Skip to main content

Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015
Email: james.wright@dartmouth.edu

Remarks by President James Wright at Convocation

September 23, 2003

President James Wright
President James Wright (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Greetings! Even at an institution that operates around the year and around the world, there needs be a time and a place for us to gather, symbolically to mark a new beginning. Today we assemble here in the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that marks the start of another academic year and that formally welcomes into this community our newest members. I am pleased this morning to greet my colleagues from the faculty and administration, upper-class students, new and returning graduate students, and other members of the community. I am especially pleased that Susan Dentzer could join us today.

And it is my particular privilege formally to extend Dartmouth's welcome to the members of the Class of 2007. While I have had the opportunity to greet each of you individually, this ceremonial occasion closes the time of transition for you and invites your lifetime commitment to the good work of learning.

This is an exciting time at Dartmouth. You have arrived as we begin to advance a number of capital projects to enhance the academic and out-of-classroom experience. We are moving forward with

  • The construction of residence halls for 500 students;
  • A dining and social center to serve undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff;
  • Kemeny Hall for the Department of Mathematics
  • The companion Academic Centers Building, which will house the Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Ethics Institute, and the Leslie Humanities Center;
  • An addition to the Sudikoff Laboratory for Computer Science; and
  • A new facility for the Engineering Sciences Center at the Thayer School.

Generous Dartmouth alumni and friends have pledged over $90 million toward the realization of these projects. And, by the time you graduate, in 2007, we hope to have completed each of them. Together, they will further enhance the academic and residential life of this College. You have joined an intellectually vibrant community.

You have also joined a community sure of its purposes and anchored by its values. In your short time here, you have already learned the songs and have heard the stories that echo throughout these hills. They proclaim a sense of community and of belonging, a sense of responsibility for other students and for your College, and a profound and enduring sense of place. The ethos of Dartmouth declares that these immeasurable, personal, even subjective things are not part of a transient four years of your life, but are now or will soon be for a lifetime builded in your hearts. Like those who have preceded you, you will carry from here the enduring granite of your experience.

You bring with you a wide range of ambitions and expectations. We do not expect, nor do we wish, you to be all alike; we cherish you as individuals. Despite your unique hopes and fears and experiences, we have determined that you do share with each other and with this College one thing of paramount importance: a commitment to learning. This is indeed our shared purpose, and, without it, it would be hard to justify either your or this College being here. Let us, then, today talk about learning.

A great deal of the learning that you will do here will take place outside of the formal academic spaces of classroom, laboratory, and studio - as of course it should at a residential college. I urge you to take fullest advantage of the opportunities that Dartmouth offers in the performing and creative arts and our wonderfully full schedule of public lectures. Participate in outdoor and athletic programs. Take in the beauty of the North Country; take on the pleasure of serving this wider community through the Tucker Foundation or other programs. Enroll in an off-campus program. Your class and this community include many persons whose backgrounds differ from your own. Realizing the potential of this diverse community needs your active engagement to advance your learning - and the learning of all who can learn from you.

But my focus today is on the formal liberal learning that Dartmouth advances so exceptionally. A liberal-arts education is about process more than product, in that it seeks to encourage a lifetime of learning and unlearning - an intellectual impatience and curiosity that never allows you to be quite satisfied with what you know. A Dartmouth education may finally enable you to do many things with your lives, and that is good.

But you will seriously devalue your opportunity here if you think of the next four years simply as a path to a job, or consider our courses of study as being discrete units that teach skills with a market value or that substantiate a resume.

Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins told his all-male student body that the primary concern of a Dartmouth education "is not with what men shall do but with what men shall be." Seventy-five years later, I echo Mr. Hopkins' advice, in telling today a class having more women than men that while, of course, we urge you to pursue a career and calling that you will find fulfilling, we care fundamentally about the sort of person you will be and how you will live your lives.

Dartmouth is part of an educational tradition that has existed for at least a millennium. Our own College history dates back two and a third centuries. In the late eighteenth century, Dartmouth faculty, like those at other colleges of the time, had few doubts about the truths or texts they taught, although their certainty existed within a physical and a natural world that remained ill-defined and, even, mysterious - perhaps acceptably so.

Today, while we might better understand our natural and physical world and are eager to improve our knowledge in these areas, we are less confident than were our ancestors about the received truths that anchor our lives.

The one thing I can assure you now is that your own certainties and understandings will continue to change. Most of you were born in 1985. In that year, the Soviet Union still held sway over much of Eastern Europe and apartheid still controlled South Africa; there was no World Wide Web; personal computers were new, clumsy, and slow; the genetic code was largely an abstraction; and women served only in limited roles within the U.S. military.

Your lives will continue to be marked by stunning developments in science and technology, bearing upon our understanding of the physical and natural world in which we live and about the cosmos of which we are a part - indeed, are just a particle. You need while here to continue the process of understanding these things as best we can now understand them - and some of you will begin a lifetime of expanding our understandings. None of you should leave Dartmouth without engaging with the work that defines modern science and technology. This is a critical purpose of liberal learning. But there is more.

The binary world of hypothesis tests, of experiments and empiricism, of correct and incorrect, of either/or, of if/then has limits. We have developed remarkable capacity to observe, to model, to analyze, to sort, to calculate, and to describe things - but after all of this, as scientists would be the first to warn us, we still finally need to be able to understand and explain. And the more we engage the timeless efforts by philosophers, poets, historians, artists, and writers to understand who we are and what we value, the less binary our world seems.

A few months ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said before the U.S. Congress that there had never been a time when "a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day." Perhaps. But, as a historian, I would encourage you not to look to history for practical guidance, for instruction, or for recipes for life. History, together with the liberal arts more generally, assist us in knowing that the human experience is a complicated and rich continuum and that ours is not a world that we can model and predict.

There are indeed canons - or at least timeless texts - that can guide and that I encourage you to study. But the reading of them is not fixed for all time. Who could read Othello today with the same assumptions about race that marked those of Elizabethan England? Who could disagree that the inspiring goal of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" has a fuller and richer - indeed, a more complicated - meaning today than it did in our colonial past? Who could deny that while Morrison and Marquez do not replace Shakespeare and Whitman, they enrich our reading of them - and surely expand our context for knowing? In the complicated world of the Academy, which you now join, knowledge and understanding evolve and the world is seldom so simple as evil versus good, foolish versus enlightened, traditional versus modern.

The liberal arts require an engagement with the historic and contemporary work of the arts and humanities, the social sciences and the sciences, work that wrestles with understanding the human condition. If learning is an individual process, it does not at Dartmouth need be a lonely one for you are accompanied by your classmates, your faculty, all of those who have preceded you here, and, finally, by all of humanity. The books that sit on shelves in the library, or on the virtual shelves of the digital library, the works of art on our walls, and the compositions that flow from musical instruments are also good companions - they do not shout at you, but they can quietly inform. Life that is not engaged with them is not so full.

Read and think critically. You have a role, independently, of determining what is good and what is beautiful, what is moral and ethical, and your judgments will be informed by the education you now embrace. The Academy insists upon including and enabling; we value individuality and accomplishment; we depend upon integrity and honesty and upon academic freedom; we are sustained by discourse and by respect and tolerance. Eleanor Roosevelt once said,

A mature person is one who is does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all-knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.

The liberal arts allow you freedom to find your own ways of knowing, but they will not allow you to believe that you do this in a vacuum or that each idea or insight is equally valid. Protecting the right of individuals to hold their own views is a cornerstone of the Academy, but our energy does not derive from acknowledging the equal validity of all views.

And surely we do not suggest a moral relativism. There are finally some things that are morally and ethically good or correct - or at least things that we now believe to be, others that we hope to become understood as, good or correct - meaning as right, as appropriate, as normative. Our shared moral principles strengthen us as a community.

Your lives have already been marked by change and complexity. You have known acts of cruelty and of kindness and of sacrifice. So will you always live through and know these things. We would like to be able to assure you that the liberal arts will provide you with answers, with a road map for life, with the same confidence with which our eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century predecessors approached education. But here you will likely encounter more questions than answers - good questions, about choices and nuance, about taste and judgment, about standing for and defending those things you believe to be right. We warn you, however, that being educated is no guarantee of being wise - or being good or being responsible.

Alfred North Whitehead, perhaps in a more optimistic age, defined our task in higher education as "the creation of the future." Recognizing today our limits in controlling and shaping that which will come, liberally educated women and men nonetheless experience life with a sense of history, of ballast, of context, which enables them to cope, at worst, and to shape, at best, the way their lives play out. When we encourage you to learn how to learn, this is not to suggest that the process is independent of, or more important than, the subject. Learning is not a method, but it is a habit of mind, one that is open and inquisitive and critical, one that is informed and shaped by knowing how those who preceded us wrestled with those questions that vex us.

Moreover, this is not a passive process-it is an engaged and interactive one that is essentially fueled by your curiosity and your creativity. Engage here with your fellow students and your faculty and make your own tentative contributions to what we can know. William Merwin, who received an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth last June, wrote

Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught

Each of you has such a pencil-or pc-with which you can take us where we have not yet been. You occupy a prized seat this morning-and we are so glad that you are here. My charge to you is simple: meet your own highest aspirations and your own best promise; then, as a consequence, your College and your world will each be the stronger, the richer - the more interesting.

Members of the Class of 2007, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning. We have work to do, you and I-and it is time to begin! Welcome to Dartmouth.

Last Updated: 8/21/08