October 26, 2015

President Glassner reflects on “the uses of ignorance” in the Chronicle of Higher Education

President Barry Glassner’s essay on his Opening Convocation speech to first-year and transfer students and their families has been published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

President Barry Glassner’s essay on his Opening Convocation speech to first-year and transfer students and their families has been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He delivered the speech on August 27 during New Student Orientation, and this essay appeared online on the CHE’s website and in the Chronicle Review section of the October 30 print edition.

The Uses of Ignorance

As a college president, I give lots of speeches. The content varies depending on the audience and occasion, but one element is constant. People expect me to appear learned and self-assured.

So it was a first for me, and with more than a little trepidation, that I spoke recently about my own ignorance to a gathering of incoming freshmen, their parents, and the faculty.

That wasn’t the entire focus of the talk, but pretty close.

I relayed a pair of experiences over the past half year that affected me profoundly, beginning with the powerful eulogy that President Obama delivered in June following the horrific killings in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In that speech, the president talked about the presence of grace. He spoke about the manifestations of grace by the families of the fallen and by the people of Charleston, of South Carolina, and across the nation. And he spoke about the awakenings that grace brings and the opportunities it creates.

“According to the Christian tradition,” the president said, “grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God. … As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us. … He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.”

I found these to be moving and inspiring words and ideas, but also perplexing and unfamiliar. Grace is not a concept in Judaism, the faith tradition in which I was raised.

Is President Obama saying, I wondered, that grace caused this terrible event? That seems unlikely. Or maybe he’s saying that this occurred so that we as a people would be moved to take positive action in new ways?

Or is he saying that grace unfolds to shepherd us through our response to tragedy? Or is he saying something else entirely?

I was overdue in my investigation. I had heard similar ideas a few months earlier when Sister Helen Prejean spoke on our campus. Author of Dead Man Walking, the best seller that was made into a film, Sister Helen was, like the president, an inspiring speaker. At its core, her story about her relationship with a death-row prisoner in Louisiana is an exploration of grace. She talked about never knowing when grace is going to hit us, that it sustains us when we need it, and that it offers a way of getting into a deeper story.

She, like President Obama, suggested that grace offers an opportunity to turn the cruelest tragedies into pathways toward forgiveness and redemption.

Her provocative ideas triggered in me a cascade of questions, and, after hearing Obama’s speech, I made a commitment to explore this concept that is so meaningful to so many people.

I began, then, what scholars do when presented with a mystery, and what we encourage our students to do. I read about the concept and the experience of this thing called “grace” that I had not understood. I tapped into the expertise of my colleagues, on the campus and beyond, across a variety of disciplines. I sought out personal stories from friends. I delved into the scholarly literature.

In my quest so far, I’ve talked with religious-studies scholars and philosophy professors. I’ve read works by literary critics and historians; by clergy from churches, synagogues, and mosques; and by poets — a group from whom I often find I gain the deepest insights. Indeed, it was in that part of my search that I discovered that the concept and experience of grace can apply even to those of us who are nonbelievers.

Consider these lines from the poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry, in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me 
and I wake in the night at the least sound 
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake 
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
… For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

A professor at my college, Susanna Morrill, calls this sense of awe and reverence “nature religion.”

After all my studying, I’ve concluded that some of the deepest and toughest learning occurs when we struggle with ways of understanding the world that are alien to us, with concepts and practices that we would rather brush aside.

This is what I wanted to convey to incoming students when I admitted my own ignorance.

I also wanted to make a related point, which is easily misunderstood and unappreciated: You can embrace new ideas without adopting them as your own. It is possible to appreciate the complexities and power of a provocative idea without having to agree with what it represents.

Indeed, that is what rigorous inquiry demands. Learning is an unsettling act. That thing we tout on our campuses — critical thinking — begins in provocation, a word whose Latin roots mean “challenge, call forth.”

Unsurprisingly, we do not always succeed when we attempt to learn something far from our interests and expertise. I have made rewarding progress in my effort to understand grace, but I have a long way to go, and, as I confessed to my audience, I have failed in other instances — not only with weighty subjects, but with lighter ones.

A British colleague is a huge fan of cricket. He knows the statistics, the teams, the players. When I was on a fellowship in England some years ago, he couldn’t wait to take me to a cricket match and explain the game’s intricacies. I tried hard to appreciate the sport. I read up on it and listened intently to his tutoring.

But still I found the games interminable. They can go on for five days, eight bloody hours a day.

Our friendship endured. I discovered that I could enjoy my friend’s enthusiasm for the sport without coming to a deep appreciation myself, or even really understanding it very well.

That, too, is important for students and parents to recognize. Colleges offer countless opportunities to deepen our respect for one another’s interests and antipathies. Sometimes we may experience a tectonic shift in thinking or understanding, sometimes not. But the personal and intellectual connections we make in the process more than repay our effort.

Chronicle of Higher Education Office of the President