Full Text of Convocation Remarks

Speeches from Claremont McKenna College's Convocation, September 2, 2014, McKenna Auditorium

Dean Nicholas Warner – Welcome

Welcome to convocation for 2014. My name is Nick Warner; I’m the Interim Dean of Faculty at CMC and Professor of Literature. And as I was thinking about my remarks this morning, I was reflecting on past convocations that I’ve attended, and I had rather ambivalent feelings when I realized not only was my first convocation one that occurred before any of the students here were born, it was also a convocation that occurred before some of our faculty members were born. But let that pass. I further thought about the fact that I had been to a lot of convocations and attended them, so I want to share with you some thoughts about what it is that we’re doing today, what it means that we’ve assembled here. And the word convocation comes from the Latin ‘convocare’, to call together. And it is in fact a calling together. So we’ve assembled here and we’ve assembled at the beginning of a journey that we’re going to be taking throughout the academic year together and I want to emphasize that notion of the fact that we will be together for the rest of this year. The people who constitute this assembly represent the people who constitute CMC because finally CMC, however worthy the playing fields, classrooms, Kravis Center, Athenaeum and all of those buildings are, that is not what CMC is, but CMC is you, CMC is the whole gathering of people who work here, the faculty, the staff, the students who all come together to make this special environment that is like no other that we call Claremont McKenna College.

And so I’d like to think of this event as something that does bring us together and that also brings us together for something more than simply an hour on a particular day. You know, convocation is going to be over in some…less than 60 minutes, and I know some of you are probably thinking, yes, and the sooner he stops talking, the sooner we’ll get to that point. So I’m going to wrap this up with just an observation that we are moving together from this point onward, together indeed. Because it is part of an environment, of a whole that we will all be engaged in our individual pursuits. Students, faculty, staff people who all have their particular deadlines, their concerns, their anxieties, and all of us who get so absorbed in our particular activities are actually contributing to the greater whole of this college. We’re contributing to the college’s excellence; we’re fulfilling its mission. We are advancing the cause of learning and hopefully, at the end of this year we will leave CMC—or not leave it, but actually make it a greater place than it was at the beginning of this year. And so as we work on this together I’d like of us to think of convocation as lasting more than just an hour on this particular day. Convocation is something that will go on, the calling together of all of us work, to pool our individual resources of effort and time throughout the academic year, not just for this morning, but throughout the coming days, the coming weeks, the coming months until we reach commencement in May of 2015.

And as part of the spirit of calling people together and of recognizing the many different groups that make up this unit that is CMC, we have the recognition of people for their years of service from all of the different areas of the college. And it is my honor to introduce President Hiram Chodosh, who will be recognizing those members of our community who have enabled us to work together in this calling together that we have as members of CMC. President Chodosh.

Dean Nicholas Warner – Introduction of Keynote Speaker
And it’s now my pleasure to introduce the speaker for convocation this year, is Professor Amy Kind. And when Amy Kind graduated from Amherst College with a BA in Philosophy, she received the highest possible level of honor that students can receive upon graduation: Summa Cum Laude. And this honor was but the beginning of a career of tremendous distinction and achievement. Professor Kind went on to receive a Ph.D. in Philosophy from UCLA, after which she came to CMC where in short order she established herself as a superb teacher, a brilliant scholar, and as a dedicated member of the CMC community. Her scholarship has centered on the philosophy of mind, the imagination and phenomenal consciousness, with literally dozens of scholarly contributions in the form of articles, encyclopedia entries, book reviews, book chapters, and conference presentations. Her teaching record has been outstanding, including courses in metaphysics, logic, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, special topics in philosophy, and the freshman humanities seminar. As a citizen of the college, she has demonstrated exceptional service and exceptional leadership, having been Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Interim Director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and currently is a member of the very important and time consuming Executive Committee of the Appointment, Promotion and Tenure Committee. So it’s obvious that Amy has a very full plate of activities, yet she graciously accepted my invitation to be the convocation speaker this year on the intriguing topic, “Beyond Happiness”. Please join me in welcoming the Convocation Speaker for 2014, Professor Amy Kind.

Keynote – Professor of Philosophy Amy Kind – “Beyond Happiness”
Well, first I want to thank Dean Warner for inviting me to speak today. It’s quite an honor to be up here addressing the CMC community and I’m especially honored to play a part in welcoming the class of 2018. So my remarks today are primarily addressed to you as you start your college career. I’m sure there’s been a lot to take in as you’ve been shuffling from one orientation event to another. You’re probably suffering a little bit from information overload. I thought about skipping the whole speech and just nominating the entire platform party for the Ice Bucket Challenge, but ultimately I decided that probably wasn’t the best way to go, so you get a speech after all. So my remarks today, which as Dean Warner said, are entitled “Beyond Happiness”. We’re prompted by a story I was reading earlier this summer on the CMC website about this year’s Princeton Review college rankings. When I read the article I learned among other things that CMC came in second, ranked second in happiest students. We come in right behind Vanderbilt, which, by the way, is first.

Now, I’m actually not a huge fan of college ranking systems like Princeton Review or US News & World Report. I’m not convinced that they’re always measuring what they think they’re measuring, but that’s a topic for another day. And regardless, when it comes to the happiness quotient at CMC, Princeton Review is almost certainly right. Just look at the campus ratings on RateMyProfessors.com—which is another site I’m not a huge fan of—there, CMC gets a perfect five on the happiness rating with student comments like, “All of the students are so happy here.” “Happiest school in the world.” So if you happened to come across the Princeton Review happiness ranking system, I expect you were pretty excited to hear the news. It probably reaffirmed your sense that you had made the right choice when you decided to come to CMC. Who wouldn’t want to go to a school where the students are the happiest, among the very happiest around? Who wouldn’t want to spend their college years being happy? Didn’t we learn from Pharrel that happiness is the truth? I certainly don’t deny that you should factor in happiness when thinking about where to go to school, and I certainly don’t deny that happiness is something that we should value. I’m all for happiness. I’ll clap along with Pharrel. But I worry that an undue focus on happiness makes us lose sight of other values that are equally, if not more, important. And I also worry that sometimes these other values are actually intentioned with happiness. So these are the ideas that I want to explore in my remarks today.

In short, the takeaway message is that as important as happiness is—and it is important—you shouldn’t forget to look beyond happiness as you try to get the most out of your four years at CMC, and in fact, as you try to get the most out of your life as a whole. Okay, now I’m a philosopher, as Dean Warner said, and we philosophers like thought experiments, so that’s how I want to start. The thought experiment that I’m interested in, which derives from the work of philosopher Robert Nozick, relies on the device that’s become known as the Experience Machine. Now, you were all probably—this is very depressing to me—but you were all probably about three years old when the movie “The Matrix” came out in 1999. Yeah, I know, it’s depressing. So I don’t know whether a reference to that movie will resonate with you, but if it does, the Experience Machine will probably remind you a bit of the situation that Neo was in at the start of the movie, only without the evil machines manipulating humans for their own ends. So what philosopher Nozick wants us to imagine is a powerful virtual reality machine that could give you any experience you wanted. So this is how he describes the situation. He says, “Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so you would think, you’d feel you’d were writing a great novel or making a friend or reading an interesting book. All the time you could be floating in a tank with electrodes to your brain.” So that’s his scenario. Now of course, while all of this was happening, you wouldn’t know you were in a tank. You would think that the experiences you are having are real. So you would think that you’re reading a book or writing a novel or substitute in better experiences if you don’t like the ones that Nozick picked. But you would think that all of these experiences that you were having were real. And now you could determine all of the programming in advance. You could choose from a menu of experiences to ensure that you would consistently have nothing but happiness. Or, if you prefer, you could throw an occasional dose of minor unhappiness in there just to make the happiness feel a bit sweeter. The choice in experiences is entirely up to you. And don’t worry about leaving other people behind. They can plug into their own experiences—Experience Machines.

Okay, so having imagined this possibility along with me, if you were presented with the option of utilizing the Experience Machine, would you plug in? Would you plug in for an hour or so? For a week? What about for the rest of your life? If this were a class I would make you actually raise your hands, but I won’t do that now. Just hopefully you’re imagining along with me. Now, most people, when they consider the Experience Machine, think it might be a fun pastime for an hour or two, but they’re disinclined to want to plug in for life. I assume that many of you share that inclination. But now ask yourselves, why? Why wouldn’t you plug in forever? Given that you could ensure your future happiness, and given how much value we put on happiness, why wouldn’t plugging in forever be the obvious way to go? So insofar as you’re not inclined to plug in forever and give your life over to the Experience Machine, it suggests that happiness is not all that you value. As much as we care about happiness, we care about other things as well. In the rest of these remarks, I want to explore what some of these other things might be.

So to do this, I think it might be helpful to think a little more about what happiness is. Sometimes when we talk about happiness, we mean something like overall wellbeing. In this sense, a happy life is a life well lived. But sometimes when we talk about happiness, we’re talking about being happy. In this sense, happiness is a psychological state, an emotion or a mood that involves pleasurable experience. I take it that this is what Princeton Review has in mind when they talk about colleges having happy students. They’re talking about how students feel day to day. So now in thinking further about happiness, it might help to distinguish it from some other closely related notions. I should say that in addition to thought experiments, philosophers love drawing distinctions, too. Okay. So the main contrast I’m interested in is the difference between happiness and fulfillment. Both happiness and fulfillment are positive feelings, but they’re different feelings. Oftentimes they go hand in hand, but they can come apart. Not everything that makes us happy gives us a sense of fulfillment, and not everything that gives us a sense of fulfillment makes us happy. Eating a Rice Krispy treat during afternoon tea at the Ath might make you happy. Getting a free shirt today might make you happy. Ponding your friends on their birthdays might make you happy. But none of these leads to a deeper sense of fulfillment.

On the other hand, suppose you spend a Saturday helping to clean up an urban park that’s been so neglected it no longer provides a safe environment for the young kids who play in it. Pulling weeds and cleaning up broken glass and painting over graffiti—it’s hard work. And while you’re hot and sweaty and tired, you’re unlikely to be feeling particularly happy. You might even be feeling unhappy. But the work is valuable and important and even if you didn’t enjoy every minute of it or even most minutes of it, you’ll leave at the end of the day, not only with pride at what you’ve accomplished, but also with a deep sense of fulfillment. Once we draw this distinction between happiness and fulfillment, it starts to become obvious that happiness can’t possibly be the only kind of positive feeling that matters to us. We also care about fulfillment. We can also start to see why plugging into the Experience Machine strikes us as problematic. The machine could give me feelings of fulfillment along with feelings of happiness. But I don’t just want to feel fulfilled. I want that feeling of fulfillment to be justified. I don’t want to feel fulfilled about the great job I did Saturday cleaning up the park, if I didn’t actually clean up the park on Saturday. I don’t want to be deceived about myself and about my accomplishments. It matters to me, not just how I feel, but what I did. And I think at some other point it undoubtedly applies to happiness as well. The kind of happiness produced by the Experience Machine might be okay for a few minutes or for an hour or two here or there, but not for a lifetime. Such happiness comes too cheaply. It’s too disconnected from the reality in which we live. It’s the same reason most of us find so unappealing the soma-induced happiness in Huxley’s Brave New World. The people in Huxley’s society take soma, the ideal pleasure drug, to escape from reality and to suppress unpleasant emotions. But the rampant use of soma is a key part of what makes Huxley’s imagined world a paradigm case of a dystopia. Like the character Bernard, who refuses soma because he’d rather be himself, we don’t value happiness if it’s absent any sort of authenticity altogether.

So during your time at CMC, I hope you’ll have lots of Rice Krispy treats, get lots of free shirts, participate in lots of pondings—though not professors. Never professors—presidents and deans, that’s a different matter. But along with all of these sorts of activities that make you happy, I also hope that you’ll find fulfillment and I hope your fulfillment will be genuine fulfillment, arriving out of your genuine engagement with activities that you find fulfilling. The example I gave a moment ago was a case where fulfillment arose from a charitable activity, but there are many avenues toward fulfillment. One obvious route to fulfillment is to find your passion and pursue it, whether in the science lab or the research archives, on the athletic field, or on the stage or on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley or some combination of these or something else altogether.

Another obvious route to fulfillment comes from the development of meaningful relationships with other people. Genuine human interaction is another part of what we’d be missing if we were to plug into the Experience Machine. Form friendships with your classmates. Facebook doesn’t count. Get to know your professors. Office hours are meant to be used. We want to get to know you. You’re a part of what makes our lives fulfilling as professors. So one way in which I’m encouraging you to look beyond happiness is to seek fulfillment. But that’s not all.

I also think that during your time at CMC you should be willing to take intellectual risks, to push yourselves, to try something new. And all of this means that you have to look beyond happiness as well. I’m sure that you can be perfectly happy at CMC playing it safe. You can hang out with the friends that you already knew from home, you can choose to hear speakers at The Ath only when they hold views you already know that you endorse. You can take classes that you expect to be easy for you. But however happy you might be, think of how much you’d be missing if you did that. Think of all the fascinating people here with backgrounds that are completely different from yours, and how much you might learn from them. Think of all the speakers at the Ath who might present views that challenge your own, who force you to rethink your own ideas. Think of all the great classes on topics you’ve never encountered before, unfamiliar from high school, outside your major, outside your intended career path. When it comes down to it, it will probably turn out that pushing yourselves in these ways ends up contributing to your overall happiness. But even if it didn’t, these sorts of challenging experiences are important in and of themselves. We’re now zeroing in on what worries me most about a narrow focus on happiness. The problem is that some of the things that I think we should value are not only beyond happiness, but are in many ways, opposed to it.

In particular, I have in mind the value of being uncomfortable. If this talk had had a subtitle, it would have been “Beyond Happiness: The Importance of Being Uncomfortable”. As you make your way through your four years at CMC, your professors are often going to be asking you to step outside your comfort zone. You’re going to be encountering difficult and controversial issues in your classes. This becomes immediately obvious just by looking at the kinds of freshman humanities seminars you’ll all be taking this year, whether it’s Poverty, Wealth and Social Change, or Gender in Society, or Economic Development, or Democracy and Leadership, or something else entirely. In these courses you’ll tackle deep and often disquieting issues. Why does democracy so often lead to tyranny? What should we do when economic development programs displace communities? How can we move forward with social change? How can we make social progress when the population is so deeply split on the issues under debate? Class discussions are going to be lively. They’re going to be challenging. And as a result, they are often going to make you squirm. For many of the issues you’ll be discussing, for example, you’ll probably come in with preformed opinions. And in many cases, I suspect you’ll discover that your preformed opinions do not always hold up under pressure. They may be unsupported by the evidence or insufficiently sophisticated or even internally inconsistent. As you confront various problems, be they philosophical or historical or economic, the key to understanding each of them lies first in the realization that there are real problems, that there are important and powerful considerations that tend to pull us in opposite, or at least, conflicting directions. There are no easy answers. Grappling with all these deep issues will likely make you uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable. But that sort of discomfort is the beginning of, or at least a necessary pre-condition, for intellectual growth.

The importance of being uncomfortable is not just limited to your time in the classroom. In the last weeks of the summer, one could hardly pick up a newspaper or check in online without being bombarded with news of the resurgence of Ebola, unrest in Ferguson, tensions in Gaza. Reading about all these things, watching the videos that show up in your news feeds is not conducive to happiness. I can attest to that firsthand. It makes one deeply uncomfortable about the world in which we live, but if we have any hope of resolving any of these situations or even of just making progress, we have to know what’s going on. We have to confront the reality of the situations we face. At times, undoubtedly, there will be difficult situations on campus. Here, too, such situations need to be confronted, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. Living in a cocoon might make you happier. Taking soma certainly would. But withdrawal, be it physical or chemical, can’t possibly be the answer. It can’t lead to the sort of life that I hope you all want to lead.

The value of being uncomfortable is the kind of intangible that doesn’t often show up in ratings systems. It’s probably not something that Princeton Review wants to write. And even if it were, we probably wouldn’t find colleges advertising on their websites that they came out on top in making students uncomfortable. But if there were to be rankings on this kind of thing, I’m proud to say that I think CMC would fare pretty well. In committing ourselves to educating students for thoughtful and productive lives as our mission statement says, we are committing ourselves to generating discomfort. A life can’t be thoughtful or productive without it. Leadership is not possible without it. And I’m not alone in thinking this.

Consider the argument made by Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights in an article from a couple of years ago on “Social Sector Leadership in the 21st Century”. According to Northup, boldness in leadership requires that one be able to—and these are her words—she said, “One must be able to lean into discomfort.” This is what she says. “The organization had better be feeling discomfort if it’s leaning into new strategies and ways of working.” You have always to ask, am I pushing for the change that’s really needed? You have to continually refresh and check, and make sure that you’re getting the most power for the mission by being as uncomfortable as possible, because change is hard. Change is hard, not only for organizations, but for all of us as individuals. Personal growth is hard. Intellectual growth is hard. Happiness is often sacrificed or put on hold in the process. But ultimately what you want out of college should be different from what you want out of a day at Disneyland.

Thus, though I wish you lots of happiness during your four years at CMC, truth to be told, I also wish you some unhappiness. As you struggle with a difficult text or as you come to realize a difficult truth, as you confront viewpoints that are different from your own or encounter confusion while reevaluating your own ideas, you’re bound to experience discomfort. But that’s okay. In fact, it should be welcomed. That’s what I think college is really all about. So thanks for listening today and best wishes for the four years ahead.

Benjamin Tillotson ’15 – “Final Reflections”
Thank you all for being here. It is quite a privilege to address all the faculty, staff, and students gathered here today to welcome the new school year. For me, and I’m sure many other seniors in the room, this is a bittersweet moment. As always, there’s so much to look forward to in the year ahead. I’m excited for my classes, to reunite with friends who were abroad for all the fun senior traditions and for another great Ath lineup. But as the year goes on, more and more of these will become memories rather than things to look forward to and I will cherish the new year as the end to my precious time at CMC.

But I had a conversation over the summer that expanded this appreciation beyond the context of these four years and put it in the perspective of the broader course of our lives. For me, this conversation immensely deepened my gratitude towards CMC and I’d like to share it with you all now. I was talking with my boss about plans for the upcoming year. We discussed everything from thesis to classes to starting the process of working for post-graduation plans. He had good advice for all of these, but he ended the conversation by telling me that no matter what, I just had to be cognizant of one thing: that this could be the last time that the focus of my life would be myself. The majority of time and energy that we, as students, spend at CMC goes towards indulging our own academic curiosity, developing skills and just generally working to improve ourselves. The rest of the world, he said, isn’t like this. You don’t get to tailor your day to day schedule around what you find interesting. You don’t have such a devoted and comprehensive network of support, and you aren’t constantly surrounded by people deeply concerned with supporting your growth and development. Much of life after college, he told me, is largely focused on what you can give to an organization. College is perhaps the last time that life is focused on what an organization can give to you.

This realization changed my perspective of the upcoming year in a couple of ways. First, it gave me a more meaningful appreciation of my remaining time on campus, and it also made me aware that college and the process of developing the self is an inherently selfish endeavor. I don’t mean selfish in the mean-spirited sense of the word, since we do this ultimately to become more valuable citizens to our countries and the world, but during these four years, what we take for ourselves, measured in both resources and the time and energy of others, compared to what we give of ourselves is immensely out of proportion. This imbalance plays an important role in expediting our personal growth and development during these short four years. It’s a necessary part of a quality liberal arts education, and it’s important for us as students to recognize. And once we do, it’s hard not to be immensely grateful to everyone else here in the room. It is because of their commitment and dedication that we’re able to make so much of ourselves from our time at CMC.

So to all the building attendants, maintenance and grounds crews who keep our dorms and campus pristine; to all the chefs, servers and cashiers at Collins and The Hub who work early mornings and late nights to keep us well fed at all hours; the administration who provide the leadership to constantly grow and expand our community; to the board of trustees who devote their time to ensure the transformative experiences they had at CMC are available to us; the Dean of Students office who actually have a pending ice bucket challenge for the President and who work to promote our social and emotional well-being more ways than we know; to our faculty, who despite their own impressive writing and research, show a tireless commitment to students; to our parents, family members, scholarship donors or anyone else who helps to provide us with the financial means to be here, and to everyone else who works to enrich our experiences at CMC, admit us and do everything else that it takes to keep this place running; I, on behalf of the student body, would like to extend our deepest and most sincere gratitude for what you. You live selflessly for us so that we may selfishly have these four years for ourselves. I know that when it comes time to graduate, we will be ready to give of ourselves because of your example. Thank you and I wish all the best for the upcoming year.