall, and widespread social injustice. How can we step surely into such a place? How can we, a class of a little over 500 college graduates know that our voices and our actions will make a positive change in our world. Simply put, we can’t. But that lack of certainty is by no means a reason to remain stagnant or to give up. Throughout our post-collegiate lives we must always maintain the value of diversity around and within us. We must have faith that the variability of life is not a threat from which to hide but a challenge we should aspire to meet.
It is exactly this kind of dynamic experience that has made our time at Denison both profoundly challenging and greatly rewarding. We have learned that adversity is an opportunity to increase our strength as much as it is an exposure of our faults. And through it all, we have seen the benefits of diversity within a community as well as the importance of diversity within the self. The concept of internal and external variability has been addressed by many writers, scholars and leaders over the years. For example, the great American poet Walt Whitman writes in his piece “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large I contain multitudes.” These lines have always resonated with me and serve as a model of how I want to exist in the world. I never want to be satisfied to be singular, to fit myself into a comfortable pigeon-hole that blocks out the beautiful, challenging chaos that differing view points can provide.
This is not to say we shouldn’t have some things to ground us. As I mentioned earlier, our professors, friends, and family have been and will continue to be great foundations for us to return to. In addition to these personal relationships and a sense of community, I have found strength and inspiration throughout my life in two quotations in particular. The first of these is from the Old Testament book Micah, chapter 6, verse 8. In this verse, the prophet lays out an elegant explanation of the nature and purpose of faith. He asks, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” The second is an excerpt from Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. In a brief definition of the complex phenomenon of love, Capote writes: “The brain may take advice, but not the heart, and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries: weight and sink it deep, no matter, it will rise and find the surface.” Both of these simple sentences have served as constant reminders for me that while diversity and adaptability are crucial elements of life, if the core values of love, justice and kindness are not maintained, it is all for naught. Without a genuine love for those different from us, our academic preparations, our leadership experience and all our other collegiate accomplishments will not fully translate into our futures.
As each of us cross this stage and move onto whatever strange and wonderful adventures lay ahead, I hope we can keep this wisdom with us: there is no normal, there is no typical, and that simple fact is full of promise, challenge and inspiration. My hope for this class, here at Denison and at all other colleges and universities, is that we may always strive to contain multitudes.
Announcement of the Senior Class Gift by Brett Evan Ayers ’11 and Sybylle Freiermuth ’11
Four years ago we all accepted our invitation to attend Denison without knowing what the coming years would bring. Before we even stepped on campus we were brought together with the announcement of our yearly theme of “humanimal.”
Throughout the year we built upon that first tenuous connection, forming relationships that would define our Denison experience. It was these powerful bonds that we drew upon when, during our first semester on campus, we were directly confronted with Denison’s ongoing struggle with “community.” Since then we have continued to define our community through the bonds of friendship we have built in our dorms, our organizations, our sports teams, and the classroom. In honor of the community we have continued to strengthen, and with the desire of giving future classes the opportunity to experience such a powerful bond with one another, this past year our class has come together to raise money for the Senior Class Gift, which goes directly to general scholarships through the Annual Fund.
This year we are proud to announce that 62 percent of the senior class contributed to raise a total of nearly $7,000. This is the second-highest participation in Denison history! We are very pleased with our results and would like to thank our classmates for their involvement. Of course we could never have done this without our hardworking Senior Class Gift Committee, led by committee co-chairs Heather Fishel and Lauren Sabo. Would the members of the committee please stand to be recognized for your hard work?
Thank you also to our advisors, Lori Pongtana and Stephanie Sferra, Assistant Directors of the Annual Fund.
Furthermore we are thankful for the Denison University Alumni Council members who have given matching dollars as a challenge to our class. This provided extra motivation for us and will greatly increase the benefit to future classes.
Finally, we’d like to recognize everyone who has supported us during our time here at Denison, including the administration, faculty, staff, alumni, Board of Trustees, and of course, our parents and families! A great deal of us seniors have given their gift in honor or memory of someone who has made a difference in their life and a list of these honorees can be found in the program.
And so, Class of 2011, thank you for your generosity not only in donating to the Senior Class Gift but also for showing what it truly means to be a community.
Congratulations and Good Luck!
Commencement Address by David H. Bayley ’55, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
“The Best-Kept Secret” by David H. Bayley ’55, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
I'm very grateful indeed for this honor. It means a lot. I want to thank especially the faculty, who I know voted and supported me for this. I do this because it was people very much like you who inspired me to this career. You are my role models, just as I am sure you are role models to many people in this group. Thank you very much for this.
I have to tell you, in all honesty, I am a little bit worried about this. I'm worried for this reason: I already won a degree on my own from this place. And I have a feeling that there's a group of people here who looked at me and said, “You know, it looks as if the effect of that first degree is wearing off on old Bayley, and maybe we need to give him a booster shot to keep him going.” In any case, I am very grateful.
Let me turn now to the class of 2011. Congratulations on your graduation—you've earned it. This is not an easy degree to earn, and you've put in a lot of very hard work. Congratulations as well to the people behind you, who've supported you in so very many ways. This class would not be here but for you.
Now, under all of this congratulations, I want to say something: I think that, in your hearts, you're very glad to be here, of course, and to celebrate on this occasion. At the same time, having sat where you are, I know that there is another emotion inside you. And that is a kind of anxiety. And the question is: where do you go from here?
Next year it's out on the streets! Some of you, you will realize, have the comfort of going on to business school or medical school or whatever it may be—at least they're not out there. But for many of you, you don't even have that reassurance. And even those of you who are going on to graduate school and professional schools, you're not sure that that is the career and the place that you want to be.
It's like the old song in West Side Story, is there “a place for us”? And I know you're all asking that at this moment. You have good reason to ask that question. Let me say, and it's not just because we have a dismal economy—nothing we can do about that, at least not this morning—but, you're quite right in your anxiety, in the sense that at this moment, despite your Denison education, you are, as yet, unfinished. And you're not quite sure you have what it takes, especially in skills, to find a place in our society.
And try a little mind game with me, and let's see if I can demonstrate that—it goes like this: Imagine that Friday of this week, the Klingons are going to destroy the planet Earth. You, however, have a warp-10 spaceship. And you will be allowed to colonize a replacement Earth, but there's a condition, and the condition is, you have a choice to make between two groups of people to take on your spaceship. You can take this group, the Class of 2011, or, you can take all of that group—500 of them behind you—to recolonize a planet Earth and re-establish a civilization. Which group would you take? Think about it for a moment—I don't think you need to take very long.
The group behind you has an advantage: They can heal the sick. They can plant crops. They can draw constitutions. They know how to desalinate water. They can do lots of practical things. Can you? You're not sure, and you hope so. Now, why am I dwelling on your anxieties? This is supposed to be a happy occasion. I'll see if I can fix that.
I'm going to tell you what I think is the best kept secret of this graduation. And that is that the best years of your life will not have been spent at Denison. Sure, you're going to always find this a precious place. You're going to return regularly for your class reunions. You're going to give a ton of money—Dale hopes. That will happen. But at the same time, there are other things that are going to happen to you.
They are these sorts of things: A child is going to wake up in the middle of the night, crying, with a bad dream. You're going to go and sit on the beside of that child. You're going to push the hair off the sweaty brow. You're going to kiss the child, and the child will turn over, and the bad dream will have gone away. You're going to be a doctor, and a woman is going to come into your office with a lump in her breast. You're going to diagnose it as cancer. You're going to find a course of treatment, and the cancer will go into remission. You're going to be asked by your church to head up a committee to replace the pastor that has served you for so many years. You're going to get a paper by a student, and you're going to say to yourself, “This paper needs a lot of work.” And you're going to work with the student, and you're going to ask that student to give you papers regularly, and by the end of that student's college career, that student is going to be confident that they can write.
You are going to find money to help people, or to help your community establish an after-school program for disadvantaged children. In your law firm, you're going to be asked at some point to head up a special committee to settle the longstanding dispute between two very senior and very stubborn senior partners. You're going to be asked by a fine university sometime to give their commencement address, and you're going to wish they'd chosen somebody else.
You're going to go into business, and somebody is going to ask you to look into the future and head up a team on product development in a very uncertain age of what's coming down the pike. You are going to be brought plants by your relatives, your family, your neighbors, and they're going to say, “This plant is sick. Will you please take it in and make it well?” And you'll be able to do that.
And lastly, some of you will run for public office. And you will give a voice to the voiceless, the excluded, and the disadvantaged.
This will happen to you. It won't happen immediately—it will start slowly. But it will grow, and it will increase in its speed, until, at about the time you are 50 years old, you will come home some night, and you will say, “Is there no other adult in this room but me?” This will be your “stop the planet, I want to get off” moment. The fact is that when you're at that exalted age—and you're saying, “Is there no other adult?”—the fact is, that in your heart, you wouldn't have it any other way.
And that's the point of what I'm saying to you. What is going to happen to you in the future is that people you are going to begin to recognize that people are dependent upon you. The people that you respect, that you love and admire, and live with. When that happens, when you find others dependent on you, you, at that point, will fit. You will know your place. And it will happen. And so my advice to you this afternoon is this: Be patient with yourselves. It's difficult to engineer this. Take your time, but follow the promptings of your heart, consult the comfort of your gut, and the insights of your mind. And you're going to be fine.
And so what I say to you is, and this is another way of putting the best-kept secret:
Adulthood is wonderful.
Come on in.
You are going to find it.
You are going to love it.
Thank you very much.
Charge to the Class of 2011 by Dale T. Knobel
Men and women of the Denison Class of 2011, you have your diplomas in hand. The ceremony is nearly done. But it has been a tradition of our college to leave you with a thought, to issue you a “charge” as you begin your lives as graduates.
You probably recognize that this graduation event is a ceremonial bookend to your college career; the other one was the First Year Induction that took place on the Reese-Shackelford Common near the end of your first full day on campus nearly four years ago. Of course, they both can be characterized as Commencements. Each was the beginning of something, today and four years ago as well. Though you may not remember it now, in my remarks on the earlier occasion, I also offered a “charge,” something to think about as you began your undergraduate studies and life at Denison. Either charge—then or now, of course, should have something to do with what lies ahead, but it is in the nature of beginning anything that you are building on what is just past. So a proper charge is retrospective as well as prospective.
What I want you to consider is what I believe are the most misleading—and sometimes actually crippling—seven words in the experience of college students. Oh, I know you’ve heard them! They are these: “The best four years of your lives.” They have been shared with you by well meaning folks who are not currently college students themselves. To the those sharing them, the words are nostalgic. They reflect the speakers’ somewhat gilded memories of a time in life before responsibilities to careers, households, communities, mortgages, auto loans, and, yes, parental tuition bills that seem to accumulate during adult life. They also, though, capture the recognition that college offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn and intellectually grow, a luxury of time, resources, and supportive teachers and learning partners that will be difficult to match under most other circumstances in your future.
But it is not just older people who share these seven words with you. You use them yourselves. Periodically, someone writes them in our campus newspaper, the Denisonian, usually as “These are supposed to be the best four years of our lives.” I’ve heard them in the conversations that I’ve had with Denison students this year and every year. Whether in the paper or in conversation, they usually take the form of something like: “If these are supposed to be the best four years of our lives, why are we so vexed by…you fill in the blank: by other students, by my professors, by the college administration, by my family, by grades, by friends, by my laptop computer, by my philosophy paper, by my biology lab.” You get the picture.
And what’s so wrong with these words? Well, in the first place, they lead—or at least they can lead—to a misperception that the lives we—that is, you—lead here on this campus aren’t real. Yes, you often are “supported” by families or the college or both in ways—financial and otherwise–that lift some responsibilities and cares from you. Yet what happens to you here day to day is real indeed—particularly in your relations with others. Because, as happens in life off this hill, by your words and actions you daily build people up or tear people down; you yourself are daily encouraged or diminished by those around you. To not realize that is certain to make a student careless around others— fellow students, college faculty and staff, nearby Granville residents, or even campus visitors. During your very first semester at Denison we had a particularly dramatic instance of publicly voiced frustration and even anger with carelessness—carelessness in the way some interacted with others who differed from them in race, or sexual orientation, or nationality, or family background and resources. On that occasion, as we discussed it, many Denisonians got it, that this is, in fact, the “real world” where what we do or say in fundamental ways affects the lives of others. But some continued to see this as “the best four years of our lives” and, ignoring that in so many ways these four years are very real and very consequential, assumed that college life is all about “me” and my enjoyment of this time, that the “Denison bubble,” as some like to call it, exempts individuals from taking full responsibility for their behaviors and relationships. That’s careless—and a recipe for developing a habit of carelessness toward others well beyond college.
Anything else wrong with “The four best years of your lives”? Well, yes, actually. I see it; you see it. Each year among some on college campuses, this one included, an almost desperate approach to social life reveals itself. In part, this seems to be driven by the notion that if this really is “the best four years of our lives” we’d better party down right now; it’s all downhill into drudgery after this. Of course, as anyone here beyond their college years can certainly share, the end of college is hardly the end of a social life, much less the beginning of joylessness. It’s more likely to be the start of a life of rewarding relationships. And before very long, if you haven’t already, you’ll figure that out, too. But the desperation with which some college students pursue social activity shows they don’t get that now and, sadly, it frequently gets in the way of taking the fullest advantage of a college education, of getting the most out of a unique opportunity. Desperate socializing, in any event, just doesn’t seem like much fun; it’s more like work.
So about now, you’re thinking, well this is a downer. This is preachy (even my wife thought it was a little!). But, no, I don’t think that’s really what I have in mind. What I want you to know is that I fervently hope these have been really great years in your lives. I want them to have been. The faculty and staff want them to have been. Your families want them to have been. But “best”?!
Here’s the good news and where I have been heading all along. I am confident that for nearly all of you, these will not be the best four years of your lives. No, I can’t tell you which four years will be or why they will be, but I feel pretty certain they will happen. Will they be the four years in which you complete a graduate or professional degree and embark on the career you’ve aspired to? Will they be the four years in which you move beyond the entry level of a job and acquire an opportunity to support yourself by doing something with substantial responsibility attached to it? Will it be the four years in which you make a commitment to a life partner and begin to make a life together? Will it be the four years in which you discover or have the opportunity to develop an interest or avocation that enriches your daily experience? Will it be the four years in which you have a child, send them to school, thrill in their development, see them off to college, enjoy their own children as a grandparent? (Whoa—I’m getting way ahead now!) Will it be the four years in which you do something important for a cause, a charity, or public-spirited goal which reminds you that there are things more important than your own comfort? You get my drift.
Nor is it clear that these things or things like them will happen serially; they may be all mixed up with one another. They may be so mixed, in fact, that you never figure out which are really “the best four years of your life.” My goodness, I hope so! The life well-lived is likely to be one of many “best four years”—so many and so varied that in the end, you’re not really sure which four were the best. And that’s a good thing. The liberal education you have participated in at Denison is just such an education as is calculated to help you make the best out of all of the twists and turns of life, to carve out many “best four years.”
This reminds me—as I hope it reminds you—that your future is built upon your past. The Roman poet and essayist Horace, is credited with several popular aphorisms that have made their way from Latin into English. One of them applies here: dimidium facti qui coepit (h)abet: sapere aude, incipe, usually translated as “He (or she) who has begun is half done: dare to be wise.” It’s the punch line of a story told in the first book of Horace’s Epistulae, or “Letters,” where he tells of the man who waded halfway across a stream and then, not wanting to get any wetter, stopped to wait for the rest of the water to run by. There’s an analogy here about the relation of college to life. I join my colleagues of the Denison faculty in hoping that you’ve learned much about yourself, about others, and about your world and how you can make it better. You’ve got your feet wet; you’ve come halfway. Now, don’t just use what you have learned but continue to learn. And so I charge you: sapere aude—dare to be wise. And in acquired wisdom may you find the best four years of your lives—or even better—four best years repeated over and again—best years initiated by something that you’ve learned at Denison. Continue your crossing with my very best wishes.
Baccalaureate Address by Rabbi Emily Huebscher
I love driving down the highway and spotting all of the cars that simply must be coming from college. You know them because they are filled to the brim with stuff! There are boxes and suitcases and laundry bags. There are fans and futons and furry stuffed animals pinned against the rear window. These cars are packed full of the stuff that defined and will continue to define your college experience. These cars are packed full of books and papers, t-shirts and trinkets, pillows and photographs. All of this stuff represents your education at Denison. As you embark on the next step, you can either let this stuff collect dust in the attic, or you can take it out, unpack it—and let it influence, support, and inspire your future.
There is a story of two first-century Jewish scholars, one of whom, Hillel, is the namesake of the Denison’s Jewish Student Organization. In this story, a visitor comes to both scholars and asks to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot. The first of the respondents, a man named Shammai, whacks the man with a measuring rod, angry at him for asking such an irreverent question. Hillel replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another: This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” The first part of this response is an easy answer. Yes, much of the Torah is summarized by this golden rule. It is the second part of Hillel’s response that contains the wisdom of the answer.
The Mishnah, a text written in the second century by the early rabbis, designed to explain and interpret Jewish tradition, teaches us about taking the next steps in our education. It asks a series of questions and provides most interesting answers. “Who is rich?” it queries. “One who is content with one’s lot. Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination. Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” This text teaches that it is not what we have but rather how we use what we have that makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise. It is not what we have that makes us rich but an appreciation for what we have. It is not our power that makes us strong but how we use it to make decisions. It is not what we have learned that makes us wise but how we keep learning throughout our lives.
“Who is rich?” The experiences you have had at Denison have left you quite wealthy. You have been able to explore not only your major field of study, or fields in some cases, but electives in anything and everything your heart desired. You have been surrounded by students, faculty and staff from around the world. You have had the opportunity to experience religious traditions not simply as a visitor but as an explorer.
As you stored away the collection of stuff you have accumulated from your varied experiences, I imagine you looked back on the wealth you gained these four years nostalgically, remembering the richness in which you were immersed. Packing is an oddly emotionally demanding process. As you tuck away each item you are forced to remember it's context in your life. As you fold the shirt you wore to the Sizzler, you think about how far you have come from that first week of freshman year. The wealth of experiences you have been able to enjoy at Denison is truly worth packing to bring with you. Sadly, not everything fits—not in the minivan and less still in your memories. But packing is also a process of selectivity. You will, unfortunately and undoubtedly, forget some of the experiences you have had here. In this process of packing you have already chosen those experiences which left you most wealthy, committing yourself to remember them as you take the next step in your life.
You have also packed your wealth of experiences with reflection. You have considered what this wealth has taught you about yourself and the world in which we live. You have packed those experiences that probably taught you something—even if you haven’t figured out exactly what that something is yet. It has taken work to decide which experiences are most relevant to your development in your time at Denison, but it was important work, and it is worthwhile.
After packing, you are left with a suitcase full of the most meaningful, most important, and most relevant experiences of your time at Denison. Once you take this wealth with you, you can either let it collect dust in your parent’s basement or you can take it out and unpack it. “Who is wealthy,” the Mishnah asks, “one who is content with his or her lot.” The value of your wealth of experiences will be magnified if you are content with what you have chosen.
I have understood the challenge of being content with my lot as being appreciative of the experiences I had rather than frustrated with the experiences I lacked. There will be times when you wish you had taken a course in accounting rather than African drumming. I know this because I took African drumming and boy are there times when I wish I knew something about accounting. Honestly, African drumming has not yet come in handy in the years since graduation. Still, how amazing that I was able to study African drumming! There may be times when you think: “What was I thinking? There really isn't anything you can do with a classics major and minors in religion and visual arts.” Well, you can become a rabbi for one! But how amazing that I was able to study all of those topics in just four years! When you look back at your time at Denison, in six years or sixty years, learn to be content in the amazing wealth of your experiences at this small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio.
It is not only Jewish tradition that holds this value. Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, a classical Chinese text, writes, “He who is contented is rich.” Lao Tzu seems to be saying that being content, regardless of one’s lot, is, in and of its self, rich, valuable, and a source of wealth. There may have been times throughout your experiences here where things did not work out how you would have liked. Perhaps you pulled number 237 in the lottery or found out a paper was due the night before its due date. You can look back on these events with regret, but you can also look back with contentment at their outcomes, content that you wound up with great neighbors you wouldn’t have otherwise met or content that you were able to write a brilliant paper on such short notice (and perhaps such little sleep). “One who is contented is rich,” Lao Tzu explains. One who packs away the fond memories and leaves behind the negative ones will walk away richer for the positive experience she takes with her.
There is also an element of gratitude in contentment. Thomas á Kempis, a late Medieval Catholic monk, wrote in his work On Gratitude for God’s Grace, “Be thankful for the smallest blessing and you will deserve to receive greater… If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God.” When we think about the wealth of experiences of an education at Denison University, there is much for which to be grateful. We are grateful to professors who have dedicated their time to our education, grateful to staff who have worked hard to make sure we are safe and happy, grateful to administrators guiding our paths in ways known and unknown. We have the opportunity to be grateful for every moment of the time we have spent on the hill, and that gratitude will magnify and develop into a greater appreciation for of the wealth we have acquired.
Who is rich? One who is content with one’s lot. Who is rich? One who appreciates what he has, looks back on the good more often than the bad, and appreciates what he has received. The wealth you have gained will be even more valuable if you continue to learn from your experiences, if you continue to let them inspire you, and if you continue to understand them in new ways. Now go and learn.
Who is strong? Whether you entered college feeling independent or not, confident or not, secure or not, I know that you have become emotionally and spiritually stronger in your time on the hill. Here you have defended your beliefs and let yourself be challenged. Here you have built significant relationships based on trust, respect, and love, and you have been hurt by those with whom you were in relationship. Here you have faced adversity and uncertainty, and here you have risen to meet challenges and overcome obstacles. You are stronger for your time at Denison.
You have packed this strength with nostalgia, looking back with pride at the victories big and small. You’ve packed with selectivity. While you may not have known that you had the self- confidence and the fortitude to run across campus clad in only paint, you have, hopefully, left your streaking days here on the hill, just quietly packing the pride of participation. You have also packed your strength with reflection, taking the relationships that taught you how to be a better friend, the classes that taught you how to make better mistakes, and the papers that taught you how to formulate a better argument—especially if you were wrong.
After packing, you are left with a laundry-bag full of the emotional and spiritual strength you gained in your time at Denison. Once you take this strength with you, you can either let it collect mold in your apartment’s crawl space or you can take it out and unpack it. “Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination.” Who is strong? One who uses his strength to influence his decisions.
Judaism teaches that the evil inclination exists in every human. With each choice we make, we have the chance to follow our good inclination—our desire to do good in the world—or our evil inclination—our desire to do evil. Strength, the Mishnah teaches, comes from choosing good over evil. While you have hopefully developed this type of strength during your time at Denison, I am certain that you will be faced with the challenge of honing it throughout your life. Unpacking that self-assurance that will help guide you in your decisions: with the knowledge that you are important but not self-important; worthy but not entitled; confident but not over confident.
A similar sentiment is taught in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. We read in its pages, “Whoever exercises patience and practices forgiveness—that is the staying power which masters al things.” We all know that strength comes from exercise, in the physical sense at least. The more reps you do, the stronger your muscles become…or so I hear. The Koran, here, refers to spiritual strength. This too takes practice, repetition, and work. Conquering one’s evil inclination, choosing the good over the bad, allows us to develop a powerful mastery over oneself, but unfortunately a mastery which does not develop right away. We always need to keep working and building those spiritual muscles. We need to unpack the barbells of decision making we have acquired in our spiritual development here because we will need to keep lifting them throughout our lives.
But what of the strength associated with physical prowess? Certainly you have built that strength, too. Your legs are probably stronger for your many hikes from Done Music to Talbot Hall. Your arms are probably stronger for the hours of typing research papers. Mahatma Ghandi, spiritual practitioner and leader of India, once said “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Even the physical attributes we pack with us on our departure from Denison come from emotional and spiritual strength. This is the strength it takes to wake up in the morning to run the hills, the strength it takes to keep going when you are tired, and the strength it takes to take one more step or edit one more draft. Unpack the indomitable will you have built for yourself in your time here for it will bring you future strengths.
Who is strong? One who conquers the evil inclination, again and again, by building and strengthening one’s decision making skills and, again and again, having the willpower to do what is right. The strength you have gained will lead to more strength when use it to learn to make better decisions, to challenge those decisions, and to support those decisions. Now go and learn.
Our third and final question: Who is wise? How much wisdom you have gained since you first came up the hill. You have learned in the classroom, in the dorm room, in the library, and in the dining hall. You have learned about art, science, literature, and religion. You have learned about yourself, your neighbors, your country, and your world.
You’ve packed nostalgically, remembering historic events and formulas along side those funny jokes only your favorite professors could make. You’ve selected wisdom carefully, too, selling back some— but not all—of your books. You have undoubtedly reflected quite a bit as you packed the wisdom you have accumulated. You have considered how your perspective has changed, how your passion has deepened, and how you have grown.
After packing, you will have boxes and boxes of wisdom. Once you take this wisdom with you, you can either pile it in your friend’s garage or you can take it out and unpack it. The Mishnah text teaches us, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people?” When unpacking the varied wisdom you have accumulated throughout your time at Denison, you can use its breadth to help you learn from everyone you encounter.
In the Christian Testament, the same question is attributed to James, who asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” The wisdom you have attained is most valuable, most effective, when you demonstrate it in the actions you take throughout your life. We can demonstrate wisdom in the choices we make on our career paths and in our personal relationships. But the most precious wisdom, James explains, is that of acting with humility.
The following is attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Graduation is not a cessation from learning but rather a gateway to further learning. The education you have received here is a solid foundation for all you will learn—and it is only the beginning. You will, throughout your life, have countless opportunities to add to this wisdom as you learn from every person you encounter. Who is wise? One who learns from all people, every day, and uses that wisdom to act humbly in the world. Now go and learn.
“Who is rich, one who is content with one's lot. Who is strong, one who conquers the evil inclination. Who is wise, one who learns from all people.” As you leave this place, you pack with you the wealth of experiences, the strength of self-discovery, and the wisdom of an excellent education. It is your job to keep learning as you unpack the wealth of gratitude and contentment, the strength of good decision making, and the wisdom of learning from everyone you encounter.
The funny thing about all of those cars on the highway is that, even though they are stuffed to the brim, it is not all the stuff that I think about when I see them. In those cars, I see potential. They carry the precious cargo of fresh minds, new perspectives, and bright ideas. You may not be able to see your little brother in the backseat behind the cardboard chair you made in Intro to Architecture, but you can see the innovative building that budding architect might build. You may not be able to sit comfortably without a box jabbing into your rib, but you know that each box contains worlds of ideas yet to be. And when you see that diploma peeking out the window, you know that, in that crowded car, there is a person ready to keep learning.
Senior Reflections by Courtney Connell Baxter ’11, Mark James Heckmann ’11 and Simon Jacob Mont ’11
Reflections by Courtney Connell Baxter '11
B.A. Women's Studies and International Studies; Wyoming, Ohio
There are moments when we are forced into being retrospective. Whether we want to or not, life creates situations in which we are made to pause from the day to day and ask, what does the day to day even really mean? Birth, death, graduations, weddings- these are the prescribed times in which we are practically forced into reflection. I have felt it the most strongly in the recent past when flying across the world to study abroad in Cameroon. I remember looking out the plane window and seeing the desert below me and feeling this sense of physically being vaulted into a newness. A definite grand-scale moment that forced me to pause and take a few deep breathes.
For the most part, however, these moments of pause tend to manifest themselves for me the most consistently when using some sort of public transportation or in moments that similarly require us to pause together on any given day, such as when an ambulance drives down the street and everyone pulls over to the side. Or when it’s 4 a.m. and the Shorney fire alarm has been pulled for the third time and you find yourself lingering half asleep outside with everyone in the same frustrating situation. While seemingly insignificant, I have found a knack for being able to pinpoint these situations as noteworthy. It is during these times when our vastly separate and individual lives are inspired to remember that we are part of something bigger than us. Today, as we sit around together, nearly 500 graduates and family and friends, we find ourselves in a situation that forces us to look upon our last four years, to find some meaning as we spend our last few hours as students at Denison. Yet I find this to be all a little unnecessarily dramatic and big-picture. It’s almost like the culmination of angst from all those questions that have been thrown at us over the last year, “Soooo, what’s next for you…bad time to get a job with this economy eh? Any post-grad plans? So can you explain to me again exactly what you’re going to do with a liberal arts degree?”.
Sitting here today I feel like what’s asked of us is to finally have those answers while simultaneously processing what just happened to us in the last four years. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t know if asking all those big questions at the same time is really good for me or anyone, which is why I like to focus on the small and seemingly insignificant. I can’t really tell you in a concise 5 minute speech what it means to be a Denisonian and a give a big-picture inspirational charge for the future. Who am I anyway to do that? Anybody could be up here telling his or her story of what it means to be finishing his or her time at Denison and I don’t really feel any more worthy than you all to be sharing my understanding about what it means to ‘graduate’. Actually I think that’s one of the most important thoughts to leave with here today. We all have experienced immeasurably different Denisons. Our stories and memories reveal that though we all just spent four or so years living a semi- remote Midwestern existence, we spent those years creating incomparable Denison experiences. But at the end of the day, we all were eating Sodexo food and at the end of four years we’re all sitting here today. We are now being threaded together with all the other past graduates who have felt a similar angst and uncertainty about the age-old question, “what next”.
We are transitioning into alumni, into a network of people who share that common thread. And this is where I see the beauty of what it means to have a Denison degree. It’s not necessarily about the big picture, but instead a multitude of tiny pictures. A tiny picture such as going into the one restaurant in my hometown and running into an alumnus from the class of 1957, Mr. Bob Stewart, shaking his hand, and feeling that thread. We are being solidified into a connective web of people around the world who have also felt this thread. We all have history here and our future now will consist of small reminders of this history, and I believe it will be in these small moments, the tiny pictures, that will help us to understand the importance of our time here.
I have no idea of how to understand, let alone speak to this final transition away from life on the hill. I can tell you, however, what I’m going to do myself to help with conceptualizing that idea. Poet and author Maya Angelou once said “Each of us has that right, that possibility, to invent ourselves daily. If a person does not invent herself, she will be invented. So to be bodacious enough to invent ourselves is wise.” For me, it has been challenging to be retrospective in a “big picture” way; tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and start day one of this next chapter by borrowing Maya Angelou’s wisdom and finding the joy in the daily possibility.
Finding the connections everywhere in this life, in a metro bus, or restaurant, that reminds me that I am part of something bigger. While I don’t want to minimize the importance of today’s graduation, for me I have to keep in mind that tomorrow is tomorrow. I’ve tried to live a bodacious life here at Denison, and I think we have all been immeasurably impacted and challenged during our time here. So tomorrow, let’s not panic. Let’s simply move forward with the knowledge that the next steps are all about re-inventing ourselves. Not in a grand-scale way, but in a simpler, more habitual way, like Maya Angelou suggests. There’s no reason that we should only have to question our place and understand our experiences at graduations and funerals. We’re ready to wake-up tomorrow as alumni, as part of an interconnected history, and to work towards extending our bodacious attributes into new lives off the hill.
Reflections by Mark James Heckmann '11
B.A. Sociology/Anthropology and Communication; Pittsburgh, Pa.
Our self-narrative is a tale of hard work, strong friendships, and due preparation for what lies ahead of us in our families and careers. Society’s narrative is far more difficult to digest. In this story, hard work is at times trumped by politicking. Friendliness is quickly countered by competition. The value of our degrees may fluctuate with time. And so I must ask, which narrative should we dwell on today: the story of our triumph at and after Denison, or a tale of good work that does not fully translate into the real world?
Both narratives are rooted in a common element that is of interest today. Perhaps more than any singular topic of study, we graduates know conflict quite well. In fact, our acclimation to conflict may figure more prominently in our futures than will our diplomas. I speak of a world that requires graduates who will think differently about conflict: what it does developmentally, and how it must continue to confound us in the future. This address is my attempt at explaining why.
The world tells us that higher education is fundamentally a grooming process, where students invest in notions of fairness, equity and hard work paying off. Yet there are no reliable rules for fairness or equity once we leave Denison. That post-Denison world can be unkind to idealists, for we are shaken by the scope of society’s darker moments. Conflict is not an aberration in the next chapter of our lives – it is its hallmark. The world lets us believe that our work ethic correlates with advancement. We at times lie sweetly to ourselves, convinced that unemployment, foreclosure, crime and other hardships stop just short of our doorsteps. Our millennial inclination is to deny conflict’s existence, an inclination that operates in parallel with our achievement complex.
But here we discover the bridge to our self-narrative. We students have been acclimating ourselves to conflict our entire lives. Philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that to exist at all, we must be in conflict with our physical and ideological surroundings. We would not have developed our own belief systems, our intellects, had we not come into conflict with the thoughts and theories of others. What, if anything, would our degree be worth if it was simply conferred without a tasking expenditure of effort and resources?
Our narrative suggests that we learn civility, we learn community, only when conflict presents itself. We can remember when the habits of a new roommate clashed significantly with our own. Parents may recall a late-night phone call when college was just too rough on your son or daughter that day. Those all-nighters in Fellows, the cold walks back from the library, the unexpected grade on an exam, all instances of conflict upon which our successes are dependent.
And at times during our four years together, our narrative included conflict on a tragic scale. Our class has witnessed the recent passing of Denisonians Julie Karmann and Lindsey Gund. And we cannot forget our classmate Maria Toledano, who would have traversed this platform with us today had tragedy not struck. We have experienced racial tensions, class differences, even the loss of Denison faculty and staff. For all of those devastations, personal and shared, we stand today as stronger, more durable women and men.
Our Denison story can be summarized in an infinite number of ways. It is my belief, however, that the experience gained from our many conflicts here attest to our accomplishments far more than our transcripts or résumés. Anthropologist Robert Ardrey shares that “[humans] were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.” To anticipate, dare I say expect perfection in our lives denies an essential aspect of humanity—the inclination to err. It sounds odd, but we should depart today earnestly seeking moments of discomfort and risk. Susan Sontag writes that the people who are “perennially surprised that depravity exists…[have] not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” This is to say regardless of our degree, we are not fully prepared for the pangs of adulthood until we stare conflict down unflinchingly. The freedom afforded by this maturation is vast, and provides a more fulfilling, more courageous future for us all.
Graduates, be excited by today’s ceremony, for graduation marks the day that we publicly celebrate our narrative and tell the world what it can do with its own.
Reflections by Simon Jacob Mont '11
B.A. Philosophy; Rockville, Md.
It’s a bit ironic that, considering my complete disinterest in the “Humanimal” theme during the summer before our freshman year, that I spent last summer researching the concept of personhood and thinking about what separates us from other animals. While the philosopher in me would love to talk about the results of my research, the classmate in me feels it’s more relevant to talk about a conversation I had with my roommate.
One afternoon, as Grant and I were watching a History Channel special on theoretical physics (because we know how to party), we began talking about truth in science and that quickly led us to the topic of morality. In our highly scientific culture we tend to think that the empirical sciences can explain everything. The fact is that science doesn’t even have a way to begin talking about morality. Science is about laws. It explains effects by their causes. Agency is granted about as much credibility and relevance as fairies. Morality and responsibility on the other hand are predicated upon their distinction from strict causality. We blame people for choices they make but science tells us that choice is an illusion.
At Denison, I have often heard different disciplines juxtaposed against one another as if only one could be true. A philosopher might mock physicists for their lack of concern for certain skeptical doubts; the sociologists might not grant biological classifications much credit because they don’t appreciate cultural contingency; the novelist might chide the mathematician for being too detached from human emotion. But we do not need think of these approaches as competing. They are simply complementary descriptions of the world, each of which shows us some things only because it hides others. That is the way language works. The way we talk frames our experience and constructs the world we live in but it is impossible to describe something truthfully. True with a capital “T” just is not an option in language.
Imagine trying to talk about what it means to be a good person if you have only read bio textbooks for your whole life, talking about carbon dating if you have only read the Bible, talking about neuroscience if you've only read modern philosophy, or thinking about what it means for something to be funny or inspirational if you only have the tools of a chem lab. It doesn’t work. By committing ourselves whole heartedly to a certain vocabulary and a particular way of thinking, speaking, justifying and explaining we gain incredible insights available to that paradigm, but a hard headed commitment could prevent us from seeing the richness of our world.
This is a point relevant far beyond the ivory tower. For example, every person here is in favor of self-determination and choice. And everyone here thinks death is at the very least unfavorable. But no one here is both “pro choice” and “pro life.” As soon as we talk about abortion in terms of choice or life we have predetermined the relevant issues and settled upon our conclusion. The words we use set us in our opinions. The point to remember is that we choose the way we talk. Choosing to talk about life or choice is not choosing between true and false. It’s just choosing between which set of words and perspectives are most important to us. No different from choosing between physics, computer science and creative writing. Each one emphasizes a different aspect of something in the world that is important to us. The vital thing to remember is that we have the power to choose how we speak, the power to choose how we describe and thereby construct our world, and those choices are exactly that. They are choices that arise out of our personalities and what we happen to believe to be important.
To talk about taxes in terms of the individual right to non-interference versus a responsibility to a society sui generis is a choice. Talking about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of combating terrorism versus imposing Western morality is a choice. Talking about the death tax or the estate tax, death panels or health care spending controllers, freedom or responsibility, innovation or destabilization – it’s a series of choices. Our choice of words indicates our values and determines our conclusions. Those choices make us who we are. There is no way to avoid it and there is no need, either. What is important is that we acknowledge and embrace it.
As we enter a national community that is desperately in need of a sense of irony and humility it will serve us well not to take ourselves too seriously. They way we as individuals think and speak is analogous to the departments in which we majored. We think we are on to something good and useful, but as much as we like to give each other a hard time for our choice of academic focus, our community needs the painters as much as the environmental scientists, the black studies department as much as planetarium, and the gaming club as much as the football team. We all live our own lives and value our own things and that difference is essential to any learning, any progress, and any society; particularly to our own country.
It is that difference and tension which Denison forced upon us. The future doctor has no choice but to take a fine arts class and the physicist will learn a language whether they want to or not. Our curriculum combined with the small number of people forces us to encounter new perspectives and ways of speaking regularly. We should not lament sitting listening to things we think are irrelevant because the simple fact we feel that way teaches us something about ourselves and our own highly personal and highly subjective values and perspectives.
Throughout my research on personhood last summer I ran into a motif. Almost every thinker I read valued language and choice as uniquely and essentially human. The power to conceptualize, reconceptualize, and reconceptualize our world is at the very foundation of humanity and progress. So let’s free up our language and free up ourselves. Having more ways to speak and choosing consciously between those ways make us more human. We are better people for acknowledging our choices regardless of what choices we make.
I suppose I should end this with some intense, potent, memorable, schmaltzy thing so here’s my best shot. Life is serious, the problems we face are serious, the problems our loved ones face are serious, the problems strangers face are serious, our world is serious; but don’t take yourself too seriously. Just because you are right doesn’t mean your opponent is necessarily wrong. We need to think about who we are and be conscious of those choices which we may not even acknowledge as choices. There are so many ways to come to terms with the world. So choose the terms you use purposefully and always be open to possibility of change.
So thank you professors, classmates, and all of Denison for helping me grow, for pissing me off, making me happy, convincing me that I’m right while reminding me I’m wrong. As I grow into the person I want be I will always remember that I decided who that person was and acquired the tools to transform into him when I was here. I would not be me if I did not go to Denison so I will love Denison as long as I am me.
As we graduate and probably wonder what the point of all this learning was; the point of the late night studying, the stressing about grades, the hitting the library instead of the bar, I’d like to leave you with one final thought.
Intelligence is the ability to perceive the complex in what appears to be simple. Wisdom is the ability to perceive the simple in what appears to be complex. And ignorance, ignorance is the failure to acknowledge that everything is both far more simple and far more complex that you can ever comprehend.