President Nugent's Opening Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2012
Because of the national publicity it has received within the last week, I imagine that many of you are aware that I am one of the (now) 129 college and university presidents who have signed The Amethyst Initiative, which is a call for re-examination and discussion of the 21-year-old legal drinking age in this country. You can find the text of our open letter and other information at www.amethystinitiative.org. As one of the founding members of this group, I also coined the name for it--from the ancient Greek word amethystos, meaning "not drunken" or "against drunkenness." I'm not going to devote our time together today to talking about this effort. But if you're interested in learning more, I have posted a detailed statement on the college website.
In light of my public statements on this topic, I think it is also important that I state very clearly today, for both incoming students and their families, that support for this initiative emphatically DOES NOT mean that Kenyon does not or will not enforce the current law, which places the legal drinking age at 21. Choosing whether or not to obey the law is not an option--for our students or for the College. In fact, one of the reasons that the presidents have banded together is a concern that young people are too often flouting this law. We want to make clear--through our own actions--that questioning the efficacy or appropriateness of a legislative measure should take place through concerted political action, NOT through violation of the law.
While I will not speak further today about this particular legal, political, and--ultimately--cultural issue, I do want to offer some thoughts that are a direct result of my reflecting on the issue in recent months. As it happened, during the summer, one of our esteemed retired faculty members, Harry Clor (of the Political Science department) published a very thoughtful volume called, On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World. I presume it will be pretty self-evident why the topic of moderation interested me especially at this time. Reading Professor Clor's work inevitably drove me back to Aristotle. Since Aristotle believes that virtue is always a mean between two extremes, he naturally has a great deal to say about moderation.
Now I doubt that anyone here is really excited by thinking about moderation right now. There are lots more pressing things--For parents, maybe: "What will it feel like at home without her?" or "Will he be okay here?" or "I wonder if I could reserve a room at the Kenyon Inn for graduation right now." And for students, maybe: "Will I be able to get along with my room mate? She seems kinda weird." or "Will I pass the placement exam?" or "Who was that cute guy?" But this ceremony invites us to set those things aside for a few minutes and to reflect together on the larger educational goals that we share, the reasons we've come together here.
So I invite you to spend a few minutes considering with me THE Philosopher (as Aristotle was called in the Middle Ages), and how he might be relevant to what we're about here at Kenyon. I'd like to highlight briefly three aspects of Aristotle's teachings that seem to me particularly relevant to the members of the Class of 2012, who are entering
Aristotle begins his influential treatise on politics by saying, "anthropos phusei politikon zoion." This is usually translated, "Man is by nature a political animal." But I think it would be more accurate to translate: "Humans are beings who live in communities." And that's extremely relevant to entering Kenyon. Kenyon is nothing if not a community. That's a big part of why you came here, right? If so, you haven't been misled: Kenyon is, indeed, a tight knit community. This comes with positives and negatives, with rights and responsibilities. Positive: people will really get to know you. Negative: EVERYBODY knows your business (often, before 10 a.m.--and, usually, erroneously). Rights: this may be the only time in your life when you'll say "Hi!" to everybody you pass on the street. Responsibility: all those folks you greet are folks with whom your life is truly intertwined; part of the deal is that we all watch out for one another.
Aristotle says this is really the way human beings are designed to live--in small communities where they get to know one another, where they deliberate together about the important questions, and where they actually help one another to become better people.
How DO we become better people? Well, that brings me to my second point: hexis, in Aristotle's Greek. It's not very easy to translate; it kind of means, "what you grasp onto." Often it's translated as "habit" or "disposition;" but I'm going to call it "character." However we translate it, this is a really important and interesting concept about how we develop as people. Aristotle has a view that I would guess is probably the reverse of what many of us believe. I'll bet most of us think that--to put it in the simplest terms--because a person is good, he or she does good things. Or, because a person is bad, he or she does bad things. But Aristotle believes the opposite. He seems to reverse cause and effect. He argues that we become good by doing good things--or we become bad by doing bad things. In other words, our characters are developed by our actions, rather than our actions stemming from our characters.
If Aristotle is right--if we become virtuous people by choosing virtuous actions--what in the world leads us to choose virtuous actions? Professor Clor illuminates how this is directly tied to the concept of community. We make our choices, he says, "under the guidance of socializing communal norms or educative models." That is, our lives in a community help to shape the choices that will, ultimately, shape our characters. If Aristotle's view of human nature is right, then entering the Kenyon community is really serious business--who you are, your identity, your self--will be meaningfully shaped by the standards of this community. And, at the same time, the choices YOU make will influence the standards of the community, helping to shape the lives and choices of others.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel of faculty members, discussing with a group of incoming students the concept of "the self" from very different perspectives--biochemical, philosophical, legal, religious, literary, psychological, sociological ...it was fascinating. And the notion of the self is so critical to your education here. Over the next four years, you will become a self who is different from who you are today. What Aristotle reminds us is that this project will be undertaken in a community... which will shape you, and which you in turn will shape.
And now let's circle back to that question of "moderation." In the philosopher's thinking, this is the famous "Aristotelian mean"--namely, the idea that virtue is, by its very nature, the mean between two extremes. Aristotle uses a different term for this, but today I'm going to use the Greek phrase, meden agan. This is one of the inscriptions on the
He writes "Ethics is primarily about character (not primarily about binding moral rules). Virtuous character is a set of habitual dispositions to think, feel, and choose in accordance with a mean between opposite extremes..." (p. 25) and, later, he argues... "the terms 'character' and 'moderation' are almost interchangeable, as the latter provides the basis for the former. A prime condition of good character, as ordinarily understood, is that you can say no to an impulse, you are able to resist the immediate demands of desire or pleasure at least long enough to allow for thinking about what should be done or avoided." (p.61)
Your time at Kenyon offers you the wonderful luxury of just that: "thinking about what should be done or avoided." Now, listen, I'm a child of the 60's and 70's--I know that "moderation" is hardly a stirring goal for your undergraduate years. I hope that while you are here, you will: revel, frolic, be exuberant, engage in passions of all kinds.
But, in the midst of all that, I hope you'll constantly leave a space for reflection about your life in a community, the character you're constructing, and the stark, Greek beauty of "nothing in excess."
Welcome to Kenyon!