Here at the opening of the new academic year, I sometimes find myself called on to make speeches welcoming students to campus and that sort of thing. I can’t resist the opportunity to actually inject a little practical-moral content into what can otherwise be fairly fluffy events, and this year I’ve been playing with a particular metaphor for college education that I am somewhat fond of. I’ve given versions of or excerpts from this talk a couple of times in the past week, but here below the fold is the fuller version.

I intend to once again take up the mantle of the methodology411 over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

A Rock in the River

The opening of a new academic year is an extremely busy time, with lots of things invariably being done at the last minute. This is especially true for newly-matriculating first-year college students, who have to deal with everything from how to fit all of their stuff into a room that usually seems smaller on move-in day than it did when they measured it during summer orientation, to locating basic services like the ATM machine and the local pizza place, to navigating the opaque labyrinth of technical and security requirements in order to get the laptop and the iPad connected to the campus network. In fact, first-year students (and their parents) have probably been working so hard over the past year or two just to get themselves to college in the first place that they haven’t had much of a chance to pause and reflect on the sheer oddness of college as a way to spend four or more years of a young adult’s life: on a campus surrounded by other students, attending classes that are often only tangentially related to current and pressing issues, spending time somewhat walled off from the rest of the world when they might otherwise be simply jumping into it.

I also know that you didn’t notice the mystical energy barrier separating the campus from the surrounding countryside, because we generally turn that off during welcome week and move-in time. But it’s there nonetheless, distinguishing this place from the everyday world lying just outside of its boundaries. The barrier isn’t completely impermeable, of course, but it does serve to impart a different context to the work that we do here. Given that there’s a lot of misinformation about this Ivory Tower out there in the popular press, I want to spend a couple of minutes here at the opening of the academic year re-minding all of us just what is distinctive about this place.

See, in all of the frantic bustle of moving in, you probably missed the distinctly different time, space, and habits of college. You were probably so focused on the immediate that you didn’t notice the underlying slowness and stillness of the campus, and the opportunities that it affords for speculating about things that only bear fruit in the extremely long term. You probably made so many trips on and off campus that you didn’t notice that our buildings and grounds — a lot of which occupy some pretty prime real-estate! — are not organized for maximum efficiency, but instead feature large swaths of territory set aside for chance encounters, serendipitous meetings, and just sitting and thinking. And I know that in the rush to get your first semester of classes scheduled, you were thinking more about major requirements and prerequisites than about contemplating perennial human quandaries, closely reading important texts both classical and contemporary, and engaging in that kind of hands-on experimentation from which experience — the heart of all worldly knowledge — arises. Space, time, habit: in these three aspects, especially, college is a distinct kind of place. An otherworldly place, if you will: a place outside of the everyday, removed from the ever-flowing river of activity so characteristic of the world outside of its boundaries.

If we think of the world as a river of activity, then college is a rock in the middle of that river. If you’ve watched a river closely, then you know that when the current hits a rock, two things happen: the main flow of water goes on around the rock, and the spot just downstream from the rock — an eddy, if we want to get all fluid-mechanical about it — appears rather smooth and still, as a result of the counterflow produced by the water swirling around the sides of the rock. Experienced riverboaters know to watch for those smooth areas as evidence of rocks just below the surface of the water, but if the rock is big and prominent enough then there’s no missing it. But you can miss the eddy behind it if you are going too quickly downstream, in which case you’d miss the opportunity to slow down and even stop for a while while the river keeps on going all around you.

The distinctiveness of college lies in its capacity to afford just those kinds of opportunities for reflection and contemplation. College is separated out to enable a measure of clarity, of insight, of comprehensiveness that is hard to achieve in the bustle of everyday living; achieving that clarity, insight, and comprehensiveness is part of the vocational task of the faculty, and the other part of our vocation is to create and sustain spaces in which you students can develop your capacity for the same qualities. We hear a lot about the research productivity of the faculty, in part because that’s pretty easy to quantify, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the primary reason why you’ve chosen to come here for a college education (and chosen to pay a considerable amount of money for the privilege) is not so that you can read our research — something you could do a lot more cheaply by using Google Scholar, after all — but so that you can benefit from the smooth still space that we produce and sustain by taking ourselves out of the river of everyday activity in order to focus on producing knowledge. Our engagement in scholarly research creates opportunities for you to develop your own capacities for knowledge-production, and that experience — an experience afforded by the eddy we inhabit — is, in the end, why you are here.

To put this another way: your task, while you are here at college, is to develop a perspective on the world, a perspective that will inform your life in a myriad of ways. You should, as Friedrich Nietzsche once advised, take this opportunity to become who you are, to figure out what moves and concerns and delights you, and where and how you want to direct your energy in the future. The streams of activity flowing by in the wider world are important and worthy streams: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, promoting democracy and human rights, advocating for justice. But before you jump into those currents, I urge you to take advantage of the deliberately speculative opportunities that we’ve created here in the otherworld of the Ivory Tower: small, interactive classes where issues are dissected from every possible analytical angle; structured site visits and volunteer experiences that feature adequate time for reflection; independent and small-group projects through which you can wrestle with the very same perennial issues that human beings have been wrestling with for millennia. Spend some time outside of the ordinary flow of time and sense of space, engage in some serious rumination.

Here in the University College we like to say that you’ve been assigned to your seminar by the Sorting Hat, which is part of why I always bring it out of my office on occasions like this. (Normally it lives there, of course; where else but the Headmaster’s Office is the Storing Hat supposed to live?) There are lots of reasons why we say this, but one of them is that it highlights a certain deliberately archaic and medieval quality of the whole college experience. Universities in Europe descended from monasteries, and one upon a time the only higher education was theological education. Traces of that heritage remain with us in the ceremonial garb we sometimes put on, especially at Commencement, and I think it’s useful to remind ourselves of that heritage at other times as a way of shoring up that mystical barrier that keeps the Ivory Tower separated out. In the end, the barrier is only a barrier of practice; it’s as fragile as our commitment to the distinctive character of the college experience. Hence, my re-minding, which hopefully encourages us to re-dedicate ourselves to this distinctly odd endeavor.

For the students, I have one parting piece of advice: slow down. Don’t be in a hurry to rush through these college years, and don’t squander the opportunities provided by this place and time in your lives in order to achieve a little short-term benefit. If you’re running downstream as fast as you can, you’re likely to miss the eddies, and to arrive at your destination both exhausted and without a clear sense of why you were going there in the first place. Don’t try to see how many internships you can pack into your first semester; spend a little time thinking before you decide to commit yourself to anything like that. Give yourself permission to explore and experiment — and just to stop and think. Linger in the stillness of the college environment for a while, and don’t be in such a hurry to derive a short-term practical benefit from the things that you experience here. You have the rest of your life to swim in the current; for now, take the time to contemplate. The world will wait until you are ready to take it on.