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Convocation 2011

9/11 First-Year Convocation

President Ronald D. Liebowitz
Mead Memorial Chapel
September 11, 2011

Welcome. It is my pleasure, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and your fellow Middlebury students, to extend a warm welcome to you, the class of 2015. I hope you enjoyed orientation, which I know was the product of a lot of work on the part of so many.

Your introduction last week to Middlebury and to Vermont came at a difficult time, when the remnants of Hurricane Irene caused massive flooding, which destroyed roads, bridges, and, unfortunately, many homes. True to Vermont’s tradition and character, however, the country has seen how Vermonters rise to the occasion, roll up their sleeves when faced with such adversity, and tackle the difficult situations they face without pointing fingers or feeling sorry for themselves. Likewise, many in the state have seen the character of Middlebury College students as early-returning students volunteered here in town and in neighboring communities, some as far as the New Hampshire border. They have made a huge difference in the lives of many they don’t even know. Please join me in thanking our students for helping so many here in town and across the state. This kind of caring and acting, as I tell many, is the hallmark of our campus culture, and I hope that you, all of you in the Class of 2015, will join and strengthen that culture not only in times of crisis, but in your everyday doings at the College.

Today, of course, is September 11, and it is the 10th anniversary of the largest single attack on United States soil—a terrorist attack the consequences from which our society has yet to recover. This address is not about my experiences with 9/11—though I was on a Manhattan crosstown bus on West 66th Street at the time—but I can’t help making the connection between the depth and breadth of caring that permeated the streets, subways, cabs, parks, and public spaces in New York City on the one hand, and the caring we see today in so many flood-ravaged communities throughout Vermont and the aspirations we have for this academic community you have just joined, on the other. I will come back to September 11 later, but first a few thoughts on this new community you officially join today.

It is rare to hear or read stories about Vermont without some mention of the weather, and for good reason. The unpredictable and variable weather that seems to throw challenges our way across all the seasons is one of the things that creates the kind of environment in which friendships and personal relationships are more important, more meaningful, and more long-lasting than in most other settings. There are few distractions in this beautiful, relatively remote, part of New England, which means students here rely heavily on one another for their social, intellectual, creative, and academic sustenance and energy—more heavily, I would say, than on most college campuses. Though one of the great and sometimes unnoticed benefits of being at a place like Middlebury is the opportunity for students to get involved and make a difference in the town, in Addison County, and even in Montpelier, our state capital, living and learning at Middlebury revolves around being part of this academic community. It is a community filled with remarkably talented students, dedicated staff, and the very best faculty you can find, so long as you are ready and willing to be challenged and to take advantage of their talents and high expectations. Those high expectations are rooted in what we already know about you . . . what you accomplished before you arrived.

I know you will take advantage of many of the academic opportunities before you, and may even feel frustrated when you can’t delve deeply enough into many areas of the curriculum. But not trying to “do it all” is a good thing. Doing things in balance is a challenge for all of us, especially for many of you who have been doing so many things for a good part of your lives. But in order to get the most out of your time here, I pass along the following advice to go along with all that you have already heard since your arrival earlier this week:

  1. No matter how much you wish to extend it, the day is 24 hours long. The work load per course at Middlebury is demanding, and so when you think about all you would like to do, make sure to leave enough time to cover all you will be asked to do in four, not one, two, or three classes.
  2. View your time here as a way to study both deeply and broadly. That is the advantage and indeed the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college. Unlike what you would do at a technical or pre-professional school, we require you to select a major, but also to take courses across the curriculum, selecting classes in disciplines you might have never taken before or even knew existed.
  3. Resist the idea that more is better—for example that two majors are better than one—and instead take advantage of the strength of our faculty and curriculum by taking many courses in the arts, humanities, languages, the social sciences, and natural sciences. You will graduate four years from now better educated and just as prepared to go on for a Ph.D. or to pursue any career you wish as you would have been had you completed multiple majors. More importantly, by taking courses broadly across the curriculum, chances are you will meet a faculty member who will excite you by material you never would have encountered, and perhaps change your life. Science majors might find reading Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” or John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” or doing landscape painting central to the rest of their lives, just as literature majors might discover a passion and life-long interest in ecology, molecular biology, or non-proliferation.
  4. As you think about the next four years try to think about striking a balance in what you study, in what you do outside your academic work, and in what you do for a social life. Contrary to how it might seem from afar, the transition to college is never seamless for anybody. Finding a significant connection to something here and finding it early—an athletics team, an a cappella group, a literary club, artists and entrepreneurs at the Old Stone Mill, or to any of the College’s 140+ student organizations—will provide the kind of social entrée that will make the transition here easier and richer. This takes initiative, but we make it relatively easy for you: I suggest you attend the College’s activities fair, where you can meet members of many student organizations and learn about what each does and how to get involved. This year’s fair will take place Friday, September 16, at 4:30 on Hepburn Road—in front of Proctor and right behind the Chapel.

But the most important advice I might give to you as you begin your college career is related to the profound changes that September 11, 2001, had on our country. It has to do with how you study not only what will be new to you, but also how you study what might very well be most familiar to you—what you learned in elementary school and secondary school, this time subjected to rigorous and critical analysis that is the essence of a liberal arts education at a place like Middlebury.

Whether you pick up the Economist, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Affairs, or any publication this week, you will read over and over that September 11, 2001, was the day the United States lost its innocence. Just about all of you in today’s entering class were 7, 8, or 9 years old at the time, and I am sure each of you has your own vivid memories of that day. Yet, that single event, and the consequences that followed, created a “world-view” fault line between those who came of age and were educated pre-9/11 and those who came of age after.

Pre-9/11ers, a cohort that includes our entire faculty (at least I hope so), grew up and were educated in a world shaped by American supremacy, some would say hegemony. It was a world where first geography, by virtue of the two great oceans on either side of the country, and then advanced technology, which allowed for unequalled military capacity, including missile defense systems, that protected us from what were our greatest and most visible threats. There was an air of invincibility following the fall of communism, or at least a sense that the country was secure. That sense created a national psyche with a world view that was very insular, very ethnocentric, and largely unprepared to deal with a world beyond the U.S. that had changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

It is no surprise that basic geographic literacy and foreign language competency were national weaknesses for decades: there were no tangible or practical reasons for Americans to engage the world. The world beyond our borders, however, was going through a major transformation: China’s globe-changing economic reforms, which continue seemingly unabated, began in the late 1970s; European unification as we know it today had achieved significant momentum by the late 1980s; and the largest threat to democracy for more than 40 years—Soviet Communism—disappeared by the early 1990s.

The totality of these changes created a new world order that most importantly provided new liberties and unparalleled prosperity to hundreds of millions of people, but it also unleashed pent-up ethnic and religious hatred that contributed to the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism. The disappearance of a totalitarian regime, which had effectively kept stability in historically volatile territories for decades, and the Soviet failure in Afghanistan to quell religious and ethnic opposition to a puppet communist regime, were major forces that gave rise to the likes of Al-Qaeda. Despite all these changes over the course of more than two decades, there was little public discussion about how our country should reconsider its insularity or how to educate our young, or any effective political leadership to engage the issue seriously.

The pre-9/11 generations, who remain as the policy makers and thought leaders in American society, have clearly missed the opportunity to align our country with what was transpiring elsewhere in the world since the 1970s. You and your generation are going to have the responsibility to change that.

Globalization, with its lowering of social, economic, and political barriers throughout the world, represents radical change for the pre-9/11 adult generations. Most have not adapted to the changes, yet to your generation, the impact of globalization is what your world is all about: access to unlimited information; ease of movement to just about anywhere in the world; unfettered competition for jobs, educational opportunities, and resources no matter where one was born, where one lives, or where one was educated. Included, too, are the collateral issues associated with the advent of instant and cheap access to information and communication: the expressing and promoting of hatred, bigotry, and violence.

For you, the changes in the American psyche brought on by 9/11 are second nature; they are the norm . . . what you know. As a result, you will quite naturally elect to study languages, most likely Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish, perhaps Japanese, Portuguese, or Hebrew. You will also quite naturally engage in outreach projects to help individuals anywhere in the world, and probably work harder and with more focus than most of us probably ever did to prepare yourselves to compete in labor markets that have become profoundly global. You are in some important ways the antithesis of pre-9/11 generations. You understand there is no longer a pax Americana, a world in which the United States can guarantee peace, and you reflexively act accordingly.

To the older generations, the pre-9/11 Americans, the U.S. has, more than anything else, lost its way. What had been unprecedented solidarity among Americans immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks has descended into divisiveness of a sort few can recall. From the deeply contested wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the financial mess caused largely by a massive failure of political institutions to govern our markets, to the present debilitating and increasingly destructive political culture in Washington, whatever confidence Americans felt about government’s ability to improve the lives of its citizens has been shattered.

Yet because your generation has come of age in what has been a difficult and dysfunctional period of American political history, your expectations are different than previous generations: you lack the kind of deep-seated disappointment over the current state of affairs that characterizes older generations of Americans. As a result, your generation has the best chance to identify where and how to find hope and optimism in the coming years: your generation will see the challenges before us for what they are and not become distracted by thinking about how it used to be. You will be less constrained in finding ways to tackle the tough issues.

But knowing how to find the best ways to tackle tough issues ties directly into our jobs as educators—which is to encourage, indeed force, you to engage your studies in a serious and thorough way, to engage in critical analysis, to master how to ask and answer the most relevant questions, to weigh options, to figure out for yourselves the skills you need to acquire in order to achieve objectives that are meaningful to you, and to be able to place what you learn in a broader context than the one most familiar to you.

The critical analytical skills and content that form the core of a liberal arts education will enable you to stand apart from, reconsider, and adjust your own world view—your assumptions and convictions about how the world works and how you will fit yourself into making it a better place.

I encourage you as strongly as I can to take advantage of the remarkable resources you have here to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to engage the world with confidence and conviction. Yes, the 21st century world has its distinctive challenges. But you have special gifts that will help us all overcome those challenges. We are here to help you realize those gifts; that is the nature of a Middlebury education. Please don’t pass up the opportunity that is before you beginning tomorrow.

Best of luck, Class of 2015, as you begin your education at this special institution, and may you find joy in all you will learn as part of this caring academic community.

Thank you.

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