2011 Convocation Address

September 22, 2011

“Cultivating UBUNTU”

by Margarita Curtis
September 18, 2011

Every September brings us the opportunity for renewal, the gift of a new beginning.  The “glint of bronze in the chill mornings,” as poet laureate Merwin said, announces the arrival of fall, invites us to consider the possibilities that the new year holds.  But as we look forward and outward, filled with anticipation, we also stand to benefit from looking inward, for a moment of introspection.  We come together today to reflect on our aspirations, not only as individuals but as a community.  We come together to affirm the values and traditions that make our school distinctive, and bind us in a common purpose.  If you are in this auditorium today, as a student or as a teacher, it means that at some point in the past you made a deliberate choice to be a part of Deerfield.  Close to a third of you, students, and twelve of you, faculty, are new to the school this September.  The specific reasons for choosing Deerfield are therefore fresh in your minds.  Others among you made this decision more than fifty years ago — this is the case of our longest-serving faculty member.  But regardless of when you made Deerfield your school, you sensed the promise of this community, and accepted both the joys and responsibilities this choice entails.

So, why are we here?  We are all here to learn and grow –as scholars, athletes, artists, yes, but more fundamentally, to affirm a shared moral framework, a set of institutional values.  We are here to acquire knowledge and proficiency in a number of areas, but also to develop habits that build strong character and healthy, caring communities.  Our strong communal spirit derives from anchoring our self-improvement efforts in a commitment to impact those around us in positive ways. In this sense, we remain true to the mission set forth by charter trustee Reverend Lyman at the school’s founding more than two hundred years ago: “Wisdom renders men useful,” he said, “[but] nothing is important or valuable, in the character of man, which does not render him beneficial to others, either by his example, or by his labours… The higher are his attainments in science and wisdom, the more extensive are those effects which benefit human society.”

The world has changed in profound ways since these words were spoken, but their relevance hasn’t waned.  Yes, technological change and globalization continue to affect every aspect of our day to day lives, as well as the way we teach and learn. Technology speeds access to facts and opinions, and the result is an astonishing renaissance in human thinking—an information revolution—as people around the world share ideas effortlessly, at the speed of light.  But navigating this new landscape has its perils. The same technology that shrinks the globe has the power to isolate us, eliminating our sense of community by accepting casual connections over meaningful relationships—by valuing narrow facts over worthy ideas.  This is why we cannot lose sight of our fundamental mission, even as we adapt to the challenges and opportunities the world presents us.  This is why you have often heard me say that our pursuit of excellence and superior performance must be tied to moral distinction and a commitment to service. In coming to Deerfield, we all accept the call to do well, but not with the exclusive goal of self-advancement, but with the intent to do good, to benefit the lives of those we touch.

If we consider the current political and economic landscape in our country, many would agree that our challenges have less to do with lack of knowledge or competence and more with our inability to look beyond personal or partisan interests, to focus on the common good, to engage in open/honest, civil discourse.  Over the summer, for instance, we witnessed several weeks of partisan wrangling in Congress over a national debt-reduction deal, which may have saved us temporarily from default, but which could not prevent Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade the U. S. Credit rating for the first time in history. As the world watched, we put on display a level of self-centeredness and obstinacy that signals our inability to deal with long-term, intractable problems, and our penchant to postpone necessary, difficult decisions.  For the past four decades, the federal government has spent more money than it has brought in, which simply means we have been living beyond our means for a long time.  But the problem is not lack of awareness, but incapacity to face the facts with courage and discipline. The list of challenges is long, whether we focus on energy, immigration, infrastructure, education or most urgently, unemployment. In a recent article, political commentator Fareed Zakaria, deplores the level of dysfunction in our day-to-day government life, made so apparent during the recent debt ceiling debacle, and I quote, “The world once looked at America with awe as we built the interstate highway system, created the best public education in the world, put a man on the moon and invested in the frontiers of knowledge…  We have taken something the world never doubted –the credibility of the U.S.—and put it into question” (TIME, Aug 15/11, p.33)

What does all of this have to do with us at Deerfield? What does our mission have to do with this disconcerting reality? If we believe that our national crisis is one of character rather than intellect, then Deerfield’s emphasis on citizenship and strong moral character can make a difference.  You, our students, will have a critical role to play in restoring confidence and optimism to the national psyche, and you will do this by demonstrating the very values we cultivate here: respect, honesty, diligence, resilience, humility, empathy, and a commitment to service.  How we treat and speak to one another here and now, how we make choices and decisions that  affect our school community, provides excellent practice for your future roles as citizens.  When you engage in rational discourse about school issues, rules, policies, and decisions, whether they have to do with student housing, the dress code, disciplinary actions, parietal rules, study hours, or choice of student leaders, you are developing the very skills and attributes you will need to deal effectively with the challenges of citizenship.

A healthy community invites debate, and should expect the exchange of different perspectives, but these perspectives need to be grounded in evidence and information, and the ability to think critically and empathetically.  A healthy community can grow from disagreements that are dealt with openly.  Let me give you an example: I know the revised dress code announcement was a source of much debate and emotion this past August.  While I suspect this issue will generate more conversation, I would like to publicly acknowledge the constructive role Theo Lipsky and Charles Jones played shortly after arriving at a temporary solution.  They explained their concerns logically and constructively, and urged an emphasis on more regular communication.  I presented my concerns about a school policy that is currently not followed consistently.  Let’s keep the lines of communication open, and collaborate in identifying an effective policy.  In the future, as you enter adulthood, the debate will be on far more serious issues, and you will be well served by practicing the art of debate and compromise now.  In the spirit of open dialogue, I would like to remind you of my open office hours, every Tuesday after sit down dinner. I value my conversations with all of you.

I have dwelled on the importance of character, and the development of certain attributes at Deerfield, because I realize how easy it is to speak about them, and how much harder it is to demonstrate them. All schools speak about these values, but how many actually deliver in practice? My hope for this year is that we focus on “showing” rather than ”telling,” that our values are evident to any visitor by how we comport ourselves, by our dispositions, behaviors and actions, rather than our words.  Let me make this real for you.  If I were to walk into your dorm room right now, what would I see? What about your common room, the Greer, or the Dining Hall? If I looked inside a recycling bin, what would I find? Are all of you in dress code now? Every day? If I walked into your dorm during study hours, what would I see and hear? And I haven’t even touched on the most significant issues: your level of honesty with one another and your work, how you include or exclude your peers, how you support or criticize one another, how you represent Deerfield off-campus – you get the point.  The truth is that it takes a lot of effort and practice to behave honorably all of the time, but it is practice that develops good habits, and good habits that build strong character.

You may have heard about the “10,000-hour rule,” which is simply the most recent interpretation of our grandmother’s maxim, “practice makes perfect.”  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, states that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” It seems that the magical number to reach excellence in any endeavor hovers around 10,000 hours, but I am less interested in the specific number than in the general concept.  How much effort does it take to build strong, honorable character? What if in addition to grades in math, biology, or music we gave out grades in respect, generosity, resilience and so on?  Some schools in New York are actually experimenting with this notion, and are talking not only about GPA but CPA, “character point average.”  What if colleges asked us to rank you along these lines? The point I want to make is that character is also formed by practice, and that strong character is as critical as intellect in leading fulfilling, purposeful lives.

Let me end by highlighting a concept I heard about repeatedly during my travels in Africa this summer, and which captures the spirit we all seek as members of this community.  If you are a basketball fan and you follow the Boston Celtics you will have heard this word before, because it has been used in the past as a rallying cry for team unity.  The word UBUNTU, which has its origins in the Bantu languages of southern Africa, is hard to translate into one single English word, but it has to do with the importance of relationships and community life, with a way of being that is grounded in a keen awareness of our common humanity.  Loosely translated it means, “I am because we are.”  May the spirit of UBUNTU guide us throughout the year.