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Lessons in Stone

Patrick K. Spencer, Professor of Geology

Good morning. It is an honor and privilege to be here today. I want to begin by welcoming you, the class of 2012 and your families, to Whitman College. My talk, titled Lessons in Stone, tells a story about my own journey from where you are today to where I am today, and what I learned along the way that might be useful to you. I use a rock as a metaphor for the educational process; your rock may be of a different form or substance: it may be a book, a poem; a play; or a person. But in the end, while our stories may at times interweave and interconnect, in 4 years you will leave here a different person with your own unique story to tell.

One might conclude that a stone or a rock may not have much to say to anyone. A rock may not be a very effective teacher. To paraphrase something I am fond of saying on field trips, a rock may be in the end, just another freakin’ rock. As a geologist, however, I see a rock or a sequence of rocks as a book written in a different language, one that most of us do not speak or understand.

I’ve learned that a rock can be a marvelous teacher; it can say a lot about its own history, which may be layered with meaning, and full of stories that must be carefully teased from it. A rock may be able to help me — and you — accomplish three things: first, to distinguish between knowledge and information; second, to develop patience; and third, to broaden our perspective. These three things can help us as we continue our education, and they are what I would like to speak to you about in the next few minutes.

So, what is a rock? If you take an introductory Geology course here at Whitman College you will learn that a rock is an aggregate of minerals bound together by one of several processes: cementation of fragments of other rock; crystallization of magma; or the brute force of impossibly high pressure and temperature. Complex concepts maybe, but an apt analogy for the educational process: just as rocks form in different ways, you and I may be educated by collecting disparate facts; by a moment of crystal clarity from what has been flood of information; or (and one hopes, least likely) by brute force and extreme pressure in the classroom. A rock may tell us of processes that only occur deep in the interior of our planet, in places we will never visit except in our minds. In a similar way, education can transport us conceptually to as yet unknown destinations. The vehicle is knowledge and from this moment onward, you are the driver.

A rock may tell us many things, and to each listener the message is different. The process of acquisition of knowledge will be unique to each of you, even though you may sit side-by-side in the same classroom. I’m reminded of the blind men in the John Godfrey Saxe poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” written in the late 19th century, and which has been told in different ways by Hindus, Sufis, Buddhists and others. The story begins:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

Each of us can experience the same phenomenon, but perceive it differently. One man, holding the elephant’s tail, proclaimed the elephant to be like a rope; another holding the trunk, like a writhing serpent; another holding the leg, a mighty tree. And so on: each of the six men perceived the same elephant differently, and all were both right and wrong. Your individual perceptions of the information presented in your classes will be influenced by the events in your past and who you will become. As is written in many places: “We do not see things as they are but as we are.”

I keep a rock on a shelf above the desk in my office; in fact, I brought it with me this morning. This rock, called by geologists the Flathead Sandstone, first formed as sand on a beach lapped by waves and swept by tides a very long time ago in a place we call Wyoming. The Flathead was the passion of a man I admire very much; it was the late Dr. Wheeler who tried to teach me long ago at the University of Washington that a rock is a single bit of information in a complex story, much like a page in a book is but part of the lesson contained therein. And the rock, like a book, often does not yield its secrets easily. But when I was an undergraduate, I had other things on my mind and the Flathead Sandstone was just another…well, just another flippin’ rock.

My rock has a face only a geologist can love: it is light brown; has a rough and jagged surface; and consists of angular grains of quartz and feldspar that are mostly about the size of a pea, bound tightly by mineral cement. It is a tiny fragment of a more extensive rock assemblage that stretches across the Rocky Mountains from Canada to New Mexico. Each sample and each location tells a small part of a larger story. In the same sense, each of the courses you take, each of the books you read, and each of the experiences you have, comprises only a small portion of the diverse landscape of your education here at Whitman.

The first time I studied the Flathead Sandstone in 1971, I was 20 years old and a budding geologist finishing my second year of college; America was engaged in a very unpopular war; and our country was led by a very unpopular administration. Some things never change. Well, I am no longer 20 and I admit that as a geologist, I have budded and since begun to wither. But who I was and what I learned then have given shape and substance to who and what I am today. I now realize that the Flathead Sandstone played an important role in my education.

In the course of a lifetime of teaching and learning, I have concluded that information, knowledge — and of course wisdom — are related but different concepts. I believe that this distinction is important to make, since one of the concepts — information — while impressive on the surface, is only really useful to you if it is transformed into knowledge.

Information is data from an experiment or facts gathered from any source you choose. Bob Dylan said that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; you also don’t need much knowledge of meteorology. But to know why the wind blows and where the wind comes from; these are more difficult questions that cannot be answered by watching a leaf float by. Yogi Berra said that he “observed a lot by watching.” He also said that “90 percent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical.” Leaving aside his proficiency in quantitative analysis, he knew that action follows observation; eventually you have to take the field and play ball.

Knowledge is the result of an intricate and involved process. Of taking information and sorting it; dissecting it; discussing it; criticizing it; and eventually binding it into a whole. As you take the field, so to speak, what begins as separate bits of information may become, in your hands or in your mind, an interconnected framework of knowledge. Your information will come in large part from the many classes you attend during the coming semesters, and from the expertise of the faculty who teach those classes; it will come from books; it will come from the internet; and it will include experiences outside the classroom. Your task is to bind all that information into a coherent body of knowledge, the better to serve you, us, and society after you leave Whitman College.

Over the past 37 years, my knowledge of the Flathead Sandstone has grown and my perception of its meaning has evolved. We now think that the Flathead is over half a billion years old; half a billion years — to all of us, this is an incomprehensibly long time. Yet the tortured rocks on which the Flathead rests are about 3.4 billion years old, and represent one of the oldest parts of North America. The rock record that is missing beneath the Flathead spans almost 3 billion years and is one of the most profound gaps in the rock record anywhere on Earth; it represents more than half of Earth’s long history.

And here is where wisdom comes in. Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author, said that “Wisdom is knowledge plus: knowledge — and the knowledge of its own limits.” The half-billion year age of the Flathead represents only about 12% of the way back to Earth’s unknown and unknowable beginning. No matter how much I study, no matter how much I think I know, I return to the conclusion that I really don’t know much at all!

But here’s what I think I know: The Flathead represents a beach on the edge of a vast flat land near the equator. Swift streams are choked with coarse sediment from disintegrating uplands. The sediment is moved quickly to the water’s edge; streams are unhindered by vegetation; indeed the land is devoid of life of any sort. At the shore waves, tides, sea breezes and hurricanes sculpt the sediment into dune fields, barrier islands, and offshore shoals. Rocky headlands interrupt the coast, and tide pools are covered with green slime; life was confined to sunlit waters of the shallow sea.

All this from a rock? Mark Twain had it right when he wrote that “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture from such a trifling investment of fact.” My knowledge of the Flathead today is the result of years of reading and study; of discussions with students and other geologists; and of time spent in the field contemplating the rocks.

Learning, whether in science or elsewhere, is creative and constructive: it is a process of observation, experimentation, discovery and integration of separate pieces; of building on what is already there. My rock represents a tiny part of a much larger story told by hundreds of samples collected, thousands of pages read, and miles of outcrop walked.

It wasn’t just the rock that gave me this picture of that ancient world. My knowledge resulted from a complex mental process; conceptually peeling back the layers of rock and time to reveal hidden meaning and putting the meaning of each layer, once discovered, into a broader context; putting that broader context into a comprehensive view. Knowledge came from searching for connections between those layers and seemingly unrelated layers of meaning in other disciplines as disparate as Religion, History, Psychology, or any of the other subjects I studied. In this process I was, and as part of this community you will be, an active participant.

My rock has also taught me patience. It is after all, to the best of our knowledge, over half a billion years old. To paraphrase John Playfair, a professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh in the late 18th century, the mind grows giddy looking so far into the abyss of time. This rock waited 500 million years for me to come down into the Clark’s Fork Valley to collect it, so it could reveal its story to me. Patience indeed.

Education requires the patience to see that at any given moment, all you have is more questions, and that the peculiar state of mind, of having nothing but more questions, is a good place to be. As a professor, I often find that I learn more about a student from their questions than I do from their answers.

To acquire knowledge — and to understand its limitations — to become an educated person, requires not only hard work and patience, but a broadened perspective. You will take many different courses in the next four years. Some may seem to have little relationship to each other, for example a course in geology and one in rhetoric. But there is in these courses information that will strengthen your knowledge and expand your horizons. It may be that a course in Geology provides you with a richer understanding of the historical and scientific basis for the reality of global climate change, which may in turn provide you with a basis for construction of a cogent argument for those whose views might differ from your own.

A perspective on the depths of geologic time may give us insight into the relative insignificance of an individual’s fleeting moment on Earth in the context of the history of great civilizations, and in the broader context of the history of our universe. A perspective on the meaning of a landscape devoid of life 500 million years ago may allow us to develop a feeling for the fragility and absolute wonder of life in general; the folly of plundering this world for our immediate benefit; and of the uttermost importance of taking great care to leave the planet as we found it, because it is unique and we are unlikely to find another one like it any time soon.

Education is a complex array of inextricably linked ideas and concepts; each of them informs the others and provides a foundation for adding new ideas. The next class or the next bit of information may cause you to re-evaluate what has gone before. Whether it is a major revolution in the fundamental way of thinking in your area of study, like plate tectonics was in mine more than thirty years ago, or re-interpretation of a few lines that gives new meaning to a poem, the fundamental structure of your knowledge will change, and your perception of the world will evolve.

Be patient; be an active, critical and open-minded learner; look beyond your own corner of the educational landscape. It may be that a semester passes without any indication that coherence has developed. It may be longer than that. But eventually the pieces will fall into place. The rock will begin to take form and structure; knowledge will come from unlikely places and at rare but precious moments, wisdom may result — the realization that accumulating knowledge, while an honorable goal, has limits and something — like my rock — can defeat even our best efforts to fully comprehend its mysteries.

The gifted professors before you have spent a lifetime preparing for the coming semester. They have assembled knowledge and precious wisdom in their fields of expertise. And like waves washing the sediment on a beach, your professors continue to accumulate, rework, and refine their knowledge, stimulated by their colleagues, their students, and this learning environment in which we are all so privileged to live. They are different today than they were when they began their education; they will be different tomorrow as a result of their interactions with you. They are, each one of them, models of active and lifelong learning: join them. Don’t miss a minute of this opportunity.

In closing, I urge you to make the best use you can of the information you will gather from your classes. Ask questions; search for hidden meaning; peel back the layers to find new meaning. Come by my office, and I will introduce you to the Flathead Sandstone. And I hope that in the coming years, you find meaning and insight in a rock of your own.

Thank you, and welcome to Whitman College.

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