Matriculation 2013

Novel Attitudes

I am honored to greet you. I have been thinking about you daily, the class of 2017, for several months, actually imagining your presence on the St. Lawrence campus since we had bid farewell to our graduating class in May. For them, the magic had happened; they had become Laurentians for life. When my first thoughts turned to you, it was not in the form of surrogacy, substitution, or replacing people I had begun to miss.

Rather, it was to ponder, how will the young men and women entering our community of experience at St. Lawrence really be different, perhaps novel? Will they become changed individuals over time, particularly in their first year? Will the members of the class of 2017 acquire a certain distinctive identity of their own formed by new attachments to each other?

Part of my welcome today is simply to make known to you, your parents, and your families our intentions. It is a form of disclosure, but it cannot, of course, be a full disclosure because we don’t have it all figured out for you. I’m sorry, if you were expecting a set piece in your college experience, or even something resembling your parents’ student days, or an imitation of a goof-ball movie about campus life you thought vaguely real and funny, then you’ll be mistaken or disillusioned.

Let me begin with a short word to your parents. First, my heart of gratitude is genuine. Thank you for sharing you sons and daughters with us. I am closer to your life experience than I am to our students, so I believe we have a kind of code language that will let me be brief. To express the day’s mood in song titles: this moment attempts the more grown-up Beatles when they sang “Let it be,” instead of the sentimental memory, “I saw her standing there.” Lynn and I, as parents, know vividly the feelings of this day. Most songs fail to capture the colliding reflections that fill the hour, so just mumble the McCartney lyric “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.”

Living so near the St. Lawrence River, our university’s namesake, which is also an international border, makes this place different from all the many colleges you might otherwise have attended. Whenever I cross the bridge to Prescott, Ontario, I look upstream toward the Great Lakes and, then downstream toward Montreal, not that I can see either, but there are symbolic connections that are joined over the water. And for a brief moment while on that bridge, suspended between two nations, I let my imagination attach itself to one of the great ships of the line, often called lakers or freighters, which carry bulk cargo, such as feed, metals, or factory products to distant ports.

It is a relatively easy passage for a ship to make her way across the giant lakes of North America, though there are narrow straits to navigate that lie between bodies of open water. There, but more particularly nearby on the St. Lawrence Seaway, because currents are strong and channels are narrow, shipping must be handled through locks and canals. You can watch this process about nine months a year just a half hour from campus. It’s the only way for ships to move from one level to the next.

Most human lives, at formative or critical periods, will resemble this process of passing through connecting locks. In fact, the rapid transition into college life, moving from a familiar, tranquil pattern of flat water to something more challenging, absent easy self-sufficiency, is a parallel experience. I venture to say this because I don’t want to diminish how important it is to get through this lock passage of the next few days and weeks. There’s more to negotiate than you may have expected, even as we make sure there are plenty of deckhands and experienced pilots to steer you. Let them help you in this first narrow passage; they’ve been through it before and you haven’t.

A recent biographer of John Hay, best remembered as one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries, said Hay “was not a man of far-encompassing vision but more a man of successive vantage points, one guiding him toward the next…” And that is a good way to consider your own journey, one stretch of river at a time, successive vantage points, learning the channels and currents, passing skillfully through the locks and narrows, one at a time.

Some of you may desire a more direct word from me as you enter college and get to know the traditions of the St. Lawrence way. So, let me put the matter in severe concreteness. Don’t fake it. You’re accomplished, you’re smart, and you’re ambitious. You wouldn’t be allowed here if you were not qualified and capable. But there is abundant novelty in each of the four years you are part of St. Lawrence, novelty which you have yet to discover. And, no matter how well traveled or well-read you claim to be, you are much too young to wear the “been there, done that” tee shirt. I was pleased in looking up “novelty-hunting” in a book about English usage and grammar that the entry said, it “is especially characteristic of our age.”

In the face of new situations and new ideas, I advise you, don’t fake it. If you have an appetite for novelty, don’t pretend to be studying on a full stomach. It’s so important to be excited, inspired, stimulated, and able to see successive vantage points in the terms of something new to you. We sometimes hear the expression about the novelty wearing off after a while. It surely can, if we allow it. If I can make only one distinction for you to ponder over the next couple of weeks as fresh impressions form and your own reactions to them gel, I would ask you to note the subtle difference between attitude and pose.

How you appear in the face of some moment that is fresh and novel is to achieve the instant of wonder. Your attitude is the determining factor. “In wonder,” said Coleridge, “all philosophy began; in wonder it ends. The first wonder is the child of ignorance; the last is the parent of adoration.” And he might have wisely added that the ends of wonder are known in a constant partnership with others, such as classmates, teachers, counselors, deans, and coaches; and not as lonely pioneering. And therein, the difference is noted between attitude and pose; an attitude implies a relation outside ourselves; a pose is an account of ourselves. Put differently, we look through a door in attitude; we stand in front of a mirror in pose.

To belong, to fit in, to be comfortable, you have to possess an attitude that genuinely desires being part of others. Pretending is posturing; at St. Lawrence we don’t pose, we get going and we get involved. One of my favorite stories about the nature of attitude on a campus is told by a college president about another college president at an unnamed institution. There was once a formal dinner on campus, prepared by professional chefs, but served by student workers who had been coached on banquet protocols. When a young woman served the president’s table, she carefully put two pats of butter on each bread plate. The president inquired if he could have some extra butter. “I’m terribly sorry, sir,” said the student, “but I was given precise direction to put exactly two pats of butter, and no more, on each bread plate.” The president pleaded softly, “But you don’t seem to understand. I’m the president and in charge of this great college and I would like some extra butter.” “I am delighted to meet you, sir,” said the student. “My name is Erika, and I’m in charge of the butter.” In this vignette, who is posing? And who holds the better attitude?

Our intention, from this day forward, is to develop in you a wonderful attitude—about ideas and intellect, about fairness and what matters, about happiness and effectiveness, about differentness and making a difference. We intend for you a confidence to handle novelty, new experiences, and ever changing seasons.

For all of us who have spent months getting ready to welcome you, I hasten to say that in your own way, even technically, you are a novelty to us. In fact, in patent law, there is a concept to protect inventions or intellectual property called “the point of novelty test” in which a demarcating moment “of departure from the prior art” must be established to acquire a patent. This occasion announces that equivalent departure; you are not like any class before you; you are at liberty to reinvent yourself; or redirect your interests from high school; you have arrived at a testing point of defining your attitude about all that is new. You’re the class of 2017. And I am glad, very glad, we’ll be together.

Matriculation August 2013