2006 Columbia College and SEAS Convocation Address

August 28, 2006

It is a very great pleasure for me, along with the trustees, the faculty, and the staff, to welcome you, the Class of 2010, to Columbia University.

I would like to add our collective welcome to the parents, families, and friends of our newest students. We are keenly aware of how for you (and especially the parents) this moment is suffused with mixed emotions. Few occasions can compare in the complexity of feelings they give rise to than that of your child leaving home for the first time and entering college. I don’t know whether when you know you’re about to die your whole life passes before you, but I do know from personal experience that it does when you leave your son or daughter off at their new dorm room.

I can only assure you that we will do our best to make this transition into adulthood as safe and as intellectually invigorating as possible. Let me also, however, because of your close connections to our new students, welcome you personally into the Columbia community.

I have just a few things to say this afternoon. I know that this is a time of high anticipation for each of you. As you look around you, now and on these early days of exploration of your new lives, as you experience the campus and New York City, perhaps even for the very first time, it probably all seems bewildering, perhaps even unnerving at times, and thrilling, too. If you’re normal, there will be many periods of pretty strong self-doubt. As you listen to the dazzling accomplishments of your peers, or the way some can already talk about weighty matters, you may even at times wonder whether your very admission was an accident – somehow your application, destined for rejection, fell mistakenly into the acceptance pile. That’s certainly how I felt when I arrived at Columbia in 1968, after having grown up in a small, rural town in the West Coast.

Getting to where you sit today was no picnic either, of course. The grueling application process must have seemed at times as if you were participating in a full season of American Idol (that, I’m told, is a very popular television show). And now that you’re here you may be wondering whether you will be subject to judges like the brutally direct Simon, or maybe someone like Randy (who are prone to offering obscure utterances like “just keepin’ it real, dog”), but probably not many judges like Paula, who are willing to find the silver lining in any cloudy performance and will love you for just who you are. I can, with confidence, assure you that there’s no one here quite like Simon, Randy, or Paula.

The main point I want to make, though, is not that feeling self-doubt is normal for anyone under the circumstances you’re in right now – which it is (perfectly normal, that is). After all, the truth is that you, and we, don’t even know yet what your real talents and capacities are, which is part of the extraordinary excitement of being at a major intellectual institution like Columbia. (And, for what it’s worth, I will tell you that I have found there’s something of an inverse relationship between certitude about one’s capacities and the quality of one’s actual performance – so, you might be thinking, does that mean that the more doubts I have the more successful I can expect to be here?) The real point I want to make is, I think, a more profound one: namely, that the capacity for self-doubt is, in fact, part of the essence of what we do here, part of the academic temperament, something you should nurture and lean to live comfortably with, because it’s very much needed to exploring the complexity of life as it is, which is, at base, the condition of our world and our existence. And that’s what we’re dedicated to doing here.

Up until now, your education has been largely a matter of incrementally building a base of what is already known across many fields (e.g., science, mathematics, English, social studies). Here, on the other hand, we live closer to the edge between what we think we know and the vast mystery that envelops us. You can’t live in that space unless you can thrive on uncertainty, and doubt. But I promise you that, if you can learn to do it, you are in for the experience of a lifetime – to be taken by the hand (mentally speaking) of a brilliant teacher, who has spent his or her career on the cusp of creativity in their chosen fields, and travel from where our thoughts seem comfortable and certain to a place where they must confront – and may even wither – the multiplicity of alternative perspectives and possibilities, that is something you will always remember and weave into every facet of your lives. And the capacity for self-doubt is the ticket to entering that special kind of education.

I have one more thought for you to keep in mind as you take up your education. This may not be very clear to you right now, but I want to plant this in your minds to ponder in the years ahead. You arrive at college just at the moment, I believe, of a new era. The world is embarked on a historically unprecedented transformation, one we somewhat glibly describe as “globalization.” The extraordinary spread of market economies, the phenomenal developments in the ability to communicate at any time and any place, and the sheer insatiable human curiosity about each other, all these forces and others are reshaping life on our planet. The big question for you is what does this mean about what you should be learning to prepare yourselves for this new era. The plain truth is that the subjects we research and teach at any given moment are only a fraction of what might be focused on, and, further, the criteria by which we make those choices are fairly vague. A truly great university, like Columbia, is continually thinking about both the criteria and the subject matter of our attentions. And we are, indeed, doing precisely that. But, when we are in an era that provokes profound shifts in the knowledge needed, as we are now, when a new generation may need different capacities than the preceding generation, then two things are called for: you – the students – must take a more active role in shaping your own education (especially outside the classroom, in the travel you undertake, the lectures you attend, the service you give to others) and, second, we – the teachers – have to listen more to what you think, because youth usually senses what’s coming better than age does. This we are committed to doing.

So, we are delighted you have joined us. Every single person here this afternoon envies you for having this time ahead. We all know that nothing like it will ever happen again. It is always tempting to speak of seizing the moment. Especially when you are in one of the greatest universities in one of the greatest cities in the world. One of your predecessors (Herman Wouk) spoke of moving between the Columbia “world of timeless values and hard intellectual work” and the “cynical, sophisticated, up-to-the-second New York.” “The best things of the moment were outside the rectangle of Columbia,” he said, while “the best things of all human history were inside the rectangle.” “[Y]ou could spend four years,” he concluded, “in an unforgettably exciting and improving alternation between two realms of magic.”

So, seize the moment, but also take your time. The impulse to do everything, so natural here, is bound to lead to consternation and worse. Be patient with yourself, and with your thoughts. Great thoughts require long periods of gestation, an intensity mixed with time for reflection and even leisure. Don’t be too hard on yourselves. If you feel confused and overwhelmed, we’re here to help. (Call my office if you need guidance about where to turn.)

Take to heart the complex advice of Virginia Woolf to young women: “By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of the money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

May you have the calm perseverance, the healthy self-doubt, during your years at Columbia to experience the new world unfolding before us, to dream and to loiter, to be intelligently idle, and to “let the line of thought dip deep into the stream” of knowledge.

Congratulations on having arrived at Columbia.