Learning to Remember | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Learning to Remember

Matriculation 2016

All St. Lawrence matriculation ceremonies are equal or similar in nature, which is what I am supposed to say and what you are probably thinking is the predictable thing I must say every year. We who already live here have done this before; this is all familiar territory emotionally and situationally. These occasions gather the first-year class for the first time with a light touch of pageantry and our old school traditions. And yet, this year is different because while all entering classes are equal, some are slightly more equal than others. The class of 2020 is in a class by itself.

It may only be your lucky timing that your class year, 2020, is a number that will somehow always hold significance for its alliterative and rounding symmetry. From the perspective of your parents and grandparents in their own youth, the year 2020 once represented a distant future of unimaginable and uncertain promise, perhaps like the year 1984 had once seemed to George Orwell. When I was in high school, a pop-rock hit of the day opened with the line “in the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive…” and while that date is still beyond comprehension, 2020 felt like a long time off when you born.

I can attest professionally as a casual member of the St. Lawrence history department, that years that end in zero are convenient mile markers for studying the past. As the zero-year approached in prior generations, the nervous expectations were often heightened for the people living through those perceived turning-points. This was true about the election years of 1800, 1860, 1940, 1960, and 2000.

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Most importantly, the class of 2020 is in a class by itself for other reasons than the seeming arbitrariness of a number. You arrive on the St. Lawrence campus in a moment of human experience when there is a greater temptation for each of you to forget about the worries in troubled places far away from Canton. Your parents and family members here today may be simultaneously unsettled by your departure from home; but also feeling relieved that you join today a community of deep, genuine caring about your minds and lives.

Let me pause to avoid parental code-talk and simply be plain-spoken to more than half of this matriculation audience. I am also a father, so the range of feelings between joyful pride and unnamed anxiety are well understood in this hour. We get it, we get the terms of a mutually desirable partnership between St. Lawrence and its devoted families, and we get that your sons and daughters will embark on a life-changing transition, perhaps symbolically magnified by the chance nature of their class year, 2020.

Between now and the year 2020, I expect changes in the world that you students should ponder extensively and that will cause you to adapt in ways not yet envisioned. So, I have a starting proposition to make today that I hope gives each of you particular guidance for the days ahead on campus and the long years beyond 2020. You may have anticipated my first-day advice: plan ahead, embrace the future, lean into the wind, don’t look back, and seize tomorrow. If you expected these admonitions, you guessed wrong. Those are clichés that are often and irritatingly true, but they are not, in my view, essential to your happiness. On the contrary, with all that is ahead of you, with the horizon line of 2020 weighted by futuristic abstraction, I have but one wish: learn to remember.

If you visit the nearby Canadian province of Quebec, which is highly recommended, you will note on license plates and on welcoming highway billboards a three word motto: Je me souviens. In translation, it simply says, “I remember.” The meaning of those words is intentionally vague and today is left open to interpretation, though there is an implied history, strong identity, and deep pride in the memory of French-speaking people in North America. Nevertheless, it is a motto that we all should borrow and live by. “I remember.”

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There are two parts to my advice about learning to remember, one practical, the other philosophical. I’ll start with a story, but will first make the distinction between memory and remembering. It’s the difference between the electrical energy that powers the light bulb and the actual light that illuminates the room. Memory is the socket, remembering is the beam that lets you see.

In the year 1793, the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, which later gave way to the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain, a young man named Peter Mark Roget headed off to college at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He was a promising student, though unsure about his range of talents and confused emotions. His biographer writes that “university life was particularly alienating for entering students” because “the campus lacked dormitories, and the students often had to walk several miles to get to class.” Peter was painfully awkward socially, which had worried his mother so much that she came to live with him in Edinburgh. (I know what you’re thinking, but we have different rules about that today).

Peter became, over time, a very successful student, earning the admiration of his professors, and developing several important friendships with his contemporaries. He had discovered about himself that he needed structure and order in his day and life. He coped with his hesitancy and insecurity by making lists, lists of words, concepts, and events. Peter learned this habit from science, particularly the budding fields of chemistry and zoology that were just beginning to develop comparative studies that organized physical materials or animal species into likeness categories of similarity.

Peter Mark Roget continued this habit of list-making far into his career as a physician, scientist, inventor, mathematician, teacher, chess player, and author. In fact, four years before the founding of St. Lawrence University, he published one of the most famous books in the English language, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. It has since sold 40 million copies and many of you will own this book before the end of your first semester in college. Among the remnants of my undergraduate book shelf, I still possess a tattered copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.

The point I am making, however, is that learning to remember usually requires the habit of making lists. The precautions and procedures of modern medicine have been demonstrably improved by the ER checklist. Airline pilots have lists that are constantly being reviewed before every flight. If you read the biographies of world leaders, they were known for creating lists of priorities. For a college student, learning to remember all that you are expected to do in a day, in a semester, will be better achieved if you keep a list of tasks, new ideas, goals, deadlines, and what to tell mom and dad on the next call home.

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Learning to remember is not only a skill in how to organize a productive day, but it must also be an active consideration of what grounds your thinking, your choices, and your preferences. You will, I promise, be challenged by learning to remember what is important, what is ultimately significant.

It is not my style to caution students about the dangers of freedom in college. There is intentionally more freedom in an academic community such as this than in any place you have ever lived. You are free to do as you please, up to a point. You are free to blow through your frozen yogurt and tee-shirt budget. You are free to express controversial and unproven opinions. You are free to talk about authors you haven’t read, or films you have never screened, or reject dinner entrees you have never tasted. You are free to criticize people you have yet to meet or pass judgment upon them them based on the zip code of their hometowns.

The largest portion of this campus freedom is undoubtedly reserved for the university course catalog. There are available to you hundreds of courses, seminars, and field experiences; and you are free to choose any of them. There are essentially no limits, only the plus ultra of possibilities, in knowing, embracing, and experiencing freedom. It can make you giddy and euphoric. And now, this is the “yes, but” moment of learning to remember. I would not advocate a definition of freedom as the simple lack of bothersome hindrances, because I believe college ought to be tremendously fun and slightly unhindered, as one of the privileges of freedom.

But what is freedom? It is remembering that you have options, you have a system of values, and you are empowered to choose, to form attachments, and to make commitments. The notion that the object of freedom is commitment, not impulse, holds a peculiar surprise, risk, and irony. Making lists, keeping track of your possibilities will add, not subtract, from your new degrees of freedom. Remembering what you learn as you put check marks against your hopes, embracing not disputing the lessons of imperfect freedom will also be the point of your much desired happiness at St. Lawrence. Within those mundane lists, you will find not only more freedom in learning to remember, but the realization of a bigger, better you.

The American fiction writer Willa Cather in her novel My Antonia defines happiness as the opposite of unfettered license and the freedom of sudden thought. Rather, she writes, “That is happiness to be dissolved into something complete and great.” She says “dissolved,” not “fulfilled,” not “rewarded,” not “recognized,” not “indulged”, not “enthralled, but being woven as a person into the fabric of something bigger than you are; that is the goal of freedom. Those are the words carved upon her grave marker in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. If you learn to remember this trustworthy test of what will make you happy, as if dissolved into a familiar short list, you have all the freedom you need between now and 2020 to figure it out. I begin with a confidence that you are in a class all by itself, learning to remember. Je me souviens. Bienvenu