Freshman Convocation 2018
Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Johns Hopkins University
Wednesday, August 29, 2018.
Ralph O’Connor Recreation Center
Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.
Thanks, Noh for your welcome and to Archipelago Project, the Sirens and the AllNighters for their great performances. And thanks to Allison and the entire orientation team for doing such a phenomenal job! And to Trustee Bahija Jalal for giving so generously of her time.
Now, without any further ado, let me welcome you all – the great class of 2022 – to Johns Hopkins University.
So, you’ve just spent the summer taking your leave.
Of friends. Of family. Of an old identity – the high school class of 2018.
And now, you’ve arrived. Here.
As the Johns Hopkins Class of 2022. (I love addressing you in those terms.)
You’ve come to a new place, with new norms and customs.
New paths to chart – like how to find the FFC or JCard office.
And, perhaps most importantly, new people to get to know.
Stating the obvious: You may be from New York or Toronto while your roommate is from Idaho or Senegal. You may hail from a city of 9 million while your roommate is from a small town of 50. You may find that you have exactly the same number of siblings as your roommate or your family may be entirely unique.
And you will see and be reminded of these differences – as well as similarities you share – each and every day as you saunter down the hall, across the quad, into the classroom and the lab, and throughout the great city of Baltimore.
At every turn, you are becoming a member of our community. And the form and the strength of that membership will be determined by the connections that you forge to others who are here.
In that endeavor, you have already and, no doubt, will, receive a lot of advice – much of it unsolicited, of course, from your RAs and our staff, from friends and family, and, of course, from me tonight.
So, on that mounting heap of unsolicited advice, let me invoke sage counsel drawn not from Aristotle or Plato, Nietzsche or Nussbaum.
But from Adams.
As in, Amy Adams.
In the Oscar-nominated movie, Arrival, 12 alien spaceships descend on nations across the planet Earth.
Humankind assumes it is confronting an existential threat from a rogue space nation set on universal domination.
To defuse the situation, the humans recognize the urgency of communicating with the aliens.
At first blush, they do not appear to have much in common.
For one thing, it turns out that these visitors are giant squids.
And for another, their communication patterns are somewhat idiosyncratic.
But the stakes are high.
So, whom does the government call? A PhD linguist, naturally.
Come on: It could happen that a linguistics major might stand between the survival of humanity and certain annihilation of our species.
This is why the humanities is important!
To return to the movie.
Amy Adams (her character’s name is Louise) and her compatriots are dispatched to meet the menacing mollusks for the first time.
They enter the foreign ship as a group, dressed head to toe in orange spacesuits.
They are indistinguishable from one another and breathing like a phalanx of Darth Vaders.
In her first gambit at interspecies connection, Louise, in elaborate space garb, steps up and holds up a sign that simply says, “Human.”
At which point, one of the aliens shoots out some ink which forms a single circle.
Then the communication stalls.
Both sides are frustrated and can’t quite figure each other out. That’s when Louise the linguist realizes that something is being lost in translation.
“They need to see me,” she says.
Instinctively, Louise understands that conversation will not be possible unless the aliens are able to see and connect with her as an individual in all her particularity.
So, she makes a decision to remove her spacesuit and then advance – tentatively towards the barrier separating her from the squids. Then, she gently intones her own name, “Louise.”
And, the two squids respond in kind. Each shoot out a separate, distinctive burst of ink.
The aliens have just shared their individual names – and the conversations begin.
Ok, I know you are wondering: Why is the president sharing this tale of galactic first encounters and communication challenges at our Convocation?
Well, taking out the giant squid part (unless one of you has found out something really amazing about your roommate), I’d posit that this story still has direct application to you.
Not just in the sense that, at this point, Johns Hopkins may seem like a foreign planet, populated with strange and intimidating characters.
But as Amy Adams and her crew make clear in Arrival, because this, too, is a place where the fundamental but too-often elusive tools of authentic conversation and direct dialogue are essential for survival.
You chose Johns Hopkins – we chose each other – because this is a place committed to discovery, to the advancement of critical thought, and to the creation of new knowledge. A place devoted to the pursuit of ideas no matter where they take us.
A place where those ideas are meant to be discussed and contested. And while you are here, you will, in virtually every arena, be exposed to new ideas and new perspectives that will challenge you and change how you understand the world and your place in it.
Ideas and perspectives that may – that indeed, should – sometimes unsettle you and make you uncomfortable. When that happens, know that the feelings of discomfort are a feature, not a bug or a flaw, of this academic adventure.
You will find and explore new groups to be a part of and continue to evolve your own individual identities along the way.
The ability to communicate – to find one’s own voice, to speak in ways that can be heard, and to listen – is absolutely essential to the academic enterprise and to all you will do beyond Hopkins.
In order to convey clearly your ideas and perspectives and to listen genuinely to the ideas and perspectives of others, you must allow yourselves bravely to be seen and heard – even when your views run against the grain. And you must, in turn, afford to others the same or greater opportunity.
Because we know well that outlier notions, those seemingly outrageous ideas or claims are often the ones that unearth deep truths that can change the world. Think Socrates, Galileo, or Einstein. The list could go on and on.
And indeed, the stakes for truth are high.
You are arriving at Johns Hopkins at a profoundly challenging moment for our world. A time of seemingly insurmountable division and distrust. At a time when we unwittingly curate our news feeds to reinforce rather than expand our worldviews. A time when we cluster and sort ourselves, not only in cyberspace but even more so in the real world.
As incidents of distrust, of grievance, of anger occur with greater frequency and intensity, the consequences, here and abroad, grow more, and more and more monumental: the deepening of bigotries against racial and sexual minorities; the advocacy of ethnic cleansing in nation states around the globe; the growing acceptance or normalization of extremist or authoritarian governments; and the erosion of trust in institutions devoted to uncovering truth and to finding fact.
Our many divisions have dulled our capacity to address pressing and difficult issues that, in one way or another, affect us all – a pattern that is nowhere more evident than in our global community’s abject failure to grapple seriously with the risks and reality of climate change.
Thankfully, in preparing yourselves over the next four years to address our world’s most commanding problems, you are not dealing with giant squid aliens (although – spoiler alert – it turns out that those celluloid squid are more considerate than your average human).
You will be dealing with humanity – in all its dizzying, confounding, and captivating complexity.
And so, my call to you tonight is this: Commit yourselves, without reservation, to enter the myriad of conversations that daily mark and define this community.
Commit yourselves to speaking and listening authentically, and to reaching across difference, as individuals. Defy and deny wearing those stultifying uniforms – those spacesuits – of generic categorization and opinion that impede true mutual recognition.
As the distinguished philosopher Anthony Appiah recently urged, speak for yourself first, drawing upon the many facets of your personal identity, experiences, backgrounds and history.
Use your authentic voice to ask difficult questions of your peers and your instructors (and, yes, even your University president. I am counting on you. I know you will ask difficult questions of me and that’s how it should be).
Because doing otherwise risks creating an environment where individuals do not converse with other individuals and conversations stop at sterile, superficial exchanges.
So, on behalf of the many generations of the Hopkins community that came before us, we ask you, no we need you to speak courageously and thoughtfully and to listen intently and open-mindedly.
We need you to engage, debate and – above all – problem-solve, even or especially, with those who may, at first glance, seem to embody all that is different from you.
If you do this, I know that you, the Class of 2022, will have more than requited our confidence in you.
And you will be well on your way to making your world – nay, our world – a better place.
Class of 2022, bon voyage.