September 20, 1999
Volume 52, No. 5
Oxford Dean Dana Greene hopes to chart a new course
When you are new to a place, as I and at least half of you are, you literally see things differently from others who are accustomed to their surroundings. The other day, as I was passing the student center, I am sure it was my newness that made me notice the pale yellow sign bearing president Atticus Haygood's famous quote-"Stand by what is good and make it better if you can." The quote is used frequently, and I certainly had read it several times. But there it was, at the entrance to campus, demanding that I encounter it anew.
Since I live in the dean's house and Atticus Haygood also lived there, I felt as if I were encountering the words of someone I knew, if only so slightly. Although we might want to dismiss old Haygood's admonition to stand by the good as something easier in his age than in ours, I am not sure we get off the hook so easily. He, like we, lived in a time when much of society was in turmoil, when it appeared, as Yeats said poetically, that "things fall apart, that the center cannot hold."
Haygood confronted problems as difficult and intractable as our own. What he had was a vision of the good for his time, and the courage to act on that vision. His challenge is universal, and it should stop us dead in our tracks as we encounter it on that pale yellow board. Like old Haygood, Matthew Arnold, who lived on the other side of the Atlantic, observed: "We are caught between two worlds, the one dead, the other powerless to be born." And yet we, who will enter the third millennium, see this new world being born before us. I, for one, cannot imagine a more exciting time to be alive.
Francis Fukuyama, the political theorist, has argued that we have reached the end of history. I would phrase it differently. In some sense we are at the end of the history of powerful men, tribes or nations, but we are at the beginning of humanity's history, where everyone counts. The really good news is that for the first time more and more people have some access to the power which shapes and controls their lives. For the first time ever, the realities that divide us-nationalism, ethnicity, race, gender, economic status-have the possibility of being subordinated to the creation of a larger human identity. We are literally at the cusp of a new age in human history, but to live through this time creatively we will need intelligence, determination and a tenacious trust that to search for the good is worth it.
We here at Oxford College consider ourselves a small place, a minnow in the sea of American higher education. Our purpose, of course, is to hone intellectual skills, which will assist you both to enter the work force and to continue life-long learning. But we do more. In the jumble of career alternatives, in the morass of information overload, in the confusion of ethical options, Oxford College claims to offer direction.
In the press to carry on the business of education, to deal with a plethora of personal and institutional problems, it would be a great sadness if we gave up the commitment to build a community which maximized the potential of each and freed us to address the complex issues of this unprecedented age. We can't go dead to Haygood's admonition-to stand by the good and make it better if we can. Too much rides on our response. In order to begin the task of shaping humanity's history, we start by both deepening and expanding our own humanity. To do this we will have to communicate with each other in new ways. We will have to talk below all the differences that separate us--below nationalism, religion, race, gender, economic status, individual self-interest. We will have to connect to a subterranean place where these differences are muted, at least temporarily. And how would that be possible?
It isn't that we have never encountered this deeper place. We all have been there: we have all had the profound experience of being recognized for who we are and accepted as we are. When that happens, real communication is possible. The problem is that that experience is always brief and usually can't be sustained. We immediately fall back into our old ways of relating. And yet it is precisely such communication that is necessary if we are to get on with the tasks ahead.
I want to propose a series of precepts which I believe are the foundation for both a more profound level of communication. These precepts are derived from the Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan. They are not doctrinal or ideological; they have no specific content. They rest on the premise that the way we respond to each other shapes the way we understand the world.
Lonergan starts with the most simple precept and yet the most radical. Precept 1: Be attentive. Pay attention to the world in all its myriad forms, in its specificity, diversity and intricacy. Be awake and alert. See and hear in the multiple and primary meanings of those words: be attentive. Try doing this for a day. In a world gone dead from stimulus overload, this is probably one of the most countercultural things you can do.
Precept 2: Be intelligent. By this Lonergan does not mean be smart or brainy or witty or cosmopolitan. He means proceed with intelligence: listen, learn and ask. This will entail a stripping of the prejudices, the superficial beliefs and the sheer laziness which impede us from insight. Attentiveness and intelligence both are responses that are in high demand in our world.
Precept 3: Be reasonable. Understand, be perceptive. Be open to opposing viewpoints. Evaluate, weigh and seek balance among them.
Precept 4: Be responsible. Know that much has been given you, that you receive more than you can ever give. That others count on you, as you count on them. See what needs to be done, and do what you can.
When one's responses are attentive and intelligent, reasonable and responsible, one is ready for the final, fifth precept: Be loving. Lonergan places this precept last rather than first, because it is the most difficult response and because the others prepare for it. One can suspect that what he means by loving is far removed from what is culturally accepted by those words. To love means finally to be able to stand in the stead of another, to be with and for them, to understand and honor them, to forgive them.
I consider it a great privilege to be here at Oxford and to be able to work together with you. May the way we live and respond to our work better us and help us take on the complexity of the next century and the age-old human quest for lives full of meaning and purpose. I know old Haygood is with us in this adventure. Thank you.
Dana Greene is dean of Oxford College. This essay is excerpted from
her Aug. 25, 1999, convocation address.