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Convocation Address - September 10, 2012

As prepared

Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Dartmouth!

To our new students, with your energy and dreams, to upperclassmen who are with us, to faculty, staff, distinguished guests, and friends: can you believe it is two hundred forty-three years since our founding? And we are here today to celebrate another new beginning to a never-ending story.

To the members of the Class of 2016: congratulations on earning your seat. But do not get used to sitting down! You have to come here to stand up for what you believe in – to learn how to how to think critically, to grow beyond what you have imagined, and to share the fruits of that growth with a wider world.

To our new graduate students, thank you for enriching our community of scholars. In the eyes of the faculty, you are our partners. You will borrow from the volumes of knowledge, and you will add new chapters.

To our convocation speaker – award-winning filmmaker Ricki Stern, Class of 1987 – welcome home. I heard you decided the best way to leave a unique footprint on this campus was to spend time on the Green in bare feet – is that true?

I first met Ricki when Dartmouth honored her with a Social Justice Award for Ongoing Commitment in 2009. In her documentaries, she tells vivid and compelling stories of people who persevere. This weekend, Ricki will be back for our Year of the Arts festivities, and our celebration of the new Black Family Visual Art Center. We are delighted to have you with us today, Ricki.

In a report by Booz Allen, a prominent international consulting firm, Dartmouth was one of two universities described as "one of the world's most enduring institutions." If that is true, it is because with every passing year, the Dartmouth circle has grown wider and more inclusive. At Convocation 40 years ago, then-President John Kemeny welcomed Dartmouth's incoming class for the first time with the words "Men and women of Dartmouth."

Of course we take this for granted today, and as I look out now on the most diverse class in Dartmouth history, I am proud to say this is the 40th anniversary year for our Native American Studies Program and our Black Alumni Association.

Dartmouth has many proud traditions. But you are not here to fulfill past legacies – you have come to create your own. I invite you to begin that journey by reflecting on a deceptively simple question: Why come here?

I feel deeply that this is an exciting time in the history of our planet, in the history of humanity, and these years in college will be an exciting time in your lives. By coming here, you will have the opportunity to develop your capacity to succeed in the world and to influence the course of contemporary history.

You are in an age where information travels globally as fast as websites reload, where knowledge is growing exponentially. I began studying biology just after the first sequencing of a little chunk of DNA. Now the entire human genome has been sequenced – over 3 billion base pairs of DNA – and we are deep into the far more challenging task of figuring out how this molecular machinery works as the blueprint for the building and functioning of our bodies and brains.

Over the next four years, your education will be more than just assimilating all this new information, or even building your social networks and friendships. If you were satisfied with learning what is already known, you could hang out in a dorm anywhere – with online lectures, your iPad, Kindle, Wikipedia, and social media.

By coming to 21st century Dartmouth, you will be able to take full advantage of the creative and disruptive forces of new technology and the explosion of knowledge in all disciplines. But even more, by becoming an active participant here and – as soon as you can – a stimulus for others, you will grow and learn so much more. And I hope all of you will engage in research here, the creation of new knowledge and art, perhaps even in your first year. To best prepare to take your place in this information-rich, globally-connected world, you must meet the future right here at Dartmouth.

As a life scientist and educator, I am particularly excited by new discoveries about the learning brain – and our growing understanding of our essence as social beings. Our big brains have been developed and fine-tuned over millions of years in an intensely social environment. We have come to understand that perhaps the greatest evolutionary challenges – those giving rise to our extraordinary intelligence – were ones we created ourselves: the challenges of living, working, surviving, competing, collaborating and succeeding in the company of other smart people.

By working together over many generations, humans have created the knowledge from which new tools and technologies have emerged. The great masterpieces created by the human mind and hand have not been produced in a vacuum. They have arisen and have meaning only in our cultural context. They are built upon our interactions – the sharing of ideas, philosophies, science, technology, humanities, and the arts. Although we may sometimes like to think that as individuals we succeed entirely on our own steam, all our creations and legacies are fundamentally collaborative.

Given the origins of human intelligence, it is not surprising that the most effective learning experiences are active, challenging and collaborative. We know that where you live and who you meet can be what you learn. However much you take away from written texts, you take so much more away from social contexts. We learn from our surroundings without even trying – though on behalf of the faculty, I strongly recommend you do try, especially on your finals!

As we learn more about the processes that have shaped our brains into such awesome cognitive tools, we find that the brain is a masterful instrument for learning. This is because it continues to grow and change, not only when we are kids, but over our entire lifetimes, and we are discovering more and more about the kinds of stimuli that drive development in our brains. Of course, honesty compels me to say that brain imaging studies also have confirmed what your parents always feared – your brains really are on autopilot a lot of the time.

Perhaps that is why it makes me especially excited to see my colleagues talking about how to use new discoveries to create more effective learning experiences for you, to make Dartmouth the ideal place for you to reach your potential and to come out of autopilot.

We also can use this knowledge to help you to make your life in and out of the classroom coherent and creative. Disciplinary knowledge is deep, but sometimes siloed, fragmented. Complex problems are rarely solved by one discipline or one perspective. We know that your generation will need the skills to weave disciplinary threads into the interdisciplinary solutions that are needed to keep our fast-changing complicated global systems on a stable, healthy trajectory.

The quest for coherence and resilience in these global systems in many ways reflects our quest for coherence and integration in your Dartmouth experience. We in the faculty and the administration understand how important your social experiences are. The drive to engage with friends is at the core of our nature as social beings, and at the root of powerful life forces at work in our bodies, our minds.

So, what about coherency and integration? Can you, by being here, learn to bring your social experiences together with what you are learning about the wider world in your classes, your other activities, with your spiritual beliefs, from your experiences abroad?

It is not easy, but many of the Dartmouth grads that stay in touch after graduation have told me that yes, this did happen for them at Dartmouth. They have told me that it took effort and thought, but that it was the best investment they made in their lives, with the greatest rewards. They found different paths to integration – but integration grew by getting off auto-pilot and instead working to respect each new connection, each new relationship. Integration grew with each idea they questioned, each uncertainty they embraced. They found their integration – by learning not what to think from others, but how to think for themselves. When everything fit together, they say they found unexpected, deep reserves of energy and confidence. And ultimately they realized they had built a foundation to grow something deeper – something they might begin to call wisdom.

When I look out on the Green from the president's office (where I had a wonderful time welcoming each of the '16s yesterday at Matriculation) , I see a beautiful environment that invites learning and reflection, excitement, and buzz. I see students, faculty and staff criss-crossing on their different daily paths, to and from classes, the gym, cafeterias, the Hop – each with individual preoccupations, each heading somewhere with a purpose, each carrying a unique set of experiences and unique aspirations.

At the same time, I see intersections that bring you together – the points where paths meet, where you must embrace confrontation however uncomfortable, and where you must find empathy and humility. How you interact together will determine how far you go as individuals. As you build respectful connections across our community, you strengthen our community. Just as the brain grows by forming new connections, you will learn by forging bonds with people from different backgrounds, different disciplines, and different points of view. You will make yourselves wiser, this campus more vibrant, and you will graduate prepared to make our world more prosperous, just, and hopeful.

Women and men of Dartmouth, this is the promise of the college you enter today. It is a promise that the members of the first brave class of women fulfilled with grace. It is a promise that thousands of graduates have fulfilled through lives of service, feats of innovation, and moments of courage. And it is a promise that is your responsibility to keep. As I look around today, I have no doubt you will.

More than just retaining facts, by being here you will create new knowledge. More than celebrating the accomplishments of the past forty years, by being here you will set your sights on the next forty years. And more than just visitors passing through our campus, you will be members of this community. The Green will be your classroom. The people you meet will be your collaborators. And Dartmouth will bear your mark.

From this day forward, you will be students and graduates of Dartmouth – and it is my honor to welcome you.

Last Updated: 9/17/12