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Associate professor of linguistics
Aug. 21, 2007
Good evening and welcome to the class of 2011.
I was invited to make some remarks that might be useful for our incoming students.
What I want to do is ask you to consider a very general question: What exactly is college for? That is,
How will you define this experience for yourself?
Shaping the next 40 or 50 years
The answer to this question is not obvious or trivial, and each of you will arrive at it in your own way. But bear in mind, how you approach these four years might very well shape the next 40 or 50 years of your life, and for many of you in a very unexpected way.
You are all thinkers and doers. That’s how you got here. But what you do with these four years is not just about thinking and doing, or even achieving. What makes college special, to my mind, is a sense of purpose, a passion, one that you come to own, that’s personal, perhaps even odd, and one that you take with you beyond your four years here.
What I see as the most exciting aspects of the college enterprise, what leads to this passion and ultimately drives it, are:
1. the thrill of discovery; and
2. the emerging awareness of the connection of things.
Let me turn to some moments in my own college experience to illustrate. Children don’t dream of one day becoming a theoretical linguist. I didn’t. When I meet friends from childhood, I usually have some explaining to do. [“He seemed so normal; what happened to him?!”]
I was a Russian major in college—that’s the first thing that happened to me.
My earliest aspiration in college was to read Pravda, in Russian. Yes, I’m referring to the newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By my senior year, I was reading Pravda every morning with my bagel [my roommates were concerned].
The newspaper, by the way, was unimaginably boring. But ... I could speak with some authority about the story that the Soviet Union, now Russia, was promoting to its people.
This was the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan. Our story of the “Evil Empire” was appearing on the front page of American newspapers every day. Now I had some perspective. A foundation with which to read the world critically.
Through Pravda, study abroad in Russia, and just plain reading, widely, I had made a connection to an important part of the world. I felt engaged. My world had become bigger.
There’s a certain political point to be made here: If you believe in democracy, you have to listen to people around the world. And you have to know how to listen to people. When the United States was preoccupied with Soviet Communism, I was paying attention to what Russians themselves were thinking, what they aspired to.
The connection to today’s global conflicts, and the role that any university student can play, should be clear. As it is, we already have student groups that are quite engaged—in ways that truly inspire, from work on the Darfur region of Sudan to service projects in Nicaragua. And more.
One former student of mine is working on the problem of human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Another just got back from a year in Afghanistan. The “Bucknell Bubble” is not as impermeable as you might have heard.
So, consider studying Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Pashto, Hindi-Urdu, Russian, French, German. Study Hixkaryana—there are only 450 speakers left. Hurry.
Knowledge of foreign cultures engenders humility.
Your world must get bigger. That must be one thing that college is for.
Studying the human condition
From a different perspective, our world gets bigger by studying the human condition itself—I have in mind both the study of human creativity and the physical matter that gives rise to this creativity—study the humanities, study neuroscience, and everything in between.
You might ask:
Q. Does knowledge of the human condition pay well?
A. I don’t know. I doubt it. But I don’t believe this is the time to concern yourself with such things; this is not really what college is for, in my opinion.
I mentioned unexpected results earlier. From Russian, I moved on to other Slavic languages, and then the entirely unrelated, odd-ball language, Georgian, spoken in the southern Caucasus. While studying in Georgia, I witnessed a civil war break out in the capital city Tbilisi; I thought, hmm, revolution, politics. That’s where I’m headed. State Department, CIA ...
Actually, what I really wanted to do when I got back was open a small bookshop, of used books, written in Slavic languages only. A non-profit—for sure.
Syntax and Bucknell
As it turns out, my passion for Russian, and Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, and those people who eat yogurt and live to be a 100 years old, my large world, led me to a different place altogether: Syntax and Bucknell.
You might wonder, syntax? Has my world narrowed, contracted? Not at all. As the Harvard ethologist and Bucknell graduate, Marc Hauser notes, syntax is precisely what distinguishes humans from their closest non-human relatives. Language is the cornerstone of our common humanity.
My own journey has now gone from reading foreign communist newspapers to the study of a piece of human cognition. Intellectual passion has a life of its own.
New set of questions
Now I was faced with a new set of questions:
How exactly did language evolve? [We don’t know].
Why is syntax so odd? Why can you say, Who did you see Mary with, but not, Who did you see Mary and?
Why can’t you pose the logically coherent question: What do you think who bought?
Why does syntax admit so much ambiguity, as in the sentence: Every Bucknell student likes some professor.
Think about it. It means two different things.
Or a favorite of my students’ (from a talkshow host): Tonight we’ll discuss sex with Barbara Walters.
Also two meanings.
A broad range of subjects
Consider exploring a broad range of topics.
Lately, in a brief hiatus from syntax, I’ve been thinking about the tetragrammaton—the four letters used by the ancient Hebrews to represent the Hebrew God (yod-heh-vav-heh). This is the only word I’m aware of that has no phonetic value.
University life is a great privilege.
My point here is to demonstrate what I said earlier about passion, passion for discovery: you don’t typically get there by following the straight line you might have charted in your first days of college life.
It took me a while to arrive at the “syntax of things,” to borrow e. e. cummings’ phrase. Although, on reflection, now I see how I got there.
The truth is, as I raced through my four years of college, I now realize that I never wanted to leave it. That’s my unexpected result.
I encourage you to be open to yours.
And I believe you’re in good hands.
You know, academics can be cynical sometimes, but I’ve never met a colleague here at Bucknell who is cynical about teaching; I’ve never seen a university faculty that cares more about what happens in the classroom.
Rely on each other
Perhaps more important still, you’re in good hands with each other. Look out for your fellow classmates, rely on each other, share your background, your perspective, and be prepared to embrace in each other what you haven’t encountered before.
This is your community now. How you choose to relate to your community will have a lasting impact on what you take from this experience, who you become, and on the future of this institution itself.
Academic concerns aside, learning how to create community must be part, a big part, of what college is for.
Thank you and good luck!