Convocation 2007

diver imageWelcoming remarks of
President Colin Diver

Good afternoon and welcome to Reed College.

We are glad you are here. Really, I mean that. We have such a great little college here. It would be such a shame if we threw a party and nobody showed up. For a few days it will seem like a party. After that, well, I’m not so sure.

Welcome also to Portland, Oregon, a city that is, I dare say, almost as distinctive and wonderful as Reed College. One of the many charming things about Portland is its collection of bumper stickers. Perhaps you have already seen the bumper sticker that reads “Keep Portland Weird.” I really don’t think that the supporters of this slogan have anything to fear.

Just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that caught my eye. It said:  “Don’t Believe What You Think.” When I saw this bumper sticker, it occurred to me that it would be just the right theme for my convocation remarks.

Don’t believe what you think.

The idea, I guess, is that you should question everything that you think you know. Now, my guess is that most of you – having chosen to come to Reed College, rather than some unnamed Eastern Establishment school – have already mastered the art of questioning what other people think. Especially other people in authority. Many of you probably don’t believe at least some of the things that, say, George Bush thinks. You probably don’t believe half of what you read in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (You do read the Journal, don’t you?) In fact, you probably don’t believe most of what your parents think.

But the bumper sticker is saying more than that -- you shouldn’t even believe what you think. Or at least what you think you think. Perhaps you believe that a second-rate actor named Will Shakespear really did write all those plays. Or that the universe really is filled with some mysterious force called dark energy. Or that a melt-down in the subprime mortgage market couldn’t possible cause worldwide financial turmoil. Or that the harvesting of human stem cells does not raise fundamental moral issues. Or that modernization is essentially irreversible. Or that there is no rational way to demonstrate that God really does exist – or really does not exist.

It doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is what you do with what you think. The message of the bumper sticker, like the experience of Reed College, is that you must continually question what you think. Hold your beliefs in critical suspension. Subject them repeatedly to inquiry. Look at the evidence to see if it supports those beliefs. Always look for more evidence, better evidence. Examine the arguments, the presuppositions, the unexamined premises. Put on new disciplinary lenses and look at your beliefs from a new vantage point. Be prepared to surprise yourself.

You will start your journey at Reed with the humanities. This is altogether fitting: To be human is to search for meaning . . .  to take the chaos of existence, and seek to impose upon it a sense of order . . .  to understand our world, as we live in it and engage with it. The search for meaning is the journey of a lifetime. Collectively, the search for truth is the journey of mankind. It is the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being, an answer to our highest calling.

It’s time to start that journey. The time is now. The place is Reed. Let’s get on with it!