On Monday, Curry College held its second annual convocation. The institution was founded in the 1870s, but for many years convocation was not part of the tradition. It is now.
The sun was shining and faces were smiling. More than 600 new first years processed through a double line of cheering faculty, entering our Student Center gymnasium for a 55 minute ceremony. President Quigley presided and there were speeches by a student representative, a faculty member, a successful alum, and yours truly. The program did not spell out an address for me, but it was not an opportunity to miss.
The student, faculty member and alum each gave personal addresses, linking their own history, perceptions and observations with those of the new students. It’s a tried and true rhetorical technique: here is who I am – let me talk to you as a fellow human being. All three speeches were congratulatory, effective, and provided good anecdotes. All three speeches gave advice. In higher education when talking with students, we often give advice.
I did something different. When I was a first year student in college, I did not listen to advice. You could have beaten me about the head with an important and completely reasonable bit of information, but if I was in the wrong mindset, I never would have heard it. Few of my friends listened to advice at that age. Today when I’m asked to provide advice, I have a very difficult time prioritizing the many valuable pieces of wisdom that I might impart. So I rarely do it.
Instead, I talked about convocations, higher education traditions, Aristotle’s causes, the search for knowledge and truth (a good in itself), and the happiness that may result from a good in itself. A student leader then administered the oath formally matriculating the students – and we headed outside for a small reception.
Effective communication with students sometimes may rest on the personal. The challenge is that the appeal reinforces the narcissism that defines late adolescence. A college education should, I hope, help to counteract that tendency. It can challenge, de-center, demand empathy and develop critical skills. All of which tend to move the center of one’s universe ever so slightly away from the self.
At nineteen I knew it all. Ever year since my awareness of what I don’t know – and may never know – increases. And it’s OK by me.