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Remarks at Ivy Day 2018

President Kathy McCartney at the podium


Questions and Answers

President Kathleen McCartney, Ivy Day, May 19, 2018; All Reunion Weekend, May 26, 2018

I am delighted to be here this morning with the great class of 2018. With parents, other family members and friends.

And with the hundreds of alumnae celebrating milestone reunions. The classes of 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008. It is a pleasure to welcome all of you home to Smith College.

Seniors, as you begin your journey away from this campus, you undoubtedly have many questions about your future. That may feel unsettling.

Know that the alumnae have never stopped asking questions. Neither has the faculty. Or the staff. Or any of us gathered here today.

I started thinking about the act of questioning this past March, when I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.1 I suspect many of you have read this novel about an unconventional African American woman named Janie Crawford.

The book was first published in 1937 during the Great Depression; however, it didn’t reach a wide audience until 1975, when Alice Walker published an article in Ms. magazine about Walker’s search to find Hurston’s unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida.

We owe the resurrection of this novel, considered one of the most important works in the canon of American literature, to Walker.

The novel charts Janie’s development through three relationships as she struggles for a sense of self not available to African American women at the time, not even to independent souls like Janie who were willing to make bold, unexpected choices.

There are so many memorable lines from this masterpiece. Here is one that stayed with me: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

Hurston goes on to write, “Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

So much of living consists of asking questions and searching for answers. As soon as young children begin to talk, they ask questions: Why? What happened? How come? Why not? They are eager to learn, and questions are a powerful tool for knowing. Like adults, children ask questions to address gaps and abbiguities in their knowledge.

Children ask many more questions than adults because there is so much they need to learn about the world.

Recently, my three-year old granddaughter wanted to know, “Why the stars stay up in the sky?”

Why, indeed?

When any of us, adult or child, finds an answer, it’s a powerful moment. We are changed forever as a result of our newly acquired knowledge.

Of all the species on this glorious planet, only humans ask questions. I suppose an evolutionary biologist might argue that the act of questioning is a selected trait. Those who asked questions found answers, increasing their probability of survival.

Scholars love to speculate about the answers to questions. After all, scholars begin their work with a hypothesis, which is nothing more than a good question worth studying. We work at the edge of knowledge—and happily so; discovery is an exciting enterprise.

In my own work, I have explored hypotheses about the role of experience for development by asking questions about the effects of child care and early childhood interventions. Throughout my academic career, questions have provided the rationale and motivation for my work. I suspect that the same is true for every other faculty member at Smith. Each discipline has its methods, its rules for revelation, its routes to answers. There are few things as thrilling as having a new research finding to share with a community of scholars.

Still, there is something different about the questions Janie poses about cosmic loneliness, compared with the questions children and scientists ask in order to build a knowledge base. Throughout the novel, Janie asks questions about the nature of the human condition, especially as experienced through relationships with friends, neighbors, lovers—and with God.

The questions we all return to, again and again, are the existential ones. They concern, by definition, the essence of existence. Sometime around the age or 11 or 12, we have the cognitive ability for internal hypothesis testing; by this I mean that we begin to consider and test big questions in our minds.

Can you remember the first time you asked yourself whether there is a God or what happens when you die? You were probably around 11 or 12. This is also the age when you begin to ask questions about life itself. What is a life well lived? How do you find purpose in life? How do you know the ethical thing to do?

Do these questions have answers? That, in itself, is a good question. I have given this a great deal of thought in my 63 years.

Despite the uncertainties, the mysteries and the wonders of life, it is clear to me that we are meaning makers by design. In other words, each of us constructs a notion of reality as we make sense of the world. This is a common enough idea in sociology and communication theory. Yet, it is hardly surprising that thinking about deeply held beliefs as social constructions might make us feel a bit untethered from time to time.

Recently, over dinner, I shared Hurston’s quote with a friend, as we discussed the fact that there are indeed phases of life when the answers escape us. Then my friend remembered fragments of a quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. We took out our cell phones, googled the lines he remembered and read these words together:

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”2

I think Zora Neale Hurston would agree with Rilke. She ends her novel with Janie delineating two tasks that each of us must do alone: To go to God and to find out about living for ourselves.

At its core, Hurston’s novel calls us to find out about living for ourselves. What a remarkable opportunity and privilege. Perhaps being unsatisfied with answers motivates change in a way that being satisfied never could. When you think about it, the status quo is rather boring. Good questions, on the other hand, never are.  

  • Questions about who we are and why we are here.
  • Questions about the discoveries we are meant to make and the work we are meant to do.
  • Questions about a life well lived.
  • And, of course, questions about why the stars stay up in the sky.

Seniors, at this moment, as you set out from this remarkable college …

Alumnae, as you embrace each new phase of life …

Love the questions, each and every one.

I suspect Hurston is right that some years will provide the answers—if we are patient enough.

  1. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1937).
  2. From Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962).