The knowable and the unknown

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway formally welcomed the Class of 2018 at the Freshman Assembly in Woolsey Hall on Aug. 23. Here is the text of his remarks.

President Salovey, Provost Polak, Dean Cooley, Dean Gendler, Secretary Goff-Crews, Chaplain Kugler, masters, deans, and honored guests ... good morning and welcome. To the 29 transfer students joining us for this assembly I could not be happier to welcome you to Yale as well. And, lest we forget, welcome to the Class of 2018!

It is my great delight, Class of 2018, to see you assembled here before us — a moment when we simultaneously acknowledge the end result of your hard work (you are here!) and remind you that you are at the beginning of a new phase in your life (you are here!). Before we do that, however, let me ask that the Class take a moment to thank all of the people who invested so much of their time, energy, and faith to endow you with the skills and drive to be here today. Join me, Class of 2018, in thanking your parents, your siblings, your aunts and uncles, your grandparents and beyond. Bravo to the families!

See also:

New freshman hail from 56 countries and all 50 states (especially California)
Freshman arrival 2014 (slideshow)

To the Class of 2018: Welcome to Yale! (video)

Now that you have done that, join me once again in thanking others whose hard work contributed to your success: I am talking about the teachers, the guidance counselors, the principals, the ministers, rabbis, and imams, the coaches, the janitors, the dining hall workers, the librarians, the bus drivers, the school nurses, the tutors, and everyone else in between. I ask you to acknowledge others — particularly those who are often the first to be forgotten — because no matter how awesome you are, no matter how good looking you happen to be (and from where I stand it sure seems that you are an awesomely handsome bunch) you can never afford to forget that others, even those with whom you share no blood relation, have sacrificed so that you might thrive. Your accomplishments are real, but they are not only yours to own.

So, Class of 2018, now that I've forced you to remember your inherent gratefulness and reminded you of your humility, let's take a moment to think about other ways to describe you.

You have, no doubt, a sense of the admissions statistics. There's no need to repeat them now. The fact is that getting into Yale just isn't that easy. Well done, you.

You also have, I imagine, a sense of other statistics that describe who you are. You represent all 50 of these United States. You come from 56 countries. For some of you it took days to get to campus; for others it took 20 minutes (and it would have been 15 if you hadn't left your cell phone on the kitchen counter and forced your parents to turn around and get it because you absolutely, positively could not survive a day without it). Fifty-seven percent of you come from public school. For more than a third of you English was either not spoken at home or was only one of the languages used in your upbringing. When it comes to race and ethnicity you are one of the most diverse classes in the history of Yale College. For the 14% of you who are the first in your family to attend college, you are the largest such cohort to enter Yale.

But there's one more statistic that we have to add to the mix if we are truly to understand who you are. And here it is: None of you has been a freshman at Yale College. To put this figure in terms more familiar to those who are aspiring toward STEM majors: Zero percent of you have been freshman here.

I mention this fact because even though I am impressed by all the many things that you have accomplished up to this point, I am far more intrigued by what you will become over the course of the four years that are in front of you. You have come here as dancers and scientists and artists and athletes and poets and mathematicians. You will surely leave here as dancers and scientists and artists and athletes and poets and mathematicians. But, you know what? Those of you who are dancers now may not be dancers in four years. Those of you who are scientists now may not be scientists in four years — and so on. The point is that you have entered this great place so that you can learn new political perspectives, examine new faiths, and acquire new skills even while you are clarifying your sensibilities, affirming your own faith, and honing those skills that have brought you this far. This is what a place that champions the liberal arts is going to offer you. It is your duty, I believe, to make sure that you accept the invitation. 

A brief detour into Yale's own history underscores the importance of this particular invite.

In the spring of 1979, at the conclusion of his first year as Yale’s president, Bart Giamatti offered a Baccalaureate Address titled "The Private University and the Public Interest." In that speech, Giamatti asserted his faith in the liberal arts and talked about the value of an education:

... I believe that the formation of a basis for how we choose to believe and speak and treat others — how, in short, we chose a civic role for ourselves — is the basic purpose of an education in a democracy. The content, the data, the information, of schooling can be anything in the wide world. But the purpose of education, as opposed to information, is to lead us to some sense of citizenship, to some shared assumptions about individual freedoms and institutional needs, to some sense of the full claims of self as they are to be shared with others.

I think it is critical to reaffirm the civic goal of education and the way that goal is attained through … the educational process. It is important to say … that through individual choices, not by slogans or shibboleths or shamanistic incantation, we become engaged in common concerns. It is important to say it now, I believe, because now powerful forces press young people and their parents and schools in a quite opposite direction: away from an education concerned at heart with ethical choice and civic effort and toward a view of schooling as immediately, intensely, and insistently useful.

When we think about this spring and summer's breathless headlines wondering about the value of higher education, and even more specifically about the worth of an Ivy League education, we would do well to understand that this is an old refrain that becomes more audible during times of social, structural, economic, and philosophical stress. During such times it is all too easy to think that something is not worthwhile simply because it is difficult to understand, and so we seek quick and often remunerative solutions. This is not to say that the worlds of higher education and perhaps even especially the Ivy Leagues are beyond critique. Quite to the contrary. But instead of the easy criticism or the pursuit of the shortest path to a success that is only measured in material terms we need to think in thorough and careful ways about why we are here and about what we are to make of this moment.

Giamatti was not the only individual in his era to ask penetrating questions about how we assess the worth of things both knowable and unknown. To point to but one example, I ask that you consider the timeless pondering of the philosopher Lionel Ritchie. In 1976, just a few years before Giamatti mused about the worth of higher education, Ritchie famously observed that he had been "a lonely man/A man with no direction. No purpose. ..." Ritchie discovered during his journey toward selfhood that material things he thought had so much value ... didn't really have any value at all. While I suspect that Giamatti was not referencing Lionel Ritchie or his fellow philosopher kings, The Commodores, the fact remains that both sought to understand "value" and the ways it could be articulated and how it could shape a creed. Ritchie found value in companionship and love — both making his "jagged edges smooth." Giamatti found value in a place like Yale because it was well positioned to ask challenging questions about universal ideals — maybe not necessarily ideals like Ritchie's companionship and romantic love, but then again, maybe so.

Moving to the contemporary era we can find other moments when people raised their voices, asking sometimes searing questions about what is valued in a society.

In May of this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic,published an essay titled, "The Case for Reparations." In the longer history of human rights scholarship discussing the issue of reparative justice is nothing terribly new. Because of this the editors at The Atlantic were initially cool to the idea when Coates approached them with his proposal. Coates won them over and, to their credit, The Atlantic editors made "The Case for Reparations" its cover story. Soon after the essay ran I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Coates, and he shared with the audience the fact that even though the editors gave him the space to roam freely, they all expected that particular issue of The Atlantic to be a loss. That is, they knew that "no one" would pick up an issue that was about such a contentious topic as reparations for racial slavery and what Coates would term the nation's "compounding moral debts." The editors ran with the essay mainly because they felt it would enhance the magazine's national prestige for taking on such a serious topic; they were prepared to take a hit on their sales.

Well, a funny thing happened when that particular edition of The Atlantic appeared. You could not find it anywhere. This is not because the editors reduced the print run of the magazine. Rather it was because vendors couldn't keep the magazine in stock. In fact, it soon became the best selling edition in The Atlantic history. The popularity of the edition certainly isn't because everyone agreed on the topic. There remain wildly divergent opinions on the logic and practicality of pursuing reparative justice for racial slavery. What happened in this case, I am convinced, is that the editors grossly underestimated a national desire to talk.

I share this with you not because I want to advocate for or against reparative justice, but because I believe we see in this story possibility.

I fervently believe that most of us are eager to engage in conversations, but we are so afraid of raising issues that might strike at the core of what someone else values that we look instead for easy solutions. Too often that means silence and falling into line merely because of the perceptions that "everyone else is doing it," whatever "it" happens to mean.

But we did not invite you to come here to join this "company of scholars and society of friends" so that you could be silent and only think of this place in terms of its bottom line utility and its materiality. We invited you to this great place because we believe that you are ready to engage in extended and likely difficult conversations about core values that will shape who we are as a people, a nation, and a world. If you accept our charge and ask and answer challenging questions you will no doubt encounter situations that are upsetting and that might force you to take unpopular positions as you journey toward a more profound understanding of yourself and your role in society. If you accept our charge the voyage will be rocky. I can assure you, however, that it is worth it. And, truth be told, we need you to accept this charge and take this journey.

The poet Lucille Clifton wrote about this voyage that you are beginning (and our shared hope for your success) with striking eloquence: 

"blessing the boats"

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back                may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that.

Again, welcome to the Class of 2018. Welcome to the conversations about civics, civility, human rights, economics, history, law, morality, science, philosophy, justice, decency, inequality, art, love, government, the known … the unknowable. Welcome to Yale. Welcome home.