Convocation Address of Dr. Lorna Duphiney Edmundson

August 31, 2004

Dr. EdmundsonIt is such a pleasure to be back in this beautiful state of Vermont and to be back on the Norwich campus with friends and colleagues such as President Schneider. I am a great admirer of your president and was honored to be invited by your provost to speak to you today.

In my role as a trustee of Norwich, I have come to see how wisely this university is preparing for the future. Your new strategic plan for 2019 is ambitious but sound. As a trustee, I look forward to doing my part to help realize our objectives.

The institution in which I serve as president, Wilson College, differs from Norwich in some ways. Wilson is a 135-year-old college dedicated to the education of women in rigorous programs in the liberal arts and sciences. We're located on a 300-acre campus of rolling hills and meadows on the Conococheague Creek in south-central Pennsylvania, just north of the Mason Dixon Line.

For several years in a row, we've received the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence, along with Carnegie Mellon and Penn State Universities. People come from all over the world to see what we are doing at our Fulton Center for Environmental Sustainability, which includes a 100 acre farm that provides produce for our dining hall and for local programs in Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA's.

Equestrian Studies, Veterinary Medical Studies, Chemistry, and Biology are among the science -based programs that enroll more than 50% of our students. Recently, we received our first major gift to establish the Wilson Institute for Women and Girls in Science, Mathematics and Technology, an institute that builds on our strengths in science and is designed to encourage women and girls to continue their studies in these fields. Women continue to be underrepresented in science, mathematics and technology.

Despite these variations in mission and programs, we share much in common with Norwich University. Our honor principle -- like yours -- is more than 100 years old, and all in our community are asked to live up to high ethical standards. We also seek a diverse student body, as you do, welcoming people of all races and cultures, including international students from our partner colleges in Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Wilson students -- like you -- return to class this week, and so, after this convocation ceremony, I must return to campus to prepare.

But today, we begin anew in this 185th year of Norwich University's proud and distinguished history. Thousands of teachers, administrators, staff and students have come here before us, beginning in 1819, when Captain Alden Partridge founded Norwich as a "literary, scientific, and military academy, steeped in the idea of a liberal, yet firm curriculum that facilitates learning." Since its earliest times, Norwich alumni have gone forth into the world bringing the values and lessons learned here.

Before going forward, it is important to remember. We "re-member", not with nostalgia, but by bringing the members -- the members of this community -- back together to recommit to each other and to our common goals. We do this to enable us to prepare to meet the challenges of the future -- Norwich University's future, your future, the future of our world.

Preparing to meet that future requires us to move individually and collectively forward through a series of large and small transitions.

Faculty, you are moving through the Seasons of Academic Life, so eloquently described by Dr. L. Lee Knefelkamp of Columbia University in the academic journal, Liberal Education. You began by perfecting your teaching, and later moved to engaging in research, assuming college leadership, participating more fully in professional and public life.

Teaching is hard work. It's rewarding, but hard. You are the heart of this fine institution. Thank you for your teaching, for making us proud, and for advancing the image and mission of Norwich.

Students, you are on the cusp of new discoveries and dramatic intellectual development, balancing the complex demands of personal, social and academic life. You are expanding your personal and social circles; moving into and through adulthood; becoming part of the campus, professional and world communities; and realigning your relationships with family, friends and teachers -- old and new;

As the academic year begins, "Not Only Will Your Teachers Appear, But They Will Cook New Foods For You."

This provocative thought is actually the title of a chapter in Alice Walker's volume of Essays, entitled, Living By The Word. You probably know Ms. Walker's most famous work, The Color Purple, which subsequently became an award-winning film.

"Not Only Will Your Teachers Appear, but They will Cook New Foods for You", she says.

In fact, cooking food for you is not an obligation of your teachers. However, cooking food for thought certainly is, and Norwich faculty prepare a feast for you year after year. You must do your part by stepping up to the seminar table with a voracious and adventurous appetite for learning.

Alice Walker is herself an extraordinary teacher who actually did cook both food and thought for my daughters and me several years ago when she honored us by staying in our Vermont home. I served her herbal tea. She cooked oatmeal. But more important was her gift of food for the mind and spirit, much of it painfully timely today. This is especially true as we approach the third anniversary of September 11th and are in the midst of a contentious presidential election campaign that forces us to confront our deepest fears and sustain our most fervent hopes. If you are not yet registered to vote, please do so.

Alice seems to have anticipated this moment. Listen to words she wrote about her own life's journey shortly after completing the manuscript for The Color Purple:

The daily news of death and despair coming in the newspapers and over the airwaves began to seem the very breath of the planet itself; ominous and foul.

I began to wonder if the old planet onto which I had been born, and on which I toddled so delightedly as a baby, and explored so appreciatively as a child -- the planet of enormous trees and mellow suns; the planet of weeklong days -- still existed.

I set out on my journey to find my old planet, to gaze at its moon, to swim in its waters, to eat its fruits, to discover and admire its creatures, to purify myself in its winds and songs.

To my inexpressible joy, I found it was still there ... I saw, however, that the world cannot tolerate much longer the old ways of humans that batter it so unmercifully, and I spent many hours and days considering how it must be possible to exist, for the good of all, in what I believe is a new age of heightened global consciousness.

Twenty-four years after Alice wrote these words, the world remains in a perilous state. Many Norwich students and alumni are already working around the globe to make it right.

I have met you, in spirit, if not in person, at airports on the east coast -- you, on your way to Iraq or Afghanistan to defend our nation; me, on my way to Jeddha to solidify Wilson's partnership with one of only two Saudi Arabian women's colleges.

I have met you in schools, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity Projects, where you also serve others and grow in the process.

I met you in spirit yesterday evening at a modest airport hotel in Maryland. Just as my husband and I arrived, so did you, young people carrying large green duffle bags. "Were you being deployed or coming home?" we wondered and were afraid to ask. But you were coming home. We were happy to be there to welcome and thank you for your service.

Your safe return caused my husband and me to breathe more easily. We must all practice breathing more easily together in the coming months and years. The Latin word for breathing together is "conspirare", so let us be co-conspirators; let us become players in making meaning for ourselves and others, bringing our questions, ideas, and talents, first to the Norwich community, and later to the Global Commons to make the world whole again.

To be seekers of wisdom and players on the world stage, we will need to be wise, applying strong habits of dialogue, interpersonal perspective-taking, critical, systemic thought, dialectical thought, holistic thought.

To be seekers of wisdom and players on the world stage, we must learn to understand and accept life's many great paradoxes. There are so many of them. Antioch University Professor Mary Marcy describes them in a recent article entitled "Democracy, Leadership, and the Role of Liberal Education", published in the Winter 2002 issue of Liberal Learning.

On the one hand, we value civil liberties;
On the other hand, we recognize the need for heightened national security.

On the one hand, we understand the moral and practical uncertainty of engaging in war against an idea that had neither a constant face nor is limited to one country;
On the other hand, we see the need to subdue those who have already attacked us.

On the one hand, we know that our foreign policies have supported too many corrupt rulers;
On the other hand, we know that foreign policy alone cannot explain religious fanaticism.

On the one hand, we admit that we have too often explored capitalism instead of democracy;
On the other hand, we realize that those proclaiming a Jihad are not interested in democratic human rights.

On the one hand, we seek to understand the motives of those who would attack us;
On the other hand, we remember from 1939 the lessons of appeasement to those bent on genocide.

Questioning, exploring, stating the unpopular, challenging poorly reasoned theories, wrestling with convoluted and contradictory positions -- that is what liberal education asks us to do." That is what Norwich and Wilson expect.

All of these habits will be learned here in the company of your teachers. There is no stronger preparation for a free, democratic society than liberal learning.

Norwich University and Wilson College are particularly well-suited to providing a rich, honor bound, challenging and supportive environment in which to learn from great texts about permanent moral truths, pursue inquiry in developing critical thinking, deepen your respect for liberty and your desire to avoid war, realize your goals to become servant-leaders for the world.

But no individual and no college can afford to be complacent. Each of us present today would do well to answer the following questions posed by scholar Paul Ehrlich:

  • How well are we doing in acquiring the necessary knowledge, virtues and skills?
  • Do we have a grasp of ethical concepts and principles such as equity and justice?
  • How much do we understand about the diversity of American society and cultures around the world?
  • Are we knowledgeable about our civic, political and economic institutions?
  • Are we willing to engage in critical self-examination?
  • Are we truly honest?
  • Are we open-minded, willing to listen and take seriously the ideas of others?
  • Do we hold ourselves accountable for our actions?
  • Are we empathetic and compassionate?
  • Do we recognize the moral and civic dimensions of issues facing us?
  • Are we willing to form moral and civic commitments and have the courage to act on them?
  • Do we think carefully and critically and come prepared to justify our positions with reasoned arguments?
  • Do we communicate clearly and respectfully in speech and writing?
  • Can we see issues from the perspectives of others?
  • Do we truly collaborate?
  • Do we lead, build consensus, and help move issues forward under conditions of mutual respect?

This is quite a daunting list of questions, and you first-year students will be relieved to know that you needn't answer them all by Thanksgiving.

Posing and answering these questions is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of people in a free, democratic society.
It is the work of liberal learning. It is the work of the entire Norwich community -- living, learning, exploring, questioning, growing in faith and wisdom for world citizenship.

Let us be grateful that we have this place and each other to encourage and refresh us as we tackle the tasks ahead.

"Two heads are better than one", is an ancient adage. Alice Walker tells us that she believes two-headed people surely lived, but were most likely suppressed out of existence. Traces of their existence still remain in African-American language. Root workers, healers, wise people with "second sight" are referred to as two-headed people. Alice tells us of such a wise person whom she encountered in a dream:

This two-headed woman was amazing. I asked her whether the world would survive, and she said, "No", implying there was no need for it to do so in its current form.

When I asked her what I/we could/should do, she took up her walking stick and walked expressively and purposely across the room. Dipping from side to side, she said, "Live by the word and keep walking.

Let us seek the wisdom of the two-headed woman and draw on the rich resources of this University.

Be co-conspirators in the best sense, breathing together, reflecting on your common values and purposes, and sustaining one another in your work.

In the words of Mary McLeod Bethune:

I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another.
I leave you with a thirst for education.
I leave you responsibility for the use of power.
I leave you racial dignity.
I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with humankind.
I leave you a responsibility to our young people.

Welcome, young and older people, to this remarkable community of learners and seekers at Norwich University.
Let us honor the thousands who paved the way before for us, engage one another in fresh, respectful dialogue and exploration, and grow in wisdom and courage, so, in turn, Norwich will gain from our talents, and we will become major players in our time.

I'm honored to be among you.

Lorna Duphiney Edmundson, Ph.D.
President, Wilson College
Trustee, Norwich University, September 2004

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