2008 Convocation

Convocation Address

John Grayson
Professor of Religion on the Alumnae Foundation

September 3, 2008

President Creighton, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished colleagues, members of the classes of 2010, '11, and especially to the incoming class of 2012 --"Welcome!" But, I'm sending a special "Shout Out" to the class of 2009--"The Green Revolution"!

It is with humility and honor that I occupy this stage to address you on this occasion. Representing the "senior faculty"--the "over-the-hill" gang--to you, the senior class of 2009, (senior-to-senior) is an "awe-full" responsibility.

As I considered what to say to you at the beginning of your final year at Mount Holyoke--I discovered this fascinating stanza from Robert William Service's poem, "The Law of the Yukon," which spoke to me:

"This is the Law of the Yukon, that only
The Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and
Only the Fit survive."

You've all "survived" up to this point and that fills me with awe--not simply because of how you've successfully navigated your undergraduate career, but also for what it portends for your future. Of this I'm certain, each of you possesses the skill that destines you to "survive" this final year. Survival is not simply the product of random luck; it is the result of determination, resolve, and will--in addition to the intervention of that Mysterious Agency within the universe.

When I read the lines, "only the strong shall thrive" and "only the fit survive," I immediately thought of the evolutionary premise proposed by Darwin's disciples "survival of the fittest" … or the demonic extension of this theory by the Nazis, "only the pure will survive." But, I'm not going to talk about Darwin or the Nazis today. I want to suggest another way of understanding what it means to survive (or thrive) and be strong! This understanding, I contend, is inextricably linked to the Liberal Arts Education you are receiving at Mount Holyoke.

My primary concern, as we gather here today, is for the most vulnerable in our world? The sick. Our children. The elderly. The poor. And, let me add one more demographic group--our Geniuses. How can we assure their survival? I added geniuses to the list because they are so rare … and when we lose one, we lose so much. The principle of natural selection, it seems to me, tells us that the very weak and the very rare, or specialized, are the least likely to survive.

A "survivor" in my view, is someone who has a broad array of strengths. She's broad-minded, broadly gifted, committed, and open to a myriad of life's learning possibilities--"learning for learning's sake" --it's the "liberal arts" way!

I am a locksmith. My job, my specialty (as well as that of my colleagues), is to pick, unlock, lubricate, and check the "tumblers" of your Mind. Many of you sitting here tonight have been willing (or unwilling) clients or customers of mine. I believe knowledge is power. Without knowledge, the mind atrophies, and death begins to set in: "A Mind is a terrible thing to waste." It is the seat of all knowledge, reasoning, and judgment. It is the store place for our moral compass. So, engaging a child's mind in the knowledge game early is critical in assuring their survival.

It should come as no surprise to you, therefore, that this past Christmas, I participated in MIT's "Give One, Get One" campaign sponsored by One Laptop Per Child. This nonprofit MIT Foundation, founded by the visionary genius of Mary Lou Jepsen, has been driven by a single vision: to design a computer for children who live in impoverished societies where books are rare as Levi jeans; where there is virtually no electricity in their homes, and only 20 percent of schools have electricity. In one year, Jepsen single-handedly developed the architecture for a computer that has already turned the computer industry on its head--the XO.

The XO computer is the lowest cost, lowest power, greenest laptop ever made. It allows children to teach themselves and each other through mesh networks--a wireless system that creates its own network. It is the only computer with a screen that can be read in full sunlight (this was Jepsen's invention). A solar panel, a hand-crank or bicycle-wheel generator, or a traditional electrical power cord can power it. The aim was to build it for less than $100; its final cost, $188. The philosophy behind these machines is to empower each child's learning through simple, efficient technology. Built on the Linux operating platform, all of its software is free, icon-driven, and open sourced. These computers are loaded: they have a Web browser, a video camera (for making videos), an audio mike (for recording), text-writing programs, music programs, news programs, etoys, and a program which speaks as a child types sentences. It has math, physics, and engineering programs. It truly is a specialized machine, intended to serve a vulnerable class--our children. Even its keyboard is sized for a child's hand. The only capabilities this computer does not possess are (1) a "print" command (because children in the developing world don't have printers or paper; however, one can save a document to a memory card or flash drive), and (2) it cannot download YouTube videos. Over 260,000 have already been sent to children in off-the-grid regions of Peru, for example. I bought six--three for children in the developing world and three for children in my family.

Sensing a marketing opportunity earlier this year, along came Microsoft…. Though its software isn't as innovative and certainly not free, Microsoft argued that their Windows platform would be better for the XO computer because it, too, is icon driven, its platform and programs are universal, and as an added bonus--its software can read YouTube videos, just to mention a few features. Nicholas Negroponte--OLPC president, shocked the world by announcing that the Linux platform of the XO computer will be replaced by Windows. His decision has triggered a rash of top-level resignations within the One Laptop Per Child organization--Mary Lou Jepsen was one of those who have left.

The implications of this change are enormous. Once again, the tug-of-war between rote and intuitive learning has been engaged … this battle isn't new, it goes all the way back to Sesame Street versus Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and the traditional elementary school curriculum versus the Montessori system. Now, this battle is being waged on the computer platforms we are offering our children--Microsoft Windows vs. Linux (the MAC OS X seems to be a compromise between the two). The central issue is: Should learning be based on a market-oriented, fixed system that is not subject to modification by the user (Windows), or, ought it to be "open," and free, permitting the user to chart her own learning path (Linux)? Sadly, the answer may ultimately be decided by a single result: The computer platform that dominates the market will be called "the Survivor!"

You may be thinking, "John, let it go! A computer is a computer! I just got a new powerful laptop and I'm as happy as 'a pea in a pod.' Windows or Linux neither should make a difference. If it's cheap and executes all the popular programs, what's the big deal?" My reply is: "If the freedom and survival of the Mind is one's goal, be sure to only use the tools that'll get you there."

Maybe this Linux-based machine will not survive the onslaught of Microsoft Windows; Microsoft is so strong and powerful. Goliath, I'm afraid, is out to crush David. And, the casualties will almost certainly be children in the developing world. Don't underestimate Mary Lou Jepsen. We almost lost this 43-year-old genius to an undetected brain tumor in 1995, and she miraculously survived that threat! I predict she will survive this threat too. Do you think she's going to be intimidated by lowly, corporate giant?! I'm confident, she will survive.

The "specialized" (or genius) and the "weak" (or frail) are the two regions where survival is under constant threat. These are the truly vulnerable and exposed, they're the ones whose existence is at risk. They're the ones who are least likely to survive. So, the XO, too, is in jeopardy, not because it's weak, but precisely because it is a "specialized," unique device.

Let me pause and offer you a brief word of caution. Be careful how you plot your survival strategy! Don't be naïve.

A six-year-old and four-year-old were upstairs in their bedroom. "You know what?" says the six-year-old, "I think it's about time we started cussing."

The four-year-old nodded his head in approval.

The six-year-old continued, "When we go downstairs for breakfast, I'm gonna say something with 'Hell' and you say something with 'Ass.' "

The four-year-old agrees with enthusiasm.

When their mother walked into the kitchen and asked the six-year-old what he wanted for breakfast, he replied, "Aw hell, Mom, I guess I'll have some Cheerios."

WHACK! He flew out of his chair, tumbled across the kitchen floor, got up, and ran upstairs crying his eyes out with his mother in hot pursuit, slapping his rear with every step. She locked him in his room and shouted, "You can stay in there until I let you out!"

Then she came back downstairs, looked at the four-year-old and asked with a stern voice, "And what do you want for breakfast, young man?"

"I don't know," he stammered. "But you can bet your fat ass it won't be Cheerios!"

cannot certify whether either child survived to his next birthday!

The lesson is clear: survival requires some savvy and simple wisdom … it seldom happens in a climate of innocence and ignorance. Innocence is charming and appealing, even desirable in certain situations. But it can never replace "wisdom" and common sense. It's a tough world out there. If ever there was a time for you to use your wit--and "mother wit"--it's now. Yes, there're those who wouldn't hesitate to give you a good whack, whether you deserved it or not. The "Law of the Yukon" not only applies to physical survival, but also to mental toughness.

One of the reasons I'm proud to be a member of this faculty is that I know that my colleagues and I have striven to make you mentally tough without destroying your innocence and idealism. Mount Holyoke women are renowned for their openness, their commitment, as well as their visionary and adventurous spirit. And, those who have achieved their dreams and survived, have done it by being "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

Our selection from "The Law of the Yukon" concludes by saying:

"… surely the Weak shall perish, and
Only the Fit survive."

The recent tragedies in Myanmar (Burma) and southwestern China this year have driven home to all of us the true significance of "surviving." The loss of over 100,000 lives in Myanmar due to the devastating cyclone and subsequent tidal wave, coupled with the loss of an estimated 55,000 lives in China from the massive earthquake, reminds us that the survival of the human species on this planet is not simply a theoretical, academic exercise, it has to do with life and death.

These events also remind us none of us "survives" unless we all survive. The monumental response of the international community to aid in the rescue and survival efforts has been nothing short of breathtaking. John Donne said it best, "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of main … when one man dies, it diminishes me ..." In other words, my existence is linked to yours, and yours is linked to mine; my survival requires that I act in behalf of your survival. We all are morally obligated to one another, especially the weak among us. Without you, the weak--as the poem states--shall perish. Privilege has its responsibilities; the Strong must not abandon the Vulnerable! The strong are the strong because they recognize that their survival is connected to the plight of the defenseless.

You--the class of 2009--have survived three years of one of the finest and most demanding undergraduate educations in America!! You are entering your fourth and, hopefully, final year. You have endured not only because you are "strong," but because you've fallen in love with the life of the mind and have remained "committed" to that larger humanistic purpose. Hold true to your commitment! Let Gloria Gaynor's declaration be yours as well:

I - I will survive,
As long as I know how to love,
I will know I'm still alive,
I've got all my life to live,
I've got all my love to give;
I will Survive! I will Survive!

YOU are destined to survive … and thrive! Believe it, and seize it! (Despite what experience throws at you.) Congratulations! Good luck! And, may God bless!

Credits: Robert William Service, "The Law of the Yukon." John Donne, Sermon LXXX, At the Funeral of Sir William Cokayne.
Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive."
 Mary Lou Jepsen (Time.com), Interview with OLPC's Founding CTO Mary Lou Jepsen (Groklaw.com)

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