2016 Convocation Speech by Austin Sarat

Ed. note: This speech was given by Convocation keynote Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Amherst College. Prof. Sarat graciously accepted our invitation to speak after our scheduled speaker, Dr. Beverly Tatum, had to cancel because of a death in the family.

Convocation keynote Professor Austin Sarat
Convocation keynote Professor Austin Sarat

Today I want to ask you to think about two quotations, the first from the great physicist Albert Einstein…

“Imagination,” Einstein said, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The second quotation is attributed to the American author John C. Maxwell who said.

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

If you pay heed to these two quotations, you’ll get much of what will make the forthcoming academic year special here at Williston.

But, before trying to make that case, let me say that I come today with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. You see I only learned that I would be giving this speech at 3 pm yesterday afternoon.

These speeches usually start with a litany of greetings and “thank yous” to the head of school, the board of trustees, the faculty, distinguished visitors and locals.

But, since I received the invitation to join you so late and had to work well past my normal bedtime writing these remarks, and, most importantly, since I missing seeing Hanley Ramirez hit a walk off home run to beat the Yankees last night, I think it would be better if we started off by you all thanking me.

A standing ovation at this point would be nice!

In addition to the ovation that I just demanded, given the last minute nature of my work on this speech, I may need help, at various points, from some of your teachers. Faculty, will you help me?

You might rightly wonder, what self-respecting person would accept a last minute invitation?

I could and should have pretended to be too busy or told Mr. Hill I’d have to see if I could clear my calendar, or get my people to call his people and discuss my conditions…a limo to pick me up, a year’s supply of Tandem Bagels, an honorary Williston diploma, a refund on the tuition I paid for my son’s Williston education, OR a one year moratorium on the use of the words…Purpose, Passion, and Integrity.

How about that last possibility?

In any case, I did no negotiating. Sorry. It is Purpose, Passion and Integrity for you all year long.

So with little hesitation and no negotiation I accepted Mr Hill’s request to step in for the real Convocation speaker for two reasons, one sentimental, and one cynical.

First sentiment…I accepted because of the enormous gratitude I feel to Williston for the ways people at this school cared for, and cared about, my son Ben, who graduated in 2014. Ben was a good-not-great student at Williston; a good-not-great baseball player; and a great comedian. Ben practiced his comedy everywhere on campus, including most especially the library. Mr Teller developed such a special relationship with Ben that my son was awarded the senior superlative “Most Liklely to be Kicked Out of the Library.”

But more about caring in a minute.

The other reason I accepted Mr. Hill’s last minute invitation was because I recalled how much Ben disliked this ceremony. He found it a bit pretentious and he intensely disliked having to dress up for the occasion. He used to complain that the Convocation speeches were too long and too boring. So I thought that I had nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up.

But mostly I accepted because I was confident that none of you would long remember what I said today.

To illustrate this point let me ask if any of the seniors assembled here whether they can remember who gave last year’s Convocation address or the address in 2014 or anything about what those people said.

Any members of the faculty want to give it a try?

To refresh your recollections…The speaker at the 2015 Convocation was John P. Booth. And, among the things he said, was that he had been tormented by having a name closely associated with the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

In 2014 the speaker was Julius Pryor III who talked about his book, Thriving in a Disruptive World.

For a minute I considered talking about one of my books…Maybe Sentencing White Collar Criminals or perhaps Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, or one that I knew you would all enjoy, Divorce Lawyers and Their Clients

How liberating. I get to talk at you, with little time to prepare, utterly confident that my words will not lodge themselves in the part of your brain where long term memories are stored. (Call on Mr. Choo).

What part of the brain stores long term memory? The cerebral cortex.

So here I am a substitute, a relief pitcher, an understudy suddenly and unexpectedly asked to play a leading role.

Let me be clear, despite the lateness of the invitation, I am really pleased to be here to help launch you on what I hope will be a very successful academic year.

Thinking that one day I’d have an opportunity like this would have been unimaginable to me when I was in high school. Back then I wasn’t cool, or popular or particularly comfortable speaking in front of crowds.

If I’d won a senior superlative it would only have been for being the Nerdiest kid in my high school class.

I was so nerdy that when I learned that my part in what was then called the senior class play required me to kiss Rena Rotenberg, the coolest girl in my high school class, I went straight to the public library looking for books about kissing and stood in front of the mirror for hours practicing various lip positions.

And, just to show that you I might still win an award for nerdiness, after I got off the phone with Mr. Hill and thought about being a substitute or an understudy, I went to the dictionary and looked up the definition of substitute. Here is what I found…

A substitute is a person or thing acting or serving in place of another.

So far so good, but the example offered didn’t life my spirits…‘soy milk is used as a substitute for dairy milk.’

Undeterred, I read on to find that our word substitute derives from Late Middle English (denoting a deputy or delegate) and from Latin (call on Ms. Cody)

Substitutus put in place of past participle of substituere, based on statuere, meaning to “set up.”

Aha, I now I got it, this invitation was a “set up.” Mr. Hill’s revenge for my failure to make sufficiently large contributions to the school’s annual fund.

Finally, things looked up when I found the following definition of substitute… In psychology a substitute is a person or thing that becomes the love object when someone is deprived of its natural outlet.

So think of me as an object of love…hence the earlier request for a standing ovation.

If I am a substitute, I guess I am also an understudy. Call on Emily.

Doing a bit of searching for things about being an understudy I learned such valuable facts as that the 110th episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld was called theThe Understudy.” It aired on May 18, 1995.

And, I found a YouTube video of a song “The Understudy” sung by Jessica Patty. Take out your phones and Google it.

But, once my nerdy research was done I still faced the bleak task of figuring out what I could say to help launch your year.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to say because people of my generation just do not understand yours. Maybe it is a chronic disease, this lack of understanding between the younger generation and the older one. But, I think there is something special and deep about our generation gap.

Take social media…Snap Chat, or Instagram, or Yick Yak or Facebook. How many of you use social media?

In conversation, many of you won’t tell us older people anything. Our conversations often go like this:

“How was school?” we ask.

“Good,” you say.

“What did you do at school today?” we continue hopefully.

“Stuff,” you respond.

Growing more desperate we pick a subject and press. “How about History? What did you study in history today?”

Quietly, quickly you say “The past.”

End of conversation!

In contrast, on social media like Facebook, you become regular chatterboxes, posting about everything from your athletic triumphs, to your social life (announcing to the world when you are “in a relationship”). You’ll even share the earth shattering news about some food you’ve eaten. And, you seem to think that no occasion means anything unless it can be photographed and posted online.

Maybe you are willing to share so much because there is some unwritten Facebook rule that says that no one is allowed to ask questions like “How was school?” or “What did you do at school today,” or “How about History? What did you study in history today?”

And, for my generation being a friend actually that you knew someone well and relied on them in good times and bad.

Members of your generation just sign up online for friendship. You count your friends like shepherds count sheep, and you list how many friends you have on your Facebook page.

If that wasn’t enough to mark our generation gap, there is the so called music you like…Alternative Rock, Hip Hop, Rap, whatever…

Writing about the great musicians of my generation–Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Lennon-the music critic David Hajdu recently noted that for them and for many great artists, the high school years were a “formative age. You’re in high school,” he continued, “confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool.”

Hadju went on to say that “Every age makes its own kind of genius. For hints of what the cultural giants of the future will be doing in their own time, we’d be well served to look in the high school lockers of today.”

If we looked in your lockers to see the cultural products you think are “cool” we’d probably conclude that you don’t like any music unless it is “sung,” if that is the right word, by someone who has been to, or is now, in prison, like Little Wayne, T-I, Maino, T-Pain, Snoop Dogg, Young Jezzy, Tory Lanez, or DJ Kaled.

In my generation, we had music with lyrics you actually could understand and remember. As the late Beatle John Lennon once sang…..

“Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

That was music. Those were lyrics.

So, let’s just say that I can’t pretend to understand what makes your generation tick, but I do think I understand both what makes teachers tick and what teachers at Williston will try to do with you this year.

In a word, imagination is at the center of their work.

Williston teachers do not just know and love the you they see everyday. When they are doing their job, your teachers work hard to see parts of you that you do not yet see. They call you to be selves that you have not yet discovered.

They imagine what you can be and call you to live up that imagining.

During this year, when Mr. Choo or Mr. Berghoff ask you to do a lab report, or Ms. Conroy or Ms. Baldwin ask you to redo a problem set, or Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Hanford insist that you develop your own voice as readers of literature and as literary critics, or when Mr. Johnson works you hard until you finally know the difference between utilitarian and deontological arguments in Ethics, it won’t be just to make sure you have no time to veg out or grab a slice of pizza at Antonio’s.

It will be because the hope to call a better, harder working self out of you, a self that will serve you well when you go to colleges or universities like Northeastern or Kenyon or Gettysburg or Wheaton.

Good teachers keep their imaginings of you alive no matter how hard you make it for them to do so.

Good teachers dare you to become they won’t just let you be.

It would, of course, be easier on you if they’d let you be.

What you might not understand is that it would be easier on your teachers as well. They’d have to invest less of themselves in bringing out the best in you.

The truth is that the gift of a teacher is to dream. What sustains many of Williston’s best teachers is their dreams of you. “You may say that I’m a dreamer,” John Lennon sang fifty years ago, “But I’m not the only one.” What he sang then, could be sung today about the faculty of this school.

In addition to their dreams, your teachers will want you to dream and to imagine worlds not yet glimpsed. They will want you to cultivate your imagination so you can truly understand.

They will want you to do more than just know the names of the four original members of George Washington’s cabinet. They will want you to imagine how they felt as they forged the governing institutions of a new nation. (Call on Mr. Gunn. Name the four original members of Washington’s cabinet.)

Your teachers will want you to do more than just know about Odeipus’s dilemma; they will want you to imagine how he felt as tragedy unfolded all around him.

They will want you to do more than just know about the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. They will want you to imagine the world of the terrorists who perpetrated that attack.

In addition, your teachers will encourage, prod, and urge you to imagine the world as you would want it to be.

Remember the quotation from Einstein. Einstein got it right when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

And, when Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” he captured the flavor of the dreams of inspired and inspiring teachers.

These are dreams of you, their students, and dreams that your teachers want you to have as well. This work of imagining the best in you and of asking you not just to know but to imagine as well, these are the most important things that Williston’s faculty will do with you this year.

Before I end let me move from discussing the place of imagination in the work of teaching to say something about the importance of teachers showing how much they care in the education they provide.

At first glance, Maxwell’s quote, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” leaves open the question of what it is that students want their teachers to care about—the school, the subjects they teach, and/or their students.

But, I think what the play on words really suggests is that students will only care how much their teachers know when they know that their teachers care for and about them.

Seems simple, but it is anything but simple.

Teachers, even Williston teachers, are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.

And working with teenagers, let’s face it, ain’t no beach party. You can be pretty surly and all too easily distracted by the urges of adolescent romance. And you are all too ready to complain about being bored.

You and your families may expect the Williston faculty to devote their every waking moment to guaranteeing your smooth passage into some prestigious institution of higher education.

You don’t always make it easy for teachers to show how much they care for and about you.

But, if my son’s experience here is any indication, your teachers are eager, if you’ll give them half a chance, to show you how much they care about you so you’ll be able to show how much you care about what they know and what they have to teach.

I’ve seen it first hand…

in the way Ms. Marsland worked to make my shy, quiet eighth grade son relax and feel comfortable during his admissions interview,

or in the way Mr. Sawyer worked hard to find a place where Ben could succeed as a Williston baseball player,

or in the flowers that Mrs. Sawyer brought for Ben and her other students after each of their theater performances,

or in Mr. Tujela’s unbelieveble patience and generosity in working out academic accommodations after Ben sustained a serious concussion in a collision on the baseball field,

or in Mrs. Conroy’s efforts to find ways to engage Ben in learning math, his least favorite subject, by connecting with him over their shared passion for college basketball,

and finally in Emily Ditkovski’s deep investment in nurturing Ben’s talents as an actor and comedian.

But for Emily, Ben would be well on his way to a successful and prosperous career in investment banking instead of on his sway to a career in improv where performers in even the best improv groups in the country get paid nothing at all.

Thanks for that Emily.

So, here is my hope for your year…that you’ll help your teachers imagine what you might become as they help you imagine worlds that do not yet exist.

And that you’ll be lucky enough to find your way to teachers like Ms. Marsland, Mr. Sawyer, Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Tuleja, Ms. Conroy, and Ms. Ditkovski, each of whom will show you how much they care for and about you.

Oh, and one last thing, before the next standing ovation.

I have an assignment for you. Before you leave the Quad tonight, find one of your teachers, hug him or her and whisper, “Thank you for imagining. Thank you for dreaming. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being my teacher.”






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