Opening of the Academic Year
George S. Bridges, President
Recently one of our distinguished faculty members, Professor Dana Burgess — a classicist — uncovered a motto of Whitman that neither he nor I had seen on any shield or document of the college.
Written on a shield associated with the Penrose Library, in its original Latin the motto is per ardua surgo, or, translated: "through adversities I rise."
In many ways this motto symbolizes much about the path on which you will travel these next four years.
At points, will find the path steeper than you expected and the demands of Whitman faculty greater than any teacher with whom you may have ever studied. Indeed some of you may think that your experience here bears striking resemblance to the eternal toil of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological character whose punishment in Hades was to endlessly push a boulder uphill only to find that as he reached the hill's peak, the rock would roll back down to the lowest point.
At other points, you will coast comfortably along, enjoying stretches of spectacular success.
Through the effort of navigating this varied path — with our dedicated support — you will discover new abilities and knowledge, new relationships, and certainly a much deeper understanding of yourself.
As the motto states, you will rise. You can and will succeed here. We would not have recruited you if we thought there was any chance you would fail.
In the months and years ahead, I urge you to remember our motto and consider three personal imperatives that build upon Professor Spencer's eloquent metaphor of the flathead sandstone.
Rely on these imperatives to guide your decisions and your experiences in ways that prepare you for living successfully when you leave.
The first is that you seek courses and programs of study that disrupt and disorient your intellectual habits and routine lines of reasoning.
At Whitman, we offer an education that intends to challenge you to re-think many of the ideas that you bring to our college.
Let me be clear, we do not have a conversion agenda. Rather, we hope that you will step away from preconceived ideas in order to examine them critically in much larger philosophical, theoretical and social contexts. We expect you to question what you believe and what you know in the crucible of analysis and critical reflection I mentioned in my opening introduction.
Let me tell you how this crucible worked in the life of a delightful and remarkable student who graduated last year. His name is James and he was and is a talented, engaged and dedicated environmentalist (among many other things). James holds very strong views about our environment, the politics of our country, and has a passion for creating a sustainable campus, community and world. James is likeable and crunchy. He was perhaps more recognizable than others on campus. Even on some of the coldest days in Walla Walla he would often wear no shoes and no socks. It was, I believe, a statement rather than a matter of necessity
James approached me just prior to participating in one of our many programs in which students explore and discuss environmental issues at different locations across the country. When we spoke he was convinced that this experience would reinforce and strengthen his already strong beliefs about the environmental challenges that our region of the country and our nation face and affirm what he believed to be the most appropriate solutions to those challenges.
For an entire semester James and the others students with him and his professor met with environmental groups, business persons, ranchers, migrant workers, law enforcement officials, and members of the communities and places they visited.
Shortly after his return to campus the following semester, James and his classmates were having a meal with me at the Sherwood House — the president's residence. Quite frankly, he looked to be in a utterly disoriented state of mind. I asked him how he was and how his field study went. His look sharpened and after a long pause he said, "It was fantastic. I am now totally confused" and then went on to state that many of his preconceptions about the issues he was studying and about the environmental movement were either demolished or turned completely upside down by the indiviudals with whom he had spoken during the trip. Issues he thought he had understood had been complicated by his exposure to people like ranchers and farmers whose daily lives and livelihoods shaped their perspectives on America grasslands.
At the time, I thought his experience had been perfect. His education had truly dislocated him from the ideas and beliefs he carried here.
James remains an ardent environmentalist — but his experience at Whitman brought complexity to his understanding of our envrionmental problems and the solutions we must develop to address them.
The second imperative is to find satisfaction in pursuing important questions even if it means discovering no immediate answers. The process of intellectual inquiry, in and of itself, matters deeply here.
Up to this point, much of your education has focused on accumulating knowledge and skills — if you will, the answers to questions posed by your teachers, by college admissions tests, by your family members and friends. And frankly answering many of those questions has proven easy for you — your test scores; your grades have been and are the envy of most of your peers. You have performed at the highest level. This model of education and learning is not unlike a simplistic and very conservative model of investing; you store up capital incrementally, accessing your returns in small portions when you need them (as in producing answers to a test or preparing a paper).
But now we will engage you in a different relationship with knowledge and learning that moves beyond merely acquiring and using information by reproducing it in different contexts and circumstances.
Without taking the investing metaphor too far, we might describe this approach as a venture capital model in which you take much larger risks with your ideas, time and energy knowing fully well that some pathways will pay off spectacularly while others will not but with the expectation that the overall payoff of your investment will be much greater.
The far more interesting and difficult task for you and for those of us who have committed our careers to academic discovery — and the task that you'll face here at Whitman — is learning which questions are important and worth pursuing and which questions are not. Knowing whether a question is important is the first step in seeking answers that advance knowledge and that have significance for the community and the society.
Let me lead with an example from my own field — as a social scientist interested in crime and its causes, I believe that the question of whether levels of crime have risen or dropped in any community in the past year or the past five years, is relatively uninteresting and unimportant because the answer tells us little about the role of crime in the community, little about the etiology of criminal behavior and little about the very complex relationship between crime, law and law enforcement in the larger society.
Questions that are far more important to me are: How do changes in levels of crime in a community vary in relation to changes in laws and their enforcement? And further, in what ways are laws differentially enforced such that some populations have much higher rates of crime and arrest than others? To what extent is crime tolerated in some communities and not in others? When and why do officials look the other way for some people, but not others?
To genuinely begin to understand these questions requires moving beyond tired assumptions and commonly accepted knowledge. It demands processes of systematic probing, rethinking, and a commitment to developing an extraordinarily complex depth of knowledge about crime as a major social problem. Though most people in our society have opinions about the causes of crime, many fewer move beyond simpllistic analyses in their discussions of it.
We seek to help you develop a depth of knowledge and a willingness to take intellectual risks-not necessarily in learning about crime, but in focusing on whatever topics pique your interest at Whitman. Knowledge of the sort I am describing — lively, evolving, cutting-edge — can only be achieved through a risky process of identifying new ideas, approaches, and methods of study that move beyond anything you have ever done before. You will not simply be learning and storing information, then drawing down from it. You will be taking what you learn and venturing out, using that knowledge actively to interrogate and ultimately transform the world around you.
The third and final imperative is that you consider your education at Whitman as a journey and not an acquisition.
Like most of the experiences you will face later in your lives, there are few guarantees right now about how the next four years will actually turn out for you. We can make some predictions, based on historical data and the experiences of thousands of students before you. Yet despite the significant cost of an education here and at comparable schools elsewhere, we cannot ensure that you will leave as an educated person. No school can.
But you can guarantee that the challenging experiences you have here refine and enhance your knowledge, advance your reasoning abilities and strengthen your understanding of which methods of inquiry and questions are productive for advancing knowledge and which are not.
You have taken the first step on this journey already — you are here and the door to Whitman is open. Each day you are here only you can rise and take up the journey. The possibilities are tremendous, and we believe you are equipped to seize hold of them in ways that produce genuine transformation. Recognizing that, as with every journey, there will be adversity.
I urge you to take the risks and make the mistakes that any person committed to learning, to discovery, and to intellectual and personal growth, must take and must make.
There is something inevitable about this process, and this has been reinforced in my own life in the last three years as a new president of this very fine institution: it is necessary to make mistakes. That can sound daunting and frightening, but I want to reframe this concept for you. People who take no risks make few mistakes. But they also lack boldness and courage, and ultimately they learn little. They impede their own development and offer nothing to the development and progress of others around them. It can be painful and embarrassing to make mistakes. I know. With experience, one hopes to make fewer, or at least different — more productive — mistakes. But the essence of risk-taking is the willingness to face unexpected sometimes even negative consequences, as a result of our choices. And I challenge you to embrace that attitude during your time at Whitman college.
And so, in summary: I urge you to pursue transformative educational possibilities, to seek disrupting and disorienting academic experiences, to ask genuinely complex questions over questions with trivial and unimportant answers, and to find the courage to risk making mistakes as you journey along with us.
As is our tradition at Whitman, I give you your first homework assignments for the year: there are three.
Be prepared this afternoon to meet with your faculty advisor to discuss your courses, interests and programs of study. In tomorrow afternoon's sessions, come prepared to learn from three of our faculty about the summer reading, The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and to discuss this text in groups led by your resident advisers. When classes begin next week, you should come to your Core class having read the first three chapters of the Odyssey by Homer.
It is, therefore, with great pleasure that on this 29th day of August, 2008, I declare Whitman College officially open for the 126th academic year!
Thank you for coming.