Dartmouth College Convocation, September 21, 2010
The Reverend Leah Daughtry ’84, President of On These Things, Pastor at The House of the Lord Church, and Former CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee
Thank you Dean Spears for that introduction; and to President Kim, who I am honored to call my friend, and who has been a wonderful president for our beloved College; to the Dartmouth Gospel choir, who I was privileged to serve as director for my four years here at Dartmouth; and to all of you here on the dais and to all of you in the family of Dartmouth. I thank you for this wonderful opportunity—I am humbled to be here—to share with you today on this auspicious occasion.
I was walking down Main Street yesterday, and I saw all the ’14 jerseys and sweatshirts, and I felt impossibly old. I had flashbacks of my parents and me doing that same stroll down Main Street to buy my own set of jerseys and sweatshirts with a big “84” across the chest, and that was exactly thirty years ago. And thirty years ago, I was at my own Convocation, sitting with my new classmates—and we were called ’shmen back then, short for “freshmen.”
And I was so excited about the journey I was starting; and I was excited about my new friends; and I was excited to finally be considered an adult; and I was excited because my parents had finally, finally gone home.
And there are two things that I remember about my own Convocation. One is President Kemeny addressing us for the first time in that distinctive Hungarian accent: “Men and vimmen of Dartmouth …”
But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I remember the deep sense of community that I felt that day as I locked arms with my new friends and sang the Alma Mater, which then was called “Men of Dartmouth.”
I left Convocation that day knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Dartmouth belonged to me, and I belonged to Dartmouth, and that this was my place. And that sense of community and that sense of well-being and belonging undergirded and informed the rest of my Dartmouth career and indeed my professional career as I have endeavored to take that sense of community and recreate that sense of belonging in every place that I go.
And that sense of camaraderie and belonging was an essential part of my education, because at its base it was the simple idea that we don’t have to all be alike or look alike or think alike in order for us to learn together and grow together—that we could come from different places and have different perspectives and different ideas, that we could even disagree and still remain a welcomed, valuable contributing part of the same vibrant community. And with all due respect to my many friends in the faculty, it was perhaps the most, the best and most enduring lesson that I learned at Dartmouth.
And so I am convinced, and I would encourage you to consider, that education—the process of learning—is multifaceted; and done well, it acknowledges the totality of our being, that we are mind, body, and spirit. That is to say that the best learning happens when mind, body, and spirit are engaged. To do it right, we must bring our whole selves to the learning process.
Consider for a moment Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees. [He] writes:
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks to God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Kilmer’s language is timeless and beautiful, transporting us with vivid imagery and encouraging us to think more deeply about the wonder of trees.
In a classroom, you can discuss the deeper meaning of the poem and you can dissect the stanzas and examine their rhythms and meters; and that is great, and that’s important. But I would say that that’s not enough.
You need to stand next to a tree, to feel the rough bark of the oak tree or the smooth trunk of the magnolia. You need to marvel at the majesty of the redwood, or be protected from the storm by the expansive limbs of the sycamore, or hear the song of the birds singing in the fir tree; and then, then you can understand Kilmer’s motivation. [His] own sense of the creative power of God, and [his] wonder and awe at the beauty of nature and [his] own place in it.
So I would suggest that learning is equal parts intellectual discipline and practical application. The circle of learning is completed when the two meet, when theory is put into practice. There’s a difference between studying government and politics in the classroom and working on a campaign or working in the government.
Trust me, this Government major knows that one is theory is one is practice. Practice gives theory life. Without practice, theory is just words on a piece of paper, ready to be challenged, eager to be tested. But on the other hand, practice without theory is experiment. Constant supposition and questioning without foundational basis or underlying fact.
So to be a true scholar, to be an avid learner, we must learn to match our intellectual pursuits with hands-on practical activity. As I often say to my congregation on Sundays, “Sitting in a church all day won’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage all day will make you a car.” No one wants a heart surgeon who’s never seen a heart. You can’t call yourself a musician if you’ve never held an instrument or sung a melody. Real athletes don’t watch the game; they play the game.
So as you begin your academic journey, commit to jumping in with both feet. Roll your sleeves up and get dirty. Do everything you can to expand your horizons. View every new experience as an opportunity to learn. Give up the same-old same-old, the usual, and the what-we-always-do. Eat lunch with new people. Sit at a different table. Walk on the other side of the street. Take a different route to class. Find a new place to study.
Stepping out of our routine, out of the comfort zone we build for ourselves, helps us to challenge our assumptions, expand our thinking, enlarge our possibilities, and lift our vision of who we are and what we can be.
That is why it is so important to be open to new experiences. Variety and diversity are important partners in learning; and that includes diversity of thought, diversity of place, diversity of experience, and diversity of friendships. If all of your friends look like you and talk like you and are from the same place as you, if you share all the same classes and live in the same dorm, you need new friends.
There is something that is happening now in our country. The anger and frustration that is felt by so many in America is nearly palpable. And in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems, it seems that the voices of intolerance and divisiveness are growing louder and stronger every day.
But to believe that our country’s challenges are the result of any one people or any one community or any one issue is to default to the too easy, too obvious answer and often demonstrates the limits of one’s own experience.
Most of us will never face the prospect of deportation, will never understand a child’s fear that she will lose her father to an immigration sweep. Most of us will never understand the humiliation of being pulled over for driving while black. And most of us cannot fathom what it is like to run a gauntlet of protesters just to attend worship services.
Most of us have never gone to war, or we’ve never escaped from a war-torn country. Because of our privilege—and we are privileged to be here—we’ve not had to use the hospital emergency room for health care. We’ve never had to choose between paying the mortgage or buying food. But even though we may not have had these experiences, it does not mean that we cannot think or act with compassion toward those to whom these stories belong.
Our nation faces many challenges today, but they cannot and they will not be solved by finger-pointing, by accusations, or blame. The spirit of our founding fathers and mothers, the spirit of our ancestors, the spirit of our nation calls us to shun the easy answer so deftly offered by isolation and ignorance. They cause us, call us to use our intellect, burnished by experience and exposure, and polished with hope and optimism. They call us to match theory with practice, to match our intellectual pursuits with practical application. They call us to use our education and our book learning as a stepping stone toward greater, more informed engagement in the world around us.
The spirit of our ancestors, the spirit of our nation, the spirit of Dartmouth calls to you. They call you to be more and to do more. They call you to be better and to do better. They call you to build on our successes with successes of your own.
They call you to be the ones, the ones who can lift all and diminish none. The ones who can see beyond difference to the common good. The ones who can bring about the beloved community. The ones who can finally, finally make Doctor King’s dream a reality.
They call to you to be the ones. Answer their call. For you are the ones we have been waiting for.
Thank you and God bless you.