Fordham English Professor Anne Fernald delivered the convocation speech for FCLC first-year students on Tuesday, September 2, 2014. We reproduce it here with her permission.
Good afternoon. Let me join the many others who have greeted you these past few days in saying WELCOME to Fordham and Welcome to Lincoln Center. I’m Anne Fernald, a professor of English and Women’s Studies here and the Director of first year composition at Lincoln Center. I’ve been asked to say a few ceremonial words on this occasion, to welcome you and to help you think about this, the beginning of your college career.
As it happens, I spent much of this summer thinking not about 2014 but about 1914. In particular, for a few weeks, I spent time reading Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth. There, she describes how she spent the better part of several years begging, urging, and cajoling her parents to send her to university. A century ago, in England, you see, even families who assumed their sons would go to college often assumed their daughters needed only just enough education to get married. But Vera Brittain wanted more. Finally, finally, after many tears and many fights, her parents gave in and, along with her younger brother and her boyfriend—later, her fiancé—she headed off to Oxford just about exactly 100 years ago.
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, 1914, she did not at first notice the news, let alone comprehend how it might change her life. In fact, her book begins with an arresting sentence, one that nicely captures how a lot of us feel when events in the world at large affect our private lives: “When the Great War broke out,” Brittain wrote, “it came to me not as a … tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans” (17).
Brittain finished her first year in the shadow of the growing war, but found she was too distracted by the war to carry on with her studies. She volunteered as a nurse—one of the most demanding jobs then available to women—and served in London, Malta, and near the front lines in France before the war was over. And when the war was over, when she had lost not only her brother and her fiancé, but her two best male friends as well, what did she do?
She went back to Oxford with newfound determination. She changed her major to History, because history, she thought, might help her understand what she had lived through. She dedicated her life to peace, writing many books and working as an activist in the peace movement. She married a man similarly dedicated and their daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams, now retired, went on to become the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the House of Lords.
Brittain inspires me because she lived her life with tremendous purpose. Even when terrible, heart-breaking things, both global and personal, threatened to distract her from that purpose, she returned, with renewed commitment, to get her education so that she might become a person who could make a contribution to the world.
One of the goals of a Fordham education is that you become a person for others. You may decide that you can do that, like Brittain, through the study of History. You may decide that your contribution lies in Dance. Or Sociology. Or Computer Science. The field you choose will depend on some combination of your talent, your interests, and luck that will unfold over the next few years, but whatever field you choose, my hope for you is that you look around at the world, in all its wonder and in all its need, and you try to imagine how you might make one corner of it better by your thinking, your work, and your dedication.
Moving forward from 100 years ago to fifty years ago, the great novelist and essayist, James Baldwin, opened a talk to teachers with words that still resonate with us today: “Let’s begin,” Baldwin said, “by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by [the outside], but from within.”
Once again, we are living in a dangerous time. And in a dangerous time, it is easy, in our fear, to make choices that are safe. We can look around the world and see what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or rising income inequality around the country, or climate change, or the conflict in Gaza, or the rise of ISIS and, in our fear, choose to study something that will protect us, earn us lots of money, and buy us the security not to make a change.
I want, instead, to exhort you to look into these places of darkness without fear. I want you to choose one and to find a way to make yourself a source of light and hope in that darkness. After all, moments like these, full of uncertainty and pain, are also moments of great possibility. I want you to seize that possibility, to imagine that it is yours. It is yours.
“The future is dark,” wrote Virginia Woolf during the War, “which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” It’s a strange thing to say, but Brittain, Baldwin, and Woolf all saw that moments of great uncertainty open up possibilities for amazing, even revolutionary change.
The task that lies before you now is to educate yourself, to make yourself into an expert in one thing, so that, a few years from now, with your degree in hand, you can not only support yourself but imagine ways to do so while remaking the world into the better one that we so urgently need.
This will not be easy. Nor will it be glamorous. In fact, you will need to give up some easy fun in the pursuit of a longer term goal. If you truly want to get an education, you will need to train yourself away from some of the distractions of the world, to recognize that yes, you can go to a party, but not every night, that yes, you can belong to a club, but not all the clubs. I love CandyCrush, too, but for me to finish the book I’ve been working on for the past ten years, I have had to put my phone away once in a while.
We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think.
Your college education is the moment to learn how to pause and think, to consider the world around you, with all its wonder and all its flaws, and to let that world reshape your determination to get an education. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.
James Baldwin learned this, growing up in Harlem and discovering French literature in the libraries there. From that literature he learned about possibilities beyond Harlem and beyond the racism of the United States: the “sense of ‘If I can do it, I may do it.’” Like James Baldwin, you can and you may. I want you to give yourselves that chance: to work hard and turn yourselves into people whocan do the great things you most want to do and then to give yourselves permission to do so.
We—your professors, your deans, your advisors, R.A.’s, custodians, cooks, and friends—are all here to help you do that. We are so happy that you are here to begin your journey. Welcome.