Here Now to Dream

Remarks of Welcome to New Students and Parents, Matriculation Ceremony - August 22, 2010

In every possible way, our welcome today is heartfelt and genuine. Hundreds of us—returning students, faculty members, and my co-workers in the service and administrative departments—have been getting ready for your arrival over many months. Your presence is a wonderful inspiration because you express to us the best part of our own humanity, that which responds to the newcomer, by insisting that you become an integral part of something we all can share and cherish—this living tradition of being a Laurentian. 

To join the St. Lawrence community, as you do today, is to know for the first time that our traditions attach each of us to something that makes us feel special, different, and proud. In years to come, it will also evoke principles of loyalty and the suddenness of sentimentality. We have our own songs, not heard anywhere else. We have chapel bells that play every day at five o’clock when the university is in session. Our scarlet and brown colors are not duplicated by any other college in America. St. Lawrence’s ceremonies are stately, but never stuffy, sometimes spontaneous, but consistently remembered as a chain of unbroken continuity going back many decades, binding Laurentian generations to changeless features of a mental landscape. Our geography, sense of place, and view of the physical world is a setting that may be similar on other campuses, but never truly duplicated anywhere else.

When you walk around or across the quad, your eye takes in the foothills of the Adirondacks, a view that changes with the light nearly every day, certainly every season. On a beautiful fall afternoon, those smaller mountains that front the high peaks will be a wonderful reference point; they will calm you on a day of frustration and they will lift you at dusk to face the hard work of evening study. A few miles to the south as you climb into the hills, the view back toward the St. Lawrence River was named more than a century ago by one of our students, “Paradise Valley.” 

While the parents and families of students forming the class of 2014 bring their young people to Canton and to a place the local residents know as “Paradise Valley,” there exist in this transaction today high hopes and natural fears. We get that, particularly in this great hour on the edge of a new map with untraveled roads upon it. I understand personally this mix of emotions as the parent of a young adult and recent college graduate; and it would be irresponsible of me to promise you a paradise of innocence here, a place without risk, temptation, or uncertainty. But I can offer you the assurance that we are utterly interdependent with St. Lawrence families in the work we have ahead of us to get this class ready for their life’s journey. We are joined in the larger common cause with parents, grandparents, and extended families, recognizing that we must work together from matriculation to commencement in complementary roles.

To our new students, I offer my support and good cheer through all your college days, but also I submit a few thoughts about your initial experience in a university that will seem to most of you, if not now, then in time, a place that is a glimpse of paradise. No less an authority on the topic of paradise than John Milton once explained in the dialog of two young people what this state of being was like. They say to one another: “With thee conversing I forget all time,/ All seasons and their change, all please alike” (PL, IV: 639-40). That will happen here. You will be transported to a kind of paradise-like experience. One moment you’ll start reading an assigned text, writing a lab report, working a math problem or taking a study break with a friend; you think the time is nine o’clock, but the chimes at town hall just struck eleven. What happened and where did the time go? You will have moments of feeling that hours in the day have been magically suspended and somehow lost. It comes with the important privilege of freedom. It’s a moment of discovery about what you enjoy and like to do.

This occasion, this juncture in my talk, of course, lends itself to a list of admonitions. I could issue many notes of caution about how you use this sense of freedom and pleasure. You may be anticipating the caution of an elder because with personal freedom one is often teetering on the edge of chaos, danger, and indiscipline. So, let me disappoint your parents and surprise you. I will not utter another word about freedom and its consequences born of making mistakes. You will make them, learn from them, and also learn that most of your errors will carry a price, but ultimately, they will not bankrupt your promise. They may actually enrich you.

Rather, I encourage a different approach, really an affirmation of your freedom, as you take these initial steps into college life. Last spring at the St. Lawrence commencement, Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court came to campus and gave a superb speech that unified her own college beginnings—improbable, uncertain, and exciting—with her extraordinary career in the law. The night before, Lynn and I had a little gathering at our campus home followed by a dinner for our honored guests and their families. I happened to be paired at the dinner table with Justice Sotomayor. In the course of conversation that covered a spectrum of topics from the New York Yankees to first impressions of Washington, DC, she made a clear, air-tight argument in support of a liberal arts education, the kind we achieve at St. Lawrence. I asked her if she remembered a particular book that captivated her as an undergraduate in the liberal arts. Without a pause, she declared that she particularly loved the old 17th century English classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

This is a book that no one reads much anymore, but it was one of only three volumes that President Woodrow Wilson kept on his desk at The White House. It is, however, a work that is quietly marked on the St. Lawrence campus in one of the small stained glass windows just inside the north door of Gunnison Memorial Chapel. There you will find an image of Bunyan inscribed with the words, “I dreamed a dream.” It is a text from this masterwork’s opening line, “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place….and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.” I encourage you to let this word be the underlying and best purpose of your matriculation at St. Lawrence.

Today, more than ever, the material value of a college education has been seriously questioned, examined, and often given its best rationale on the grounds of what it may provide in lifetime earnings and career prestige. At many universities, the equivalent moment of entry as a new student is already under the banner of resume development and credential building. While St. Lawrence students are among the nation’s most talented and hard-working, who will confront the full measure of expectations about serious study and hard thinking, our tradition has a different starting point. Within the freedom of this place (this hint of paradise), and through the support of this caring community (this line of tradition), you carry the charge to say I am here now—to learn, to make close friends, and to discover fun. But more than anything, I am here to dream.

How you dream, what you dream, where you dream, or who influences your dream, is entirely your own business. No one else is in charge of that. Not your teachers, not your coaches, not your deans. The faculty runs the courses. I make sure the boilers run and the faculty is paid. But you have complete license, independent and free, to begin your walk through the wilderness of this world and imagine your place in it.

When I was first starting out in life, one of my teachers tacked on the back of his office door an index card bearing the words of a playwright (George Bernard Shaw), “Look to the stars, there are more important things than personal problems.” You will see many stars in the North Country sky and none of them will know your grade point average or test scores or exam results. Now these things matter a lot, but your most important task as a St. Lawrence student, constantly trying on new experiences, exploring fresh boundaries, and thinking up all kinds of possible lives, will be to exercise that freedom to say during the next few weeks and years, “I dreamed a dream.” 

Welcome to Paradise Valley. Welcome to St. Lawrence University, my alma mater and now yours.