Tuesday August 23, 2016

Why are you here?

V. Denise James - director of the women's and gender studies program, and associate professor of philosophy - was a featured speaker Tuesday, Aug. 23, at convocation, which formally begins the academic year. James spoke about her own decision to change majors as an undergraduate, and encouraged first-year students to accept the risk and uncertainty that comes along with an education.

Here is the text of her address:

To you, Class of 2020, welcome.

I want you to ask you a question. Now you don't have to answer it aloud, although if this was my class, I'd expect an answer. Just think on it a bit:

Why are you here? Why are you in that seat right now?

Philosophers like "why" questions because their answers have layers. Unlike when we ask how or when or what, when we ask why, we get to concerns of value - what is good, what is best, what is preferred.

Some of you are uncertain about why you are here. You aren't sure about your major - maybe you haven't chosen one or aren't sure about the one you did choose. Maybe you have no clue what you want your career to be after college, and all around you people are asking you to make decisions that seem just too much too soon.

Maybe you are sitting there unsure about so many things: Will you be able to fit in here? Will you be able to do the work? You may have heard me ask why you are here and in your head the question was a complaint, a lament: "Why am I here?"

I want to tell you it is OK to be uncertain, to not know, to be unsure, to seek guidance - that, I think, is a part of true education. To come to your classes, to pursue your studies, not thinking that you already know - but wondering about the "whys" of it all.

For me, being a professor is a vocation, a calling, a career that I am led to do to be in the service of others. Many of you will discover your vocations while here. This is something that we as faculty and staff want to help you with. We want to help you answer the "Why am I here?" question on a deeper level.

Don't worry if you do not yet know what your life's work will be. I did not start out wanting to be a college professor and certainly not a philosopher. When I started college, I had no clue that the life I currently live was even an option. Now, don't get me wrong, I sat in my first-year convocation - perhaps like some of you here - certain about what I would do with my life.

I started college certain that I was going to become an international business lawyer who would make lots of money while jet-setting around the world. I'd be happy because I'd be rich. I'd be helpful to the community I am from because I could write big checks and be a shining an example of success. I was so certain about what my life path was during my own new student orientation, I dismissed much of it as irrelevant.

I was so wrong. Not wrong because I wanted to be wealthy or a lawyer - or a check-writing jet-setter. I was wrong because I had not come to college for an education. I had come to college only for the degree that was going to lead to the doctor of law degree that was going to lead to the job that was going to lead to me becoming financially well off.

See, I come from poor and working-class people who had always required that I excel at school because - although they had not gone to college themselves - they knew that with an education my job opportunities would increase and that I could live a life of fewer of the everyday struggles of bare survival. I want those of you sitting out there from similar backgrounds to understand that I can relate to the pressure of having to excel, having to be certain, because you feel like you are not sitting in your seat alone.

I had to be certain because there was so very little room, or at least so I thought at the time, for error.

These many years later, I know that a real education has a way of chipping away at rigidity and certainty. An education makes your world larger, multiplies your experiences, deepens your connections to others and lets you see new opportunities that you didn't even know existed. In a world of an estimated 7 billion people, with ever-increasing networks of connection and interdependency, an education should - while teaching you tools and skills to use in your life post your time in college - an education should make tangible to you that there is always so much to see, do and learn.

And to be open to an education - to learn - to have those experiences which will expand your world and not compress it, you have to be willing to accept the uncertainty that comes along with an education. You have to take your fears and your worries and make them into motivators.

When you do not know how to do something - when you are pursuing an education - you have to seek out help and guidance. When you want to retreat to what only feels good and safe and the same, you have to ask yourself if you are letting fear turn you away from opportunity.

I took my first philosophy class because an LSAT prep guide said philosophy classes improved LSAT scores (this is still true, by the way) - and yes, I was the sort that was reading the LSAT prep guide my first year of college. I realized with the help of my first philosophy professor that I liked the questions that philosophers asked. I loved grappling with the fact that I alluded to earlier - the fact that there are billions of people on earth and that each of them are trying to live good lives. I wanted to ask, to learn, to work with others to figure out how we could all best live together despite our many differences.

My second semester of my first year of college I had to make a tough call home to tell my mother who was working two jobs, sometimes three, that I was no longer certain that I wanted to be a lawyer, but had changed my mind and wanted to be a philosopher instead. No one she had ever known had done that. No one I had ever known had done that. Before I had gone off to college it wasn't even a possibility to me. Will you be able to feed yourself, she asked? Why would you take such a risk, she asked? I told her that what I thought of as success had changed, what I thought I could offer others had changed - because of my education. I promised her I would still work very hard at school but for a different purpose than I had started with.

It was a risky for me - and I was filled with doubt all along the way - to become a thinker in a place that had historically said people who looked like me, who were from backgrounds like mine, weren't supposed to be thinkers at all.

It was risky for me to think with one of the philosophers I study, John Dewey, that the best sort of society is a society that uses its collective intelligence - using the strengths and experiences of its many members in their various differences to tackle its problems, to create its future - that a society like that might need someone like me to be a philosopher. To go around and ask first my friends, then my students who became engineers, bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians and lawyers - why? Is this the best way? Could we imagine a better way to live, to thrive together?

These many years later the risk was worth it, because of students like you. See, what you may not yet know is that college is not the only place to get the sort of education I think is vital for living a good life. But college is a great place to get an education because there are so many of us here to support you in your efforts.

For my part, I want you to keep asking why, to wonder about the world, to get an education to help you pursue the good, to figure out what the good might even mean - to pursue the good over the easy.

It might be possible for you to finish college here with a degree and not an education. You could have experiences and take classes that are easy because they are comfortable and only confirm what you already think you know. You could never require yourself to push past the fatigue that surely comes with sustained study, the uncertainty and risk that encountering one of those billions of folks in the world who have different values from you, who had different lives, whose experiences make you uncertain of the centrality of your own.

It may very well be possible that you could sit in your seat at graduation and give the very same response to the question of "Why are you here?" as you did today. If that happens, you haven't gotten an education and we should all be sorry for it.

I'm supposed to be motivational, to tell you how to face the tough and challenging times ahead when the work seems too much; when professors like me - who have a reputation of valuing the type of thinking that makes your head hurt - assign papers and reading that all seems so far off from what you thought you would be doing with your life; when home seems far away; when you are uncertain about what to do next.

Here is that bit then: You are capable and you can do it and all these people around you who say they are here to help really are. I cannot give you the confidence you will need to risk getting an education, but I hope that when you find yourself doubting if you can do it, uncertain about what to do next, you will find in that doubt, the seeds to grow and not shrink from task at hand.

Thank you.

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