Listen to Mike Peters' 2014 Convocation Remarks: Convocation Remarks
August 28, 2014
Good morning, again. Welcome 50th anniversary class of 2018 and new students in the Graduate Institute. We are pleased and excited to have you join us at St. John’s College in this our anniversary year. A special welcome to family and friends. Thank you for taking the time to share this moment with your students and for supporting their attending St. John’s. Welcome back to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends
There are a remarkable number of significant anniversaries this year. Among them, August 4th, the 100th anniversary of World War I, the “War to End All Wars”. September 1st, the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II – a war that exceeded even the slaughter of “The War to End All Wars.” June 6th, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the allied landing in France that was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. And, 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall that ushered in the end of the Cold War.
But, the anniversary we celebrate on the campus this year is of a very different sort. You may have already noticed the banners on some of the lampposts. For October 10th marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe campus and its first convocation. The Graduate Institute opened three years later in the summer of 1967. The first convocation was held in almost exactly the same spot as today’s and with a freshman class in many ways quite similar to yours. That is, with undergraduates from across the United States and beyond. Students who were looking for an opportunity to study the greatest works across disciplines with faculty and fellow students who share their passion for learning.
In other words to pursue a liberal education. As then St. John’s president Richard Weigle put it, “A liberal education at St. John’s College means that optimum development of intellectual powers . . . [in order to ] freely exercise [the ] highest forms of rational thought . . . Liberal education also implies the effort to gain understanding of [the students’] place in the world . . . [and their] reason for being.”
Continuing, Weigle said, these “ends require . . . tools which are aptly called the liberal or liberating arts . . . The student must learn to think, to analyze, to define, to imagine, to experiment, to demonstrate, to communicate and to decide. In other words, the processes of the mind must command primary attention, not the limitless expanses of information and facts on the one hand or specific vocational skills on the other.”
The historical events that are remembered this year understandably may seem quite distant to you, as most of you were born after even the most recent, the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, 1964 when the campus was launched is the era of your parents or grandparents, -- seemingly a world apart from today. But, in reflecting upon the
world of 1964, you might see some striking parallels to 2014. The Cold War has ended, but Russia remains a challenge most recently in Ukraine. In fact, last week also marked the 46th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1964, the United States was in the early stages of a military engagement in Southeast Asia. Now it is the Middle East. And both then and now there was an emerging debate about the United States’ role in the world. In 1964, President Johnson signed a major piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act, but the challenge of race relations and the legacy of slavery persist today as we see in places like Ferguson, Missouri. The same year, President Johnson also declared a “War on Poverty”, yet in the wake of the “Great Recession” poverty remains an unresolved problem. And, extreme partisanship is not a uniquely 21st century concern.
It was into this world that the Santa Fe campus was born – and as I noted a world and its challenges that are not that dissimilar to those you as students and we as a college face today.
For example, in his opening lecture the founding dean, Clarence Kramer, raised concerns that I am sure would find resonance with some on the faculty today. Dean Kramer pointed out that technique (or today perhaps technology) threatens to outstrip knowledge. He also noted the strained relationship between “science” and the liberal arts. In particular, he focused on the role of the St. John’s Program in the nuclear age. While today we are more likely to think about the relationship of the Program with the dramatic advances in the biological and life sciences. But, the questions remain fundamentally familiar. Dean Kramer concluded by saying that serious conversation must be restored to resolve modern problems and to re-establish communications among differing groups. Something which remains a priority for us now as well.
Of course, physically the campus looked quite different in 1964. The college was well outside the built up areas of the city, not surrounded by homes and schools, and Camino Cruz Blanca was a dirt road. There was no library building, or gym, or Graduate Institute building and there were fewer dorms. The pond was here and Peterson and Santa Fe Halls and the science building behind me, and believe it or not a corral with horses. And it hadn’t changed much when the Graduate Institute opened three years later.
But, despite the physical growth, the college’s purpose and program have remained consistent. In President Weigle’s convocation remarks of October 1964 he described these four essential propositions of the college:
“First, we believe there is such thing as truth . . . and that truth is capable of being apprehended.”
“Second, we have confidence in . . . reason, both as a means of searching for knowledge and truth and also as a governor of [our] life and actions. Hence, our
conviction as to the role of dialectic. Every proposition and opinion should be capable of being subjected to scrutiny, questioning and debate.”
“Third, the liberal arts are the means to understanding. These are truly the tools by which [we] learn.”
“Finally, [w]e believe that the great thinkers, religious leaders, philosophers and scientists of the past speak to us today . . . and that this life . . . will be fuller and more meaningful if we . . . enter into the great conversation with our predecessors.”
As you begin your studies, whether graduate student in liberal arts or Eastern Classics or undergraduate, I think you also will find that these four propositions regarding the college remain valid and alive today.
So you arrive at the college in a year of celebration and reflection. There will be a number of programs to mark this milestone in the history of the campus and the college, but there are two I would highlight this morning. The first is Homecoming September 19-21. Alumni will be coming from around the globe to reconnect with one another and the college. There will be opportunities for you to meet with some of them and see first-hand how St. John’s has helped shape their lives. Second, October 16-18 the college will host a major academic conference on liberal education and its role, with leading figures from academia and elsewhere. The conference will provide a venue to explore and highlight the benefits of and challenges to liberal education. It will also allow the college to showcase its distinctive place in higher education.
But, right now, you probably have other more immediate things on your mind as you settle into your dorm, meet roommates and classmates, begin your classes and find a place for yourself at the college. Building on the words of President Weigle from 50 years ago, let me mention a few other aspects of what you will find at St. John’s and what the college values
First, community. A community that includes not only your fellow students, but the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college. We treat this sense of community very seriously. It is a community founded on respect. Respect for our common enterprise – learning. But also respect for ourselves and respect for one another. The nature of the college demands this respect and suffers when it breaks down.
Second, commitment to liberal education. Liberal, as President Weigle said, in the sense of liberating or freeing. This is an education that calls upon each of us, student and tutor, to take responsibility for his or her own learning.
Third, examination of our social and moral obligations. The fundamental elements of this moral consciousness are contained in the works we read, discuss and write about. But, these ideas will remain very sterile, if we don’t try to take the questions
they pose and the choices they demand beyond the classroom and into our daily life and the life of the college.
You will be presented with an array of choices while at the college. Choices about your engagement with the program; choices about your participation in the college outside the classroom; choices about your social life; and so many more. Choices which will either enhance or impede your growth as a student and a person. Since you have made the choice to attend St. John’s use your time wisely.
Fourth, service, helping others. The program is demanding and must, of course, be your first priority. But, there are tremendous needs in the local community. Imagine what a difference we could make if each of us found some way to serve others
Your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many possibilities that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston, in the assistant dean’s office. If you get involved, you will benefit both yourself and others.
You can begin Saturday morning at the on-campus community service day. If you get to the dining hall on time you can get a great start on the day by sampling some of my Presidential pancakes. Believe me, they are worth it.
Finally, look out for yourself physically and emotionally. You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself. Maintain your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, give it up. Smoking won’t improve your looks, your personality or your intellect.
Exercise your body as well as your mind. Don’t hang out in your dorm room, or for the GI’s, the Darkey Common Room in Levan Hall. Get involved in some of the many student activities. Go to the gym. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go hiking or whitewater rafting. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Polity, student government. This is just a sample. If you can’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
In this regard I encourage you to attend the Student Activities Fair from noon to 1:30 on Tuesday, September 2nd in Peterson Hall and the Community and Career Fair next Wednesday, September 3rd, from 3:00 to 5:00 on the placita adjacent to Levan and Peterson Halls and the Fine Art Building. Please come out and see the many possibilities there are on campus, in Santa Fe and in Northern New Mexico.
On behalf of the faculty and staff, I again welcome and congratulate you on joining us at St. John’s College. Where, from the founding fifty years ago to today, we: pursue the search for truth; have confidence in the power of reason; believe the
liberal arts are the path to understanding; and believe the great thinkers of the past speak to us today. We are pleased to have you with us and we look forward to celebrating your learning and the 50th anniversary of the Santa Fe campus with you.
I can assure you that since you have come to St. John’s, the college will never be the same, and I am equally certain that since you have come to St. John’s College, you will never be the same.
So with this in mind, let me repeat my question to you of last evening, anniversary Class of 2018, and graduate students, are you ready? Yes!
With this, I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!