In the spirit of the new year, here are the remarks I gave earlier this week at a Convocation for first-year students at my university:
A Jesuit educator wrote about the challenges of designing a curriculum for the rapidly changing world: “Current problems will in all probability no longer be current when the youth completes his [or her] education, and so by attempting to fit him for the present the school may unfit him for the future.” Now, Allan P. Farrell was writing about the 1930’s and it would be easy for us to laugh--if he thought that was a rapidly changing world, he should take a look at 2012.
But it’s not so simple as that: one of the challenges of college education, whenever one embarks on it, is the challenge of trying to learn what one might need for a future that one cannot fully imagine. What I love about liberal arts education is that, in all its wild impracticality, it refuses to try to predict. In fact, rather than narrowly striving to guess about the thing that’s about to happen in a year or two, the liberal arts education that you’re embarking on is designed to teach you about the past, help you ask big questions, and to demand that you work to shape the future--your own and that of your generation.
In order to get the most out of your education, however, you are going to have to step away from the now for a moment. This morning, Colum McCann said that some of what you’re facing will be very hard. One challenge that you can be sure to face is the challenge of moving being a consumer of information to being an active thinker, striving to educate your mind. We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think. As one journalist describes his own love/hate relationship to Google “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr 227).
I exhort you to dive. Dive as deeply as you can. You are great Jet Skiers. But you didn’t come to Fordham to get better at skimming the surface. That’s not what this four years of your life is for. Your college education is the moment to learn how to dive, to dive deeply and discover the treasures buried far beneath the surface. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.
In her 1929 essay on women’s education, Virginia Woolf writes about trying to follow an idea as it swims away from her--her thought, she writes, “to call it by a prouder name than it deserved, hat let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line…” Her thought swims away from her grasp when a guard shoos her from the riverbank--she’s interrupted by another.
Now, it is we who interrupt ourselves. As you embark on your college education, I wish you patience and I exhort you to cultivate the strength to dive deeply into your studies. You can always go jet skiing next summer.