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Spring Convocation Address, "Sitting on a Bench"

Due to recovering from recent eye surgery, Convocation Speaker Ron Sharp was not able to deliver his address in person. He joined us in voice by providing a recorded version of his talk for the occasion.

        Spring Convocation Address at Vassar College, April 30, 2008

Thank you, President Hill—both for that lovely introduction and also for the privilege of being invited to give this year’s convocation address.  

And may I begin by thanking the entire audience for your indulgence in this very curious mode of delivering an address in a completely disembodied fashion.  This is one of those moments when one longs for an FM voice – for an NPR voice, not unlike that of Terry Gross, of Fresh Air fame, who gave last year’s Vassar commencement address the same way I am giving mine today because, like me, she was unable to be there in person.

Let us hope this is not the beginning of a trend ….

Exactly two months from today will be my final day as Dean of the Faculty, a position that brought me to Vassar five years ago; that has been challenging, exciting, and educational in the best sense; but that has also brought me full circle to hunger for a return to teaching and scholarship that first drew me to the life of the mind many years ago.

I say “many” years ago, but in my case not so many as for most people who have spent their career in the academic world – not because I am younger but because I did not discover the life of the mind until fairly late.  I was anything but a serious student through most of high school, nor is that because I had intellectual interests that were somehow more advanced than my school could accommodate.  Until my senior year of high school my main interests were essentially girls and sports, probably in that order.  How I got away, all those years, with doing book reports on THE BABE RUTH STORY remains something of a mystery.  The names that were rolling off my tongue in those days were not so much Heidegger or Jane Austen or Proust as Bobby Avila, Al Rosen, Bob Feller, and other Cleveland Indians whose picture hung over my bed and whose every vital baseball statistic I could recite with impeccable accuracy.  

When I did, for the first time, discover the life of the mind—when I came to understand what books and ideas and art were all about—it was with a sense of the freshness of discovery that, now 45 years later, still seems to me the root of serious education.  However much I have enjoyed the challenges of academic administration—for five years as provost and acting president at Kenyon, and now for five years as Dean of the Faculty at Vassar--I have decided to return to being an English professor here at Vassar rather than a dean because of a resurgence of the same passionate attraction to the possibilities of fresh discovery that drew me to this work in the first place.

Then there is that bench.  For the entire decade that I have been a dean I have had this recurring fantasy: At 2:15 on a Tuesday afternoon I am going to sit on a bench in the middle of the campus and just read.  No laptop, no Blackberry, no legal pad.  Just me and a book. Just sit there and read for a full hour in the sunshine.

In contemporary American culture, in which time has become still one more commodity – in which (and the language here is revealing) we “spend” time, “waste” time, “save” time, and “invest” time – the prospect of a college dean sitting on a bench in the middle of an afternoon and simply reading (or, even more subversively, just thinking) would be so outrageous, so inimical to our current and misguided assumptions about time, as to be unimaginable.  Some students strolling by might start considering a career in academic administration—pretty nice life, it appears—but my faculty colleagues would be more likely to be banging down Cappy’s door demanding I be fired for the hypocrisy of driving them so hard while I lull away the afternoon.

Even as I confess this little fantasy and make a couple of quick stabs at interpreting its implications, I am aware of how tempting it is to oversimplify.  After all, might not a faculty member feel just as vulnerable sitting on that bench reading as a dean?  Surely my colleagues in History would have something to say about the historical forces that have led to the commodification of time, just as the economists would want to examine issues of productivity and efficiency, incentives and competition, and sociologists would want to talk about Weber’s notion of the relationship between the protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism.

This openness to complexity is one of the hallmarks of the kind of liberal education that we cherish at Vassar.  Not the kind of complexity that obfuscates a simple point, that over-complicates for no reason, or that wallows in obscurity or difficulty.  And not the kind of complexity that journalists like to portray when they write those articles about the latest arcane topics discussed at professional meetings—like those describing a panel on the relationship between eighteenth century poetry and dentistry, or the ideological structure of Sesame Street.  I mean rather the necessary complexity of any serious idea, work of art, historical situation, or natural process.  I also have in mind the importance of being able to deal with complexity, with conflicting arguments and cultures and points of view – and doing so without the easy remedies of a cheap relativism on the one hand or a cheap absolutism on the other.  I believe that capacity is both crucial for any serious education or intellectual inquiry, and rarer than we might think.

On occasions like today—at spring convocation and at the many ceremonies, including Commencement, which will soon be upon us -- words of wisdom tend to roll off the tongues of speakers—even, and perhaps especially when the speaker claims (as almost all now do) that this has become a crusty, outdated practice.  But as surely as sonnets have fourteen lines and novels tell stories, as surely as weddings celebrate love and commencements celebrate endings and new beginnings, convocation addresses at Vassar are meant to at least attempt to impart some wisdom, and to do so by reference both to the intellectual interests of the speaker and by at least some reference to the speaker’s development, to his or her past and future.  I have already touched briefly on two of my central intellectual interests—education and time.  In the rest of this talk, I will reflect further on those interests, and I will also take up the two subjects that have been the main focus of my scholarly and literary work: the poetry of John Keats and the nature of friendship.   My challenge is to shine all of these lights on my central theme, which is the value of complexity.

The proverbial tradition, that reservoir of cultural wisdom that has been accumulating over the years, provides us with a wealth of truisms on virtually every side of an issue.  Not only is there a proverb for every situation; there are often proverbs of conflicting wisdom.  “Distance makes affections wander,” we are told; and yet “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Or what about “A penny saved is a penny earned,” which may be true; but then “Penny wise is pound foolish.”  My own favorite example is one that might have passed the lips of some of your parents as they gave their final words of wisdom to you students as you went off to college: “Look before you leap,” or, alternatively, “Opportunity only knocks once.”
Watch it!  Go for it!  Be careful! Seize the moment!
It begins to sound like the conflicting advice of stockbrokers.

Not least among the purposes of a serious education at a liberal arts college is coming to grips with both the implications of this double-edged insight and its limitations.  Students are confronted with brilliant, convincing arguments for various points of view that are incompatible.  On matters of justice, ethics, the nature and purpose of art, the lessons of history, the responsibilities of science or of a society, you constantly have to grapple with contrary views.  Nor, I hope, do you settle for either of two extreme responses to the dilemma of complexity.  It won’t do to throw up your hands and recite proverbs like “to each his own” or “everything’s relative” and simply assume that determining one’s position on the great issues of science and art and the humanities is like picking a flavor of ice cream that you happen to like.  Einstein used to say that the geometrical shape of a cone could be accurately represented in different ways.  From one perspective it looks like a circle.  From another it looks like a triangle.  But if you say that it also looks like a square, the theory of relativity cannot help you:  You are, according to Einstein, simply WRONG.

    Nor do I believe you will want to embrace the opposite posture of assuming a single truth, of claiming that complexities and different points of view are so many illusions, all of which can be resolved by one simple overarching truth.  One way of describing a liberal education is to say that it is an attempt to deal with the great issues without allowing oneself either of the unacceptably easy answers I’ve just sketched.

Another common way of dealing with contraries is to say that the truth lies somewhere in between.  Though this is often the case, surely it is irresponsible to assume that it is ALWAYS so.  I do not, for example, believe that the truth lies somewhere between the claim that education is valuable and the contrary claim that it is worthless.  Nor do I believe that the truth lies somewhere between the claim that African Americans should have civil rights equal to other Americans and the claim that they should NOT have equal rights.

Still, in many cases some middle ground is often the better part of wisdom.  But I would argue that in certain other instances the proper response to contraries is not some sort of compromise but rather an examination of levels at which apparent contraries turn out, in fact, to be  harmonious.  To illustrate this point let me return to the topic that I touched on earlier: how we understand time.

American Puritanism has always considered wasting time a sin.  Together with the Protestant work ethic, the American preoccupation with efficiency and the capitalistic imperative to productivity have long provided fertile soil for our growing obsession with time.  But in my view something more profound and far-reaching is going on here.

All of us are aware that time has somehow speeded up in recent years.  The science writer James Gleick refers to “the acceleration of just about everything,” which is the subtitle of his fascinating book called FASTER, in which he describes a restaurant in Tokyo that charges by the minute rather than the food, and the phenomenon of hitting 88 rather than 90 on the microwave timer because it’s faster to hit the same button twice than to hit the 9 and then move your finger over to the zero.  (By the way, what am I going to do with that 90 seconds that it takes to heat up the pizza in the microwave?  Flip on  CNN and check the stock reports?  Check my email?)

I believe we are in the midst of a hugely significant shift in the way we apprehend and experience time in our culture.  Everyone – from professional people to laborers, from teenagers to grandparents – seems to feel rushed.  We now have books written about how to use time more efficiently; indeed, we have a new profession: consultants who specialize in “time management.”  The 1950s sci-fi fantasies of a four-day work week and endless leisure have somehow not materialized, despite enormous technological developments that have indeed saved time.  But clearly that very same technology has played a major role in transforming our sense of time, in speeding things up and raising our expectations of what we ought to be accomplishing,

Think, for example, of those pedestrian cross-walk lights that used to say “wait” and then “walk” but which, increasingly now, are adding to the word “wait” a second by second countdown of how much time you’ll need to wait before you walk.  A decade ago, who would have considered the wait at a crosswalk a unit of time worth noticing, let alone measuring and using?  But now, if you have 52 seconds to wait rather than 10, you can make a quick call on your cell phone, or check your email on your Blackberry.  When I was teaching, ten years ago, if I had five minutes before my class started and I was already fully prepared, it never would have occurred to me that I had a unit of time available to do something.  Now, five minutes is not only a unit of time of which I am aware; I could make a quick call to London in that time, or shoot off a fax to a colleague in China.  There is so much more we CAN do quickly now that, in ways that we are only beginning to understand, our internal clocks have been recalibrated, our sense of expectations has been cranked up a few notches.

What does all of this mean for education?  Does the acceleration of our experience of time have implications for what happens at a place like Vassar?  I believe it does, and I believe that it is our responsibility to think seriously about those implications.  From its beginnings in antiquity, and at the heart of the kind of education we do here is the idea of reflection, of contemplation.  To get this issue into focus, let me turn for a moment to Keats, as I said I would earlier.  The following remarks about Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” may at first seem a detour, but I hope they will instead provide a bridge back to the issues of time, complexity, reflection, and education.

At 21 years old, Keats had read some of THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY in bad translations, but he knew Homer was a great poet.  Then, one night a friend of his showed him a translation by George Chapman that for the first time made THE ILIAD come alive to him; and the two of them stayed up all night reading each other passages aloud.  At dawn, Keats said goodbye to his friend, walked home, and immediately sat down and wrote a sonnet, called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

Since there was no email in 1816, Keats copied out a clean version of his new poem and sent it over to his friend by courier, so that when his friend awakened at noon (remember: they’d been up all night), the sonnet was waiting for him on his breakfast table.  
The poem compares the whole process of reading with travel to new, unfamiliar, and often stately and enchanting places:

    Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen.

But, Keats says, he never really had a sense of Homer until he read Chapman’s translation.  The last half of the poem then describes how Keats felt upon discovering this dazzling new world of Homer:

        Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
        When a new planet swims into his ken [i.e., his view]

Imagine what it must feel like to be looking through a telescope and suddenly discover a new planet.  Reading Homer was like that, Keats suggests: discovering literally a whole new world.  Or, he says, it was like Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. (It was actually Balboa.)  The explorer had discovered not a new little stream, or even a mighty river, or a huge lake – but rather the immense Pacific Ocean.  How did it feel to discover Homer?

    Like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
    Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    For Keats, discovering Homer was like discovering something absolutely monumental – an experience that made him literally re-map his world.  How could an understanding of the world be complete without knowing the Pacific Ocean?  How could an understanding of the universe be complete without knowing about a new planet?  This poem has always had a deep resonance for me because, like Keats, when I first seriously read Homer, during my sophomore year in college, I had a similar response: a sense that before I read Homer I had only the most partial understanding of life, a sense that after reading him the world was changed forever.  And just two years before that, when I first discovered the life of the mind, when I first really had a glimpse of what those “realms of gold” were all about, I had precisely that same sense of whole new worlds opening up to me – worlds of incalculable value and beauty that I wanted to learn more about and that seemed endlessly rich and so complex as to be inexhaustible.  Accepting the complexity of those worlds, and learning how to live with that complexity, I have been arguing, is the foundation of lifelong education, and far from being an impediment to understanding those worlds, it is the mindset that is most likely to allow us to inhabit those worlds and move wisely among them.

    To say that reflection and contemplation are at the heart of liberal education is to suggest the importance of thinking things over, of chewing on them, of letting the immensity of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean wash over you and seep into your bones, into the sinews of your imagination.  It is in silence, you’ll recall, that Keats’s explorers “looked at each other with a wild surmise -- / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

    How do you process the discovery of the Pacific Ocean or of Homer or Aristotle?  With a sound bite on the evening news?  A bottom-line explanation fired off in a text message?    {PAUSE}   

What is the nature of a just society?  What constitutes a life worth living?  Is cloning ethical?  What is the function of art?  The kinds of questions we ask our students to grapple with require a PATIENCE with complexity, an alertness to implication and nuance, the trying out of imaginative solutions, rigorous argumentation, wide and thoughtful reading and research, experimentation, rough drafts (the more the better!), and – time and again – starting from scratch after a new planet swims into your ken, after you first read Virginia Woolf or Nietzsche or Derek Walcott.

    There is one important level, that is to say, at which “the acceleration of just about everything” poses a serious challenge to the ideals of liberal education.  For those ideals require time; they require the ability not to leap prematurely to conclusions; the ability to live with complexity rather than finding a quick but superficial answer.  They require, that is to say, what Keats called “Negative Capability.”  They require what I would call a THICKENING (not a quickening) of time, the ability to engage with an idea or a theorem or a symphony – to take it apart and examine it, to turn it over and consider it carefully, to study it and ponder its implications.  Liberal education not only provides license to slow down; it REQUIRES it:  to read, to write, to draw, to think, to puzzle over complex issues, to speculate, to marvel at what unfolds in a laboratory, to try out new ideas in class, at lunch, late at night in the dorm with your friends.  Or just sitting on a bench in the sunshine.

    Am I being reactionary in lamenting the erosion of reflection and contemplation, of what I am calling “thickened” time?  I have no doubt that our new accelerated experience of time is related to the sorts of fundamental transformations of consciousness that occurred historically, for example, in the movement from oral to literate culture, and that are probably occurring now as we move into the next phase of information technology.  At one level, our shorter attention spans, our faster pace and pulse, the ubiquity of multi-tasking are the inevitable by-products of the new technology.  Readjustments will be made in response to a sense of what may have been lost, and new forms will clearly emerge.  I am NOT arguing for a return to some imagined golden age when the pace was slower and reflection was widely practiced and valued.  I am NOT imagining some male fantasy version of untroubled leisure in which liberally educated gentlemen sip mint juleps on a green lawn and puff on their pipes as they discuss the classics and the colonial wars – while their wives clean the house and prepare dinner.   It is not nostalgia I have in mind.

    And clearly there has always been a certain tug between quietude and frenzy, between rest and motion.  What has changed is that “the acceleration of just about everything” has brought us to a point where the ideals of reflection and contemplation have come to seem archaic relics of an earlier age, values that we have somehow outgrown, that are simply outmoded in our new nano-second culture.

    I am arguing that we have NOT outgrown the values of reflection that are at the center of the liberal arts.  What we face is the challenge of redefining and reinventing those values in a culture that is increasingly at odds with them, and of breathing new life into those values, and reaffirming them to a generation that has grown up in a speeded-up culture of multi-tasking.

    I said earlier that convocation addresses usually contain some autobiographical elements, and this one has been no exception.    I suggested  that part of my interest in the issues of time and complexity stems from my own reflections about the shape of my career and the major changes that I am about to embark on as I step down from being dean.   It would be all too easy to assume that the arguments I have been advancing are really connected to the tapering down of the arc of my own career, that they provide a series of justifications for the slowing of pace that necessarily accompanies ageing and ends with that ultimate slowing of pace, death.  Like Woody Allen, I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  In this last section of my talk, I want to argue that my emphasis on reflection, far from being opposed to excitement or intensity, is in fact deeply tied up with it.  What appear to be contraries turn out to be deeply harmonious.

    The slowing down of time implicit in reflection coexists with the intensification of time implicit in excitement, in engagement.  Nor should we be puzzled by this paradox.  To be fully engaged with a chemistry experiment with wide-ranging implications; to confront the enormity of the mind-body relationship, of Nazi Germany, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR requires a combination of intense pursuit and patient openness to complexity, of rigorous strain and humble wonderment.  Think of the similar combinations of deep relaxation and peak intensity that we associate with great athletic performances.  Is this not what we mean when we say an athlete is in a “zone,” that optimal performance comes from someone who is at the same instant utterly cool and calm and utterly intense and focused? Consider Roger Federer, who may be the supreme embodiment of this paradox.  Or you may recall a wonderful image of Michael Jordan a decade ago during an NBA playoff game.  After hitting nothing but net on his sixth straight three-point shot in the span of only a few minutes, he looked over at the bench with that wonderful shrug  {I shrug here} that said, “Hey, I have no clue where this is coming from.”  There is about any great performance – not just athletic performance – a sense that this is all happening without effort, and yet we know that without the incredible natural talent of Michael Jordan, and the skill that comes from having shot thousands of jump shots – day in, day out at practice all those years – this moment of inspiration could not occur.  Jordan may be playing at the absolute outer edge of his ability, at the extremes of energy, and yet, paradoxically, the only way he can reach this point is by being deeply relaxed – not trying too hard, not “pushing” or “pressing,” as we say.

    And this is what we hear from scientists and artists as they struggle to articulate the nature of the creative moment when precisely the right word occurs to the poet, when the larger structure of the symphony takes shape, when the last piece of the theorem clicks into place for the mathematician.  The moment of creativity occurs when we are in a zone, when the mind – contradictory though it may sound – is simultaneously incredibly focused and profoundly relaxed.  Not enough relaxation and the juices cannot flow!  Not enough intensity and there is nothing TO flow!

    Let me add another illustration of this principle, this one from another one of the topics that has been the focus of my scholarship—namely, friendship.  Like an athlete in a zone, like an artist at a creative moment, like a student wrestling with a complex idea or work or thinker, a friend in the company of a close friend will be simultaneously relaxed and excited, calm and intense.  In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon made an observation about friendship that, despite its profound implications for education, has been completely ignored both by scholars of education and by scholars of friendship.  Friendship, he says, not only intensifies our joys and eases our sorrows.  It also “maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness and confusion of thoughts … Whosoever hath his mind fraught, with many thoughts [certainly the situation of college students and faculty alike], his ..  understanding do clarify and break up, in the communicating and discoursing with another: he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly” when in the company of a friend.

    This is an astounding insight.  Bacon is claiming that in conversation with a friend, we are more articulate, that we have, as it were, clearer or easier access to our best thinking.  Precisely because there is deep trust, it seems to me, we can allow ourselves to relax with a friend and, combined with the stimulation and excitement of such company, that relaxation opens us up to our most powerful thought processes.  In the company of friends we are both more intensely engaged and more deeply at ease.  Like the artist in the moment of creativity, the athlete in a zone, or the student studying Plato, the best friendship, and the best moments of friendship, are characterized by this same paradoxical combination of intensity and calm.

Before concluding, I want to touch very briefly on one final aspect of my theme of complexity.  I have been arguing that being able to live with complexity is crucial to any serious understanding of art, nature, society, ideas, and ourselves, and that it is therefore at the heart of a serious education.  There are lots of reasons why a commitment to diversity is central to Vassar’s mission.  Some of those reasons have to do with matters of social justice and responsibility, but I want to remind us on this occasion that another reason that cultivating respect for diversity is such an important part of our mission is that it is deeply connected to this larger value of nourishing our sense of complexity.  Every culture, every religion, every ethnic group has its own way of making sense of the world.  There are many points where different cultures understand reality in similar ways and share values.  There are also points where they diverge, where there are conflicting views, contrasting values, different ways of seeing the world.  Maybe, as we hyper-accelerate through our speeded-up culture, we have something to learn from that tribe in New Guinea, where the pace of life is slower and a greater value is placed on serenity.

My point is that an open mind, which is pre-requisite to learning, is open to complexity of EVERY kind, and that includes a humble openness to other cultures, other religions, other races and ethnic groups.  My proudest achievement as Dean of the Faculty is that during my term we significantly increased the number of faculty of color at Vassar because I am convinced that diversity INCREASES opportunities for learning for everyone in our community.

Every year, when I greet the new class of freshmen and try to give them some 
sense of what I hope will happen to them during their college education, I begin with an image of my undergraduate mentor, Walter Waring, who remains a model for me of the values I have been celebrating in this talk—intense intellectual curiosity, a hunger for the excitement of discovery, and the ability to understand and accept complexity as a necessary pre-requisite to a lifetime of learning.  Some of you in the audience today will have heard me tell this story during your first convocation as freshmen.

    It is the winter of 1967 and I am a senior at Kalamazoo College walking through a snowstorm from the library to the dining hall to get some lunch.  Ahead of me on the path I see a still figure standing alone, and as I get closer I notice through the falling snow that it is a man scratching his head; closer still and I realize it is Walt Waring, my English professor, with snow piling up on him, just standing there scratching his head and thinking.  When he sees me approaching, he calls my name and tells me, with great excitement, that “I’ve just had the strangest idea about old Shakespeare.  You remember in the second act of THE WINTER’S TALE …”  -- and there we stand, the snow coming down around us in buckets, Walt’s wise and gentle eyes sparkling with curiosity and delight – just beaming with the excitement of intellectual discovery as he explains to me his new idea.

    The next time I saw anything even approaching that level of excitement in someone’s eyes was when my son, who was probably four at the time, took his first ride in an airplane.

    It is THAT, I tell the first year students as they sit listening to the dean greeting them at the outset of their college educations – it is THAT that I wish for you – that profound and lifelong joy in learning.

I am returning to teaching and scholarship because I want to spend more of my time than I can as dean scratching my head in a snowstorm or sitting on a bench and reading.  

I first became interested in the whole issue of friendship as a literary and philosophical subject years ago, when I was writing my first book on Keats.  I thought, at that time, that since friendship was so central to Keats, I would include a chapter on the subject in that book.  But I realized that, however important, the topic was not directly related to my central argument in that book, which was the way in which Keats reconceived the meaning of the spiritual.  So I never wrote that chapter.  Some years later, I began the first of two books on friendship, but because I had become interested in a whole range of other issues, I didn’t pay much attention to Keats in those books.  Before I moved from teaching to administration, I completed about three-quarters of another book, which is a return to the subject of friendship in the work of Keats.  Now, a decade—and many many MANY meetings later—I am ready to return to the task of completing that book and starting some other projects that I’ve been dreaming up.  That ought to keep me out of trouble during my sabbatical next year in Australia—a place, I’m told, where the benches are plentiful.

Thank you and, seniors, good luck to us all as we set out on our new journeys.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 30, 2008