February 10, 2016: February Convocation Address

February 10, 2016


Welcome to Middlebury.

To begin, I would like to continue a custom by putting into circulation this most recognizable of College symbols—Gamaliel Painter's cane.

Gamaliel Painter was one of the visionaries who helped to found Middlebury College over 200 years ago. He was a familiar sight to the College's first students as he frequently roamed through the town's streets and strolled by the College, which then was entirely located on the site that is now Twilight Hall at the bottom of the hill on the way into town.

As he strolled about the town and College, Gamaliel Painter carried with him a walking stick. When he died, Painter bequeathed to the College $13,000, which was a significant-enough sum of money to secure the future of this fledgling institution. He also left us his walking stick.

It has become a tradition for newly arrived students, at opening convocation, to pass among them Gamaliel Painter's cane. I ask you to pass it among yourselves, but please remember to give it to Feb. Orientation senior co-chairs Sarah James or Tommy Finton when done, so future first-years can share in the tradition!

And now, I want to warmly welcome you as Febs—that special class of people who arrive in winter. Febs are bright newcomers to our community bring all their light and energy to the darker days. That's why we welcome you with candles—they are a reminder of who you are.

There's also something about winter that brings us down to the bare bones of things—we see the beautiful skeletons of things. We hear the sparser songs that exist underneath the songs of summer. The poet Mark Strand invites us to think about winter as a kind of listening—"listening to the tunes our bones play."

Here's how he puts it in "Lines for Winter":

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars...

You all have dreamt Middlebury. And you have done so powerfully. You have listened to the tune your bones play and found this place. You may even have dreamt that, once you arrived, on one of these snowy Vermont nights you would lie down and gaze at the small fire of wintry stars. You were so effective in your dreaming about Middlebury that you have landed here, in this space. I hope it looks and feels the same way you dreamt it.

And even though you did everything right to get here, perhaps you are still anxious right now. You are looking left and you are looking right. You may be thinking, “I wonder how many of these people have done amazing things.” You may wonder if you're worthy, because someone casually happened to mention this morning that they were an opera singer. Or that they already knew two languages. Or they designed a new solar-powered boat. And the worse thing was they were really nice about it. Or perhaps you are unbelievably impatient to get started right now. So much so that all this orientation and syllabus sharing and training is getting annoying. “Seriously guys?” you are thinking. “I get the good intentions, folks, but let’s just dive in.”

Yes, you might be anxious. You might be feeling inadequate. You might also be impatient. In each case, however, you are no longer alert and directed, but you are distracted by your wish, your longing to be somewhere or something else than here, being what you are. I wish I were a singer or a musician. Why can’t I learn languages? I’m not an environmentalist. I am completely uncoordinated. Do I belong here? As your new president, I am going to ask you: How long will you dwell there in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Sitting here in the pews in Mead Chapel, you are the same person we admitted last spring: the person who might be an uncoordinated non-environmentalist non-language learner non-opera singer. We admitted you. The person who dreamed Middlebury and who has come here to dream other dreams. To be inspired by the fires of winter stars. So what does it mean to follow the tunes your bones play, now that you are here? First and foremost it means being aware of all the opportunity that is around you and keeping yourself healthy at the same time. At Middlebury, you will have a wealth of people to support you in that effort: Commons Heads, Commons Deans, JC’s, RHA’s, the faculty who teach you in first year seminars, librarians, coaches, faculty who teach you in your other courses, people whom you happen to meet on campus.

And they will help you listen to that tune that is yours alone, and in doing so, develop wisdom.

You see, at Middlebury, we are going to ask you not just to be smart, but to become wise.

Make no mistake: at Middlebury, you will be all about using your smarts, your intellect. You will be challenged to master material more than you ever have before. And there will be days when you've will feel that meeting such an intellectual challenge is enough. But once you have done that, we will not simply let you rest on those laurels. Intellect is not wisdom. At Middlebury we will challenge you to take the next step after being smart, which is to understand the role of that knowledge in the world, and how it has shaped human hearts and minds over centuries. Ask the librarians at Davis Library, who recently spent long hours cataloguing the papers of a single abolitionist family in Vermont. Our librarians hung in there with a huge cataloguing project because the role of a single family taking an ethical stand wasn't just a matter of intellectual interest. Their work mattered to the whole world of people who might want to combat modern day practices in human trafficking. Their work mattered to all the students who wanted to learn from the ethical example of the past.

At Middlebury, we will also ask you to pay attention, to be mindful and to reflect on the purposes of your own education. Mindfulness is part of being aware of what you are doing—not just following a well-traveled route or a rote course of study. It means taking the time to observe your own situation and those around you before you make a judgment. Some people call this slow-learning. We call it better learning. Just ask Julia John, one of the several students on the first nature writing course in Alaska, as she attempted to describe the allure and the treachery of hiking near the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. No way to go through that task but slowly, carefully, and paying full attention.

And what is more, at Middlebury we will ask you to carry your work lightly. That doesn't mean that you don't take your work seriously. It means that you understand the power of trying many times and in many different ways. At Middlebury you will learn that trying twice, trying three times, even four or five times, is part of the equation. Just ask the students at the Potomac Theater Project in New York City. They have built a major theater company over the past 30 years with Middlebury College that is the only collaboration of its kind between equity actors and college learners. But they did it not in the blink of an eye, but by trying two, three, four times. With the public. With the college. First in Washington, DC. And now at its home in New York City.

At Middlebury we will challenge you to think of the wisdom that you gain here as more valuable than gold or silver. Those reminders mean that, if you get a great internship or a fabulous high paying job when you graduate, and you think you have accomplished what you need to, then you will not be wise. And we will not have done our job as educators. If we have done our job well, then you will see that true wisdom is found in seeking a deeper and richer life, not one that just focuses entirely on material ends. Just ask the planters and sowers at the Middlebury College organic farm, who don’t grow their crops for a profit, but rather to support the local economy, to deepen a sense of place, and to create a source of local food for Middlebury College and the town. This kind of wisdom gives the Middlebury farm staff members the resilience to try different agricultural experiments, and to build new stoves and different kinds of shelters for plants and people. All of that work is happening there right now.

At Middlebury we will also challenge you to be receptive to argument. That, too, is a great quality of wisdom. If you are open to others' points of view, you will not only be able to reason and address major social issues alone, but also alongside of other people. This is a real skill, and when you learn it you will know the value of others' arguments and become willing to respect them. At Middlebury we don't think about arguments as entirely of our own making, or an index of how smart we are. Rather, we view arguments as moments where people are thinking their best thoughts together. If you are willing to be open to others' arguments, you will have the support of others around you because they know you are willing to listen to them. That, too, will help us become a better community together. Just ask the Debate Society, which is now one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. They tour nationally and internationally, and just competed in the North American Championships. They say that they are successful because of the enthusiasm of the younger students—including first-year Febs and second-year Febs—who joined their ranks. With those younger classes joining the team, it has tripled in size to become the largest team in NESCAC. Those younger people would now be you folks. It just goes to show that Febs rule!

At Middlebury, we will also challenge you to trust. You will need to trust that, as you begin this adventure called a college education, even if the outcome of your efforts is not what you think it should have been, you will eventually understand what the meaning of your work is. You will find your place. You will hear that tune your bones play in the middle of winter, and many other seasons too—in the fertile mud of spring, the green hush of summer, the heart-stopping colors of autumn. And you will need to trust that there will be people around you to help you do this in all seasons of your student life. Just ask the students who were part of the solar decathlon in 2013, who literally built their own place to dwell, and trusted that they could do this together. They were interested in reconnecting people with the community around them while at the same time focusing on economic social and environmental sustainability. So InSite was born. It is a house that balances public and private spaces, but is completely sustainable in all those three ways. Middlebury students literally made a home for themselves. But in doing so, they had to trust their advisors, trust their instincts, and trust that this award-winning house could be reintegrated back into the Middlebury community. And that trust has paid off; two students live there each year—selected through a rigorous application process.

And a final note about what you will learn here at Middlebury: being wise means being resilient. What do we mean by this? Resilience is one of those words that we think we know, but we don’t necessarily stop to reflect upon. Resilience is about bouncing back from adversity, but it also refers to the ability of an object to return to its original shape after being stretched out of proportion—as might happen in a crisis or time of trauma. Resilience in both those forms is essential in a diverse learning community. You are awake and resilient when you know your own shape and know that you can find it again. You are resilient when you have the courage to learn and make mistakes and find your shape again after the worst thing that could happen happens. Resilience means finding your own shape, and staying in shape, in body, mind, and spirit. So that you can create your own path.

The poet Mark Strand reminds us about resilience in winter:

you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.

So I ask you once again: How long will you dwell in distraction, focused on what you are not, instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? You have dreamt of Middlebury, and now you are here. You have arrived bringing us light and laughter. And we will help you follow the tune your bones play. We will help you to become wise. We will help you go on walking, no matter where you find yourself:

inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.

Now go, and get on with the glorious business of being who you are.

Office of the President

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Middlebury College
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