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Opening of the Academic Year

by George S. Bridges
President of Whitman College
August 26, 2011

Opening remarks

On behalf of our faculty, staff, and governing boards, I welcome you to the 129th opening of this liberal arts institution. Today’s ceremony celebrates our incoming students – you who will be the graduating class of 2015 – and also the beginning of this academic year.

Before we begin, let me first acknowledge the musical contributions of Professor Kraig Scott. It was his impressive organ prelude and processional that opened our celebration today.

Let me also make a few other important introductions:

First and foremost, will members of the entering class – first year and transfer students – please rise?

We are honored to have you here at Whitman College. Each of you brings a unique perspective and set of talents, and you will become an integral part of this campus.

We – the faculty and staff – have been anticipating your arrival for months, and we are thrilled that you are finally here. Today we wish to mark this new beginning together. And in four years, when we come together again to celebrate your graduation, I hope that you will remember this moment – as a bookend of sorts, commemorating the other side of your tenure here.

Will the parents, family members, and friends of the incoming students please rise?

We are also honored that you have become part of the Whitman community. Thank you for entrusting your children, grandchildren, siblings, friends, and relatives to us.

We, the faculty and staff of Whitman College, take seriously the task of educating your loved ones. And we know that you take seriously the task of continuing to encourage and support these students as they embark upon their journey here.

Let’s take a moment to show our appreciation to this dedicated group of Whitman family members with applause.

Will the esteemed faculty of Whitman College please rise?

Whitman is an institution that sincerely values the relationship between faculty and students. We are deeply proud of our innovative, dedicated, and accomplished faculty.

Our college is known for the quality of its teaching and mentoring – and these are the people who build and sustain that reputation.

New students, I encourage you to get to know these individuals: take advantage of the many opportunities you will have to learn from their wisdom, to work alongside them, to join them in interrogating ideas and to take intellectual risks. Our faculty devote themselves to the education of our students. You may not realize it yet, but they are the real reason you are here.

In the book you read this summer, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” author Anne Fadiman reveals the confounding effects of cultural difference as an immigrant Hmong family seeking help for their epileptic daughter confronts the complex protocols and practice of western medicine.

Fadiman chronicles a crucible of the child’s seizures, hospitalizations, and the heartbreaking conflict between the doctors treating Lia and her devoted parents who hold dearly to the traditions of Hmong culture.

The conflict and mutual distrust between the Lees and their doctors originates in part from their profoundly different cultural beliefs about the causes of illness, its treatment and their fundamental inability to reject or even relax their conceptions of the other.

In an era when global interdependence shapes the life experience of each one of us, the demand for broader and deeper understanding of cultural differences and their meaning couldn’t be greater.

At Whitman, we believe that learning begins when we call into question our own assumptions and preconceived ideas and recognize that problems – whether they constitute the causes of illness, effects of economic inequality or the consequences of changes in our climate – can only be understood from multiple perspectives. No one perspective can adequately explain or even describe why these problems occur or how we may solve them.

Our goal is to assist you in developing habits of parallel thinking whereby you consider and interrogate intellectual problems from many perspectives. Developing these habits requires that you relinquish your pre-conceived ideas and embrace alternative and conflicting points of view, for it is from the uncertainty and tension ensuing from this experience that will enable you to develop the capacity to ask intelligent questions about the ideas and assumptions of others.

The process I’ve just described – the pushing and pulling of competing ideas and perspectives -- will occur throughout your time at Whitman, not just in one class, one semester or even one year. The process will occur over four years – in interactions with your professors, in conversations with colleagues and in silent conversations with self. Everywhere. Anywhere. Change deep inside your mind will happen.

Much like the basalt walls of the Columbia Gorge formed by the ebb and flow of ancient glaciers, you will develop intellectually from the ebb and flow of competing questions and ideas. In the end, you will emerge with a much deeper capacity for questioning and understanding. Like a refining fire, the learning experience we offer will improve how you assess and solve problems and how you convey your ideas to others. And much like the Columbia Gorge, you will have a story to tell, and you will reflect it in your very makeup.

But only you can guarantee that your experience here refines your knowledge, advances your reasoning abilities and strengthens your understanding of questions that are important and those which are not.

Only you can ensure that you fully engage opposing ideas and perspectives in a manner that fosters meaningful change. You must always ask: What can I learn from this?

Today, as you listen to our distinguished speakers, ask yourself: What can I learn from them? What further questions should I be asking? How will I pursue and interrogate these ideas?

If you do this throughout your time at Whitman, then you will indeed be building a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Closing remarks

Thank you, Matt Dittrich, for your welcome to new students and your enthusiastic encouragement of their involvement in Whitman’s many opportunities for leadership.

And thank you, Professor Brick, for challenging all of us about ways in which we can change and improve the condition of our world and its changing climate.

Let me open the academic year with a very brief description of what you should expect over the next four years and also your first homework assignments for the days ahead.

Martha Nussbaum, in her controversial 2010 book, “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” argues that education needs to teach students to “think critically… to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally… to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”

Nussbaum’s book lays out three arguments for and the expected results of pursuing a liberal arts education. You will learn how to think critically. You will learn how to approach problems as a “citizen of the world.” and yes, we at Whitman will push you to develop your imagination and empathy.

We are here today to tell you that the most valuable parts of your education will not be the answers, but the questions. When you graduate from Whitman College, it will not be proof of the knowledge you have gained. No. Your graduation will acknowledge and celebrate the habits of mind you will have developed.

Like all of the Whitman faculty, and Professor Nussbaum, I believe that the education you will receive here is profoundly valuable. At Whitman, you will not rest on easy certainties, but will constantly be questioning. You will find problems and propose solutions. You will seek meaning and purpose on the deeper levels, even in seemingly mundane tasks or about inane comments and ideas.

In short, you will take the first steps toward what Professor Brick referred to as discovering “problems worthy of a life’s work, problems so complex and intractable that they always keep us squarely on the margins of a potentially great harvest of knowledge and wisdom, with work that is real.”

You are embarking on a remarkable educational experience, and I welcome you to the important and exciting work ahead.

Now, as is our tradition at Whitman, my final message is to give you your first homework assignments for the year. There are three:

  • Tomorrow morning, come prepared to register for classes at your appointed time.
  • Tomorrow afternoon, you are expected to attend a gathering led by three of our faculty about the summer reading, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” and to discuss this text in groups with your resident advisers.
  • When classes begin next week, you should come to your encounters class having read the first four chapters of “The Odyssey” by Homer.

It is, therefore, with great pleasure that on this 26th day of August, 2011, I declare Whitman College officially open for the 129th academic year!

Thank you for coming.

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