President's Convocation Address

Convocation Address
Fall 2010
James F. Jones, Jr.

Inception and the Class of 2014

Not so very long ago, one of you asked me about the title chosen for this address.  I must have mumbled instead of speaking distinctly.  Instead of “Inception and the Class of 2014,” the young woman thought I had said “Conception and the Class of 2014.” She politely suggested that such a title might be a bit strange for a Convocation address. I quickly realized my gaffe and corrected her forthwith.

So, “Inception and the Class of 2014” it is.  Here is the title’s provenance. A former student here at Trinity who has become a cherished member of our family took me to see the latest Leonardo DiCaprio movie several weeks ago. I was both mesmerized and hopelessly confused. All those layers of dreams. The non-linearity of it all, the entangled chronologies, trains crashing out of nowhere down the middle of city streets where there are no train tracks, vans falling in slow-motion from bridges, all centered on a plot to make one young man whose father had recently died do something unexpected and indeed seismic with his future and the future of an oil company. I had to go back to see the movie again, and the second time I understood it much better, but only after listening to my Trinity graduate friend explain the ins and outs of the script, which he did with belabored patience, as is normally the case when the young have to explain something they readily understand to those of us of a certain age who do not.

“Inception” is about implanting an idea so securely in the subconscious that it will take root and change destiny. When one earns one’s daily bread by trying to be a college or university president, one is never really not president:  so one of the reasons I could not follow the movie “Inception” the first time was because of my being distracted by working on this speech to welcome you to Trinity College. “What,” I kept saying to myself while watching the actors move through their pacing on the screen, “what would I do were I somehow just as magically able to insert one single idea into the mind of every young woman or man matriculating in the Class of 2014 at Convocation a few short weeks from now?” The movie caused me not a little unease since I always worry more about this one address than all the other addresses I normally give in a year combined, and when in mid-summer my young friend first took me to see the movie, I was already worrying about this address. Think about it. You have finally arrived at this signal moment of your lives. Your parents are sitting here filled with pride that you have won a place in the Class of 2014 at Trinity and at the same time completely baffled by the fact that you could possibly be starting college when it only seems like days ago that they were teaching you how to cross the street correctly with the light, so quickly have your childhoods and adolescences disappeared wherever it is that the days of yesteryear flee.  And now you just want to get on with it. The adrenalin is charging through your veins. In some real sense, this is the only time I really have all of you in your class in one place and at one time. The next time we will repeat the formal gathering on the Quad will be in May four short years hence at your Commencement exercises, and you will be sitting here trying hard to figure out where the previous four years at Trinity have fled.

So back to “Inception.” If I were Leonardo DiCaprio and his team of mental experts, what idea would I insert so fully into your subconscious that it would govern your four years here and be the single governing force behind them? Talk about the impact of an idea upon my own subconscious!  I should write Leonardo and company a note of thanks for implanting such an idea so stringently into my head. But the idea did cause me a lot of pondering, all about you and the start to this academic year.

Here is what I would implant in your minds if I had the “inception” process down pat. I would implant one word and one word alone into your minds: and that word is responsibility.

For a long while now, I have dreamed that someday a really first-rate scholar would spend the requisite years necessary to write a tome on the idea of responsibility.  Think about it across the history of Western civilization. For the ancients, according to Edith Hamilton’s classic on the subject,  the gods ruled humankind from above, controlling every facet of human life, causing tidal waves at whim to drown ships at sea, or allowing one army to be victorious over the other, or bestowing times of plenty in one place and times of barrenness in others.  Human beings were mere pawns. Those on Olympus decided our fate.  Reread the Odyssey or the Iliad or the Aeneid. The story is all there.

And then in the Judeo-Christian world shift, something radically different ensued.  The myriad gods on Olympus were replaced by one Deity still on high. Decisions about the control of destiny and about human responsibility began to shift, and the battle lines became drawn between human decisions and the will of the Most High. Enter Calvin, and pre-destination got all mixed up with the will of God, and on and on we go until we get to the mid-20th century.

On the wall in my office in Williams Memorial hangs an original letter written to a now long departed friend of ours by the 20th century existentialist thinker Albert Camus. You should stop by the office some day and have a look at it, for the letter is one of my family’s greatest treasures. So torn asunder by the horrors of the Second World War, by the concentration camps and the emergence of the atomic bomb, by the hideous murder of innocents by the bitter and cruel triumvirate of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, the existentialists wondered where on earth an all-powerful and benevolent God could have been at the gates of the gulag or Auschwitz. Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and company then began to put the onus squarely upon us, upon human kind. No other force could possibly be responsible for human destiny; we, and we alone, were the arbiters of our fate; we, and we alone, were responsible for our words and our actions.

So pretend for a moment you are on the plane in the movie “Inception.”  You, your parents, the faculty and staff at Trinity, and those of us in the central administration are all connected to one another. Your mind is our target. You have been put to sleep by the potion smuggled into your glass of water. What is it that we most want to pour into your mind on this, one of the single most important days of your life as you begin your college career here with us?

Simply this. Take responsibility for your four years here. Everything awaits you: one of the most beautiful campuses in the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter, a dedicated faculty and staff, 2,100 of the brightest young adults you could hope for, the stunning Raether library, technological advances in the classroom and out, updated laboratories, and all the rest. And here you are: 18 and now turning the page onto what should be the most remarkable four years of your lives, if only you yourselves will be responsible for your own actions and your own words.

A few simple precepts. Treat the campus as if it were yours, because it is. Think about sustainability in all its myriad aspects. Our world is a very fragile place indeed: just ask anyone on the Gulf Coast today. Respect the campus, our planet, and each other.  This too means that you must use good judgment. More so than ever before, you will make decisions that determine your future and well being—how hard you work, how you style your social life, how you keep yourself safe and fit. The rights of adulthood come with obligations as does membership in this community. Watch out for yourself and for each other and remember that you are an ambassador of the College in everything that you do.  Treat each other as you would most want to be treated yourself in a direct replication of the Golden Rule.  Don’t take Trinity for granted. This College is a gift from those who preceded you here and a cherished loan from those who will succeed you in this place. And the debt you owe those who have gone before you is incalculable indeed.  Here is William Cullen Bryant, from his great poem “Thanatopsis”: “All that tread/The globe are but a handful to the tribes/That slumber in its bosom.”   Remember old William Cullen Bryant when you are walking quietly down the Long Walk during the next four years; remember all those just like you who once began their undergraduate years in this place. Take very seriously your responsibility to those who preceded you and those who will follow you in this place; don’t let them down for a moment.
Back to my hoped for history of responsibility.  I wonder what my ideal scholar would do with how to take responsibility for one’s own words and actions in the technological age in which you have come of age. Now there’s an interesting thing to ponder. Just be responsible for your own actions and your own words, as the existentialists taught we should.
Yet, this too is much more complex in our technological age. As boys in my military school another lifetime ago, we all had to write a weekly letter to our parents.  My letter was delivered unsealed to the English master every Monday morning to be checked for grammar and penmanship. A single required letter per week; that was the sole weekly communication between student and parent. I read somewhere that many college students communicate today with their parents via e-mail, text messaging, or cell phone an average of five times per day, seven days a week. But that availability can too lead you quickly and perhaps unexpectedly astray. In my first presidency, I received a telephone call from a vastly irate mother, vociferously complaining about the grade her daughter had received on her term paper. The grade her professor had assigned the term paper was an A-. The irate mother demanded that her daughter’s paper receive an A. She had called her daughter’s professor, the secretary of the department, the chair of the department, one of the associate academic deans, the dean of students, the provost, and now she was calling the president of the school. I told her that she should let her daughter be responsible for her own actions, that she was not doing her daughter any favors by intruding, and that her daughter should make an appointment to see her English professor to discuss the paper. This was a small liberal arts college and not Ohio State for heaven’s sake. Students had easy access to their professors. But then came the telling phrase that I will never forget: the irate mother all but yelled at me, “But we worked very hard on that paper, and we deserve an A.”  “We?” said I. “I did not know that this had been a team assignment between student and parent.” The mother then realized in horror to what she had actually confessed and embarrassingly hung up the telephone. When I later met up with our young student and had the opportunity to explain the significance of the telephone calls we had received from her irate mother, she innocently reported that she had sent her mother various drafts of her term paper as attachments to e-mails and that her mother had written more than half the paper. But we had an honor system. The student was lucky just to receive an F for the course and not be expelled.  Responsible she was not for her own work. Thus one of the intrinsic dangers of being irresponsible in the technological age.

Be responsible for taking each and every advantage of your every moment here.  Listen carefully to your professors, for you just might find a mentor for life. Here is Thomas Jefferson writing about the most influential of his professors when he was you, entering William and Mary at the age of 16:

  It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the
  destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then
  professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful
 branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.

Clearly Dr. Small’s influence upon young TJ was anything but small, and the professor cast a huge influence upon one of the most brilliant of the Founders for him to recall his teacher so fondly as he tried to write his unfinished autobiography from the vantage point of his so-called retirement. Be responsible for getting to know, and being simultaneously known by, the many Dr. Smalls who constitute the faculty of this College. They will change your lives in ways unimaginable to you as you sit here in this Quad this late summer afternoon.

 What we most want for you is this. We just want you to be responsible for yourselves in this place. We want you to work and play hard, just as Trinity alumnus Danny Meyer suggested to you in his beautiful letter welcoming you to the Trinity family earlier this summer. We want you to have the four most wonderful years of your life, and when you are as aged as I am today, we want you to stroll quietly down the Long Walk and recall your youth’s most wonderful moments in this wonderful place. In Kenneth Grahame’s immortal The Wind In The Willows, you may remember, Water Rat contemplates wandering beyond “his simple horizon hitherto.” He meets Sea Rat and is told,

  Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable
  moment passes!  ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you,
  a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and
  into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home
  here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has
             been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.

So, now we come to the end of this address, and to what is one of my own personal eccentricities. In the scores of Convocation addresses I have been privileged to give over the last thirty years, I always 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:

  “Come to the edge,” he said.
  They said, “We can’t.  We are afraid.”
  “Come to the edge,” he said.
  They said, “We can’t.  We will fall.”
  “Come to the edge,” he said.
  They came, he pushed them,
  And they flew.

Those lines symbolize for me what is happening right this minute to you. Your parents and your grandparents and your elementary and secondary school teachers have brought you to this moment, one of the greatest edges of your entire life. They are now pushing you off your own edge far beyond what the Water Rat eloquently calls his “simple horizon hitherto” toward your own various futures. Besides being responsible for yourselves, you are responsible for upholding your parents’ trust in you. Don’t let them, or us, or those who have preceded you in this place, down.
 Welcome to Trinity, your College home, good luck, and Godspeed.