2016 2016: Chancellor Helm welcomes and challenges new students

2016 2016: Chancellor Helm welcomes and challenges new students
Chancellor Helm welcomes and challenges new students

Calls on Class of 2020 to "encounter each other with open minds, acknowledging that our preconceived notions may be wrong, that others may be right, that we learn more by listening than by shouting."

Randy Helm

Against the Grain - An address to the Opening Convocation

By Peyton R. Helm, Interim Chancellor

Good morning Class of 2020 and welcome to this community of scholars.

Let me say a few words about your Class: You have arrived on campus fully formed, intellectually mature, with impeccable values, and perfect judgment. 

Just kidding. If this were true, why in the world would you and your families be making such great sacrifices to send you here?  You are not here because you already know everything you need to know.  You are unfinished (some of you are more unfinished than others). You are here to open your eyes (and more importantly your minds) to new experiences, new people, new ideas, new belief systems, new values.  Of course, much of what we will expect from you goes entirely against human nature.  More on that later.

So let me say again: “welcome.to.this.community.of.scholars.”  I have chosen these words deliberately for two reasons.  First, because they are the very same words with which the President of my alma mater greeted my classmates and me at the beginning of my first year of college exactly 50 years ago, and I am a sucker for nostalgia.  And second, to remind you of the two most important concepts that should define your expectations, your values, and your behavior here for the next four years: community and scholarship. 

You are starting your college education at a turbulent time in our country.  We have endured a summer of bitter partisan politics, witnessed a resurgence of intolerance and hatred, and suffered through episodes of violence that have made many question whether the very fabric of our society is unraveling. Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Chattanooga, Dallas, San Diego, Milwaukee are just the most recent sites of outrages against justice and civil peace.  During your high school years we have mourned for worshippers shot down in a Church in South Carolina, children murdered in an elementary school in Connecticut, marathon runners blown up in the streets of Boston, and on and on.  You would be justified in thinking that you have come of age in one of the most hateful, dangerous, and violent eras in our history. 

But you would be wrong.  A century and a half ago 600,000 Americans killed each other in a war that was, at its essence, about whether or not slavery would continue.  During the ensuing decades homegrown terrorist groups continued to kill African Americans who sought to exercise their rights as citizens. During my adolescence we witnessed the assassinations of John Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; the murders of small children in bombed churches in Alabama and of young civil rights workers in Mississippi. By the time I had children of my own we witnessed the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, mass shootings at Columbine High School, followed by a plague of school shootings across the country. And these were just crimes that we Americans committed against our fellow citizens. The motives for all this mayhem, when we can understand them, have been varied.  Religious and political extremism, racism, homophobia, mental illness, and sometimes a toxic combination of these factors have all been involved.

And lest you think that I am simply bashing the United States of America as the poster child for violence and hate crimes, let me just remind you of the hundreds of innocent victims in France, Belgium, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Mumbai, Iraq, Syria, and countless other countries, not to mention horrific crimes against humanity in the twentieth century, including genocides in the Middle East and Africa, political purges in Russia and China, and the Holocaust.

By now you may be thoroughly depressed, or worse yet, numbed.  You are undoubtedly wondering “where is the Chancellor going with all this? What does this have to do with my starting college?” And maybe even, ”surely he doesn’t expect me to solve this problem!”  Well, actually, I do – at least I expect you to help.  But first we have to understand the problem behind the problem.

I wish I could believe – as we are often told – that “children must be taught to hate.”  As if we can hope that someday a new generation of kids will grow up without their horrible parents teaching them prejudice and the world will become a paradise.  The evidence tells us not to get our hopes up.  And so, rule one for this community of scholars is:  examine the evidence!

Research by anthropologists, behavioral and developmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and others has demonstrated that we human beings are quick to form groups and that, once we’ve done so, we are inclined to be exclusionary (if not openly hostile) toward non-group members.  Apparently even small infants are quick to recognize the groups to which they belong – and those who don’t fit in.[1] We have a keen eye for our differences – and we are quick to distance ourselves from those who do not share the norms of our group.

The criteria by which we classify ourselves into tribes can be as superficial as sports teams or as profound as spiritual beliefs. What we find edible or inedible, sacred or profane, beautiful or disgusting, are judgments we make based on the tribe within which we were raised.  I am told that there are tribes whose language illustrates this principle eloquently.  Their word for “member of our tribe” is the same as their word for “human being.” Their word for those who are “not members of our tribe” is the same as their word for “food.” 

Breaking through these boundaries goes against human nature.  But fortunately, we have been equipped with a tool that can liberate us from these self-imposed and often deadly constraints – our intellects. And so the second rule for this community of scholars is this:  We challenge our instincts and assumptions, we question the norms, stereotypes, and so-called truths that have defined the tribes into which we were born, and we commit ourselves to reason, rational debate, and the marketplace of ideas.

This is not as easy as you might think.  A recent essay in The Washington Post  reviewed recent research on how we human beings handle the clash of new facts with our preconceived opinions  and concluded “people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.” [2]  You need look no further than Fox News, MSNBC, or your Facebook newsfeed to witness the effects of this echo chamber

So what are we – as a community of scholars -  to do?  The first step must be to pledge that, as a community, we will respect each other even when we disagree. The second step must be to approach our differences and the problems that confront us as scholars - understanding our many differences as opportunities for learning rather than a call to battle.  We must encounter each other with open minds, acknowledging that our preconceived notions may be wrong, that others may be right, that we learn more by listening than by shouting, that we don’t convince others by silencing them, that facts trump opinions, and that solving problems is hard work, best accomplished in dialogue and debate rather than by force. These are important habits – difficult to develop, but crucial to our society’s ability to navigate safely the treacherous currents of extremism.

Finally, we must understand that everything worth doing must be done in service to others.  Our intellectual effort is meaningless if its fruits are not shared with others.  UMass Dartmouth has an exceptional track record of service to the community.  This is not a strange quirk. It is part of who we are and why we are here – as a community of scholars. Your education here, if you make the most of it, will prepare you for lives of leadership that will exemplify the values we need to address the problems of violence, hatred, and intolerance.

This I believe:  our nation and our society desperately need the values to which we aspire on our campus:  open inquiry, reasoned and civil debate, close analysis, intellectual rigor, and a spirit of service to others.  And this I also believe: you, the Class of 2020, have an important role to play in changing the culture of violence and extremism that afflicts our society.

During the coming academic year, you will encounter a number of opportunities to address the challenges we face as a community committed to justice, equity, tolerance, compassion, and safety for all.  I hope that you will all bear in mind the importance of civil discourse.  I hope you will balance your inclination to outrage with a commitment to empathy. I hope you will remember that slogans and chants have their place, but that they are not a substitute for thoughtful analysis and positive action.

The world has need of this community of scholars – and it has need of you.  Best of luck as you begin this journey as a member of the UMass Dartmouth family.

[1] David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind; Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption; Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works. My thanks to Professor Paul Bloom of the Yale Psychology Department for directing my attention to these books. 

[2] David Ignatius, The Washington Post, August 4, 2016.