Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of an address that Jonathan Tazewell, the Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama, gave at the 2016 Founders’ Day ceremony. Video of the address is available at livestream.com.
Good morning students, faculty, trustees, friends. I want to thank President Decatur and my faculty colleagues for giving me the honor to speak to you today.
I am a play-maker and film-maker by training, but as President Decatur’s kind introduction indicated, I didn’t start out on this path when I first got to Kenyon, 36 years ago. My talk today is, in part, the story of my journey to this spot here and now – the turns, the mistakes, the choices that led me to be who I am. I’ll tell you this story because most of you are just beginning your Kenyon journey, and if you’re like me, and I suspect many of you are, your path, unlike our beloved Middle Path, will not be straight, or well lit, or free of obstacles.
My subject today is the dialectic of destiny and choice.
Now I’m not a big believer in destiny; that is to say, in the idea that there is some inevitable path for our lives, but I am a believer in creating our own destinies with the choices we make.
"The Poetics," Aristotle’s examination of drama, lays out the essential parts of drama and tragedy, including thought, which Aristotle identifies along with plot and character as the primary constituents of dramatic form. The plot of a play, muthos, is the string of actions that make up the story. The characters of the play, ethos, are fundamentally these very actions brought to life on stage. What then is thought, translated from the Greek dianoia, as it applies to a play? Some will argue that the great philosopher included thought to mean theme or idea. Others, and I include myself with them, say that Aristotle’s thought can be translated as dialectical thinking. This is the fundamental human ability to hold two or more conflicting ideas in mind and consider which is better, which is right for us, and that leads us to choice. Aristotle argues that characters in a play can and should have the appearance of choice.
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die: to sleep."
Shakespeare’s Hamlet and most other characters in theater and film appear to be struggling with a decision or a discovery. It is, nevertheless, only the appearance of choice. Characters in a drama actually have no choice. Their actions and their end have all been predetermined, destined by the playwright. They’ve been cursed, as it were, to repeat the same actions day after day. Still, the audience wants to experience and believe in the possibility of choice even as we watch the play unfold in a perpetual present tense. Aristotle even criticizes the deus-ex-machina endings of plays in his time, where the resolution comes not from the actions of the characters but from the appearance of a deity or an outside force.
And so, even from ancient times, free will seems fundamental to our definition of humanity.
I wager that many of you have watched Stanley Kubrick’s film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." I won’t ask what altered state of mind you might have been in at the time. I was recently discussing this film with one of my students. Kubrick creates an interesting dialectic in this story between free will and destiny. On the one hand, there is HAL9000, a sentient computer whose artificial intelligence has progressed to the point that he can choose to kill off the other crewmembers to preserve the mission. Kubrick renders humans as god-like, having created artificial intelligence in the form of HAL9000. But is a sentient computer alive, and, despite being its creator, do humans have the right to end that life? Even as Dave, the astronaut, shuts down the computer, Hal tells Dave that he is afraid, afraid of death. Still Dave ignores this plea. On the other hand, the story is bookended by encounters with a monolithic object. Depending on your views of science and religion, it is either alien or divine. Nevertheless, the interactions with this object are ultimately transformative. The monolith is the agent of evolution, despite its appearance as a passive black slab. The encounters with it transform the ape to human and the human to star child, but this transformation comes without choice. It is an evolution forced upon the beings and viewed as a traumatic but benevolent new beginning. By presenting this dialectic, Kubrick challenges the viewer to examine the morality of our own human journey, but he also puts into relief these notions of destiny and choice.
Your new beginning is the start of your Kenyon journey, and perhaps the start of your adult journey. I come to Founder’s Day with a somewhat unusual perspective, and, perhaps, one that belies the surface impressions and the typical or sometimes stereotypical observations. I’m both an alumnus of Kenyon and a professor. These characteristics alone are hardly unusual. There are at least a dozen of us currently on the faculty who have returned to teach here, and there are even more Kenyon graduates that work for the College in the administration and staff.
Like most of you, I grew up in a household with two parents who had gone to liberal arts colleges. Even my grandparents graduated from liberal arts colleges. Like many of you, I’m a Kenyon legacy. That means I had a relative who attended Kenyon before me, my uncle, who graduated in 1961. Like so many of you, I grew up sharing my parent’s religious tradition. Mine was Episcopalian, like our founder, Philander Chase, and my parish priest had been a seminarian here at Bexley Hall.
I belong to a Facebook group started by one of my former students for Kenyon alums married to another Kenyon alum. That’s right, my wife graduated from Kenyon too. But even that’s not unusual. A 2011 Facebook data poll suggests that you have a 1 in 3 chance of your spouse or life-partner attending the same college. So look around you. You may be spending the rest of your life with someone in this room.
None of this makes my being here before you terribly unusual, except, perhaps, how I chose to attend Kenyon. I’m going to tell you the story of the worst college visit, ever – my visit as a prospective student to Kenyon. I was interested in Chemistry. My father was a chemist, and I was following his footsteps. Like all of you, I’m sure, I had lots of college options. I’d already been accepted to Kenyon, and the soccer coach here had invited me down for a visit to meet with him and some of the other players. He also wanted to show me the construction of the new athletic facility, the Ernst Center, a tragic mistake of a building long gone, but at the time, it was the promise of something new and exciting.
I drove down on my own from my hometown of Akron, Ohio, in my parents’ car. I was scheduled to stay with a freshman soccer player in Lewis Hall. I arrived around noon on a sunny day and walked into the dark, dingy hallway of the first floor.
Lewis was an all male dorm at the time, and the smell certainly confirmed that fact. The place was deserted. I was on time, but when I knocked, there was no one in the room where I was supposed to stay. Eventually, the C.A. heard me knocking and asked if he could help. When I explained my circumstances, he helpfully opened the door and let me put my stuff in the room. Of course, he couldn’t leave the door open for me, but he was sure my host would soon return. My worldly possessions were now safely locked away in that room. What a relief. All of this seemed like a good idea at the time.
The C.A. pointed me toward Gund dining hall, also sort of gone. This too is a running theme of my speech. Things, people, places evolve. It is an inevitable fact.
It was at this point that I discovered true isolation. I’d been away from home many times — Boy Scout camp, biking trips, travel with family and friends — but always with a close companion, someone to help me feel at home. It was 1980 and there was a total of 14 black students at Kenyon. That included the African-Americans, Africans and Caribbean students. The binary racial paradigm was still the norm at Kenyon in the 80s. You were either white or black. No one even counted or noticed any other racial identification. There was one black professor, Mary Rucker, but she would be gone by the end of my first year. I walked from Lewis Hall over to Gund Commons and met two of the black students as soon as I approached the building. They were quick to notice me. With so few brown people on campus, you tend to stand out. They were very kind and enthusiastic but not encouraging about life for a black student at Kenyon. I ate a quick lunch and played a couple games of pinball before walking back over to Lewis to find my host. When I got back to the room, my host was still nowhere to be found. So I wandered around campus, mostly alone, and that went on all afternoon. I was ready to drive back home and say no thanks to Kenyon, but my stuff was locked in his room, so I played a lot of pinball. I met with the coach late in the afternoon, and he assured me that his player, my host, would surely be back by the time I returned to Lewis. Here’s a footnote: this was before the days of email, cellphones and text messages. None of this could ever happen to you … I hope.
After meeting with the coach, I ventured all the way back up north to Lewis, but my host was still "on the lam." A very kind senior named Tim, who was also a chemistry major and a soccer player, invited me to have dinner with him and his friends. He had transferred to Kenyon from Duke, one of the other schools where I had been accepted to college, and I was seriously thinking that Duke sounded like a really good option for me right about now. Tim and his friends all rushed off with apologies after dinner; they had to study for something they called comps, but they told me that there would be a movie showing in Rosse Hall around 10 o’clock that night. Why not? I had no place else to be. I went on my own and sat right here in the dark to watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Afterward, I walked by myself, through the dark night, in a deserted little town, with no black people, back to Lewis Hall, praying that my host had not decided to stay in his girlfriend’s room that night.
Luckily my host and his roommate were both sleeping when I got to the room. They made a groggy response to my knock on their door. I walked in, spread out my sleeping bag and went to sleep. The next morning, I awoke before my hosts, packed my things into my parents’ car and drove home. By all reasonable logic, I never should have chosen Kenyon College, but I did. As improbable as it may seem, this choice may be one of the most significant in shaping the destiny of my life. So maybe the lesson from that story is "The best choices you make may seem like big mistakes at the time."
When I was considering Kenyon, it never occurred to me to ask if there was a theater program. I didn’t discover it until I was already a student here. I’d been involved in theater since I was a little kid, every year from the age of 10 I was in plays and musicals. Somehow I’d forgotten to make that a part of my college choice. Pretty stupid, huh? Or pretty lucky. I didn’t even take Baby Drama until my sophomore year, and that was only because my girlfriend was going to take the class. But as each semester passed, I was pulled toward my passion for the theater. I enrolled in more drama classes each semester. I even decided after sophomore year that I had to quit the soccer team because I needed more time to be in KCDC productions. I struggled with my vision of my future and what to do about the chemistry major I had declared. My mom kept telling me to change my major. I didn’t. I defined myself, my destiny, not by the passion I felt in what I was doing at that moment, but by the image I held of myself at the end of my path. Professor Gordon Johnson, my faculty advisor, knew that my heart was in the theater not in the lab, and he always supported me. Despite wise advisors like Professor Johnson and my mom and others who could see what made me excited and happy, I still refused to change my major, but I felt disconnected and lost. I didn’t go to medical school, as I had planned, but that’s probably pretty obvious. I did teach chemistry right out of college, and I discovered something essential. I really love teaching; I just needed to find what I wanted to teach. I also discovered something else after they asked me to teach middle school science. Seventh graders are demons – soulless, godless, demons. So I left and came back here to Kenyon where one of my mentors, Peter Rutkoff, hired me to run the Summer KAP program, what we now call Camp Four, and he taught me that institutions, like this one, do not change by themselves. We are each the agents of change, and if I wanted Kenyon to be a more diverse place, I would have to make that happen. One of my other mentors, John Anderson, who as you heard, just died recently, was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. He hired me in the Kenyon Admissions office to recruit students of color, and he taught me about being a professional and how to stand up for change that was right, even against the college’s administration and faculty. On more than one occasion, at the age of 24 or 25, I had to stand up against the established Kenyon faculty and explain why increasing the diversity of the college’s community was a good idea. Seemed pretty obvious to me. Both of these mentors knew that teaching me to be a man meant giving me opportunities to make choices, choices that may change the course of my life and the future of this place.
One of my other teachers is here today, Charles Jacobs, one of Kenyon’s longtime employees. He was head of the custodial staff when I was a C.A. in Gund dorm my senior year. Charlie woke me, very early one morning, with a knock on my door. He also woke my friend, the C.A. on the opposite hall, and he asked us to follow him into the lounge. There we found all of the furniture stacked up 10 or 12 feet in the air. Charlie knew that the ladies who worked hard to clean our dorm would never be able to get this furniture down, and he knew that while my friend and I were likely not responsible for putting the furniture up there, we were responsible for the students who had. He presented us with two choices. My friend and I could take the furniture down by ourselves, or we could do as he had done and wake the students on our halls and have them get the furniture back in place before the custodians came in to clean. Charles had always shown me the greatest respect and kindness, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his good will. And while I knew that the easiest thing to do would be to lift the chairs and couches down from the tower of furniture, I also knew that this was an opportunity for me to become a mentor. Charlie was giving me the opportunity to show the first-year students on my hall what expectations I had for the way we treat people who live and work in the Kenyon community. He was letting me make the choice to make Kenyon a better place by making my hall a better place to live.
Let me remind you again of Kubrick’s dialectic from "2001." While we value our capacity to choose our path, often things seem to evolve without our control. Everything changes with time, no matter how much we may plead, complain, or jump up and down kicking and screaming. You first-year students and transfer students are new to Kenyon. But already you’ve begun to cement an image of this place into your mind, and you’ll hear your peers, or your teachers, or even yourself crying about the disastrous changes the college is making – "What did they do to the Black Box Theater? Why are they tearing up Middle Path?" The Kenyon you recognize today won’t be the Kenyon you see in 10 years. New places will rise up where old familiar ones stood. New faces will replace your old mentors. The students will be more diverse and interesting in ways you can’t begin to imagine. To be certain, each of these changes will be met with resistance. And yet, what remains is what is essentially Kenyon. Professors will love what they teach and love sharing it with their students. Students will love the act of learning. First year students and seniors will still sing on the steps of Rosse Hall about that dirty old bishop who spanked the freshman, and this place will still take your breath away when you ride up that hill after being away. You too will change over your time here into a different you. And the truth is, you also have a say in what this place becomes. In a few moments, you will take the oath of matriculation where you will agree to uphold the welfare and good name of Kenyon. But that oath will also ask you to render Kenyon as your Alma Matter — in other words, to choose Kenyon as your intellectual mother and to choose to join this Kenyon family. With this comes an implication of shared responsibility and expectation. What will you give to the College, and what will it give back to you? Let me read a quote from the College’s mission statement:
"Kenyon's founder gave a special American character to his academy by joining its life to the wilderness frontier. His Kenyon was to afford its students a higher sense of their own humanity and to inspire them to work with others to make a society that would nourish a better humankind."
Whoa. That’s a pretty lofty and demanding goal from old Philander. So Kenyon expects us, its children, to reach out into the wider world alongside those like us and those different from us to make humankind and its world better. I remember sitting with my friends in the Gund dorm lounge in the fall of my first year, watching television before heading off to my chemistry lab that afternoon. I sat there punching the chads out of my first absentee ballot. It was my first opportunity to vote for the President of the United States: Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan. My candidate, the incumbent president, lost in a landslide — 489 electoral votes to 49. One of the most honest, compassionate statesmen in our country’s history lost 10-to-1, but I am still proud of casting that vote. I sat there for the first time with no one to tell me which was right or wrong and made my choice for what I believed would be best for this nation. As I considered my choice and my right to vote, I thought about my grandmother and my great aunt who had to eat in the kitchen of the segregated cafeteria at Ohio Wesleyan instead of being able to sit with their classmates and peers. I thought about the choices they had made to help me get here and get the opportunity to vote. Years later, I stood in the long lines with my students, colleagues and friends during the historic 2004 presidential election, when Gambier became the last precinct in the nation to vote. This is a place that, despite its small size and isolated location, believes that it has a voice in shaping the nation and the world and expects that voice to be heard.
Unlike the characters in our plays, we have the capacity to rewrite the script of our lives each day. To step outside the circumstances of our past, to shed the oppressions and traditions of our present. How will your choices shape what this College becomes, who we are as a nation, how humankind evolves? How will your choices make Kenyon and the world a better place to live for everyone? Will you actively participate or will you sit passively and let your destiny unfold before you?
My stories are full of the names of those who taught me, mentored me and advised me because none of us gets here alone. We ride on the backs of giants who come before us, and when they step aside, it’s our responsibility, mine and yours, to give this legacy to those who come next. You have the opportunity to choose, to write your destiny and to leave your legacy in this place. Seize it. Cherish it. Become the playwright of your own life and your own destiny.