2005 Academic Convocation

Sarah Bodnar '05

 

In the story of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery presents a drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant.  This drawing is repeatedly shown to grown-ups by a child.  The grown-ups always see the silhouetted image simply as a top hat and advise the young artist to set aside his drawings and take up more sensible subjects of study.  The boy does so and humors grown-ups with empty talk of bridge, golf, politics and neckties.  He has not given up on his artistic vision, but claims he has grown tired of having to show his elders what they lack the imagination to see.

What constitutes the perspective of the grown-ups?  It is not just their age, but a rigid outlook which allows them to see only borders of shape and draw quick conclusions.  The youthful perspective offers a curiosity and depth which warns against the potential for knowledge to corrupt us before we take the time to look deeper.  This contrast illustrates the struggle of the educated person to celebrate knowledge without creating borders in the mind.   

Borders of assumption characterize many landscapes of our lives.  A world map displays national boundaries that belie the global scale of many social, political, and economic relationships between people on this planet as well as the collective challenges facing the land, water and skies that we depend on.  Here in the north end of Tacoma, our beautiful campus is sometimes referred to as the “UPS Bubble.”  I suggest that this image parallels the illusion of the top hat.  For we choose how we look at our position in this academic environment.   Bubbles are transparent, reflective, and short lived; after a brief ride in the wind, they pop very quickly.  Thus, the educational experience of many students here at the University of Puget Sound can be envisioned as a repeated process of bubble popping and border crossing. 

Our passages through many disciplines, ideas and relationships here have undoubtedly expanded our perspectives of the world.  You only have to listen to our campus radio station for a few hours to understand the variety of students’ tastes and inspirations.  One moment you’re tapping your foot to rocky mountain bluegrass tunes and without any warning, you are jolted out of your seat by Axel Rose screaming, “Welcome to the Jungle.”  Aside from experimenting with musical genres, many students here today have crossed intimidating physical borders through overseas study or fellowships and summer research grant awards which take us all over the world or into the laboratories of Thompson Hall for days on end. 

In my experiences at UPS, these border crossings and moments of transformed perspective have expanded not only what I know, but what I believe is possible in the world.  I spent the summer of 2004 traveling through India’s Narmada River Valley to study a grassroots struggle against the construction of thousands of dams in the region.  Through my research I was introduced to many courageous and intelligent villagers whose homes, crops and very livelihoods faced the constant threat of rising floodwaters.  The elder women of one village unforgettably illustrated their story for me.  When construction of the Maheshwar dam was planned nearby their village, they decided to stand up, or rather lay down in front of the trucks carrying in the building materials.  When the men of the village told them it was “undignified” to have women lying about in their saris, the women questioned this conception of dignity.  They asked, is it not undignified to lose our crops and land and to be unable to feed our children and tear apart our communities?  These women believed that preserving dignity meant coming together to peacefully resist injustice.  In the face of great challenge, realizing their collective power inspired a movement which successfully halted the construction of this particular dam.  The struggle along the River Narmada is far from over, but the spirit of the people shows us the power of imaginatively envisioning a situation and creatively approaching change.  

The greatest privilege we posses is our education.  Writer and philosopher Will Durant said, “Education is the progressive discovery of our own ignorance,” reminding us that knowledge is not an end but an ongoing process and what we know is less important than our enduring openness to being taught.  When we recognize the boundaries and bubbles around our minds, we can see that there is no defined entrance into the real world, for we are already living in it and the learning process has only begun.  If you have managed to stay awake during your classes and persevered through most of your reading, I believe you will agree that we have had the opportunity to move consistently toward a more dynamic view of our world.  

This view reveals a landscape of both great and trying times.  It is impossible to ignore the widespread deprivation of basic necessities and widespread ethnic and religious conflict existing within the context of global capitalist system that has yet to trickle down or open up for the majority of the world.  Our earth is continuously endangered by the unsustainable consumption of natural resources such as oil, trees and water.  You can now order some culturally altered version of the Big Mac in 119 countries, while one billion people on this planet don’t get enough to eat every day.  These trying times offer us the opportunity to be great.  With increasing communication around the world, an understanding of our common situation creates the opportunity for growth and change.  How do we look at the complex challenges facing us today?  Education is a crucial part of the answer, but ultimately falls short of the power of hope, which may be our greatest resource.

Hope.  In his presidential inauguration last spring Ron Thomas - who has also been known to philosophize at length - stated that hope is the most powerful currency we posses and perhaps the only profit earned from higher education.  He suggests that hope must not remain within us, but be actively pursued for the public good at local, national and global scale.  In February, President Thomas put hope into action with the signing of the Talloires Declaration which marks a critical commitment to promoting sustainability and environmental literacy in all aspects of life at UPS.  The upcoming years will show how the university will creatively approach environmental solutions and I’m proud to see President Thomas guiding our university in this direction.

Aristotle said, “Hope is a waking dream.” What does it mean to continue to see your dreams when your eyes are open?  In a recent meeting with my advisor I confessed that part of me feels quite unresolved as I prepare to graduate, that I have more questions than answers.  He replied, “This means that you are precisely where we want you.  You are now ready to be set free in the world and find the answers to your own questions.”  I wish to say that we already are free, if we choose to be so.  We must sacrifice the coherent, all-knowing perspective of the grown-up to embrace the gaze of the young artist to re-draw our position in the world.  Perhaps it means asking questions, lying down or standing up for what you hope for, lifting the top hat and setting your imagination free like a flock of cranes rising into the sky, wings beating in unison with graceful resolve to an uncertain destination.