Our 43rd Commencement

To be honest, the student talks stole the show. Barry Lopez was incredible. The whole day felt very, very special. Here’s what I had to say at the ceremony:

Forty-three years ago, we came together for our first graduation.

We had no tent. We had no accreditation, for that matter. We gathered in a gravel parking lot in what is today the Newlin Gardens – the red bricks – and celebrated the accomplishments of two students, Bill Ginn and Cathy Johnson.

They were both transfer students, Bill from Amherst College and Cathy from Yale.

Can you imagine that conversation? “Mom, Dad, I’m leaving Yale after three years to get my degree from a non-accredited school in its first year with three dozen students and a few faculty and no departments and one major on some Island in Maine.”

Today Bill is helping lead the world’s most influential conservation organization: the Nature Conservancy. Cathy is the senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and is leading the charge to create a new National Park in Maine’s North Woods.

Like the folks seated behind me, those two thrived here as students and continue to thrive as human ecologists working for a better planet. And like all the 2150 COA graduates, they shaped the institution that so powerfully shaped them. That’s because COA is not a monolith, but something more akin to clay that’s been worked by the hands of students just as much as by the staff and faculty, as much as the trustees and friends. And the 43 years of dialogue between hands and clay is what has given COA the form we know today.

Sometimes the changing form is tough, like when staff members Puranjot Khalsa, Charley Farley, and Khristian Mendez move on or when faculty members Heath Cabot and Nishi Rajakaruna leave for new adventures. Thank you for everything you’ve done here. Even with change, today’s form is beautiful and one I feel lucky to be a part of.

Today there’s a tent in case of rain. We’re accredited. We’re a bit bigger – today we’re celebrating 82 graduates from 24 states and 13 countries. And where the tent, the size, the accreditation, the permanence has inspired more confidence among families, these graduates are every bit the explorers and adventurers of those early years.

I am honored to share this day with such adventurous people.

I brooded over that word – honored. Presidents throw such words around a lot during commencement time.

But while brooding I’ve been to scores of senior project presentations and other class and individual projects. There’s nothing better than the last three weeks of spring term. I wish you all could have just camped out here on the north lawn to be a part of the experience: performance, music composition and improvisation, scholarly research, film, drama, clowning, sculpture, mathematics, charcuterie and I’ve left each of those experiences with mouth agape, with eyes unblinking: the intellectual maturity, the creativity, the skill of these works has left me 100% satisfied with the authenticity of the word honored.

In the midst of all these projects, I took a day off and spent last Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MassMoCA. COA faculty member in painting and drawing Sean Foley opened an exhibit he curated there entitled Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Wonder.

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Sean Foley and I at the MassMoCA Opening

During the 6-hour drive there, the exhibit opening, and the 6-hour return trip I had time to meditate on the word wonder and I’ve decided to use it in an evolving description of COA graduates. I’ve got this shtick: at each graduation I use this welcome address to build what I think is an increasingly accurate description of the College of the Atlantic graduate. Just to review: COA folk are scrappy, they get stuff done creatively and without hand holding; but they temper their scrappiness with thought and are thus contemplatively scrappy. They are appropriately humble, yet they know when the time is right to be bold and act on an idea. They are contemplatively scrappy humble activists.

 

 

I will now add wonderful to that description. Wonderful not in the way my grandmother described the doilies on her dining room table, but in the way Sean meant it in the exhibit.

Sean describes wonder as that space between not knowing and knowing and as something that precedes and is wholly distinct from curiosity. Where curiosity typically leads to research, problem solving and other practical things – wonder doesn’t always do that. Wonder is ephemeral. It is emotional, it exists before thoughts or words can pin it down, and it is the stuff that causes mouths to drop, eyes to bulge, pulses to quicken.

Our students are wonderful in the sense that they are full of wonder, inclined to states of wonder; but they are also wonderful, in the sense that their work provokes the feeling of wonder in others.

In the exhibit narrative at MassMoCA Sean emphasized the words of Ray Bradbury who asks that we find ways to wonder every day and at things that might otherwise be considered mundane. How can we move through the world with this openness to wonder? How can we actually cultivate it? That’s what COA is all about.

One way we can do this is to both practice and to develop reverence for art. I firmly believe that it is only through a society-wide embrace of the visual, the aural, and the performative arts that we can change the trajectory of our world away from what can sometimes feel hopeless. It is art that will recalibrate our sense of value and our perverse perspective on what’s useful; it is art that will allow us to negotiate the complexity of the human individual, human society and the natural world. Wonder provokes art, and art, wonder in a very powerful virtuous circle.

Second, careful and patient observation of the world around us can also provoke wonder. That kind of observation is the root of the practice we call natural history, a practice elemental to so much of what we do here, so much of the inspiration behind COA projects, even those you would not normally consider natural history. And, although I’m leaving the introduction of our Commencement Speaker Barry Lopez to my friend and colleague Galen Hecht, I here have to say that Barry’s work is some of the most important, most powerful natural history the world has ever experienced and we are so fortunate to have him here on campus. His work is both inspired by and inspires wonder.

In Barry’s writing he rarely comes out and says “this is the way it should be.” But he takes this tact at least once in an essay called The Passing Wisdom of Birds where he makes a very definite suggestion. Our world is in the middle of an attentional apocalypse and to dig out of this hole Barry stresses the need for more natural history and more natural historians and suggests every college should have a position called campus natural historian.

In honor of Barry, I am taking his advice and am creating the position of the Barry Lopez Student Natural Historian at COA. In the fall, I will solicit suggestions from the faculty and staff and give a student the title, a small budget and a charge to explore, observe, and describe wonder on our campus.

So there is wonder from art and there is wonder from the patient and precise observation of natural history. But what would our world be if all wonder remained trapped in the minds of the wondering? Such a world would be confused! It would be selfish. And so a necessary third method for catalyzing wonder is through the story and the storyteller. To draw from Barry’s work again, “everything is held together with stories.” Stories and story telling are the connective tissue holding human society together; they are also the crucibles for transmitting wonder from one person to the next.

So we have at least these three methods for provoking virtuous cycles of wonder: art, natural history, story telling. Notice how they parallel the COA curriculum: art aligning with art and design; natural history as a key element of scientific inquiry; story telling as the fabric of human studies. It should be no surprise then that these students, these graduates are full of wonder and full of the potential to inspire it in others. With that I present to you the COA class of 2016, now part of the College of the Atlantic alumni community of wonderful, contemplatively scrappy, humble activists. Congratulations.

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