Convocation 2010

Diver image
Colin Diver

Let me extend a warm welcome. By now you have all read the Odyssey, right? To the incoming class, welcome to the beginning of your odyssey. Like Odysseus, you’ve just been released from seven years’ captivity on Calypso’s island, otherwise known as high school, and you’re ready to sail forth. During the next several years you will have encounters with your own versions of Polyphemus, Circe, and the Sirens. But you have a protector. Think of Reed College as your version of the goddess Athena. And, of course, think of me as Zeus. That is to say, the big cheese who seems to have very little real authority to do anything, and usually screws it up when he tries.

And for most of you, welcome not only to Reed, but to the first stop in your odyssey—namely, Portland, Oregon. Just as Odysseus discovered the Mediterranean to be a weird and fascinating place, so you will discover that Portland and Oregon are interesting. For those of you who drive, you should know that it is a criminal offense to pump your own gas. Why, I still have absolutely no idea. Likewise you should know that Oregon seems intent on taking speed limits seriously. In my first month in Portland, I got stopped for going 40 in a 30 mile-an-hour speed zone. I looked incredulously at the officer and said: “But, I’m from Boston.” I think he doubled the fine. So, a word to the wise.

Just as you find Oregon intriguing, so you will find Reed intriguing. It is, after all, a creature of Oregon. It was from the start infused with Oregon’s feisty, populist, independent spirit. Today’s convocation officially begins the one-hundredth year of Reed’s existence, simply the best liberal arts college on the planet. Our founding president was a transplanted Easterner who sought to establish an academic community on the somewhat revolutionary principles of scholarly pursuit and honorable behavior. Imagine: an educational institution dedicated to scholarship and honor! He was particularly insistent that Reed be free of what he saw as the three great vices: football, fraternities, and frivolity. Fortunately, he succeeded in stamping out only the first two. Frivolity, thank goodness, escaped his reformist zeal, and has remained an essential part of our character ever since.

But if we value frivolity, it is in service of something we truly revere: inquiry and discovery. In a word, learning. We are a learning community. What we do is teaching, research, debate, discussion, scientific experimentation, artistic creation. But what we seek is learning. Not just learning facts and figures, but learning the skills and habits necessary for a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. And if you’re as smart as Steve Jobs, maybe you too can drop out after one semester, and then go on to change the world. But for most ordinary mortals—and I dare say that means most of you, and me—acquiring the skills and habits of intellectual discovery takes far longer than merely four years. Our job —and your job—is to lay a strong and lasting foundation for that journey.

So, to all of you who set sail today on the wine-dark sea of discovery, I say, your odyssey has begun. Let’s enjoy it together.