Opening Convocation 2023: Growth and Renewal

11 September 2023

Welcome, and welcome back! It is a pleasure to see so many faculty, staff, and students here today. A special welcome to the Class of 2027. It was a pleasure to get a chance to greet so many of you at Nutting House over the weekend, and hear a bit about your backgrounds and interests.

Today’s Convocation is part of a longstanding tradition that is one of Carleton’s most distinctive features. The word convocation stems from the Latin word convocare, “to call together,” which combines the prefix com-, meaning “together,” and vocare, meaning “to call.” Thus the word embodies not only the idea of togetherness, but the importance of bringing different voices together.

Many colleges open the year with a ceremonial convocation that provides an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to gather and reflect on their shared commitment to academic inquiry and community. At Carleton, however, Convocation is a weekly occurrence. We have set aside time in the college calendar every Friday to create opportunities for the entire community to gather and hear a talk or program that provides a shared basis for intellectual exchange and ongoing dialogue.

Carleton’s continuing commitment to creating this shared space for discussion is a core aspect of its identity as a place that values open intellectual inquiry and robust debate.

These qualities are fundamental to any academic community, and are a critical component of what we mean when we talk about a liberal arts education of the kind we offer at Carleton. A liberal arts education invites you to study many different disciplines and contrast their varied ways of looking at the world. When you learn across disciplines, you see that the same issue looks quite different through the lenses of varied modes of inquiry.

When considering the impact of artificial intelligence, for example, a computer scientist’s interest in mapping advances in natural language processing will be different from an economist’s questions about how AI might disrupt the labor market. When examining the issue of climate change, a chemist might look at changes in ocean chemistry in the Arctic as a result of melting ice, while a sociologist focuses on the effect of weather disasters on vulnerable populations.

At the same time, at Carleton, the faculty who teach these fields are in constant dialogue with each other, and will encourage you to see the connections among and between disciplines.

Moreover, within any field of study, you will see different, often opposing perspectives on an issue. You will find that faculty are deliberate in their effort to highlight those oppositions, even when it means offering interpretations that may differ from their own. Faculty will model that openness of inquiry and will insist that you do the same.

This means that there may be times in a classroom discussion that you find yourself defending a view that is not held by all of your classmates. It also means there will be times that you will hear others — a fellow student, a visiting speaker, or your professor — share analyses and interpretations with which you disagree, perhaps even share opinions or beliefs that you find disturbing. Your ability to listen respectfully, engage thoughtfully, and welcome the opportunity for discussion and debate is one of the most important skills we hope you will take with you when you graduate. It is one that is desperately needed in today’s world.

It is especially important that we respect the role of free inquiry within a learning environment at a time when threats to academic freedom have become a potent weapon within the current political and cultural landscape. The past year has seen unprecedented efforts in many states to control school curricula, library selections, even academic appointments. Petitions to ban books in local libraries; legislation forbidding the teaching of the history of slavery, or outlawing mention of gender identity; the appointment of state college and university trustees who undermine the systems of governance that protect academic freedom. These actions pose an existential threat to the fundamental principles that distinguish education from indoctrination.

Even as we deplore and resist these efforts to control what can be taught or read by those who seek to learn, it is important that we not see this as an entirely external problem. We need to be vigilant about our own practices as an educational institution, and about our own attitudes as members of this community of learning, to ensure that we ourselves are willing to engage in difficult discussions and confront ideas that may disturb or offend.

There are many forces — political, cultural, and even technological — that encourage us to stay in our silos and listen only to familiar voices. At Carleton, we hope that being part of a diverse community of voices will help you to learn, to grow, and to become a citizen of the world who is prepared to continue listening and learning.

We hope, too, that your intellectual curiosity will lead you down many unexpected pathways as you explore every corner of our curriculum. Over the past year, we have been spending time as a community discussing the future of the College, and the directions we think Carleton should pursue. One theme that came through strongly in all our community discussions was the importance of celebrating the breadth, balance, and power of the liberal arts education we offer at Carleton. The goals and recommended actions outlined in the college’s strategic plan flow from four core values we feel are distinctive to Carleton: community, curiosity, citizenship, and impact. We hope that the strategic priorities defined in this plan will cultivate the qualities that prepare you as students to explore, engage, and ultimately transform the world.

A central goal of the plan we are designing for Carleton is ensuring that we continue to ignite and fan the spark of curiosity and spirit of experimentation that powers both your educational journey as students, and the continuing growth and innovation of Carleton as an educational institution. The plan is fundamentally about ensuring an ongoing process of intentional renewal. It recognizes that excellence cannot be taken for granted, but must be cultivated and nourished.

As an English professor, I can’t resist closing with a metaphor. This past summer, a handsome old bur oak that grew on the slope between Boliou and Lower Lyman was finally cut down. It had been doing poorly for some time and in spite of valiant efforts to support it, at last it had to go.

Our grounds manager, Jay Stadler, saved some wood from the oak so that it could be used for building or art projects, and took a slice of the base in order to allow us to estimate its age.

Professor Mark McKone’s examination of the oak slice suggests that this tree easily predates the founding of the College in 1866. That means the old oak would have grown when Dakota people used this area for hunting & foraging. Passenger pigeons likely would have perched in its branches. Many important developments in the history of the College played out in view of the oak: the creation of Lyman Lakes, and the building of Goodsell Observatory. It has been an important part of Carleton for over 150 years.

The writer Aldo Leopold, in his essay “Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac, contemplates the history experienced by an oak he cut down at his Wisconsin farm. While he mourns its passing, he notes that the seeds of its replacement had already sprouted around it, with “a dozen of its progeny standing straight and stalwart on the sands,” ready to take over “the job of wood-making.”

At Carleton, we cherish the traditions and structures that have grown up, like that old oak, over many generations. At the same time, we understand that these structures must evolve over time, and that our enduring goals and aspirations will take on new life in new forms. We have to be ready to plant the seeds of our future today. I believe that one of Carleton’s greatest strengths, in fact, is the energy we devote as a community to change, improvement, and renewal. As a college, we model the habit of lifelong learning and growth that we seek to inspire in you, our students.

I am so delighted to welcome our newest class to join us on this journey of growth and transformation, and am deeply grateful to our faculty and staff for making this journey possible. Best wishes to all of you for a wonderful start to the year ahead.

Thank you.