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Convocation Address

Teresa Amott, President of Knox College

September 15, 2014

View President Teresa Amott's Convocation Address on Youtube

The start of a school year is always a hopeful time. New students, you arrive with high hopes for your college journey. Faculty with high hopes for fall courses, eager to meet the students at the first day of class and to mentor students in research and creative projects over the coming year. Staff and administrators with high hopes for the initiatives we have worked on over the summer and planned for this coming year.

Over the year, those hopes will translate into achievements we will celebrate at Commencement, and the cycle will begin anew. It is this continuing cycle of aspiration, followed by effort, followed by achievement that makes colleges such hopeful places.

Perhaps the most important symbol of our hopefulness is the theme of our new student orientation: One Community. The theme echoes the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the "beloved community" toward which he worked, a community characterized by social justice and true understanding. The path to that community was dialogue, empathy and nonviolent resolution of social, economic and political conflicts.

We also chose the name to reflect our reputation as an institution that values and celebrates our student body's diversity, a diversity that reflects the increasingly multiracial transformation of this country. You likely all know that this fall, for the first time in the nation's history, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms is expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic whites. This is the promise of America and its future.

But the theme One Community requires of us something much deeper than the mere recruitment or representation of different kinds of people: One Community is a place where diversity walks hand in hand with unity, with respect, with inclusion and with full participation in every educational opportunity. Calling our Orientation activities One Community is only a step in that direction.

How can we be One Community in a nation where segregation by income, by race, by political perspectives is rapidly increasing? How can we be One Community with Ferguson Missouri, the site of the tragic killing of Michael Brown, just 3 hours to our south? How can we be One Community in a nation when for the last quarter century, inequality of educational outcomes has widened, and schools have become increasingly segregated even as our nation has become more multiracial. How can we be One Community when residential segregation by income has increased during the past 3 decades across the nation, and ironically, the most rapidly growing metropolitan areas have shown the greatest increase in segregation? How can we be One Community when political polarization is widening -- polarization that the Pew Research Center calls the defining feature of 21st century American politics? How can we be One Community when we tune each other out by consuming only the media that confirms our biases and is consistent with our prejudices?

And finally, how can we be One Community in a world where war and brutality have riven the Middle East, medical resources are inadequate to stop the spread of Ebola across west Africa, and climate change is producing disruption across the entire planet?

Against the growing divisiveness, inequality and violence, the theme of One Community could easily seem a marketing slogan, a bumper sticker, a tagline...something instrumental and shallow.

What do we really mean when we say One Community? Are we suggesting that we have tried enough, that the present state of affairs is sufficient? Does it mean that we all think alike and agree on how to achieve the promise?

Of course not. Many -- myself included -- would say that Knox is not yet One Community, that there is exclusion, unfairness, insensitivity here on a daily basis. Just last spring, a group of student-activists under the name of the Diversity Initiative stood outside Old Main and talked about their experiences at Knox, sharing their criticism of the College and calling us to be better. They stood in a long tradition of student activism in which many of our faculty and staff colleagues, including me, participated in decades past.

But in the face of polarization in the nation, the world, and Knox, today I want to remind us there is something special about a college community and about Knox, and that is the extraordinarily rare opportunity this college affords for all of us to break patterns of exclusion and segregation.

Most of us have come from neighborhoods and schools segregated by income, by race, by ethnicity. Thus, for most of us, this will be the first time in our lives that we might share close quarters with someone not from our neighborhood, not in our family, not in the same socioeconomic stratum from which we came, maybe not even from our country.

This creates an extraordinarily rare opportunity for each of us to reach out, to stretch, to listen and learn, an opportunity every bit as transformative as the opportunity to study physics, or Japanese, or economics, the opportunity to design your own interdisciplinary major, or the opportunity to start a new club and organization to reflect your interests.

For new students, uprooted from your familiar surroundings, the temptation will surely be to seek out people just like you, to wrap yourself in the cocoon of the familiar, and that search for comfort is part of college.

Instead, in this year ahead, let us all resolve to become One Community by seeking out those most different from us, to listen to a different point of view and endeavor to understand it: to see the world as another sees it, to see our nation as others see it, to see ourselves as others see us. Try every week to listen to someone else's music, attend a program by a club to which you don't belong, seek out a blog or a website with which you profoundly disagree.

In other words, break the rules of exclusion and conformity that increasingly separate us from others and that are driving this society toward greater violence and injustice. Act as though you lived in a truly multicultural world that goes beyond tolerance to celebration, where social justice is realized and where nonviolence is the everyday practice. The nation needs you, the world needs you, to build bridges across difference, to listen respectfully to voices with which you disagree, to transform yourself so that society may be transformed.

Last spring, in response to the Diversity Initiatives' concerns, the College held a Town Hall meeting, attended by approximately 250 faculty, staff and students. The Dean of the College will distribute the notes from that meeting over email today so all of us can be reminded of what our fellow community members said. We have already scheduled another meeting for next spring, a time for us to check in and see if we have made progress in learning how to live together in a different way. I invite you now to join us in May and share your perspective on our community at that time.

So, as we stand poised at the beginning of a new academic year at Knox, I am profoundly hopeful. I want to share with you some thoughts on hope from the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel. For decades before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Havel fought the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and was often imprisoned because of his activism. After leading the nonviolent Velvet Revolution he became the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. In 1986, Havel wrote these words in a book called Disturbing the Peace:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.

In other words, hope is not about what is probable or likely; it is not a forecast, it lies within and is at the heart of this College. We have an orientation toward the future, toward One Community.

Why are we hopeful? Because learning is the most hopeful human activity of all. It is in schools that I acquired my hopeful orientation of the heart because schools are communities built on a foundation of learning. Learning is a leap of faith into the unknown, into the unfamiliar, into the uncomfortable. It is the repetitive act of battering against a barrier of confusion until it finally yields to understanding. The transformation of human society -- the future -- is all about learning. And as I often say, you will learn the most from the people the least like you. Welcome to the new year of learning, of transformation of this community, of progress toward One Community -- a year of hope.

With today's start of classes, I now pronounce this academic year, Fall 2014 through Spring 2015, officially begun. May it be a wonderful year.

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Printed on Wednesday, October 01, 2014