"I am here, and where are you?"
Editor's note: The following Founders' Day address was delivered by Associate Professor of Sociology David N. Suggs on Thursday, October 30, at Rosse Hall.
O n the day President Oden phoned me (at the first of the academic year) and invited me to deliver this address, I was staring at my computer screen trying to polish the introductory chapter to a book I have been writing. On the screen in front of me was a section of the text that explains to the reader the pattern of greetings between people in Botswana. In that nation, my home away from home, greetings are important actions. Genuinely human beings exchange greetings with any people they pass unless they are either ignorant or offering an intentional insult. The greetings, in seTswana and English, sound like this:
Dumela, le kae? (Hello, where are you?)
Ke teng. Na le kae? (I am here; where are you?)
Le nna ke teng. (And me, I am here.)
For the BaTswana, that exchange is less literally translated as the familiar "How are you?" and "I am fine." But, the literal translation--where are you; I am here--is hardly trivial. On the contrary, it suggests that "being fine" among the BaTswana is in large part inseparable from a knowledge of where one is--where in the world, where in society, where in family--all with regard to both the past and the present. And, it indicates that a personal sense of well-being is bound into membership in a socially, historically and ecologically "placed" community. Living in large families, in lineages with often disparate and competing interests that are nevertheless all part of a larger clan family, saying "I am here" means so much more--I am here as are all of us, as family should be, demonstrably associated despite our individual differences. Inside of that notion are some lessons for us with regard to this gathering today, a day when we simultaneously matriculate a new class formally into our academic structure and a day when traditionally we recall our historically situated community. It is a day to think about the continuity inside of obviously continuous change.
I talk about "tradition," "change," and "continuity" a lot on this campus. My remarks today are directed at the students before me, but I hope there will be something meaningful for all of you. To me, the key question is not "who" the founders were nor even "what they did" so much as it is how we can connect ourselves to that past in a way that guides our purposes in the present and emphasizes our hopes for the future. I have to tell you that my position in that regard is a product of my interaction for over a decade with the BaTswana. Again and again, I have been brought into situations where my eyes "saw" a contrast between continuity and change in southern Africa. Again and again, the BaTswana demonstrated to me how the changes mesh seamlessly with tradition. For them,tradition embraces modernity; continuity is located inside of change. It is built by thinking human beings who care about the past and hope for the future. They have taught me much in that vein. And, as result, this address is also more about the notion of "matriculation" into our community than it is about the "founders."
That said, Bishop Philander Chase's struggles to found this college present a wealth of information that could be made relevant to our lives today. As I read through archival materials for this event, I was particularly impressed with his insistence that a theological seminary was of little value without a college annexed to it. In fact, it is really not easy to find much discussion of the seminary that is not specifically linked to the mission of the College. So, he sought the establishment of a firmly academic community. From Bishop Chase's Reminiscences, we hear him saying:
[W]e have . . . proceeded on the ground that much of the field of art and science is open alike to the physician, civilian and divine. What one studies the other must not neglect. The knowledge of the languages, philosophy, and belles-lettres, is necessary to all.
If Chase intended for the College to be isolated in the countryside to avoid the moral influence of urban dwellers and economic interest of the secular wealthy, he did not intend for the College to have an isolated exposure to religious ideas alone. We continue to follow the belief that a liberal education is the firmest of foundations for success in any future endeavor.
In any case, as Chase was busy establishing an institution and trying to impose his personal vision of a future upon it, the faculty and students appear to have been busy creating a community of scholars with an emergent collective vision of Kenyon's future. While their meetings as faculty and students would ultimately challenge the bishop's sense of rightful authority, Professor William Sparrow's diary makes the importance of those meetings for the emergent community clear. He says "[They] make [us] feel a separate and peculiar people; unit[ing us] more closely in the bonds of love." There is little doubt that in their relatively homogeneous nascent community they would have developed much of the same identification with place and common purpose in collective endeavor that characterizes the greetings of the BaTswana. They were here in the fullest sense--intimately co-resident, unavoidably interdependent, with a common world view: a separate and peculiar people united in the bonds of love.
If the task of forging an immediate community is for us a much greater challenge today given our size, the lack of any necessarily common religious structure, the presence of women, and the presence of minorities of widely differing cultural backgrounds, still we take institutional pride in the Kenyon community. From the earliest of days we have likened it to a family, calling forth analogically notions of mutual care, responsibility, and acceptance. True, at awkward moments in any given year we might take on the appearance of a dysfunctional family, but we cherish the ideal of a collegiate hearth in Gambier. In that notion is a noble hope for continuity with the experience of our founders. But this rite of matriculation is not sufficient for its realization. The actual realization of that community is only won by the actions and commitments of the individuals following on this matriculation.
So, even as we honor our founders and remember their contributions to this college, it is vital that we take stock of new direction. Of late, there has been a renewed discussion of the curricular significance of confronting difference, of diversity at Kenyon. Happily for you, I am disinterested in pontificating today about the curriculum. But in the interests of the future and the individuals we are about to matriculate, I would offer some thoughts about the challenges of being a community as opposed to a simple collection of scholars in a diverse environment, and I would offer you some encouragement for meeting that challenge irectly. I want you to consider why we need diversity in the community--not just in the curriculum; I want you to consider what that means for how you go about being in and of this community.
Let me tell you a story. When I was an undergraduate at Texas Christian University in the late seventies, it was a center for Middle Eastern and American student exchange. As I encountered Middle Eastern students in the classrooms there, I found them to be interesting and bright peers who made strong contributions to discussions. But, as I encountered them in the campus community the oddest thing happened--I found myself trying to avoid them. In fact, I found myself thinking that they were all so "pushy." You have to understand how very distressing that was for me. My parents had considered it one of their primary tasks to see that their children understood the cold stupidity of bigotry. As my feeling that these Arabs were just "pushy" people developed, I found myself wondering, with considerable angst, "Is this bigotry?"
Thankfully, in the summer between my first and second years I read a book one of my professors had mentioned during the year. The book was called The Hidden Dimension, by E.T. Hall. It is about the way that culture patterns space usage. In that book, Hall pointed out to me an aspect of my life that I had simply taken for granted. As Americans, we keep an area around our bodies--an area about the length of our arms--that we consider to be an extension of ourselves, an area Hall called "personal space." When we meet and talk, we will stand about an arm's length from each other, and we know not to get any closer. We will let a few people inside of it, of course, into our intimate space: family, close friends, lovers, physicians during an examination. But with comparatively few exceptions, anyone entering that intimate zone does so aggressively. Reconsider now those baseball managers who dash out of the dugout and butt their chests right up against an umpire's. They aren't just disputing the call; they are concurrently saying "I have absolutely no respect for you as a person." We even have a colloquialism reserved for those who argue with us too aggressively--we tell them, "Get out of my face."
Well, Hall also explained that there is nothing "natural" about that distance of an arm's length and proceeded to give me some examples of cultural variations. Among them was the report that in many Middle Eastern cultures the correct distance for conversation (personal space) was "close enough to feel the breath on each other's faces." Hello. As the Middle Eastern students on my campus closed in on me--literally--for conversation they entered my personal space seeking theirs. I interpreted that action as "pushiness." Unaware of the fact that I would react to their proximity by feeling threatened, can you imagine how cold and distant I must have seemed to them? It would be as if you and I met on Middle Path and you greeted me from a distance and I stopped fifteen feet from you and every time you took a step toward me I would step back. You would alternatively be alarmed, defensive, and insulted. I spent the next three years at TCU watching a dance of interaction choreographed by two different cultural traditions. Arab and American students in conversation were perpetual motion machines, angling back and forth like the waves on an ocean as each tried to get comfortable for conversation.
Now, that could well seem trivial to you. I hope not. Out of such minor misunderstandings can arise partially the bigotries of our day without the experience of diversity and education about it--experience and education that turn unreasoned judgment into negotiated understandings. As the years passed at TCU, I spent a lot of time in conversation with those sudents; we learned a lot about and from each other, education that would have been lost to me had I isolated myself in avoidance of people that I initially just couldn't understand.
If our collective isolation here on the hill in the midst of a beautifully colorful forest affords us a safety for study and a focus for education that is marvelous--if it makes us spatially a "separate and peculiar people" in Professor Sparrow's words--that simple anecdote from my own life experience may help you understand why we are talking as a campus about the importance of "recognizing difference" at Kenyon. This isn't about glorifying identity politics. It is about the realization that a culturally homogeneous Kenyon community in 1997 cannot prepare you for living in and understanding a culturally heterogeneous America and global village. It is about creating and using structures that express differences in identity so that we can realistically build a larger and common identity. Even then, the identity formed in intersection does not dissolve our differences. As Robert Hughes has recently put it:
The future of America . . . in a globalized economy without a Cold War, will lie with people who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines. And the first step in becoming such a person lies in acknowledging that we are not one big world family, or ever likely to be; that the differences between races, nations, cultures and their various histories are at least as profound and durable as their similarities; that these differences are not divagations from a European norm, but structures eminently worth knowing about for their own sake. In the world that is coming, if you can't navigate difference, you've had it.
Now, it is up to us to learn together and to live together. We have remarkably few curricular requirements here. You can choose to be the rugged individuals our nation's media celebrates and move through this system specialized in focus and isolated in experience. All you must do is jump through the hoops. But I hope you haven't come here simply to become a biologist or a writer or a historian. I hope you have come here to be a biologist who can write and knows where it is they have come from; a writer who recognizes the relevance of the past and is not perplexed by the mold growing in that forgotten coffee cup. The founders knew those hopes--well, maybe not the bit about the coffee cup, but the rest of it--and in this we can find the past in the present.
Yet, even realizing those things, you can also choose to move through our community as the rugged individual. And, again, I hope you won't. In the days of the founders, a relatively homogeneous collection of individuals found a sense of family in shared purpose, close interaction, and a common world view. The love with which such graduates as Herman Dyer speak about this place attests not just to the success of such accomplished individual alumni as Rutherford B. Hayes, but more accurately to the nurturing force of a community identity here. For them, a relatively consistent world view made the task of community identification much more automatic than it is today. We have the Crozier Center in recognition of women's interests, the Snowden Multicultural Center in recognition of the experience of ethnicity--I don't need to list all of them. You get the point. Each of our seemingly "separate" components, those institutional opportunities to express difference, offer to us the opportunity to reach across boundaries that are real and yet be that Kenyon community. In doing so, you will maintain a venerable tradition of mutual care and mutual responsibility for each other. It is so much easier to ignore "the other." It is so much easier to disassociate yourself from the whole when particular actions and groups frustrate you. But know that you don't have to agree with those who are different from you to identify with them; you need a common commitment t understanding each other, a commitment to continued interaction, an openness to being influenced by others and a desire to influence them.
My wish for you, then, is a commitment to this place as a peopled environment. Unlike the founders, we do not share a single cultural tradition. This place is much more diverse than it was ten years ago when I arrived, and voices of leadership are appropriately calling for greater diversity still. If this means that we will not in cultural tradition be a "separate and peculiar people," it does not mean that we cannot have a sense of community akin to that of the founders. But it will be different in this: its integrity will be that of the tapestry as opposed to the single weave. When you commit yourself to each other in spite of and in tolerance of your differences because they are real and understandable, then you can build bridges that span them. Kenyon's "community spoken of as a family" will then become more for you than an attractive metaphor. That said,
I am here . . .
. . .Where are you?
David Suggs has been a member of the College faculty since 1987. A graduate of Texas Christian University, from which he also earned a master's degree, he holds a doctorate from the University of Florida. His interests include alcohol use, gender, human sexuality, and southern Africa. Suggs, his wife, Yvonne, and their four-year-old daughter, Rhiannon, live in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
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