Convocation 2008

Diver image
Colin Diver

Good afternoon. I am Colin Diver, president of Reed College, and it’s my privilege to welcome you to Orientation 2008. Think of orientation as Reed College’s version of the summer Olympics, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and the Russian invasion of Georgia, all rolled into one event.

You are, in a rather literal sense, the Centennial class at Reed College. The College was established in 1908 under the will of Amanda Reed, and it opened its doors to its first entering class in 1911. So, you arrive here exactly 100 years after our creation, and, if all goes well, you will be seniors or at least still enrolled as students in the year in which we will officially celebrate our centennial 2011-2012.

All of that history may mean very little to you now. In choosing Reed, you probably turned down offers from other schools that are much older. Indeed, in higher education time, Reed is still a new kid on the block. But you only turn 100 once, and we plan to make a big deal about it.

Speaking of ages, most of you are probably in your eighteenth year on this planet, give or take a year or two. Leaving home and coming to college is a good time to reflect on what you have done with your life so far, and what you might do with the rest of it. We have high hopes for you.

Consider some possible role models: by the time he was your age, Mozart had already written three operas. The mathematician Blaise Pascal had already discovered the Pascal Theorem about conic sections. Bobby Fischer had become a chess grandmaster. Gian Lorenzo Bernini had sculpted the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. Anna Paquin had won an Oscar for best supporting actress. And, of course, the entire Chinese gymnastics team had won Olympic Gold Medals.

So what have you done with your life?

Okay. Okay. Not fair. Almost no one gets to be a child prodigy, and most child prodigies flame out early. Think of Bobby Fischer. And what has Anna Paquin done lately? To borrow an Olympics metaphor, for most of us, life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You start with an intellectual itch, a point of curiosity, a crazy idea you nurture and develop it, and over time it emerges and changes. And maybe, just maybe, it changes your world.

Consider a couple of examples from Reed’s history.

Steve Jobs hadn’t done anything particularly noteworthy by the time he arrived at Reed as a freshman in 1972. But he had already met Steve Wozniak. And the two of them had already begun to nurse the germ of an idea about personal computers. Then Jobs happened to audit a calligraphy class at Reed; and the notion of combining elegance of computing with elegance of design began to blossom. And our world changed forever.

Larry Sanger hadn’t done anything especially noteworthy by the time he arrived at Reed in 1986. But, as a philosophy student here, he was introduced to epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and he began to imagine a new way of creating and testing knowledge. His ideas would blossom a few years later in his association with Jimmy Wales, when the two of them created Nupedia, and then Wikipedia. And our world changed forever.

My world certainly has changed, since I used my Apple computer to compose this speech, and I confess I got most of these goofy facts from Wikipedia.

My guess is that every one of you has within you the germ of a question or a crazy idea that can—believe it or not—change your world. Our job is to help you nurture and develop that germ, to give you the tools, and the perspective, and the knowledge, and the chutzpah to turn a nagging question into an insight. To turn an insight into an idea. To turn a crazy idea into an obvious idea. It’s taken Reed College about 100 years to turn the slightly crazy ideas of its founders into reality. So we know something about this. And, very soon, you will, too.

So, welcome to the journey. Thank you.