Sunday, August 14, 2011

2006 Convocation Speech

I listened to some Harry Chapin today. I don't know why it's been so long since I listened to his music, but it was far too long. In 2006, I was asked to give the Convocation speech for incoming freshmen at MCLA. Listening to Harry Chapin today reminded me that I talked about him in that speech and thought I would post it here. Far too many people don't get involved in our society, and Harry's admonition to each of us to "Do Something" is good advice. Hope you enjoy the speech, or at least the music references.

Convocation 2006

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
Church Street Center
Daniel E. Bosley
September 5, 2006

Chairman Lamb, Members of the Board of Trustees, President Grant, distinguished faculty and administration, and particularly, the members of the class of 2010. Class of 2010, it seems like a long way away, doesn’t it? Yet it will be over in a flash and will be the most rewarding time of your lives. I want to thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. I am very honored by this invitation. I am a little nervous though. Convocation speeches are daunting tasks; trying to tell you everything you need to know to succeed in college in fifteen minutes or so. I thought that maybe I should follow the traditional formula of a few jokes, followed by telling you how much the world depends on you, while throwing in a pithy quote or two. Should I admonish you that it is your responsibility to change the world and then send you off? That’s been done before and tends to be scary telling you that the whole world depends on you. Perhaps I should use a few Latin or foreign phrases. This always seems popular. And it always seems profound, whether it is or not. In regards to this, I am reminded of the former Congressman from this district, the First Massachusetts District. The late Silvio Conte used to end many of his speeches with the Italian phrase (and this is from memory), “Svegli l’amico, Il discorso finito.” In English, this means “Wake up, pal, the speech is over.” Goofy, but it sounds wonderful and would get applause.
As I thought about what I would talk about, I thought back to my own freshman year in 1972. Who was our convocation speaker? Did we have a convocation speaker? I don’t remember. But I do remember freshman year very well. I remember what it was like to be a freshman. I spent half my time excited that I was here, and half the time scared to death over the prospect of college. It is all different and new. Could I do college work? Would I make friends? My daughter is a freshman at UMass this year and she is going through the same mixture of anxiety and excitement that I went through and I imagine all of you are going through. That is a natural reaction. This is a big change from anything you have encountered so far. College is much different than high school. There, you were seniors last year. I would imagine you felt pretty comfortable. Here, you are back to being freshman again. There, you had the routine of high school pretty much down. Here, everything is a new experience. There your parents made sure that there was structure and reminded you that you needed to do your homework. Here you are on your own and have to do all this yourself, including laundry! There you were surrounded by your friends of at least the last four years. Here, you have to make new friends all over again. There you were home, and here, many of you are away from your families for an extended period for the first time. It is natural that you should be apprehensive about this. As I said, I know I was. But I will tell you that you are about to embark on the four most exciting years of your lives. College is a life changing experience. It is the bridge between the last vestiges of growing up and adulthood. Here you will learn to be your own person.
You will make new friends, friends you will keep and stay close to for the rest of your lives. I talked to my college roommate three days ago. We keep in touch and he is still one of my best friends. His daughter, who is my goddaughter and the rest of the family are coming to town in a few weeks as her college plays Williams in field hockey. You will have friendships such as this that will last a lifetime.
A whole new world will open up to you. I remember so many of my professors who made profound differences in my life. The world opened up from merely my local community and a small circle of friends to the rest of the world. Some of these faculty members are still here, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and all of the faculty and staff who make this a great institution. I hope that you rely on the faculty, especially your advisors as you get acclimated to college life. These advisors are invaluable. They will answer your questions, keep you on track, give you advice, hold your confidence, and tell you where the best pizza in town is.
While the commitment of this institution to educate you remains the same, there are many big changes since I started my freshman year here in 1972. The campus center was under construction and wasn’t going to open until 1976. There were no townhouses. Even the name was different. This was not the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, but North Adams State College. We had no cell phones; fax machines, Ipods, Laptops, or any computers for that matter. We didn’t have Instant Messenger (IM) or myspace. It wasn’t that we didn’t have them. They hadn’t been invented yet! It wasn’t until four years later in 1976, that Apple Computer was formed. Their first home computer, the Apple 1 ran off of a cassette tape and they sold 175 of them. So computers were not to be had. In 1972, the first hand held scientific calculator was marketed. We didn’t have them either because they were marketed at $400. But we were probably the last class that actually knew how to use a slide rule.
And it wasn’t just technology that was different. Richard Nixon was President and it was the first year that women were allowed to run in the Boston Marathon. Can we even imagine not allowing women into a race today?
In many ways, your lives are much different. You will be the best-educated generation ever. The Internet and ease of travel have made the world much smaller and that gives you opportunities that we never had when I was in school. You have far more opportunities than I did at your age to experience life elsewhere in the world. Take advantage of this. You will have a much longer life span and more technology than we ever dreamed of. And your education here will help prepare you for the opportunities and the challenges that lie ahead of you. This college will do more than educate you. The faculty and staff will give you the tools to learn and more importantly, to reason. Especially at a liberal arts college such as this one, you are taught critical thinking. And hopefully, they will inspire you along a course of action that you will follow the rest of your lives. That happened to me. I grew up in a single parent family in a very small town. My eighth grade class consisted of 8 students and my high school class was something like 216. I arrived on campus not knowing what to expect from college or quite frankly, what to expect from myself. But the professors and staff here did more than educate me. They gave me a passion that has lead to a career in public service. I was inspired by my teachers to get involved in my community and that has lead to being the state representative for this area for the last twenty years. I have been able to make a difference in my hometown and surrounding area. I have been able to touch the lives of so many others. I have been able to travel all over the world, Russia, South Africa, all of Europe, China, and Israel, to name some of the places I have been in order to gain a greater understanding of the world and our global neighbors. I have been able to give back to my community and fellow citizens because this college inspired me to give back, and gave me the tools to do so. Without the ability to go here and to grow here, I don’t know where I would be and I know that I owe this institution a large debt of gratitude. They will do the same for you.
Now you don’t have to run for office to get involved, but hopefully they will point you in a direction that not only involves a career, but also makes your lives more fulfilling. It isn’t enough to be educated, but we must be enriched by our experiences here. Our collective experience allows us all to contribute to the well being of our community. That contribution, helping each other become more enriched is what makes us a community out of a collection of individuals.
And that is what defines the collegiate experience. It is not enough to be book smart, but you need to be able to use that knowledge and have the desire to use that knowledge. That makes all of the difference. Are there any Red Sox fans out here? You may know that there is a website for fans called the Sons of Sam Horn. It is a site for real hard-core fans where baseball fanatics argue over such things as the Whip, which is walks and hits per inning as measured against individual batters or they argue over the replacement value of a lesser player over the salary of a regular on the team. I am intimidated by the statistical expertise on that site, but they are not always right in trying to predict how a player will do in Boston or even in the major leagues in general. That is because they can’t measure the value of the intangibles of a player. That is the spirit or passion that motivates a person to succeed. That is hopefully what you will learn from your next four years; that heart and commitment to excel at whatever course you take through life.
I know that you had a summer reading assignment. If I could suggest a companion to this may be Doug Morris’ book, “It’s a Sprawl World After All”. I will make sure that the library has a copy. It also talks about ways to do better than we have done in making communities more responsive to the needs of its citizens. In preparation for today and as you have that reading assignment, I was asked if I had a book that inspired me that I would like to have placed in the library. I thought a lot about this and decided that there are many books that have inspired me over my lifetime. One of these was a book that I read in a Clark Billings class on city politics in 1976. That book is “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro. I love that book and have given it out as a Christmas present almost every year since. I formed the literacy caucus in the State House in 1993, and I have gone around the state promoting literacy and reading ever since, so there are a lot of books I could suggest. However, I would rather they include some music in the library, especially music from the sixties and early seventies. That was what inspired my generation. It shaped our thinking. In many ways it spurred us to action. Music spoke to us. One of my favorite singer songwriters was a folk singer named Harry Chapin. Chapin died in 1981 in his midthirties, September 3, 1981, so Sunday was the 25th anniversary of his death. In 1980, he wrote a song called “Remember When the Music”. The first verse of this song went,
“Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we'd sing.”
And we did believe in things and people sang as a form of social conscience and protest. Music was a unifier. It taught us that we were not alone in our thoughts and actions and formed social opinion. It moved people to action. Some of the issues are the same as issues today; “Immigration Man” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash spoke of the problems concerning immigration. Country Joe MacDonald asked “what were we fighting for” in Viet Nam and Phil Ochs sang “we aren’t going a ‘marching anymore.” Peter Paul and Mary sang about the environment in their song “Power”; and Bob Dylan asked “How many years can a people exist, before they’re allowed to be free” in the song “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Robert Lamm wrote a very powerful song for his band Chicago called “Dialogue Parts 1 & 2”. The song is a conversation between two college students. One is an activist worried about the problems of the world. The other is oblivious to what is going on and doesn’t think there are any problems, or at least, it’s not up to him to solve them. Student One asks, “Will you try to change things with the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas?
Student Two replies, “What is this power you speak of and this need for things to change? I always thought that everything was fine.”
The reason I mention this music is two fold. First, some of the problems today are the same as then. We are still arguing over immigration. Instead of Viet Nam, we are involved in a similar struggle in Iraq. Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” reminds us that we still need to do much better regarding the environment. While my generation was experiencing the roll out of the Civil Rights Act, today we are still hearing about racial profiling, questioning equal rights, and debating whether we should keep affirmative action. The need to be involved remains as strong today as it was in 1972.
The second reason I mention this is that like the second student in Lamm’s dialogue, apathy is as bad as making a bad decision. It leads to having no role in the decision-making process and let’s others make choices for you. So you have to be involved somehow, somewhere, some way. When he was much younger, Academic Vice President Steve Green used to wear a button that simply said, “Give a damn.” That was the attitude that many of us had. It wasn’t a statement about any particular political philosophy, but just said that you should care about what was going on enough to be involved. I am asking you to care and get involved, as it is a matter that is about self-preservation as much as anything else.
As I said earlier, you don’t have to be a politician to be involved or to make great changes. People who one day made a simple decision to take a small action made some of the most important changes in my lifetime. Rosa Parks decided one day that she was too tired to stand for a white passenger on the bus home and from this simple action of standing up for herself by sitting down, great changes occurred. One student stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square with a flower in his hand fed tremendous change in China. Sometimes it is the simplest action. And to act doesn’t mean that you have to create huge sweeping change. I am fond of saying that we need to keep changing the world incrementally, one day at a time. Bobby Kennedy said this far more eloquently when he said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Whether it is to join in a local activity, to get involved with some interest group, or to help your fellow students, get involved. To quote Harry Chapin, again, he once said, “When in Doubt, Do Something.”
This is a wonderful time to be in college. These are challenging times. Microsoft’s Bill Gates calls this the “Decade of Velocity”. We see changes in technology and science on an almost daily basis. The speed of this change is accelerating, and some of those changes are monumental. For example, we have hopes through stem cell therapies that we can cure diseases previously thought incurable. Through nanotechnology, machines are getting smaller and more intuitive. But through new technologies and scientific discoveries, we are also making life more complicated. How do we react towards our global neighbors in a global economy? How do we provide meaningful jobs? How do we deal with new issues of ethics brought about by new treatments involving genetics and stem cells? What we do with this technology and how we use it to change society depends on those of you who get involved to make those changes. Soon, it will no longer be up to me to make these decisions, but you will be the ones that will have to take on these tasks.
Let me end by going back to Harry Chapin. I met Harry in Williamstown one night in the mid seventies after a concert. A few friends and I walked into a local restaurant for dinner and he was at the bar. We stopped and said hi, and he graciously asked us to sit down. We ended up in a long conversation that is memorable to this day. Harry Chapin wasn’t just a musician, but also believed in the music that he sang. He started something called World Hunger Year (WHY), a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to wiping out hunger and poverty at the grass roots level since 1975. Every day they work with over 5,000 organizations on the grass roots level community by community to bring self-help programs to those in need. Every day, they create miracles for thousands of people. And they do it all at the local level. He didn’t just sing about this, he lived the life.
Back to his song, “Remember When the Music”, Harry sang,
“ And I feel that something's coming, and it's not just in the wind.
It's more than just tomorrow, it's more than where we've been,
It offers me a promise, it's telling me "Begin",
I know we're needing something worth believing in.”
He lived that life and 25 years after his death he is still making a difference. We lived that life and we sang and have helped change people’s lives for the better. And that is something worth believing in. Class of 2010, will you try to change things with the power that you have, the power of a million new ideas? Now it’s your turn to sing, and your voice lessons start with your first class tomorrow. Good luck. I wish you the very best success here at MCLA. Again, I want to thank you for this opportunity. And in closing, let me say, Svegli l’amico, Il discorso finito!
Thank you!

2 comments:

Jenna Catlin said...

Seem like a good one. But its always a challenge...
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Anonymous said...

Very nice post.