Founders’ Day convocation address by Professor Ray Douglas

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(Note: This is the Founders’ Day convocation address delivered by Ray Douglas, professor of history, on August 27 in Memorial Chapel.)

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2018. I thank you all for being here, and for bearing with us so patiently throughout this exceptionally busy week. Tonight I have a deep sense of fellow-feeling with you, because one of the most vivid memories of my life is when I too came to a U.S. university—in my case for graduate school—for the first time, wearing an ill-fitting new suit, clutching a single suitcase and $950 in American Express traveler’s cheques, and exhibiting the new kid’s familiar facial expression, one that revealed, all too obviously, my commingled sense of deep unworthiness and utter cluelessness.

As it turned out, the second of these was especially appropriate, as I quickly discovered when trying to assimilate myself within my new milieu. It transpired, for example, that Hollywood gangster movies were not, as we in Ireland had fervently believed, documentaries of American life. In some respects it was a relief to know that I was not after all likely to blunder into an exchange of drive-by shootings between rival drug gangs as I popped down to the corner store for a pint of milk; that my bullet-shattered corpse would not be repatriated home in short order; and that my parents would not be made to cough up by the State Department in Washington for the cost of the body bag. But it did mean that I was now completely without guidance as to how to negotiate my way around a campus environment that was unfamiliar in every conceivable way. The result was a series of what, at the time anyway, seemed to me to be soul-crushing embarrassments.

A case in point was when I announced at a new student reception, with the president of the university and other dignitaries at my elbow, how impressed I was by the way in which, in contrast to European institutions of higher education, classical studies remained a mainstay of American academic life.

The president, polite but clearly puzzled, asked me what I meant. With even greater perplexity in my own voice, I reminded him of the dozen or so classical civilization institutes on campus that were to be found within a couple of hundred yards of where we stood: Alpha Tau Omega, Gamma Phi Beta, Delta Upsilon, and others whose names I didn’t remember. I can still recall the funereal silence that settled over the entire room before a fellow grad student, who later became one of my closest friends, kindly put his arm across my shoulders and said, “Ray, lemme explain a couple things to you about college in the United States.”

There’s a lesson in that, and in the even worse humiliations that I proceeded to rack up in the following weeks and months. In the grand scheme of things none of these blunders truly mattered as much as I thought they would. In fact, I found, there were distinct advantages to being the person who through sheer ignorance couldn’t help but ask embarrassingly naive questions. Whenever I did, I found that the answers various people gave me were often very different; that the things they believed to be self-evident were actually anything but.

I also learned that others among my fellow students who seemingly had it all figured out could be even more lost at sea than I was. I lost count of the number of times when one or another American-born classmate would come up to me after seminar and say, “Thank God you asked that question. I wanted to as well, but I was afraid of looking like an idiot.” It happened so often that I sometimes thought about monetizing this hidden talent of mine by hanging out a sign, “Will Look Like an Idiot For Food.” But the best thing that it did for me was to burn out the self-consciousness fuse within me, and to help bring out my inner five-year-old, the annoying little kid whose invariable response to anything he’s told is “Why?”

As you know, my day job around here is as a historian, something that allows me to indulge this quirk of my nature to the fullest. Down at the entrance to the Ho Science Center, you’ve probably already seen the carved stone bearing the famous question asked by the astronomer Johannes Kepler: “Why are things as they are and not otherwise?” The historian’s fundamental question is almost identical: “Why do people make the choices they do, and not other ones?”

You may have encountered history in high school largely as a matter of memorization of names and dates, but truly it’s about explanations. Usually we’ve a pretty shrewd idea of what people did in the past; figuring out why they did it, and how our world is changed as a result; that’s where the difficulty and the excitement of history truly lies.

When we think about the past, we’re very prone to want to study it for instrumental reasons: to tell us what to do and to avoid in a given situation. Everybody here, I’m sure, has come across George Santayana’s sound bite: “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” That sounds marvelous, which is why it’s such a pity that in reality it’s complete nonsense. The past never does, and never can, repeat itself, because not only the personalities but the context will have changed fundamentally from one historical era to the next. People who try to apply the supposed lessons of history in some formulaic manner are doomed to disappointment, as Lyndon Johnson discovered in Vietnam and George W. Bush in Iraq, to look no further for examples. Of course it might with a great deal of justice be argued that a huge part of the problem with both of those interventions was not too much consciousness of the past, but too little. Had policymakers been more attuned to the historical complexities and particularities of both countries, it seems inconceivable that they would not have made wiser choices—and might even have chosen not to intervene at all.

Even so, I don’t really believe that the true value of a historical perspective is an instrumental one, as a guide to more enlightened decision making. After all, not every aspect of the past will have an obvious political, military, or economic application. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be learned from it. To the contrary, I think that the most important reason to pay attention to what we as a species have done in the past is to force us to try to understand the minds of people who were at once so very like us and yet saw and experienced the world in ways that were profoundly different from our own.

There’s a marvelous book that was written more than a hundred years ago by an American polymath named E.P. Evans, the title of which is The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. In it Evans describes how in mediaeval Europe—and in fact all the way to the mid-C19, during the era of the so-called Age of Enlightenment—a special branch of criminal law concerned itself with punishing the wrongful acts of animals: field-mice that ate more than their fair share of crops; oxen that knocked down passers-by in the street; pigs that attacked, bit or trampled small children, and so forth. There were special animal tribunals, with judges, counsel for the prosecution and the defense, and even provisions in some cases for free legal aid for the accused. These weren’t pro forma procedures by any means, but deadly serious exercises in jurisprudence: witnesses were called; depositions taken; and sometimes the defendants were acquitted after receiving the services of a particularly skilled advocate. But many other animal wrongdoers were convicted, and after being put in jail on remand in cells beside human detainees, would be taken to the town gallows and publicly hanged. More than that: if, let’s say, a homicidal pig was executed, instead of being turned into bacon its body would be exhibited to other swine of the vicinity so that they could learn from its awful example and realize that crime did not pay.

Now, this is without question all very humorous. But there’s more to be learned from it than simply that people in the past did extremely odd things. We’re inclined to forget that the individuals who behaved in this way were every bit as intelligent as we are today, and just as capable of exercising reason. They weren’t labouring under a delusion—for example, that animals are moral actors in exactly the same way that humans are. They knew very well that this was not the case. They acted as they did because doing so made sense, within the terms of and in response to the values of their own societies. Punishing animals for bad behaviour conveyed a message about the pivotal importance of respecting laws, in an era when the police had not yet been invented. If animals could not get off the hook as a result of diminished moral capacity, neither could humans that might otherwise be tempted to cover up their wrongdoing using the same plea. Animal legal aid, public executions of pigs, and the display of their corpses demonstrated how seriously the community took the observance of proper procedures. Nothing was to be done arbitrarily; everything was to follow the correct forms; justice was not only to be done but seen to be done. Here perhaps we can see the roots of our own concern for due process.

If we make the effort, then, to enter into the world of the unfamiliar past, it sensitizes us to live as reflective participants in the world of the unfamiliar present. One thing is certain for just about everybody here this evening: that when your time at Colgate is over, you will live among, work with, and be surrounded by people whose views on almost everything will be very different from your own. Their modes of life, their fundamental philosophies, may even seem as bizarre and inexplicable to you as do those of the judges and lawyers of the mediaeval animal courts; and no doubt they could say the very same thing about yours. None of us, in an increasingly globalized world, will enjoy the dubious luxury of never being exposed to cultures, societies, and systems of belief that are vastly different from, and even fundamentally opposed to, our own.

I don’t expect that everybody here will become a history major, or even take a history course at Colgate. But all of us, I think, require a historical consciousness: an awareness of how the past has shaped not only our own present, but that of others as well. We need it not only for the sake of cultural literacy, not only to avoid making unnecessary errors in politics or diplomacy, but as a form of respect for the phenomenal diversity of the world in which we live—diversity of mind, belief, and thought as well as the more familiar categories of race, class, sex, and gender.

What I am suggesting is not a plea for moral relativism, any more than I am arguing that a revival of the animal courts is a good idea simply because people in the past believed they had their place. But the essence of a liberal-arts education is the cultivation of a profound awareness that the pinnacle of human achievement is not represented by us; that the current era is not the most important there has ever been; and that history is neither linear nor tending toward a particular goal. In other words, that essence is the reconciliation of both deep and broad knowledge with a sense of intellectual humility, a realization that those who came before us were just as important to the human story as we are, and that the same is true of those who will be here after we are gone.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2018, on behalf of all my colleagues, the incomparable faculty of Colgate University, I welcome you and invite you to join with us in this collaborative process exploring the themes I’ve mentioned this evening and all the others that together constitute the liberal arts and unite our various disciplines in a common effort of discovery. We look forward with great anticipation to getting to know you, inside and outside the classroom, during the next four years.