Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write


Winter Convocation Welcome

23 January 2023


The following text is my Welcome to our Winter Convocation on the first day back to campus this Monday:


Welcome to Susquehanna University’s Winter Convocation, a highpoint in our annual commemoration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and for many of you, welcome back to campus. I hope you had a restorative break. I know you join me in welcoming our speaker, Autumn Rose Miskweminanocsqua Williams, to our campus.


Let us begin by acknowledging the Susquehannock tribe whose name we bear. It means those who live in a place where water is heard grating on the shore, commonly known as the river people because they lived in unanimity and balance with the river and land. This campus rests on their un-surrendered territory, and we strive to honor their memory by being mindful stewards of this beautiful place.


I want take this opportunity to tell you about some recent experiences I have had and to share with you something that is hanging heavily on my heart. Over the past few weeks, I have been privileged to meet and learn from a number of scholars and leaders who honor Dr. King’s legacy every day in the important work they do. These have included:


Shelly Lowe, Director of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and a member of the Navajo Nation, reflected on how her own experiences and heritage are helping her to guide the NEH and thereby our nation to achieve a more inclusive scope and understanding of what our collective humanities are and how they can make our lived experience richer and our shared communities broader.

I heard an inspiring talk by Jarvis Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, which tells of how teachers in segregated black schools included lessons about African-American history and culture out of sight of white school boards, because they knew it was the right thing to do, even though they faced dire consequences if this work was found out. Many of these same teachers secretly conveyed information about their schools to the NAACP along with their own dollars to support the legal work that would result in Brown vs. The Board of Education, bringing a legal end to public-school segregation.

Dr. Givens kindly gave me an advance copy of his forthcoming book, School Clothes: A Collective Memoir of Black Student Witness, which provides a history of black segregated schools through the stories of the children who attended them, reminding us that their experience was the greatest cause for reform.


I heard a presentation by Eddie Cole, whose recent book, The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom, provides an historical evaluation of how college and university presidents responded to and engaged in the Civil Rights movement, for good and for bad. He said, “I wonder if they would have made different decisions if they could see how their legacies played out over the subsequent 50 to 60 years,” and he encouraged current presidents to consider that perspective in guiding the work we do today.


Last Friday, I attended a presentation given by Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, and the best-selling history, On Juneteenth.


Dr. Gordon-Reed began her remarks by sharing reflections about the work of a national panel she was on in 2010 that outlined a path forward to elevate the humanities and liberal education in the United States. Then she turned to a discussion of efforts to eliminate critical components of slavery from the teaching of Texas history in Texas public schools and the recent announcement from the Florida Department of Education that Florida public schools will not offer AP African-American Studies because, “As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”


The Hechinger Report that same day stated: “Florida’s latest ban follows a series of steps… including imposing speech codes on university professors and pushing the so-called “Stop WOKE Act” that restricts conversations on race and prohibits instruction that might cause guilt or shame for historic wrongdoings like slavery.” [1]


This follows Florida’s recent “Don’t say gay” law.


This is wrong, intellectually, educationally, and morally. It is an afront to academic freedom and a slap in the face of humanity. How will history judge us if we don’t speak up?


Susquehanna’s mission is to educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.


We achieve this by opening ourselves up to the lived experiences and perspectives of others. We honor each other through a shared pursuit of truth and understanding. We embrace difference, and we acknowledge how truly interdependent we are.


As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”


Earlier in her talk, Dr. Gordon-Reed averred that Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to education was rooted in his understanding that it was critical for our ability to move from subjects to citizens. When fundamental limits are placed on education, democracy is under threat.


As John Adams wrote: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know…Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.  Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution…”[2]


Let us use the inspiration from today’s convocation as fuel to rouse our attention and animate our resolution. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write to support a complete education and open discourse in defense of a just and democratic future for all.



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