Hope College 2014 Convocation Address
August 24, 2014, DeVos Fieldhouse
Dr. Patrice Rankine, Dean for Arts & Humanities, Professor of Classics
“The Urgency of Now”
My mother and I share a love of occasions involving pomp and circumstance,
while my father and my sister do not enjoy these events very much at all.
Today you see an array of my colleagues dressed in their academic regalia. Our robes are from educational institutions across the globe, some red, blue, pink, and an array of other colors; others are more standard attire for the occasion. Some might call this a masquerade party. Other people might call the display “bling.” After being at Hope College for a little over a year now and marching perhaps in as many of these events as I had over the course of my entire professional career, which amounts to almost 20 years, I decided to splurge and buy: this blue robe representing my graduate institution, Yale University; the blue hood that marks my 1998 PhD in the humanities, in classical languages and literature; and the white honor tassels to go with the garb. I tried to get other colors, but it turns out that you have to earn them.
From the time that I completed graduate school until now, I have worn the more generic robes. They were rentals. I did not have my PhD robe because, despite my love of traditions and ceremony, I did not march in my graduate commencement. I was in attendance as an audience member, seated in plain clothes, as you are today. I did march in my college graduation, but the other ceremony, the PhD ceremony, did not seem urgent to me, at the time. I had already landed a job, had already moved out from New England to the Midwest.
I had already moved on, for all intents and purposes. In some ways, I missed the opportunity to mark the occasion. The future was calling me; my graduate school experience was, to me, already in the past.
So, fast-forward to the present moment! After a year of being part of a community where we honor the occasion, where we take the time to mark the traditions upon which we build our strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, I decided to buy the regalia that suit the ritual. I know that there will be many moments to mark, many events to celebrate here at Hope College – including your gradation in four years! But, again, I am getting ahead of myself. Your time is now – the present moment: the first year of college, the first official gathering of your peers, within a community that will sustain you for at least the next four years and even after you graduate. Hope is your alma mater, your “nourishing mother.” It will give so much to you, and I hope you start giving to it as being nurtured here – as alumni. The person sitting next to you is the company that you will keep, on good days and on bad ones, in some cases for your entire lives. The person sitting next to you is one of the fellow travelers in whom you will find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Please look your neighbor in the eye and extend the peace of Christ to him or her! This is your brother, this is your sister. This is our beloved community.
As I have mentioned, I have been at Hope College, part of this beloved community, for a little over a year. Last year saw the inauguration of Hope College’s twelfth president, John C. Knapp, and of course, I needed to rent a robe for that event. Last year on this day, President Knapp stood where I am standing and addressed the first year class, parents, and faculty on what he titled “Life Together,” based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book of the same name, which Bonhoeffer published in the urgent and pressing time of the advent of World War II. Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” was in part a response to the Church’s silence, our Church’s silence, on the rise of the Nazi party. In place of despair, the theologian offered the promise of community, the truth that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is,” Bonhoeffer writes, quoting the Psalmist, “for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalms 133:1). President Knapp’s “Life Together” drew from his own study of theology and his vision for what a college community like Hope could offer you: a shared space to learn and grow, to expand your mind and hearts, and even a place where we can balance time together with the discomfort of being alone: alone for study, reflection, for connecting to the Eternal, Immortal God. Each one of you offers the promise of partnership in this process.
The idea of life together – Knapp’s and Bonhoeffer’s – is one that I took with me all of last year. It drew me back to my own college experience, when I became more of a human being. I sat where you are sitting and heard all of the advice that you are hearing, some of which sticks, and some of which seems as light as the air: study 3 hours for every hour in class if you want an A; try to continue exercising because it’s good to have a balance of mind and body, in my case I thought I might even win a Rhodes Scholarship – my friends and I had the arrogance to think we could be Rhodes Scholars (maybe you can); get to know your professors, stop by their offices during office hours, and make sure you understand everything on the syllabus. So much information! And I did not have a smartphone to coordinate calendars with the laptop computer that also did not exist at the time. I wrote my first papers by hand and then typed then up on a typewriter. (To think that in schools we don’t even teach penmanship anymore!) Certainly some of the information that I heard in college stuck; I remember the advice even to this day. But more memorable was the time spent outside on the wooden boardwalk where my classmates and I gathered to discuss what we were reading in class, how weird the professor was, or – let’s be honest – which girls in class were cutest. More memorable than all the advice was my professor of Ancient Greek, Howard Wolman, inviting us over to his house in Greenwich Village, where I was introduced to Brie cheese, rare steaks, and political debate. What did a dark-brown, Brooklyn-born boy, the first-generation American son of Jamaican immigrant parents, know about Brie cheese, rare steaks, and political debate?
Rare steaks? “Nah sah! Yuh haffie cook dat a likkle longah,” my mother would say. And by “cook that a little longer,” she would be referring to all of the above: the Brie cheese, the rare steaks, and the political debate! (BBQs with my family are complicated affairs even to this day.)
It’s cliché by now, but college did expand my horizons. I met and interacted with people who were different from me, came from different backgrounds, ate different foods, and even spoke different native languages. We were all together, sharing the common purpose of learning and becoming more human, of living what Socrates called the “examined life.” Socrates, in so many ways, was similar to my college Greek professor, Professor Wolman. In the 5 th century before Christ, in Athens, Socrates gathered the young people together to think about some of the most important questions of their time. They were his first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, one of whom was Plato, who went on to honor his teacher in numerous works of literature and founded his own school, the Academy. The Socratic method – now pay attention because some of your teachers will try to use this method on you, and I know you will read plenty of Plato in over the next four years – (the Socratic method) was to travel around with students and to question experts in particular fields about broader areas of knowledge. So, for example, Socrates might ask a shoemaker what it means to be a citizen; he would ask a poet who sings of war what it means to be a leader, what diplomacy is, or what it means to be in love. What Socrates found was that the shoemaker only knew about making shoes; the poet had only memorized his lines but could not speak to the deeper truths embedded in his narrative. In the same way, here today, right now, I have to wonder whether we want engineers who do not understand the history of the American city. We know factually that medical schools today do not want students who only understand anatomy, neurology, or epidemiology; medical schools want to produce doctors who use both sides of their brain, communicate well, and can work in teams to solve problems.
What we need today, right here, right now, are young leaders who are full, human beings, who live the kind of examined lives that Socrates spoke about: doctors who can work in teams, have empathy, and maybe even speak other languages and have studied abroad, immersed in another culture; and engineers who understand American cities and truly build for the future, for everyone. And we should understand, along with Socrates and Professor Wolman, who served me Brie and rare steaks, that the examined life is fun. We expand our horizons and have experiences that we take with us for the rest of our lives. We became more human.
I have to be honest and open with you in saying that living the examined life is one of the main values that we would like you to cultivate at Hope College. Over the course of the next four years, if you find yourself traveling to new places, interacting with people who are very different from you, or asking questions that you never thought you would ask, then we have succeeded as your professors and friends.
You might find yourself eating new foods, as I did in college. You might find yourself asking humanitarian questions in your biology class that you never thought pertained to science, as Socrates would have you do. The integrated knowledge that you take from these experiences is precisely the point of a liberal arts education. That’s why you’re here. Parents: Please trust me on this. The examined life will lead to more than a job: Your child will create the job.
You see, I believe that we sometimes value the wrong things: the degree, the job, the house, the political party, and so on. What we need is what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 speech at Riverside Baptist Church in New York, called a “revolution of values,” one that would make the examined life one of our chief callings.
You know, King, like Socrates, served jail time because the community condemned his values. As much as we love community, we know that conscience sometimes calls us to move outside of it. By 1967, King had already won the victory of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which he led the Civil Rights Movement. We might say that King had arrived. He had won! But similar to Socrates, King was not interested in an antagonism that brought winners and losers, those who were right and those who were wrong. King was interested in something much deeper, much more human. He felt, along with Socrates, that the cultivation of humanity required more of us as citizens: the best engineer might understand a good deal about the history of the American city, the chemist might have insights into human communities, … and the civil rights leader in the United States might have something to say about the freedoms of people living 8,500 miles away. King’s 1967 speech concerned the American presence in Vietnam, about which he felt he needed to take a position to be true to his Christian calling:
This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.
King pushes us to think about life together in the hardest possible way, namely that the enemy, the antagonist, the person who looks, thinks, believes, and operates in a totally different way from me is also my friend, a child of God, loved by someone. Here is King again:
Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
The vocation of son- and daughter-ship makes of the person sitting next to you your brother and sister, as is the case with the person living 4000 miles away. We are here together today and will share the next four years together, but who is included, who is excluded from our community? Where are the places and neighborhoods we dare not go? The people we dare not encounter? These are also our brothers and sisters, part of a broader human community that we must dare ourselves to encounter.
The campus of Hope College over the next four years is your laboratory for thinking about these urgent questions. As King puts it, “a genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.” I do not know which of our current challenges will call you out of your individual pursuits to a shared vocation, a common purpose, the meaningful lives that God has ordained for each and every one of us. I would urge us, however, to consider that the most urgent calling for each of us over the course of the next four years is to live the examined life.
You might have noticed that over the last few minutes I have talked about the idea of becoming a human being. I want to suggest to you in closing something that I learned from reading Cicero in my Latin classes: We are not born fully human. Humanity is cultivated through what we read, how we think, the people after whom we interact and model our behavior: maybe it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., maybe it’s Socrates, maybe it’s a teacher like Howard Wolman. Maybe, humbly, it is I. In any case, let us get to know each other as students and teachers and as friends. Let’s ask the probing questions and experience some new cuisines. I will see you in your academic regalia in four years. It will be a beautiful sight. But, again, to arrive there, we cannot get ahead of ourselves. If you remember absolutely nothing from the last 15 minutes, please remember that now is your urgent moment, the time for you to live the examined life, to learn, to grow, and to live life together, here at Hope College.