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Philosophy Prof Welcomes Students at Convocation

The following is an address by Jay Garfield, philosophy, delivered during Smith's Opening Convocation Sept. 3, 2008.

Welcome back, returning Smithies, and welcome aboard new Smithies! You are re-joining, or joining a magnificent academic community, dedicated to the education of women, to the advancement of knowledge and, in the words of our founder, Sophia Smith, to remaining a “perennial blessing to the world.”

Welcome students of colour; welcome to the melanin-challenged; and welcome to those who prefer not to identify themselves with reference to race or colour. Welcome to students from the United States; welcome to students from Europe, from Asia, from Africa, from Australasia and from elsewhere; welcome also to all who prefer not to be identified with any region, citizens of the world. Welcome gay Smithies; welcome straight Smithies; welcome trans Smithies, bisexual Smithies, Smithies of all other sexual orientations; and welcome to Smithies who prefer not to be identified in terms of sexual orientation. Welcome Muslim Smithies, Hindu Smithies, Buddhist Smithies. Welcome Jewish and Christian Smithies. Welcome Pagan Smithies. Welcome Wiccan Smithies. Welcome to all who prefer not to be identified with any religious tradition! Welcome to our youngest first-year Smithies and to Adas who will find themselves in classes with friends of their grand-daughters! Welcome to the naked and the clothed.

We convene in an election year, in a season in which an election will be held in this country that may have profound implications for the entire world for decades to come. Recent elections here and abroad have demonstrated that cynicism about the electoral process has no place. Elections do matter. Votes matter. It makes a difference who wins this election. SO, a warm welcome all of those who are registered to vote in this fall’s election! And a warm welcome to all of those who, because of age or citizenship, are not eligible to vote in this election. I encourage you to participate in the electoral process in other ways, for even if you are not of American citizenship, for better or for worse, you have a stake in November’s outcome. Welcome even to those anarchists and others who refuse to participate in principle. But no welcome for those who simply can’t be bothered. There are limits even to my hospitality.

Welcome, Smith Democrats! Welcome Smith Republicans! Welcome Independents! Welcome to pro-choice Smithies and to pro-life Smithies. Welcome to Smithies who want the troops home, and to those who support current policy. Welcome to members of Students for a Free Tibet, and welcome to those who celebrate and work to maintain the unity and integrity of the Chinese motherland! 

I love the fact that at Smith we do not tolerate, but celebrate diversity, diversity of all kinds. Not just diversity in appearance, in origin, in language, in age, or in sexual orientation, but deep diversity—diversity in ideology, in religious belief, in outlook, in commitment. That is why we are not simply a community—a social institution—but a college—an academic fellowship.

As an academic community, we celebrate this diversity in ideas. When we speak, we do so with the knowledge that we put our ideas at risk, but that in putting our ideas at risk, we ourselves are safe. To be sure, we speak with confidence and commitment to our values and to our views, but always in humility. We speak in the knowledge that we are not possessed of the entire truth, perhaps not of any of it; that we may be seriously wrong; that we may learn from those with whom we engaged in dialogue. Our views, that is, are exposed to possible refutation. We can place our ideas at risk in this way precisely because we trust that our friends and our colleagues take us seriously—because we share with them the conviction that refutation is a mark not of ridicule, but of respect. We come to discussion, and we come to college not because we are fully formed, already knowing all there is to know, needing only to persuade others of the truth we have grasped. Nor do we come because we are empty vessels that others must fill. Instead, we come to join with others in collective inquiry by means of which we all may grow.

When we listen, we do so critically, grateful that our colleagues entrust us with their views, committed not only to hearing what they say, but to the possibility of being transformed by their words—of changing our minds, just as we are committed to the possibility of changing theirs through our reasoned critique. We join with others neither to find our own views confirmed, nor to celebrate uniformity in the name of solidarity, nor to shout down those with whom we disagree, nor even simply to wait our turn to assert our own view, but to learn and to teach in the context of our joint celebration of genuine, deep, diversity. That genuine collaboration aimed at truth is made possible only when we all agree that each of our views are open to debate, and that each of our fellows is worthy of our respect.

This might appear paradoxical: we demand of ourselves commitment to our own positions and values sufficient to fuel advocacy, respect for our fellows and their views sufficient to motivate open attention, humility that enables us to change our minds, and passion that enables us to open and to change the minds of others. But these demands are mutually entailing, and together constitute the foundation of the public sphere of discourse in which all ideas and all persons are welcome. That is the world to which I, on behalf of my faculty colleagues, welcome you tonight. That public sphere is the only guarantor of the privacy we all value—the privacy that permits each of us to lead our lives as we will, to pursue the truth as we see it, and to advance the good as we conceive it and to seek beauty where we may find it.

The beauty of the academic community, of this college, to be sure, derives in part from our visible diversity of ethnicity and tradition, of language, heritage and sexuality. But that beauty, in the end, does not give the academy its point. I was drawn to academic life three decades ago by the frisson of intellectual debate; by arguments full of fire, and yes, occasionally obscured by the attendant smoke, between friends and colleagues who disagreed passionately, often about what was most important to them, but who could sit down together over bread and beer, and laugh together not despite, but because of the differences that joined them. This fire, and the joys of this fellowship, have never left me, the academy has never disappointed me in the end, and it is to this joy, to this frisson, and to this endless argument that I welcome you tonight.

Oh yes, and a welcome to all veterans of Logic 100. And to all of you who are enrolled in Logic 100 this Fall. And a warm welcome to the rest of you—somebody has to lose all of those endless arguments! 


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