Here at Trinity, we look for prospective students who are bright, capable, curious, and ethical: the four most salient traits we seek in just who will get those treasured personalized acceptance letters signed by Dean Dow. Someone on the faculty admissions committee or on our admissions team of professionals saw something in your credentials, some peek somewhere into your character that led to your being in this magnificent Quadrangle this late summer afternoon. You are sitting here filled with both anticipation and uncertainty about what your next four years are going to be like. Your parents are sitting here wondering how you could possibly be old enough to be entering college when they are not certain that you ever really did learn how to cross the street with the light when you were four or five.
But somewhere in your dossier, someone believed that you had the curiosity necessary to take full advantage of what now lies before you: it might have been that one really hard course you took outside of the box in high school. It might have been some passage in one of your essays submitted to the admissions team. It might have been some extra-curricular activity that you had the curiosity to undertake in your adolescence. It might have been some out of the norm experience you had encountering people different from you while traveling outside your own comfort zone.
Our grandchildren love Curious George. He is not afraid to undertake all kinds of new experiences. He ventures about fearlessly. He meets different characters. He gets into scrapes and then figures out how to get out of the scrapes into which he has ventured. He is sometimes perplexed, sometimes worried, sometimes even a bit afraid, just like you, truth be told, are a bit afraid sitting here in this Quad surrounded by William Burges’s stunning Long Walk buildings, the only buildings designed by Burges in the United States, by the way. But whatever trouble Curious George gets into, he is really an ethical little guy who always takes personal responsibility for his experiences, learns from his mistakes, and makes things right in the end. Those of you in the entering class are wondering just how my observations about curiosity relate to you on this momentous day in your young lives.
Well, you may, for example, be curious about the history of our magnificent Chapel, to your left. That curiosity of yours gives me the opportunity to explain what, in my opinion, is a great example of responsibility. The Chapel was designed by Philip Frohman, who at the time was also designing the National Cathedral in the nation’s capital right before the Great Depression wreaked havoc with the economy of the entire world. The College fell on hard, hard times. The donor, William Mather, went bankrupt by 1930, but the Chapel continued to rise because the Italian stonemasons hired to build it continued to work without wages as an act of unselfish responsibility. President Ogilby was so moved by their dedication to Trinity that he asked them to bring in galvanized pails every morning. When the workers went home to their families at the end of the work day, the pails were filled to the brim by Trinity’s kitchen staff with stews and chili and soups. Those dedicated souls fed their families in the Great Depression, when Trinity could not pay their salaries. They continued to come back every morning, and stone after stone rose on this hill. We all owe them an incalculable debt. You see, those stonemasons were personally responsible to their mission at Trinity, and because of their responsibility, this beautiful structure is here today.
The Charles A. Dana Professor of English here at Trinity College, my colleague Barbara Benedict, published a masterful history of curiosity in 2001, brought out by the University of Chicago Press, one of the most distinguished presses in the world. In her book entitled Curiosity, A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry, Professor Benedict traces the fascinating history of curiosity over the centuries. Curiosity, like the cat and Frog Two learned to their peril, was once a dangerous concept. So much so that the Roman Catholic Church held that curiosity was a venial sin: one could go to Hell for indulging in one’s curiosity. 2 Those curious enough to want to dissect the human body to see just how the body actually functioned were condemned for heresy. The Ptolemaic view of the globe held as dogma. Those who dared submit, through their own curiosity about the world around them, that the world was not flat and that the Earth was not the center of the universe were imprisoned or worse. It was imperative that the curious be forewarned and frightened off by every conceivable means of threat: the Ptolemaic maps you can see today in the Watkinson Library on this campus cautioned, “Beyond here monsters lie” at the edge of the supposedly depicted sea where the Earth was thought to end. The then blind Galileo, one of the most curious of all our intellectual forebears, was kept prisoner by the Holy Inquisition in his home in Florence for most of his final years because he dared to express his own curiosity by challenging the governing assumptions of his time.
The Galileos of your world are not imprisoned for expressing their own curiosity about the world. The most recognized Galileos of our time are the Steve Jobses and the Mark Zuckerbergs. Like Galileo, they revolutionized the world around them. Instead of imprisoning them or taking them to the gallows, in our day they are heroes. Their curiosity led them to imagine the unbelievable and then to change the known world.
Now what does all of this have to do with you, the Class of 2016, on this momentous day in your lives? It has everything to do with your future. Thirty-six years ago this fall, in 1976, a young man named Danny Meyer began his college years at Trinity. He took all sorts of courses in many different departments here on campus; he then went to our Rome campus. Born into a family of restaurateurs in Saint Louis where he grew up, Danny got to Rome and his curiosity took him into all manner of trattorias all over the city, seeking to learn as much as he could possibly learn about Italian cooking and Italian hospitality. If he could not get through a restaurant’s dining hall to the kitchen, his curiosity took him around back and into one kitchen after another. He returned to Trinity, graduated in 1980, and started his meteoric career in New York City, and a few months ago, he was featured in the lead story you may have read in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times. Two years after Danny arrived as a first-year student, a young woman curious about words and how words weave their magic upon us sat where you are sitting today. Joanna Scott took class after class with most of our English Department faculty and with many of our literature faculty in other departments, following her own curiosity into novels, poems, plays, and essays, and into book after book she had never encountered before entering Trinity. Today, her intellectual curiosity has led her to hold the Roswell Smith Burrows Professorship of English at the University of Rochester. She has written eight novels, her short fiction and essays have been compiled in two collections, and her books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the L.A. Times Book Award. Three years ago, Joanna Scott returned to Trinity to receive an honorary doctorate. Or take Peter Scala, who was in my first graduating class here at Trinity in 2005. Peter came to Trinity in 2001, and his curiosity led him into all sorts of academically challenging courses across the curriculum and into our athletic programs. Today, seven short years after he graduated from Trinity, he is an up and coming figure in New York’s financial world, being named a couple of years ago a Principal for Apollo Global Management on 57th Street, the youngest person I have ever known to have reached such a height at such a young age. He is today on the Board of Governors at Hotchkiss, his preparatory school, and is a member of Trinity’s Board of Fellows. Peter will be thirty on the 29th of September. Curiosity guided all three of these remarkable Trinity alumni throughout their four years at Trinity; and if you are also responsible for yourself, your own curiosity will guide you throughout the next four years and then into your adult lives. Follow their lead.
As part of your Orientation, tomorrow at Matriculation you will swear adherence to The Trinity College Student Integrity Contract, in which you “assume responsibility for upholding our standards of academic integrity and social conduct.” In signing this, you will commit to being “accountable to each other” in “the principles of honor, responsibility, and self-governance.”
So, all of us here on the faculty and staff challenge you to mix curiosity with responsibility. Be curious and responsible enough to take a class outside your intellectual comfort zone. Become friends with someone different from you: it might be a fellow student from China or Kenya or Nepal. It might be a fellow student who has studied at one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the country. It might be a fellow student who grew up in the Bronx, a Posse student here at Trinity. It might be a fellow student who grew up in affluence or in a barrio in Los Angeles. Be curious to spend some quiet moments in the next five weeks or so observing our very special guests, the Buddhist nuns who arrived from Katmandu a few days ago, construct the mandala in Austin Arts. I venture that you will never again in your lives have a chance to see anything quite like the exquisite mandala on which they are working, a gift to us all which then ends its life by being ceremoniously returned to the Earth by being poured into the Connecticut River when the nuns’ work is concluded here on campus.
Being responsible for your own words and your own actions is the hallmark of a successful adult. Your parents will not be around to tell you to eat properly or to get enough physical exercise. Your parents will not be around to tell you that partying seven nights a week and not sleeping enough and not going to class will lead you to failure in a very short time. Be both curious and responsible. Get to know your faculty members. They will transform the way you view the world around and in front of you. They will become role models for the rest of your life.
I travel incessantly on behalf of the College. I have met thousands of Trinity alums. One invariable is that each alumnus or alumna whom I have met has a story about some member of the College family who changed that person’s life: be it a coach or an administrator or a teacher, that noblest of all words after mother and father. This was true in my own life. I spoke to my honors tutor at the University of Virginia another lifetime ago every week or so since I graduated in 1969. I never made a significant decision without asking his advice and counsel. He told me that I should come to Trinity as president in the winter of 2003. He never once faltered in his role as my life mentor, and that fact remained true until his death in May a year ago, when serendipitously two of his primary caregivers were our youngest son and his wife, in Charlottesville. He may be gone from me and my family in a physical sense now, and I can no longer pick up the phone and call him to ask his advice about something troubling me greatly, but his voice remains in my head.
This day, the first day of the academic year, has always been the happiest day of the year for me. I have felt that way since I was a child: it was not my birthday, or July the 4th, or Christmas Day that was the most eagerly anticipated day in the year for me but rather the first day of school. What was I going to learn that year? Whom was I to meet? What were my new teachers going to be like? Thrilling, that first day of school. I imagine that each of my colleagues on the faculty feels exactly the same on this date each fall as the new academic year begins, looking into the future reflected in your faces every time we walk into our classrooms, the “MySpace” of all teachers.
When you are as old as I am today and can look back at your life, you will understand how critically important today truly is for each and every one of you: one of those incredibly precious, incredibly rare, days when everything in your life changes seismically. Take your curiosity and run responsibly with it: on campus, here in our city of Hartford, on our study abroad programs all over the world. But while you try every day to stretch your curiosity about the world around you, be responsible for your words and your actions. You and you alone must do this, for no one can do it for you: not your parents, not your friends, not your teachers or your coaches.
As a bright, capable, curious, and ethical student, be responsible while being curious. Take responsibility for your own actions. Instead of being a face on Facebook, be a face on campus. Get personally involved. Invest yourself in one of the many groups and activities on campus. Go see your professors in their offices. Come over to say hello to me at lunch in Mather every day. Spend some quiet time alone in the Chapel or out here on the Quad communing with Bishop Brownell, our founding president back in 1823, especially when you are perplexed or when you have just gotten back a paper that looks like your professor’s red pen broke and leaked all over every other word, or when your girlfriend or boyfriend has just dumped you for your best friend.
I have given scores of convocation addresses over the course of my long career in higher education, and I worry more about this one speech than about all the others I have to give in a normal year because this is such a critically important moment for you. But I always search to find just exactly the right words to tell you how proud we are that you earned admission to Trinity, how grateful you should be to your former teachers and to your parents, and grandparents, and siblings for having brought you thus far, and how much we are counting on you to take proper advantage each and every day of the myriad opportunities that Trinity offers you. So, I close by borrowing words far wiser than any I could ever hope to cast myself.
I conclude with something very important to me, some lines copied into his journal by one of my undergraduate students at Washington University decades ago. We all kept journals in which we inscribed our thoughts about the seminar. In like manner, you might consider keeping a journal of your Trinity years. It would be worth a treasure to you in the years to come. On the last page of my young student’s journal he wrote the following lines: