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The Odyssey of Becoming

Convocation Address 2010
By Delbert W. Hutchison, Chair of Biology, Associate Professor of Biology

Click for address text.

It is wonderful to see you new students this afternoon. What a great day, a momentous day for you and your family. We don’t have many rituals left in our society, but such events are important for noting significant steps in our lives.

When considering what to say to you and your families, I got to thinking about the passage of time and the experience of “becoming” you are embarking upon. What could I say to mark this occasion and to help you along the way?

I was reminded of another youth who found himself in a similar predicament: young, about to set off on his own critical quest, something very important for his future and that of his family, but whose success was far from assured. Sound familiar? I’m talking about Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope in the Greek epic The Odyssey, one of the texts with which you will wrestle in your Encounters course this year. (To wrestle with a text is a particularly appropriate verb in this context, both because wrestling was a popular Greek activity and because it underlines the active nature of reading done well.) This is a problem with coming to a liberal arts college; even the biology professors might refer to Homer or Descartes and sometimes they might even make sense. But isn’t that the point of a liberal arts education? The “freeing arts,” as they are called. We are encouraged to think widely and to consider critically the lessons left by wanderers, seekers, and thinkers over the years. Your time in Encounters will teach you to interact with these people, to make connections between their experiences and ideas and your own, and to articulate your thoughts. As you learn to think critically and well, you will be freed to explore and learn without being entirely dependent upon the interpretation of experts to access much of this legacy. Let’s consider briefly what we can take from Telemachus on this occasion of you beginning your great journey.

Odysseus, you will remember, was the king of Ithaca and a hero of the Trojan War, as told in the Iliad. The Odyssey is about all the trouble he had getting home afterward. The poem, however, contains a story within the story, that of young Telemachus. Since his father was gone from home nearly twenty years, young Telemachus grew up hearing stories of his father, his glories and strength and virtues. He naturally came to think of his father as a role model; indeed, Odysseus was the Greek ideal of a warrior king. In Greek culture, a king did not necessarily rule by birthright but by earning the respect and support of those he ruled. So, young Telemachus was expected to become like his father; a tall order indeed. While his father was away, and presumed by many to be dead, his mother, Penelope, was constantly harangued by suitors eager to marry her and assume the throne. These men were often rude, overbearing, wasteful of his parents’ resources, and insultingly dismissive of Telemachus when he tried to reprimand them for their indiscretions. Telemachus was a proud and very frustrated young man, not yet ready to assume his father’s place and unable to remove the interlopers, but strong enough and skilled enough to go in search for his father who could restore order to the kingdom.

In your classes you will read of the adventures of Telemachus. For our purposes, we need only note that Telemachus had progressed enough in his training at home to be ready for such an arduous journey. The same goes for you. You were all clearly academically strong in your home schools, for it is not an easy thing to qualify for the education you are about to encounter. You are ready. Like Telemachus, however, there are many things you do not yet know and skills you have not yet acquired, but you are ready to wrestle with those challenges. Telemachus also willingly wrestled with his challenges. He got frustrated and he made mistakes, but like you, his mistakes and struggles were the very means to his success as he developed into the man he needed to be become. He became. What will you become?

The good news is Telemachus did not have to do all this on his own. Before Odysseus left, he chose a trusted, older man to watch over his son and teach him. When Telemachus left on his journey, the sympathetic goddess Athena assumed the form of this man and accompanied the young hero as he searched for his father. The name of this man and the form assumed by Athena was Mentor, the origin of the word we now use routinely to denote a more experienced person interested in helping you succeed. At Whitman College, you will have a host of mentors to help you on your journey. The faculty and staff at Whitman are dedicated to your success and they are very good at what they do. They are here to challenge you and to help you achieve your goals. But, like Athena, these mentors won’t do the hard work for you, because like Telemachus, you must earn your own place and your own honors.

As one of those mentors, I’d like to get you thinking about some concepts from my own area of biology that you might find useful. One thing we biologists have learned is the critical importance of diversity, the presence in a system of many different entities, each doing its own thing, thus contributing to the vibrancy and stability of that system. The simplest example would be a food chain from your biology courses: at the bottom sits a primary producer (say grass) that is able to make and store its own energy, in this case from the sun; above that sits a primary consumer (say a rabbit), an organism unable to perform this trick so it steals energy from the primary producer by eating it; above that are the secondary and higher-level consumers (like snakes or hawks), each eating the organisms under it in the chain. This is a very simple and unstable system: if the rabbits, for example, were killed by a parasite, the snakes and hawks would also die and the system would crash. Adding many different species to each level and letting those species interact in more complex ways (such as a bear that eats both grass and rabbits, thus operating at multiple levels) turns this into a food web, a much more interesting and stable system. The same concept works with other life systems as well. For example, the more diverse the immune system within a single organism, the better able that organism tends to be at protecting itself from parasites and diseases.

What has this to do with your journey? Diversity is also critically important, for much the same reasons of vibrancy and robustness, in social systems like this learning community you are about to join. We can appreciate that the presence of learners from many different backgrounds provides a vast array of experiences and perspective, which if harnessed and shared, provides for a much richer and more robust learning environment for us all. Consider just the faculty for a moment. All are trained in different areas of expertise, thus bringing obvious diversity to the curriculum. But each person also differs in personality, preferences and talents. Some faculty are excellent at leading discussions, others deliver stimulating lectures, while others do very well in experiential learning encounters or one-on-one advising. Some faculty are outstanding scholars, while others are skilled in administration or fund-raising. Some speak well in public, while others work effectively with alumni or prospective students. The point is there are many things that must be done to run this place and no one person can do them all. If faculty tried to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach, it would create a simple and less effective system. Encouraging faculty to develop their strengths and be who they are, wherever they might be in their Life’s Becoming, brings all the power of diversity to bear and strengthens our college. Bring the staff and students back into the equation and you have a very vibrant and stable system.

Diversity involves an interesting paradox. A system is maximally diverse if it contains a collection of entities each of which differs from the others. Today you join our learning community and you are utterly unique, literally. Consider the genetics of making you. Each cell in your body has a nucleus which contains your chromosomes, the information for making you. As a human you have 23 different kinds of chromosomes and for each type you have two copies, one from your Mom and one from your Dad. When your mother went about making the egg that made you, the process involved going to each pair of her chromosomes and randomly taking one, either Grandma’s or Grandpa’s, and putting it in the egg’s nucleus until it contained one of each type. Because that’s 23 independent “choices,” there were more than 8 million ways that Mom’s egg could have combined Grandma and Grandpa’s chromosomes; your egg was one in 8 million possibilities. The same thing was happening in Dad’s sperm (I know, but it’s time to acknowledge your joyous arrival involved the introduction of sperm to egg); his was also one in 8 million. What was the chance that that one egg met that one sperm to make you? One in 64 trillion!! There will literally NEVER be another person like you, not only because of the vast unlikelihood of finding one in 64 trillion, but that’s one in 64 trillion given your four specific grandparents! You are utterly unique, and yet you still resemble them because you share half of your chromosomes with each of your parents and one quarter with each of your grandparents. You can’t make that stuff up. If you are lucky enough to be an identical twin, then you can now better appreciate how incredible it is to have another person so like you.

You are special. Here’s the paradox — so is everyone else. You deserve and appreciate attention, respect, consideration, second chances, and empathy, but so does every other person you will ever meet. Of course, this paradox is the basis of the Golden Rule and other ethical imperatives — all are worthy of contemplation and the struggle required to observe them; the benefits of diversity make the challenges of both maintaining the needs of your self and practicing respect and tolerance for others worth the effort. This is often very difficult, but all members of our community have something to contribute and all must be encouraged and supported in that endeavor.

There’s yet another dimension to consider, that of time and your place in it. From a biological standpoint, you are here because each and every one of your ancestors “won.” Given that you are the end result of all that effort, it might be tempting to think that all of this is here for you. This is a very common misconception in our culture — the earth is here for us; we are the culmination of civilization; humans are the pinnacle of evolution. It is instructive to remember that the point about winning ancestors also applies to each and every ant or bacterium or blade of grass. This does not diminish the wonder of that achievement, but it reminds us it was not ours; we only benefit from it. The light of time is shining on you as incoming students and on us as current administration, faculty, and staff. Whitman College, however, has been here for more than 130 years and will hopefully be here for many, many more. This place has benefited from the sacrifices and efforts of thousands of faculty, staff, students and alumni, most of whom we will never meet. They each took their Telemachian journey here, as you are about to do. We should think of them once in a while. Legacies are important, and we would all profit by reflecting upon how we can contribute to this experience we know as Whitman.

The Greek ideal of excellence was embodied in the term arête, whose meaning I vastly prefer to our current use of the term excellence as too often synonymous with perfection. Arête refers to the virtuous ideal of being the best you can be in all situations. Your task is to jump into this intellectual challenge with your best efforts. It’s not just about getting good grades and filling out your growing résumé. Those things will come. Our currency here, our mode of exchange, is reason delivered with respect and integrity. Ask questions, offer answers, try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Cut yourself a break now and then — you need not be perfect at any of this, just give your best effort. Sometimes that means recognizing those things that are inhibiting your growth and taking steps to enhance your success (like sleeping and taking care of yourself). Support the efforts of others in our community — they also are trying their best. Trust the skill and wisdom of your mentors. Interact with them in and out of the classrooms, go to office hours, and seek their help. Be respectful in your dealings with all members of our learning community, particularly the staff who make this place run so efficiently. They are highly dedicated and incredibly necessary, but they are too often underappreciated.

In conclusion, we should note that your journey differs from that of Telemachus in three very important and fortunate ways. First, Telemachus’ story is about a specific journey, a relatively brief period in his life during which he developed into the man he needed to become. The “becoming” we are speaking of here is a lifelong process. Growth and development may begin when sperm meets egg, but it does not stop until the day we die. You won’t finish your Becoming at Whitman because you won’t meet all your life’s challenges here. You can, however, gain many of the tools, skills and perspectives you will need, and you will make lifelong friends who will help you along the way. If growth is an ongoing process, it also means that none of us are fixed entities that can easily be labeled or stereotyped. Old dogs can learn new tricks, everyone can learn from everyone else, and all can improve — have faith in that.

The second difference from Telemachus is that you aren’t expected to become your father, or your mother, or anyone else for that matter. Your job is to become you, whoever that may be, in all its wondrous complexity, quirkiness and even inconsistency. Remember, for diversity to work its magic in systems, the individuals must be themselves and they must allow others to do the same. It can be a tough balancing act riding that paradox, but sometimes you take what you need and sometimes you help others.

And finally, Telemachus had to take his journey without the assistance of his parents. You don’t and you shouldn’t. Keep in contact and involve them as much as you feel is appropriate. Imagine how they are feeling as you are about to set off on this grand adventure: they might be feeling a bit nostalgic, anxious, and excited for you but a bit worried at the same time. Find a private moment in the next couple of days to tell them how much you love them and say thanks for this wonderful opportunity. Then send them home — we have a lot of work to do.

Thank you and welcome to Whitman.

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