Greetings President Paxton, Provost Locke, fellow administrators, faculty and staff. Welcome alumni, families and friends. And most of all, welcome, welcome, welcome to the 2016 entering undergraduate, graduate and medical classes. You have all made it – so do savor this moment.
You are all remarkable individuals who join this institution and will do remarkable things. Imagine it! Because, at this 253rd Convocation of Brown University, you are the link between Brown’s venerable history and our bright unwritten future.
Whether you are a first generation college student, or following in the footsteps of earlier generations, whether you have travelled great distances to be here or just climbed College Hill, whether you come directly from high school or from years of career exploration, you have worked hard and deserve to be here.
Though it may be hard to imagine today, in the not too distant future, we will gather here again to celebrate all that you have accomplished during your time here at Brown, and to commemorate those achievements. The journey from this first day to that culminating day starts now. And just as most journeys begin with some version of a road map even if only as a starting proposition as you commence on your Brown journey, be aware that you have many guides, maps and navigator apps at your disposal. We, the faculty, staff and administrators, are here to offer you guidance and support. In one form or another, we have each made a journey similar to the one on which you embark today.
All of us among the faculty and staff get to vicariously relive our college or postgraduate experiences through you, all the while remaining cognizant that your route will be unique, not only because of the times we live in, but because of your unique interests, and your innovative spirit.
Your destination is determined by your imagination. Make use of the supports provided to you by faculty and staff, but stand firmly rooted in your own guiding curiosity, your imagination and your courage to take risks.
So much of what you have done to be here today focused on the accumulation of knowledge – your earlier academic success, your performance on the SATs, ACTs, GREs and MCATs. And of course during your time here you will be expected to assimilate new knowledge. But much of your journey will require imaginative creativity built on that foundation of knowledge. Your knowledge of historical forces, literary trends, scientific discoveries and mathematical truths are the scaffolding from which your own creative contributions to our community of scholarship will emerge.
I urge you today to contemplate the role of your imagination, your creativity, your curiosity, and your courage in your life until now, and to consider the role they will play during your time at Brown.
Imagination is the power of your mind to build what does not exist; to see what is not there. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Imagination is the beginning of creation… will what you desire, desire what you imagine, and at last create what you will.” So, I encourage you to imagine, desire, will, and create.
At some point you imagined what it would be like to be here at Brown – through your considerable will, discipline, work ethic and ability you have earned your seat on this green today. You created a new reality – in the same way, your time at Brown will be shaped by what you imagine, desire, will and create.
The nineteenth century artist Paul Gaugin became a painter relatively late in life. He trained with the impressionists, but eventually became disillusioned with their emphasis on the everyday. Disenchanted with Western civilization, he sought a truer, rawer form of expression. He set off for the South Pacific where he integrated his experiments with the decorative arts, his interest in religious/cultural symbolism, and his knowledge of the latest findings in human color perception to create an entirely original style of painting, which in turn sparked the expressionists. Of course, he died syphillitic, alone and unappreciated. His projections on “native” peoples are problematic on so many levels, but his artistic contributions are significant to this day. Gaugin was not perfect – no one in history is perfect – and I doubt that any of us is perfect.
Gaugin’s path and creative journey however, encompassed many of the elements I recommend to you. He trained in Paris with the innovators of his day. He sought out masters such as Van Gogh and worked with them. He experimented in other media — block carving, print making, ceramics. He studied the scientific findings on color perception. And when he felt that the artistic currents of the time held nothing more for him, he set off to find new inspiration. He imagined, desired, willed, and created.
In 1850, the fourth president of Brown University, Francis Wayland, advocated that students should have the freedom to determine their educational experience. Wayland was not warm and fuzzy. A former student wrote of Wayland, “it was a calamity to be called into that awful presence”. Yet Wayland insisted that students should study what they chose and all that they chose. Today, his vision is implemented in Brown’s open curriculum, which encourages undergraduates to follow their curiosity, let loose their imagination, and explore areas of thought that they had never considered before.
The underpinning of the open curriculum is also evident in Brown’s graduate programs, which strive to balance disciplinary depth and rigor with breadth. I implore you, incoming graduate students, to seek out the myriad opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration with faculty and fellow students alike, because it is in these inter-sectional spaces that new insights are gained, dogma questioned, and creativity nourished.
To our future physicians, the Scholarly Concentrations Program of our Medical School supports pursuit beyond the conventional medical curriculum. It offers you the opportunity to translate your personal interests and cross-disciplinary activities into scholarship and clinical excellence.
I urge you all to remember that singular disciplinary studies in a multidisciplinary world limits your capacity and your ability to communicate in the wider world.
We faculty are not here to simply train you to do what we have done – or to think as we think. Your time at Brown is not to be spent confirming our beliefs and assumptions. You are meant to work with us to re-examine those assumptions.
Dogma, the beliefs we accept without doubt or question, hinders intellectual progress. It can be hard to recognize when theory becomes dogma. Often, it is the student (the newcomer or outsider) who reveals when this calcification develops. Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfee describes how sound scientific practice can evolve into dogma: We design an experiment to test a hypothesis, consider the relevant factors, define the variables, and measure the results. We consider an experiment has “worked” when it confirms our predictions. But, Chalfee contests, such an outcome teaches us nothing new; it simply affirms a theory and pushes it closer to becoming dogma. Fertile ground for imagination and new discovery is to be found, he argues, when our carefully designed and controlled experiments fail to yield the predicted results. Science is not unbiased. A theory is a form of bias that shapes how we perceive and attend to natural phenomena.
A recent documentary on the CERN facility in Switzerland reveals a case in point. After investing billions of dollars and decades of work, in 2013, the Large Hadron Collider confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle 50 years after it had been predicted. This positive result was critical to confirming much that theoretical physics has accomplished in recent decades. Moreover, two competing theories (supersymmetry and multiverse) predicted different values for the mass of the Higgs boson, and there was great anticipation to discover which would be proven right. The experimental results put the mass of the Higgs exactly between the two values predicted by the two competing theories, confirming neither theory. So, a positive experimental result confirmed the general direction of theoretical physics, and an unexpected result has thrown open the field to entirely new theories. This is fertile ground indeed! By the way, the late Brown University Professor of Physics Gerald Guralnik was one of the originators of the theory that predicted the Higgs boson.
My colleagues in the Program in Biology will know that Professor Guralnik trained with Walter Gilbert. Walter Gilbert was trained in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work done in Biology. So, faculty, when one of your doctoral students says, I’d like to sample what the Brown curriculum has to offer in Physics, the Arts, Mathematics, or the Humanities because it will make me better – think about what our colleague Professor Gilbert would say.
As human beings, we are predisposed to attend to what is consistent with our biases, our internal theories of the world, and to ignore or minimize what is inconsistent. This very human tendency is the enemy of true scholarship and discovery, as it is the enemy of personal growth. Use your time at Brown to expose yourself to the new and the unfamiliar. Spend time outside of your comfort zone. These experiences will reveal your essential nature and will help you to imagine greater possibilities for yourself and for the society. They will help you to build lives of purpose and meaning.
Now, I have asked you to imagine your time at Brown as a time of dedication to ideas, to each other, to growth, to taking creative and intellectual risks, to doing what you came here to do, and what you have not yet imagined.
So in closing, let me remind you to “imagine, desire, will and create.”