Approaching a Wider World

August 1, 2002

 

Under the Gargoyle 

Approaching a Wider World
By Nannerl Keohane, President, Duke University

embers of the Class of 2002: September 11 shocked citizens of our country out of complacency and, at least for awhile, got us thinking--which is, after all, one of the things college students regularly do.

The good news is that, although you must be the final authority for your beliefs, you don't have to do such thinking alone. Three thousand years of recorded thought are at your disposal, and your education has taught you how to explore and use it. But there are powerful forces arrayed against you--political rhetoric, easy answers, us and them, the cheap shot from the hip that oversimplifies and distracts us from the hard work of thinking.

You may have read articles about the idea of the "public intellectual." Although people use the term today to refer mostly to pundits who speak out in national media, every college graduate is a kind of public intellectual--Duke graduates more so than most. You may well find as you move on from this academic community that you are seen as an arbiter of clear thought and taste in your business and civic life, the good and reliable citizen who winds up getting elected the foreman of the jury, the unofficial leader people look to when a problem arises at work, the one who gets asked to mediate a difficult issue in your synagogue or mosque or church or sangha. That, in short, your opinion carries weight.

In the wider world, you will have an opportunity, and I would say a moral mandate, to get involved. Yes, other things will attract or distract your attention, from burgeoning careers to young families to graduate studies, any one of which can seem to demand every waking moment. But you have a special role waiting for you, sometimes peacemaker, sometimes gadfly--frequently, leader.

When there are a dozen people in an organization who sit back and say "No," be the one who can stand up and say "Yes"--the motivator who gets things to happen. When groupthink seizes the minds of those around you, and the choices seem to be the devil or the deep blue sea, be the one who says "Neither"--and, by thinking outside the box, find a better way.

There will also be moments when, as Melville said of Hawthorne, you must say "No" in thunder. Let me remind you about the modern history of the term "intellectual." Though the word had existed for a while, its French form became a common term of abuse during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, when an army captain in France was accused of treason. The French Intelligence Service had discovered secret French documents in the German Embassy. The French army was filled with anti-Semitism, and because Captain Dreyfus was Jewish, he seemed an obvious culprit to suspicious, scared, and narrow-minded people--even though there wasn't a shred of evidence against him. For those people, his guilt or innocence was almost irrelevant: If you were for France, you were against Dreyfus.

As the case became a cause cÈlËbre, "les intellectuels" became a term of opprobrium hurled at people who wanted to weigh the evidence rather than condemning the accused outright. To be an intellectual was to refuse blind loyalty to the status quo.

Dreyfus spent several years in prison; he was eventually exonerated, and the real culprit named. Today, as the dictionaries remind us, intellectuals still rely on rational understanding rather than emotions or feelings--an honorable reminiscence of that difficult time.

So even when (or especially when) you are criticized for standing against the common opinion, questioning the authorities or the prevailing norms, I charge you to cherish and develop your own deep convictions. In ordinary times, these convictions may be pleasant conveniences; in times of trouble, they are of supreme value.

Since I have invoked French history, let me end by reminding you of a passage I cited at your opening convocation, when you were anxious newbies and Duke was still a labyrinth of terror with a potential Minotaur around every corner and at the front of every classroom.

In Voltaire's Candide, Dr. Pangloss, the cock-eyed optimist says, "Events are all linked together in this, the best of all possible worlds," and the pragmatic and somewhat chastened young hero responds, "That is very well put, but we must cultivate our garden."

I urge you, Class of 2002, to cultivate whatever corner of the world you find yourself in, and to stand up for what you believe by being ready to provide courageous leadership in difficult times. Your garden need not be an optimist's paradise, but a place of growth and nurture and change: It will have its serpents and its weeds, but also its manifest beauties. In the words of George Herbert, "There is fruit, and thou hast hands."

And remember, there are also gardens here waiting for you at Duke anytime you are ready to return, full of friends and freshness--literal gardens, and a refuge for your intellect as well. In your hearts and minds, wherever you may be, this glorious campus is always yours, as a place you have claimed and shaped and sometimes even loved, as the Class of 2002.

 

-This is adapted from President Keohane's baccalaureate address.