Convocation Talk
Friday, August 24

By Roberta Davidson, Associate Professor of English and Core Coordinator

Hello, Everyone. I have been asked to make two announcements. The first is: Yes, you do have a homework assignment for the first class. It is to read Tablets I-III of Gilgamesh. And that brings me to my second announcement: it is crucial that you use the assigned editions of all the works, and especially Gilgamesh when you go to class. If you do not have a copy of the assigned text yet, you can find it on reserve in the library.

Assignments… requirements… what’s happening here? Antiquity and Modernity is Whitman’s only required course, and you may be wondering why a college that emphasizes its students’ individuality and free choice would have any required courses (and if you weren’t you are now). Think of this class as the bridge between your past and your future. In the past, your academic success frequently depended upon knowing the right answers. As college students, you will also be expected to know how to ask the right kind of questions—although, come to think of it, while an answer can be wrong, I’m not sure a question ever can. Indeed, this course is largely about questions, and it is required, paradoxically, because it is the first step in making you independent of us. In these next four years, our greatest goal is to prepare you to continue your life-long education without us. In the short term, you can expect us to concentrate, in this year-long course, on giving you basic college-student survival skills—the ability to read analytically; to write coherently, persuasively, and with originality; and to speak articulately in a seminar environment.

You may have noticed I haven’t yet said anything about the content of the course. The easy answer is that these are the some of the works which have shaped Western culture—both its strengths and its weaknesses—in ways that impact us to this day. It is about the intersections between art and ideas, reason and imagination, human passion and human laws—indeed, the very ways our culture constructs what it means to be human. But I can best describe why we ask you to read these texts with a couple of brief quotations. These may not make complete sense to you until you have completed your freshmen year—so consider this your first intellectual challenge.

In Beloved, a novel you will read in our course, one of the characters, Sethe, tries to explain the impact of the past upon the present and the future to her daughter. What she says is this:

Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay… someday you be walking down a road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else…The picture of it is still there and what’s more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again…

My second and final quotation is from T. S. Elliott’s “Little Gidding.”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Welcome to Antiquity and Modernity.