I’ve been pretty lame about posting, so for the sake of keeping up what little momentum I have got, here’s a bit of the other writing I’ve been doing lately. I gave a speech at Calvin’s honors convocation last night. It’s below. Enjoy it promptly and sincerely!
I skipped class today to finish this speech, so I just want to tell Professor Bascom and Professor Westra that I’m sorry, and please take it up with the folks in the honors office. I won’t be graduating until next December, but they’re letting me walk this year anyway, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be graduating with such a wonderful group of students. You all have truly blessed me these past four years. In discussions that spill out from the classroom into the hall, across cups of coffee and into kitchens, all of us, I think, have had no shortage of thoughtful conversation, of friends challenging us with new ideas and handing us books whose pages contain revelations—and then, when necessary, demanding that we put down our books, grab our coats, and come bowling. I hope our professors won’t be offended when I say that some of the profoundest teachers I’ve had at Calvin are my classmates.
And for all I appreciate all of my classmates, I’ve never really been aware of who is and who isn’t an honors student. When I read through the bios in the program for tonight, I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s an honors student and he’s headed to grad school next year? That’s great. And where’s so-and-so on this list. She’s one of the most thoughtful people I’ve met; I thought for sure this would be her thing.” As far as I can tell, academic excellence is spread widely over this campus, and no group has a monopoly on intellectual rigor. So why do we have this annual costume party; what’s the value of an honors program?
There are certainly advantages for students: we get a chance to work one-on-one with professors on independent research; in our honors classes, we’re motivated and encouraged to explore topics in greater depth than we might otherwise; and of course, there’s the reimbursement for the GRE study books. All of this takes an awful lot of work, and all of the students we’re honoring tonight deserve congratulations for their hard work and perseverance. But whether or not someone hangs a medal around our necks or posts our names on the Dean’s List, there’s something about this notion of excellence and what we learn here that is much more fundamental than an item to add to our résumés.
I think what we gain from our education is knowledge, skills and attitudes. I’m a geography major, and yes, I did learn that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso, but more importantly, I gained the skills to make sense of that knowledge. Our educations have given us the ability to research, to write, to analyze and present, so while I’m glad I can point to Ouagadougou on a map, I’m even happier that I can make a map, say of the distribution of malaria cases in Burkina Faso. Finally, we learn attitudes, as anyone who’s made it from Prelude on through Capstone can tell you. Perhaps this is a bigger focus of our Kuyperian Calvin educations than it is for our peers at other schools, but the emphasis on moral applications of what we learn in biology, economics or history and the determination to find meaning in our work that goes beyond making money or keeping score, that’s truly valuable.
We learn these things often from each other, but we also have professors, staff members, our families and mentors to thank. They provide the basic conditions that make our learning possible, introduce us to all the ideas that get us thinking about the world in new ways, and push us towards excellence when we spend a little too much time at the lanes, because let’s be honest, we students aren’t always perfect influences on each other. Our professors, who we often admire more than they know, take the time to give us advice about grad school, they support us when we need encouragement, and they forgive us for the naïve, immature mistakes we make and kindly don’t fail us for our cheeky remarks in class. And our parents, well, they put up with us as 2-year-olds and teenagers, and we still haven’t figured out how to express our gratitude. And we thank all of the other teachers in our lives, people we might not call ‘professor’ but who nonetheless provide models for how we should live, who support us and help us to do better and dig deeper. For all the ways we celebrate individual achievement, we have to admit that any of our success is rooted firmly in the communities that encourage and enable us.
Before I close, and while we’re on the topic of roots, I want to tell a quick story. The summer after my first year at Calvin, I got a job growing organic vegetables on a farm near here. On the first day of harvest, I spent the morning cutting salad greens, bright green lettuces and arugula and mustard greens growing out of the dark muck soil. All down the rows, I sliced the tops off the plants and tossed leaves into bins that we took up to the washing station to be dumped into sinks to wash the dirt off, then spun in a salad spinner and bagged to be given to customers that afternoon. I kept noticing little weeds that I thought we’d pulled the day before, but because my hands were cold and the rows were long, I gave up trying to pick them out. At break, the washers, who’d been plunging their arms up to their elbows into icy water all morning moving lettuce from sink to sink, gave me a hard time about it, and I thought about that when I went back to work. If we don’t do a good job when we’re weeding, we have to pick them out when we’re cutting, and if we miss them when we’re cutting, we have to sift through them in washing, and if we fail to get rid of them then, well, I hope you like thistle with your arugula. I hope this doesn’t sound allegorical, and I don’t mean to say that there are weedy bits of our lives that we need to pluck out, just that we should cultivate self-critical attitudes in every stage of our work, and we don’t do good work just for the sake of good grades; we do it for the sake of our friends, who work with us, for the pride of having done a job well, and for the integrity of what we produce.
A Calvin alum named Tommy Allen writes a column for Rapid Growth, which is a sort of development website for the city. He signs off every week with six words: the future needs all of us. I’ve been blessed in the past and present by all of you, and I’m convinced that the future is lucky to have you. I hope you’ll give it your best work, in whatever amount of time you have left here and wherever you go after that.