When our class president, E. J. Ivey Read, called in March to ask me to speak to you today, I accepted the invitation even though I knew what it entailed. Before I could face you, I would have to lose 30 pounds, publish a book, become CEO of a company, get married and have a baby. Despite my most earnest efforts across this broad front, progress has been less than one might wish. I’ve decided to come anyway. Perhaps you’ll give me an extension.
One of the joys of returning to the College is the discovery of new people, especially classmates. I was the most awful nerd in my student days, too caught up in work to get to know more than a handful. I have been amazed to discover what wonderful people I missed, and glad to have a second chance to know them. I always suspected that Bryn Mawr would be paradise if you got rid of the course requirements. Reunion, I suppose, is our earthly reward for Mawrtyrdom.
Along with the parties, coming back to Bryn Mawr is a return to our source. We are all deeply connected with the College, however far we may have ranged. Reunion is a chance to re-establish contact with our roots, which will nourish us again if we can find them. In some cases, reunion can be achieved only in memory, for some of the faculty we knew have died, retired, or left. But memory is enough to connect us with the people we knew here, and to become conscious of the gifts they gave us.
I would like to talk about a couple of Bryn Mawr’s gifts for which I am especially grateful. First, I am grateful for way Bryn Mawr developed our capacity for attention. Simone Weil, the French philosopher who lived in the first half of this century, claimed that “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of school studies.” Whether our professors would have agreed with her, I cannot say. However, I believe that our education aimed not so much at packing us full of knowledge as at developing in us a capacity to attend to an object of study. This development took place in many ways—through the close reading of a poem or philosophical text, the development of a proof in mathematics, the translation of a passage from Homer, or the solution of a problem in physics. We were encouraged to confront the object of study and let it reveal itself to us, freshly and in its own way, rather than obscured by preconceived notions and secondary opinions.
The ability to focus our attention is a source of continuing discovery and renewal. It enables us to transcend our limited point of view. It gives us confidence to trust in our own perceptions, even when these are at odds with received opinion. It helps us to deal with change and dislocation, two near certainties of contemporary life. Moreover, once such a faculty has been developed through the study of art, philosophy, or science, it can be transferred to other areas. For example, it may strengthen our relationships, whose failure so often can be traced to poor communication. Finally, as Weil points out in the same essay, it is the source of compassion; only those with a well developed faculty of attention can bear to look suffering in the face.
A second gift that Bryn Mawr gave us was hospitality. By this I do not mean tea and cookies, but a friendly and safe space in which to discover ourselves before we set on life’s path. One of my most important Bryn Mawr memories is of the kindness of Milton Nahm. Those of you who are here for a 25th or later reunion will probably remember Dr. Nahm. Those who are younger will not, for he retired in 1972. Dr. Nahm was a noted Kantian scholar, and chair of the philosophy department for many years.
When I took his aesthetics course in my sophomore year, I got into the habit of going to see him regularly about the difficulties I was having with the material. I had a lot of difficulties, so “regularly” came to mean almost every day. This pattern continued long after I had left his course, and even after he had retired. It did not matter to him what I was studying; I was always welcome to drop by for conversation. We would sit and thrash through a passage in Plato or Kant for 20 to 30 minutes. Then, after the problem had been resolved, or at least defined, I would head back to my carrel.
When I paid these visits to Dr. Nahm, he would turn on me the most delighted attention. It did not matter whether what I said was insightful or was really rather stupid. He seemed to love to watch me struggle with difficult material, and to have no more concern over my pratfalls than a father watching a baby learn to walk. Since he didn’t take them seriously, neither did I. Over time, I gained confidence in my ability to handle the material, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton.
I am sure that most of you could tell similar stories about a teacher or mentor who gave you the attention, support, and freedom you needed to find yourself and move out into the world. As students you may have taken these things very much for granted, as I did. In the course of 25 years, however, one becomes conscious of the gift one was given, and aware of its unfolding creative power in one’s life. There are two responses that we can have to such gifts. One is gratitude. Our presence here today is testimony of the love and loyalty we feel for the College.
The other response is acceptance. The more conscious we are of what we were given, the more willing we are to take the risks we must to use it to the full.
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