Convocation Speech by Nancy Johnson, Associate Professor of English
It is my great pleasure, as well, to welcome you to SUNY New Paltz -- to welcome you to four of the most significant years of your lives.
The title of my talk, “a revolution of the mind,” comes out of a conference I attended, earlier in the summer. The conference was an occasion to bring together scholars from France, the UK, and America to discuss literature and the extraordinary events of revolutionary France. Inevitably, our conversation turned to our respective revolutions and we all wanted to claim that ours was “a revolution of the mind.” Not forgetting the homes that burned in Boston, the blood in the streets of Paris, and the widespread carnage across England, we wanted to emphasize the transformative power of ideas.
So, when thinking about what I would like to say to you, on the occasion of your convocation, this is the phrase that readily came to mind. College is an opportunity to relinquish past prejudices, to consider possibilities that you never have before, to break out, break away, and imagine the unimaginable.
By way of explaining the extraordinary transformation that college can be, I’d like to tell you two brief stories about two of my students.
The first story is about Mark, a student in my course on law and literature. Mark was one of what I call my “back row boys”: the young men who sit in the back row, with their baseball caps pulled low, in hopes that I won’t call on them to participate! But then we started discussing our first literary text –Brecht’s Threepenny Opera – a drama about prostitutes and thieves in Germany just before the war. All of my students were far too young to have been charmed by Frank Sinatra singing “Mack the Knife,” but they were fascinated by this portrayal of a criminal underworld. And, then I noticed that Mark had moved – he had moved from the back row, to the row just in front of the back row. Next, we read Kafka’s The Trial. Our discussions were intense – because The Trial is a truly disturbing novel about the pervasiveness of the law – and then I noticed that Mark was no longer in the back row, nor the second to last row, but in the front, with his book open and with much to say about Kafka’s vision. I thought, “I’ve got him” – “I’ve got him hooked!” But then I thought again, and realized that It wasn’t me – I wasn’t the one “got him hooked.” It was Brecht, Kafka, and later Simon Wiesenthal and Bernhardt Schlink who did. Their stories -- the art they created as they processed the traumatic events of Germany in the 20th century – drew him from the outskirts of the class, to the very center. But ultimately, it was Mark himself who made this possible. He listened. He opened his mind, and listened to the stories these authors had to tell. Mark had allowed himself to become Emerson’s “thinking man.” He was transformed from a classic under-achiever who wasn’t even sure he wanted to be in college to a young man now embarking on a career in law.
My second story is about Katherine, a student in one of my English Lit. II surveys. One morning we were reading and discussing Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” I noticed that Katherine was becoming slightly agitated, grappling with her thoughts and trying hard to articulate her reading of the poem. “The Second Coming” is about the overwhelming turmoil of the early twentieth century, the first WW and the Russian Revolution – about the frightening destabilization of the world.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
And then I noticed that Katherine was tearing up. The other students were puzzled and confused. But I couldn’t tell them what I already knew . . . that Katherine had lost her father, a New York City firefighter, in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Katherine, knew, as none of the rest of us could, what Yeats meant – what precipitated this poem in 1919 – what complex array of emotions brought to the imagination the final image of “the beast slouching toward Bethlehem.”
Watching one of my students experience a work of literature in such a profound way, caused a revolution in my own mind. I was reminded of the power of literature and the unique role it plays in human experience. I was reminded of how we look to stories for healing – in the Nuremburg Trials after WWII, in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings after the fall of apartheid in South Africa – and in post 9/11 America as we navigate a world that has changed forever. And I thought of Yeats – that brilliant Irish poet -- how he might feel, . . . knowing that this poem – the product of his own horror at what his world had become – was speaking to a young woman from Brooklyn, sitting in a class at SUNY New Paltz, as she wrestled with the same terror, nearly 100 years later.
I tell you these two stories to let you know what is possible in college – of the transformations that can happen – often when you least expect it. No matter what the subject, embrace it, because you never know what it has the potential to teach you about yourself and about the world that your generation will be transforming. Come to us, your teachers, and your studies with an open mind and an open heart, ready to be challenged, and to challenge us. What we want to happen for you is nothing short of a revolution of the mind.
Thank you, and I wish you all the best.