Convocation, Aug. 26, 2008
Michael A. Smyer
Great Expectations: Mark Twain, Bucknell, and You
Trustee Mathias, President and Mrs. Mitchell, distinguished guests, faculty colleagues, students, staff members, and, most especially, transfer students and members of the Class of 2012, welcome to Convocation 2008. My name is Mick Smyer and I am the provost of Bucknell University. It is a very real pleasure to welcome you tonight, in my first convocation.
To my faculty colleagues, I look forward to talking with you in both formal and informal settings in the coming days. Tonight, though, I want to focus my remarks on my fellow-first-years: transfer students and members of the class of 2012.
You have been on campus less than a week. I started my orientation a little earlier — July 1 — so that I could learn about Bucknell, so that I could scout out the territory and give you a report. I have chosen a simple title for my remarks tonight: Great Expectations: Mark Twain, Bucknell, and You. During the next few minutes, I will try to explain that title and the extraordinary community you and I have had the good fortune to join.
When you hear the phrase “Great Expectations,” many of you may think of Charles Dickens and his hero, the orphan boy Pip. Tonight, though, I want you to stay closer to home — not 19th-century England, but 21st-century Lewisburg. The Great Expectations I have in mind are the shared expectations of the Bucknell community.
You, of course, arrive with your own expectations of what Bucknell will be like. From the orientation activities, you already have a sense of the large roles that the faculty and staff and your fellow students will play in your time at Bucknell, a sense of what I shared with you on Friday night at matriculation. When I asked a faculty member about the strengths of Bucknell, she quickly started with two key elements: “our extraordinary attention to undergraduate education and our close-knit community.” Throughout my orientation during these past two months, this has been a recurrent theme: another faculty member put it this way: “we are student-centered … we have a caring faculty who are here because they want to be here and because they care about the place.” In short, you are right to have great expectations of Bucknell.
But Bucknell also has great expectations of you. Different parts of the community express these expectations in different ways. For example, last year our faculty endorsed a set of educational goals for Bucknell students, a set of academic aspirations for each Bucknell graduate: We want each of you to be able to learn an area in-depth, as well as think critically across broad problem domains; to respond creatively to both local and global challenges; to critically evaluate arguments and to express yourself well in writing and speaking; to act responsibly and ethically; and to develop habits of mind that will make you a lifelong learner.
Similarly, our colleagues in student life have a set of expectations: that you will sample broadly from the co-curricular offerings as you start your time at Bucknell and that over time you will begin to focus your energies and assume leadership roles in campus activities. Activities Unlimited will soon introduce you to the broad range of opportunities that Bucknell has for you. What may not be readily apparent, though, is that these activities are designed to achieve the same goals that our faculty outlined last year: to help you think critically, to help you learn about an area in-depth, and to help you connect your local concerns to larger national and international contexts.
In short, the Bucknell community starts with great expectations for you and for itself. And we know that you will live up to them. Why? Because you have the talent, energy and drive to do it. As you have already heard, the Class of 2012 is among the most academically talented classes to join Bucknell (don’t tell the class of 2011!). In addition, you bring a range of experiences to campus. As we saw on Sunday night, you include members from 38 states and 48 countries and a variety of life experiences (like speaking seven languages!) that will enrich our campus.
Mark Twain: The second part of my title is Mark Twain. I am from New Orleans — born and raised there on the Mississippi River. But that’s not why I start with Mark Twain. No, as I thought about this evening’s session, I was reminded of a familiar quote from Twain: When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
It turns out that Twain’s instincts were right on the mark: you are in the midst of a period of great growth and development. For example, recent research in neuroscience has documented that the phrase young adults really is appropriate: The adolescent brain is still undergoing significant development until the mid 20s. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the development is uneven: The areas related to risk taking are well developed by your age, while the areas related to control and problem-solving develop more slowly. Which is where the next part of my title comes in: Bucknell.
Bucknell: As I mentioned, I have spent the last two months getting to know this community. I read planning documents and reports. I interviewed faculty members, students, administrators and staff to understand what makes this place tick. In the end, a faculty member put it best: “This is a student-centered place. The whole place is keyed to educate undergraduates at the most holistic level.
How does this relate to Mark Twain and neuroscience? Since this is a time of development and change for you, the environment around you will have a great impact. Fortunately, Bucknell has designed an academic and co-curricular environment that will challenge you and provide increasing opportunities for leadership and independence. In the classroom, you will begin with general courses, select a major and complete your studies with a capstone experience. Similarly, outside the classroom, you will probably begin by sampling clubs or activities widely in your first year or two, eventually focusing and assuming leadership later in your time with us.
A friend of mine, Father Michael Himes, tells me that these academic and student life activities are designed to help you answer three simple but important questions: What gives me great joy? What am I good at? And who cares?
What gives me great joy is different from what do I enjoy. Have you ever found yourself lost in an activity — losing track of time, totally engaged in what you are doing? For some of you, that feeling — what psychologist Mike Csikszentmihalyi labels an “optimal experience” — will come in puzzling out a math problem or in writing a short story. For others, it might come in singing, working with children, or doing community service. Yet others might find that sensation in athletics or in a chemistry lab. As Professor Cassidy pointed out to you during the Matriculation Ceremony on Friday night, Bucknell is here to help you see that concentrated engagement, using your skills to the utmost, can be rewarding.
The second question — what am I good at — may seem simple. Haven’t you just gone through an admission process, documenting that you are outstanding students, leaders outside the classroom, members any community would want to have? Yes you have and we appreciate it. You’ve already got a start at answering what you’re good at. But don’t think that you’ve completed your list already. For example, you may find through your biology major that you are really good at lab work and experimentation. You may find through your photography minor that you are really talented in that area — a talent you didn’t even know you had. You may find through your sorority or fraternity that you excel at working in and leading teams. In short, don’t think that you have already answered this question.
Over the next four years, part of what we will try to do is to assure that you try more than one item in the Bucknell menu. Whether it is an academic program like ILTM, study abroad or an advanced seminar in poetry or a co-curricular activity like Bucknell Student Government or Building on Foundation — this is a supportive environment that will challenge you but will also work with you as you find out more about what you are good at.
In the end, these first two questions are geared to help you achieve what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described:
…I want to describe myself
Like a painting that I looked at
Closely for a long time,
Like a saying that I finally understood,
Like the pitcher that I use every day,
Like the face of my mother,
Like a ship
That took me safely
Through the wildest storm of all.
The third question — who cares? — helps you to shift the focus solely away from yourself and reminds you that you are part of a larger societal context. How can you take your joy and your talent into the world? What is the social structure that will allow you to do what you are good at? But more importantly, the third question reminds us that our fate is inextricably linked to those around us.
In a variety of ways, we will be asking you to link your own passions and commitments to the larger world. For example, during this Presidential election season we hope that the U.S. citizens will register to vote, in your first chance to participate in this way in an election. The Bucknell Forum will bring featured speakers (Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough) to help put this year’s contest in historical perspective.
Beyond this fall, however, we will strive to link your talents and concerns to the larger society. For some, that may mean thinking about how to use your engineering passion in a changing world increasingly concerned about sustainability. For others, it may mean linking your love for history to issues of human rights and immigration or connecting your dedication to children to your passion for video development and creating the 21st-century version of Sesame Street.
In the end, we want to make sure that you answer all three questions simultaneously. For example, I am a musician — a washboard player. I am good at it (anyone could be, especially if you’ve played for 35 years!) but nobody cares — I am not giving up my day job. Perhaps E.B. White, of Charlotte’s Web fame, captured it best when he wrote:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy.
If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem.
But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world.
That makes it hard to plan the day.
If we are successful, you-our students and our future alumni, will be equipped to do both save and savor.
Which brings us to the fourth part of my title: You!
You: Victor Frankel reminded us that ‘life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Two simultaneous challenges for your generation and for the entire world are what Lynn Friss Feinberg calls “grey and green.” Let’s start with the grey part. I know from our Sunday night session with Dr. Maura Cullen, that very few of you are looking forward to being 80. How about 180?
I am here to remind you that – ready or not — aging is coming your way. A recent article in the American Psychological Society Observer summarized the situation: “In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was just 47. But by 2000, it had increased to 77 — a three decade increase in just over a century.” You and your generation will have to answer big questions about this “longevity bonus.” As psychologist Laura Cartsenson put it: “What should a life doubled in length look like? How should families operate when four, five, or six generations are alive at one time? What should happen to work [and retirement across a much longer lifespan]?” And as the genomic revolution is linked to the demographic revolution, your generation will be challenged by technical and ethical questions, for example: If we can extend the life span to 500 years, should we?
Remember King Lear? Consider the following satirical synopsis written by a philosopher, Rick Moody:
This is a complex case involving family conflict, dementia, homelessness, and transfer of assets. Mr. Lear suffers from the delusion that he is still “King” despite having divested himself completely of his assets in the kingdom.
King Lear reminds us that issues of aging are not new, even though the scale of aging has grown exponentially during the 20th century. Lear also reminds us that aging is both a family issue and a state issue. On the family front, consider this: The majority of the parent-child relationship in the U.S. is now spent when both sides are adults. Eventually, “Mom, may I have the car keys” will take on new meaning in your family.
Societally, we are now an aging country in an aging world. This will affect both public policy (e.g., the structure and function of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) and private enterprise (e.g., retiree health benefits and the costs of cars in the U.S.). Architects, engineers, health care professionals — all are grappling with providing goods and services for an aging world. So personally or professionally you will encounter aging in your lifetime.
How about the green part of the challenge? How will you experience this challenge? Not in the way you might think, says The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. He quotes a Danish geologist, Minik Thorleif Rosing: “Most people will actually feel climate change delivered to them by the postman.” Freidman explains: “It will come in the form of higher water bills, because of increased droughts in some areas; higher energy bills, because the use of fossil fuels becomes prohibitive; and higher insurance and mortgage rates, because of much more violently unpredictable weather.”
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger summarized the dilemma in a controversial article:
Increasing energy use is the primary cause of global warming, but it is also a primary cause of rising prosperity, longer life spans, better medical treatment, and greater personal and political freedom.... Given this, the challenge we face as a species is to roughly double global energy production by mid-century while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half worldwide (and about 80 percent in the United States), so that we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change….
It is clear that your generation will shape the solutions — whether they are public policy, development of new technologies or conservation strategies. It is also clear that this is a global challenge; for example the Aug. 1, 2008, issue of Science magazine focused on China’s environmental challenges, linked to the timing of the Olympic Games.
So these are some of the problems and tasks that life will ask you and your generation to confront: grey and green. By the way, to make it even more interesting, you — and we — will have to confront them both at the same time — something that many people overlook! For example, the Science articles did not mention that China’s population is rapidly aging: because of their one-child policy, China now has a 4-2-1 problem, four grandparents and two parents relying upon a single child for support in very late life. Over the next 25 years, China’s workforce will change from an expanding to a shrinking workforce.
So what does this have to do with you? In this hall tonight are young women and men who will develop the solutions to these and other problems of the world. You will continue to develop the skills and passion to do it during your next four years at Bucknell. And we will be your partner in the enterprise.
Remember last Friday night at matriculation? I urged you to develop your Bucknell network, like your Verizon network. Richard Leider suggests that your network or sounding board should have three types of people: first, those who deeply listen to you; second, those who are catalysts for you — urging you to action; and, third, those who are sages, people whose wisdom and life experience you value. In many ways, he is echoing comments from the stoic philosopher, Seneca, almost 2000 years ago:
…nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation sooths your distress, whose advice helps you to make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!
In the hall tonight and throughout the campus, you will find students, faculty and staff who are ready to be part of your sounding board — even to receive secrets in safety. In a few minutes we will process to the Academic Quad and you will be applauded by Bucknell students, faculty and staff. They won’t be applauding your accomplishments at Bucknell; they will be welcoming you, indicating that they are ready to join you on the next phase of your journey.
In sum, you and Bucknell will be partners over the next four years. We will be providing the day-to-day lessons, the encouragement, the expectations. You will do your part by rising to the challenges, making the decisions and learning to be an increasingly responsible young adult.
So there you have it: Great Expectations: Mark Twain, Bucknell, and you. We look forward to working and learning with you. Welcome to the Bucknell community and ‘Ray Bucknell!