2020 Convocation Remarks

Good afternoon, Deerfield.

I want to thank Mr. Flaska, Dr. Hills, and Mr. Achebe, your Student Body President, for their remarks and participation today. And congratulations to those who received prizes.

Our Convocation today here under this tent is a remarkable, a historic day. We formally mark our return to campus as a community after months apart; we welcome our new students, those here on campus and those learning remotely—and we welcome our new faculty, four of whom are Deerfield graduates and one of whom, Mr. Abreu, will serve as our Wilson Fellow this year. I wanted to offer a particular welcome to our seniors who are joining us remotely from states and countries afar and particularly to the Chair of our Student Council, Angie Osei-Ampadu, who was scheduled to be with us on the stage this afternoon.

And we gather to give our thanks. Across the world parents, students, teachers, educators and educators—public and private – are working to create meaningful opportunities for students to learn, some online, some not—and they are doing it amidst extraordinary challenges, with dedication, selflessness and creativity—and very different resources. This is inspiring and heroic.

We are here because of the tremendous efforts made by every member of this community, and I wanted express my gratitude: to the vision, stewardship and future-oriented leadership of earlier generations of Trustees and present Trustees who have planned and prepared Deerfield with such vision and care for this moment and built the institutional resiliency that allows teaching and learning to continue. On a day like this it is important for all of us to remember that schools like Deerfield are great multi-generational accomplishments, built slowly with intention and great effort over time.  It’s important for you to know that school would not be possible today had not many countless others, stretching back to the early days of Mr. and Mrs. Boyden, served the Academy with such generosity and dedication. We are also here because, over the summer months and across our campus, our staff performed miracles of transformation and design. I hope you will find time to express to our staff your thanks and gratitude. And we are here because of the grit and resiliency of your teachers; their presence is a testament to their love of the classroom and their belief of you.

I wish we could have gathered the entire student body today, but I am delighted to have, at least and for now, our seniors. This strikes me as fitting and appropriate. I have said before that the success of any school year hinges on the leadership—and the collective character—of its seniors—and not simply of its titled leadership, but of all you, individually and collectively. This is more true this year than perhaps any year in recent memory, as we ask you—you more than anyone else—to lead our younger students and model for all of us healthy practices and good decision-making. If character is defined by how we act when no one else is watching—and we can’t watch you all the time – then character has never been more important. Colleges across the country are imploding because some students seem to be making some poor decisions.

I am wearing my class of 2020 tie this afternoon as a reminder of a past year cut short and also of commencements yet to come—two in fact, theirs and yours.  For now, this pandemic is with us, and because of that, much of what happens over the next months is beyond our control, as you well know, but I look forward with realistic optimism to us gathering in this tent later in the year to celebrate your commencement.  Yes—you will have to earn it—perhaps in ways other classes have not, but yesterday as I sat with proctors—and as I look out at you today—I think to myself: if any group of students can lead us through this year, you can.

As the formal opening of the academic year, convocation is also an opportunity to celebrate the life of the mind.  And before I turn to our Convocation speaker today, I offer a few reflections.

The late media critic Neil Postman has argued that “the dominant form of information in a culture shapes the intellectual orientation of its citizens.” You are probably wondering what that means; let me translate.  What he means, simply, is that there is another curriculum out there, distinct from the one schools formally offer and perhaps even more powerful, that shapes our mental, civic and intellectual lives.  That second curriculum is the broader media environment in which we all swim.

Every age has its distinct media environment and ecology. Plato famously wished to banish the poets from his republic—not because he disliked poetry, but because he wanted to promote a different kind of media environment: one based not on oral transmission of the great myths, mostly Homeric, but on reason and abstract thought, on philosophy. “Let none enter who knows not geometry.” That was the inscription above his academy. As impossible as this might seem, in 5th century Athens geometry was radical and counter-cultural. As one scholar writes: “Plato was telling his compatiots that it was foolish to imagine that the intellectual needs of life in Greek society could still be met by memorizing Homer.”

We too are living through a media revolution, driven by powerful forms of new digital technology, forms of communication and information delivery, unlike any the world has ever seen, and I am not convinced that they alone can meet the needs of our divided, globalized age and the pressing challenges your generation must necessarily face. These new forms of media, as they come to us through our phones and computers, touch everything we do and virtually every dimension of our lives. They mediate our relationship with peers, friends and family; they have changed how we parent; transformed our civic and political life. And it has changed how we think and behave, privileging some forms of behavior over others and rewarding speed, immediacy, brevity, spontaneity, even impulsiveness.

This is not news. Nor is it a value judgement. These new media are capable of both wondrous and terrible things. Without them many students would not be in school today. Knowledge has been democratised and made more widely accessible. Everyone now has at their finger tips a printing press—and all the power of voice that comes with it.  Schools everywhere should seek to harness these new technologies.  But we should seek to harness them in the service of scholarly values—and those, I will submit to you, are very different from the values that our digital media often promotes.

Where the digital environment values speed, immediacy, brevity; school—this school—values sustained attention, absorption, patient inquiry—what the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston called “disciplined curiosity”—and the transformational power of human interaction in real time. As a school, as a place of learning, we value slow thought: the careful way a writer or poet drafts, re-drafts and drafts again; the slow, attentive close reading of a poem or text.  We value the capacity for concentration and absorption in the imaginative world of a novel or play; the patience to follow a complex argument, a closely reasoned work of history, social science or philosophy; the deliberate, disciplined methods of close observation and experimentation that are the source of scientific knowledge.

As I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this summer, I was not surprised to discover that while in college he majored in philosophy or that, as a student of the Constitution and the law, he chose to invoke an 1891 Supreme Court decision in naming the Equal Justice Initiative; or that he takes inspiration from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Among many other writers. He brings great heart to his work as a human rights advocate—but also the discipline of a philosopher, historian and constitutional scholar and an education grounded in the liberal arts.

The liberal art have, as the political philosopher Lorraine Pangle has argued, a powerful role to play in our troubled times. As students, “one of the most important contributions we can make to a nation [and world] in turmoil” she writes, “lie not simply in the actions or even the stands we take but in slowing down and asking the right questions, often the questions that no one is asking, listening to our first thoughts and second thoughts, listening especially to the voices that prevailing opinion within our own social bubble is inclined to scorn and to exclude, and creating constructive dialogue between diverse perspectives.” “Our task,” she suggests, “is to be more helpfully relevant precisely by stepping back and being more deeply reflective.” Your education here offers you that opportunity.  Seize it.

I will leave it there for now, and turn the podium over to today’s Convocation speaker, Mr. Lyons. Like Bryan Stevenson, Mr. Lyons also has an interest in the law, having received his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and having served as a law clerk on the United States District Court of Maine, before becoming a teacher, As he will tell you, Mr. Lyons comes from a family of educators, and he is the 2019 recipient of the Greer Family Distinguished Teaching Chair, given to “that member of the faculty whose tireless efforts in the past year, both in and out of the classroom, have enriched immeasurably the minds and hearts of students at Deerfield Academy.  This teacher has not only exhibited exemplary enthusiasm and understanding in work with students, but has also served as a role model for students to emulate in their daily lives, demonstrating that a love of learning and commitment to community are not mutually incompatible.”

Mr. Lyons, the podium is yours.

 

 

 

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