August 30, 2011
Welcome, faculty, staff, colleagues, alumni, friends and above all, new students to Convocation. On behalf of everyone at Curry College, we are absolutely thrilled you are here – and I am honored to speaking before you this morning. Now you may be wondering – why am I here? And what, exactly, is convocation?
An anthropologist would describe a convocation as a “rite of passage,” a special kind of ceremony. Ceremonies are formal events that bind communities together and reinforce values. A rite of passage is a ceremony that confers a change of status, and that, in brief, that is what we are doing this morning. You are becoming a Curry College student by matriculating. All of us in the Curry community have convened – come together -to welcome you. You are important to us. We want you to share in our values and to learn and grow with us.
There is another, equally important rite of passage, commencement – that is when you graduate – and it stands at the other end of your Curry education. As a student, you can only do them once in your life. These two ceremonies, convocation and commencement, are formal, important, and grounded in a very long tradition.
The two oldest, most durable social institutions in human society are first the church and then the university. First emerging in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, the university came together as a special place committed to knowledge. We may be tweeting and texting today, but academic names, structures and ceremonies, like our convocation, have their origins in century- old institutions like the University of Bologna, the University of Paris, Oxford University and Cambridge University. And Curry College, like those ancient universities, is an institution driven to promote by the same fundamental values: the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.
It sounds like serious business, and it is. College – even with the socializing and all the fun – is serious business. There are few things more important, more valuable to us as human beings, than knowledge and truth. They set us apart, gives us aspirations and meaning to our lives. And because this all does matter so much, we want you to reflect on these values and consider them as you learn.
To make sense knowledge, truth and education, a very good place to start is with philosophy. Aristotle was a philosopher who believed that the only way to know something was to understand its causes. Causes, he argued, are the foundation of knowledge. In Aristotelian philosophy, things have different ends or causes, and you understand them by asking questions.
First, there is a material cause – what is a thing made of? Your education is made up of all that is around you: professors, fellow students, a campus, books, classrooms and the like.
Aristotle’s second cause asks what is a thing’s essence or shape? A college education has a specific shape – it is made up of courses, papers, assignments, tests, studying – all that leads to a degree.
Aristotle’s third cause is an efficient cause – what makes it? What makes a college education? The answer is faculty – professors – with centuries of learning and practice built on each other. It is not just the teachers – you are also part of the efficient cause. Students are absolutely central to the making of a college education. Without you, there is no education, no college.
The final and fourth Aristotelian cause asks what is a thing’s purpose, or in Greek, its telos. This is the question that keeps philosophy students up at night. And the purpose, or final cause, of education, Aristotle says, is knowledge and truth. Knowledge and truth are what bring us together and make it all worthwhile.
One other point: Aristotle argues that the most important things in life are the values whose ultimate ends are goods in themselves. That means that they are inherently good. The pursuit of knowledge is a good in itself. To seek truth is a good in itself. A meaningful education is a good in itself. And Aristotle’s philosophy asserts that the pursuit of a good in itself leads to happiness.
Now Aristotle is not talking about the kind of happiness that comes from toys or a weekend at the Cape. And he is not saying that you, as students, will, by definition, be happy.
Instead, what it means that you, as students, can lay claim to the special kind of happiness that comes from hard work in the pursuit of a meaningful good. It is about pushing yourself to find knowledge. And it will provide that most important kind of happiness, the happiness that leads to value and fulfillment, and helps to chart a rich and productive life. It’s a very special kind of happiness, truly a treasure – and I wish you much of this happiness in your education at Curry.
Thank you – and I am delighted that you are part of our community.