President Nugent's Opening Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2008
In a moment of levity, I agreed with the Provost that if he would talk about beauty--as he has so eloquently--I would talk about truth. Members of the Class of 2008, you are the strongest Class Kenyon has ever admitted and we are delighted to welcome you here. Those are the easy truths. Now, I'm going to move on to some more difficult truths. They have to do with parents, with students, and with the College.
Coming to college is a moment of excitement and uncertainty. And this is true, not only for students, but for parents--and even for those of us at the College! After all, as much as we have tried to understand each incoming student through the course of the Admissions process, we can't really know yet who you are. And none of us--not your parents, not your teachers, not even you--can possibly know what you have the potential to become.
Perhaps the bittersweet mix of excitement and uncertainty is especially poignant at this moment for parents. In just a few hours, you will be returning to your home, while your son or daughter remains on Gambier hill--for most students, marking the first time that they've set out "on their own." All your pride in your son's or daughter's accomplishments up to now, all your hope for the future, inevitably mix with a nostalgia for that little child you took to first grade...and a degree of wonder about the adult who will graduate from this College four years hence. That is to be expected, and perhaps the bittersweetness of this moment should itself be savored.
I think of a set of parents who were leaving their youngest daughter at this time last year. She needs to manage a difficult medical condition, and--as much as she wanted to come to Kenyon--she was clearly anxious as Orientation began. It happens that I encountered this student several times during the course of last year--and no one could have been a happier, more comfortable, more enthusiastic Kenyon first-year student. In fact, I just ran into her on Tuesday (yes, she came back early), and she was positively beaming in her excitement at being back in Gambier. What began with some uncertainty and even fear has developed into what is clearly a wonderful college experience for this student.
Let me mention one other parent/student experience and perhaps draw from it a more difficult truth. I think of a wonderful conversation with two parents in Cleveland last winter. Their son is a stellar athlete--and the mother, in fact, is a very successful professional coach. She told me how difficult it had been for her to stand back and see her son struggle with finding for himself an appropriate balance between academics and athletics at Kenyon. As great as the difficulty she experienced in watching her son struggle, however, it was clear that even greater was her pride in the way he had come to terms with the issue for himself and had become a stronger, more mature person because of it.
This story leads me to ask of parents here today one thing. At this important juncture, allow your son or daughter to learn. What an odd thing to say! What can I possibly mean by that? You're here because you're encouraging your son or daughter to learn, you're urging it, heaven knows, you're even paying for it! Let me re-phrase then: allow your son or daughter, in the course of these college years, to make a mistake--even, occasionally...to fail. For--as each of us can attest from our own experience--that is a crucial step in learning.
Our experience at the College (as we enter this, the 181st academic year of Kenyon) is that nothing is more conducive to students' learning and growth than support--and little is more stifling of learning and growth than protection. By which I mean: protection from shouldering responsibility for one's choices and actions, protection which insulates one from error.
Of course, each of us wants to protect our loved ones; how could we not? In the coming months and years, there will undoubtedly be times when your instinct as a parent is to rush in and "fix" things for your child. When such a moment arises, I ask you to stop for a moment and reflect on whether the best way to "protect" the brightest future for your son or daughter may be to enable him or her to experience not only the joy of successes but also the discomfort of difficult choices and even the occasional sting of defeat.
And now, let me turn to the members of the Class of 2008. What does it mean for you, to say that you need to be free to wrestle with difficult dilemmas or even to experience defeat? Well, first let me be clear--this is NOT intended as an invitation to failure, by any means! It is, however, intended as an invitation to discovery.
I worry when I encounter students who decide to take Shakespeare when they come to college..because they've taken Shakespeare before. Or students who won't even try dance or art or music, because they don't already think of themselves as "artists." Or students who shy away from studying anthropology or economics or neuroscience because they didn't have any experience with those fields in high school.
You have been successful at many things throughout your life--if that were not true, you would not be a part of this outstanding Kenyon Class. And we fully expect you to be successful here. But that may entail reaching higher, stretching further than you have before. Kenyon is a place to explore, to take intellectual risks for sure, and even to take some personal risks--reaching out to new kinds of people, trying new activities, perhaps even putting aside some things that you've always done. All of these are risky and difficult. We know that. And yet we expect you to undertake such difficulties in your years at Kenyon.
Thus we come to truths about this College. There could be no more supportive environment than Kenyon. The faculty, the administration, the staff--all of us are focused on the single objective of the best possible education for undergraduates. If you talk with Kenyon students, it won't take very long before you understand some distinctive aspects of what we do here. For one thing, we are all colleagues, not competitors in the learning process. For another, Kenyon is an environment where, to an astonishing degree--if you can imagine it, you can accomplish it. Students describe this experience to me again and again. Whether it's starting an organization or having a dream internship or bringing a great speaker to campus or carrying out cutting-edge research or publishing your poetry--all of this is possible at Kenyon and you'll find people to work with you, to accomplish it. And that's the truth!