President Nugent's Opening Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2013
This moment, when students officially embark on their college experience, is a time of such mixed emotions. There are excitement and anticipation...but also anxiety and even reluctance. Students may be thinking, "Wow, I'm on my own!" but also: "Can I make it here?" and even, "How will I manage, without mom (or dad)?" And parents may be thinking, "How will I manage without him (or her)?" but also: "Can she (or he) make it here?" and even, "Wow, I'm on my own!" From 30 years of experience in higher education, my inclination is to say to both students and parents: 1) You'll manage just fine, 2) the vast majority of students succeed very well here, and 3) it will be a great adventure (for each of you) to be on your own.
So I know there are lots of thoughts and emotions swirling around right now. They might range from, "Oh no—did I lock my keys in the car??" to "That guy down the hall is really cute," to "I hate tests; I don't want to take a placement exam" to "Wow—I saw the books for my course in the bookstore and they're really cool; I'm excited about getting started!" So what can I possibly say to such a varied group of people, with so many thoughts running through your heads??
First, let me make just a couple of very basic statements. To the Class of 2013 and transfer students: we're thrilled to have you here. We chose you to be a Kenyon student because we think you're right for this place and this place is right for you. In our admissions office, we have lots and lots of experience in understanding who will both flourish in and contribute to this college community. And we think you're the real deal. That doesn't mean that absolutely every one of you will find Kenyon the perfect place for you. And it certainly doesn't mean that you'll never have fears or doubts or failures here. (Actually, those are often occasions for learning.) But, almost all of you will graduate and become Kenyon alumni. And Kenyon alumni are among the most loyal and dedicated alumni in the world, because of their love for this College and their experience here.
So, second, I want to say a word about the experience you can expect here. If you read the mission statement of Kenyon College (available, for example, on the web and in the course catalogue), one of the first thoughts you'll find there is: "Kenyon's larger purposes as a liberal arts institution derive from those expressed centuries ago in Plato's academy..."
Now, this particularly intrigued me, because I'm a classicist. That is, the subjects I've taught—for 30 years this year(!)—are Greek and Latin language and literature. So I naturally find intriguing the statement that Kenyon's purposes..."derive from Plato's academy." The College mission statement says this, but it actually doesn't go on to spell out what those principles derived from Plato might be. Right. "Plato's academy" is obviously a household word to everyone. Well, maybe not. For example, it certainly wasn't to me, when I was the first member of my family to go to college. Let me be honest—as a freshman, Plato, to me—sounded pretty much like a clay product available in many colors with a characteristic odor.
So, as a classicist and a president, I feel I owe it to you—members of the Class of 2013 and your family members—to be a little more explicit about how "Kenyon's larger purposes as a liberal arts institution derive from those expressed centuries ago [25 centuries, more or less] in Plato's academy."
Let's focus a little bit first on the differences between then and now. First, there WAS no academy—at least not as we understand it. The Greek word "academy" has entered our English vocabulary in a way that suggests to us a well—organized school, a structure. But there was no such thing for Plato. "Akademia" was the name for a particular shady grove in Athens, where the philosopher Plato gathered with young men to discuss questions.
And of course there were only young men, no young women. In this "academy" of Plato, there were no classrooms, no residence halls, no dining hall, no library. Let's also be clear that there was no curriculum, as we think of it—no courses, no syllabus, no requirements, no graduation, no degree. There was no faculty—aside from Plato. No dean, no advisors, no registrar. How in the world are these guys hanging out in a part a relevant predecessor to an institution like Kenyon?
There doesn't seem to be much in common at all between the College we know here on the hill—with its beautiful buildings and grounds, faculty, curricular requirements... KAC—and Plato's Akademia. But if we turn from the outward characteristics to the "larger purposes" of the academy, I think we can see what the framers of Kenyon's mission statement had in mind.
What, in fact, was "the larger purpose" of Plato's academy? Well, one of the foremost scholars of ancient philosophy, Julia Annas, has emphasized Plato's focus on understanding "what it is to know." Plato, Annas notes, probes especially an individual's understanding of what he or she is doing and why. Time and time again in Plato's writing (these are the Socratic dialogues—and I'll come back to that in a minute) he critiques individuals who don't really understand why they're doing what they do, whose reasons for acting have been picked up without reflection. Time and again, Plato's writings focus on what I would call, "the Big Questions": What is the good? What is justice? What is the duty I owe to my family? What is the best form of government? What is virtue, and can it be taught? In short—how should I live my life?
THIS is where Kenyon's "larger purposes" and those of Plato's academy coincide. Members of the Class of 2013: we expect you, at Kenyon, to ask yourselves these "Big Questions." Who am I? Why am I here? And, given what I believe: What is asked of me?
Much of what we do here aims to lead you to be able to respond to the "Big Questions" in your life with convictions that are based on reflection, not reflex. We want you to develop answers to life's questions that make sense to you , not just as something you've picked up somehow. As Kenyon students, you are asked, invited—you're expected—to join in the grand conversation about life's purposes and goals that does in fact stretch (in the Western tradition) all the way back to Plato and others.
And here is a final irony of Plato's academy (which was not an academy as we know it). Plato did not write any answers to these big questions. In fact, in a sense we could say that Plato, the philosopher, didn't explicate anything. There are no treatises where "Plato explains it all." Instead, he chose to do an odd thing—everything he wrote was a dialogue, ostensibly the record of a conversation—as if Plato were more of a recorder than an author. And those conversations were not between Plato and his students at "the academy." No, they were presented as conversations that Plato's teacher, Socrates, had with young men, including himself. In a way, this model presents us with a great thinker who completely effaces himself. This model tells us: "It's not all about ME; it's about US, engaging in conversation together (dialogue, dialectic), as we try to help each other to gain better understanding, to come closer to the truth—or truths.
Now, some of you will read some of Plato's dialogues this very semester. And others may encounter them later in your career here. So you can consider their value for yourself. You can join in that vast conversation with Socrates which has extended over thousands of years.
But others of you will not follow that particular path. And—whichever path you take—I can assure you there will be many moments—when you're finishing up a killer problem set, trying to read War and Peace in a week, preparing for finals but also for a championship game, working through the night to get a theatre set ready...There will be many moments when the connections between life's great questions and your present will not seem all that self-evident. But the connections will be there.
Having the mission Kenyon has—and remaining true to that mission—means that, at some level, everything we do here, everything we ask of you here, is directed ultimately toward those questions Socrates framed so long ago (and his student Plato passed on to us): Who am I? Why am I here? What is asked of me? Welcome to the conversation!