Today I have the distinct honor and pleasure of addressing you, the Transylvania University class of 2017. As your first academic experience at Transylvania, you will participate in the First Engagements seminar beginning this coming Monday. Now in its second year, the First Engagements seminar offers you a rich and challenging immersion into the intellectual culture that will characterize your time at Transylvania. You’ll find the seminar both exciting and demanding as you delve into the close and critical reading of texts like Mark Haddon’s the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, exchange and debate ideas with your classmates, the instructor, and the August term scholars, and push yourself to read in new and often revelatory ways.
“We can read the texts these writers left us, and, by doing so, both encounter the worlds they inhabited and learn to experience our own worlds in new and perhaps startlingly different ways.”
The First Engagements faculty and the August term scholars have chosen “Reading the World” as this year’s First Engagements’ theme. I’d like to ask you this morning to consider the meanings and implications of that theme. Certainly it captures two key goals of a liberal arts education: learning to read more critically and exploring the wider world. Moreover, the idea of “reading the world” has captivated philosophers, natural philosophers (or scientists), artists, mystics, prophets, poets, and in fact all peoples for centuries.
Think, for instance, of Plato’s classic parable of “misreading the world,” the “Allegory of the Cave.” In this work from The Republic, the prisoners in chains in the cave mistake images and shadows on the wall for physical realities. As Socrates explains to his young interlocutor, Glaucon, only by leaving the cave and making the painful journey into the light of the sun can the prisoners begin to “see”—or read—the world more clearly. The condition of the prisoners, Socrates continues, mirrors our own, for the “world of our sight is like the habitation in prison…[and] the ascent and the view of the upper world is the rising of the soul into the world of the mind” (315). In other words, in order to “read” the world, clearly we must rely on more than our physical senses alone, for they can mislead us.
In the nineteenth century, a very real prisoner of American slavery, Frederick Douglass, would rewrite Plato’s “Allegory” in chapter six of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. In this chapter, often titled “How I Learned to Read and Write,” young Douglass discovers that the “pathway from slavery to freedom” lies in literacy, something specifically denied to enslaved individuals (2054). Against all odds, Douglass learns to read and write and makes the often painful journey from ignorance to insight.
Learning to read, and to “read his world” clearly, however, does not come without costs. In a later chapter of the Narrative, Douglass would recount feeling that “learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It had opened my eyes to the horrible pit [of slavery] but to no ladder upon which to get out” (2057). The adult Douglass would eventually find this ladder by escaping to the limited freedom afforded African Americans in the north. He “read his world” and found a way to escape the literal and spiritual bondage it contained.
Not long after Frederick Douglass learned to read and write in Baltimore, Md., a young Englishman, Charles Darwin, set forth on a voyage of exploration aboard the ship the HMS Beagle. This expedition lasted almost five years—from December 1831 to October 1836—and took Darwin to such destinations as Patagonia, Galapagos, and Tahiti, among other exotic locales. Throughout this journey, Darwin “read” the natural world he encountered; the conclusions he began to draw would later change the course of modern science, and of modern life. Darwin recorded his impressions of the journey in 1839 in Journals and Remarks, more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle.
A final nineteenth-century reader of her world, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, considered the America of her day and found it sorely wanting in terms of its treatment of women. To address the inequalities women faced, Stanton and her allies organized the world’s first “Woman’s Rights Convention” at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848.
Prior to the convention, Stanton reviewed and revised the Declaration of Independence; she recast Jefferson’s famous line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The Declaration of Sentiments pointed out one glaring oversight in this foundational American document; it also included the radical resolution that women receive the vote. This wouldn’t happen until 1920, but Stanton and her allies—among them Frederick Douglass—sowed the seeds of change much earlier.
So what might individuals as different as Plato, Frederick Douglass, Charles Darwin, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton have in common? All not only “read” their different and often baffling worlds, but also recorded the process of doing so in The Republic, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Voyage of the Beagle, and The Declaration of Sentiments. A collection of Socratic dialogues, an autobiography, a travel narrative, and a political treatise, these different kinds of texts nonetheless all tell both of external events—often very exciting and unusual ones—and of internal reflections and gradual realizations; they record, in other words, processes of both outward and inward exploration and discovery.
And now, in the twenty-first century, we can read the texts these writers left us, and, by doing so, both encounter the worlds they inhabited and learn to experience our own worlds in new and perhaps startlingly different ways.
Finally, what do these “readers of the world” have to do with you? First, I fully expect that you will engage with at least some of them during your time at Transylvania. When you do, I urge you to read their works carefully, to read them critically, to read them openly, and to read them skeptically. Beware misreading and certainty; embrace ambiguity. You arrive here today well prepared to do just that in no small part due to the support and encouragement you’ve received from parents and other family members, many of them in the audience today. Now build on that foundation and push yourself to read more critically and carefully than ever before.
Second, I hope that, like the individuals I’ve mentioned, you will read your worlds beyond the classroom and the written artifact. Consider the images you’ll encounter in the art gallery or at a film screening, the experiments you’ll perform in the lab, the plays and musical events you’ll attend as other “texts” inviting you to read the world more fully.
Perhaps most of all, learn from the others you’ll meet during your years at Transylvania—those both like and unlike yourself. These individuals may well provide the most important resources you’ll have for “reading the world” in new and richer ways as you begin your journey as members of the Transylvania University class of 2017.
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