Convocation Address by President Carol L. Folt


Dartmouth College Convocation, September 10, 2012

President Carol L. Folt

Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Dartmouth!

To our new students, with your energy and your dreams, to our upperclassmen who are with us today, to our faculty, our staff, our distinguished guests, and our friends: Can you believe it is actually 243 years since our founding? Well here we are today to celebrate another new beginning in our never-ending story.

To the members of the Class of 2016: Congratulations on earning your seat.  But please do not get used to sitting down. You have come here to stand up for what you believe in—and you have come here to learn how to how to think critically, how to grow beyond what you have imagined, and then you have come here to share the fruits of all that learning with a wider world.

To our new graduate students, thank you for enriching our community of scholars. In the eyes of the faculty, you are our partners, and we look forward to working and learning from you.

To our convocation speaker—award-winning filmmaker Ricki Stern, Class of 1987—welcome home. I heard, Ricki, that you decided the best way to leave your own unique footprint at Dartmouth was to walk barefoot on the Green—is that true?

I first met Ricki when Dartmouth honored her for the Social Justice Award for Ongoing Commitment in 2009. And as you have heard, in her documentaries she tells vivid and compelling stories of people who persevere. This weekend, she will be back again for our Year of the Arts festivities, and the celebration of the new Black Family Visual Art Center, so we are so delighted to have Ricki with us today.

In a report a few years ago by Booz Allen, Dartmouth was listed as one of two universities described as “one of the world’s most enduring institutions.” Now if that is true, it is because, with every passing year, the Dartmouth circle has grown much wider and more inclusive. At convocation 40 years ago, then-President John Kemeny welcomed Dartmouth’s incoming class for the first time with the words  “men and women of Dartmouth.”

Of course we take co-education for granted today, and as I look out now on the most diverse class in Dartmouth’s history, I am also proud to say that this is the 40th anniversary year for our Native American Studies Programs and our Black Alumni at Dartmouth Association.

Dartmouth has so many proud traditions. But, Class of 2016, you are not here to fulfill past legacies—you have come to create your own. And so I want to invite you to begin that journey reflecting on a deceptively simple question: Why come here?

Now I feel deeply that this is an amazing and exciting time in the history of our planet, and in the history of humanity, and of course these years in college will be very exciting for you. But by coming here, you will have a chance to develop your capacity to succeed in the world and you might even influence the course of contemporary history.

You are coming here in an age where information travels globally as fast as a website reloads; it is a time where knowledge is increasing exponentially. I began studying biology just after the first sequencing of a little chunk of DNA. Now the entire human genome has been sequenced—over 3 billion base pairs of DNA—and we are deep into far more challenging questions of figuring out how this molecular machinery works as a blueprint for building and functioning of our bodies and our minds.

Over the next four years for you, your education will be much more than just assimilating this exploding information world, or even building social networks and friendships. If you were satisfied with learning what is already been known, you might as well just hang out in a dorm anywhere—online lectures, iPads, Kindles, Wikipedia, social media.

By coming to 21st century Dartmouth, you will have every opportunity to take advantage of creative and disruptive forces of new technology and explore the exploding knowledge in all disciplines. But even more, by becoming an active participant here and—as quickly as you can—becoming a stimulus for other people, you will grow and learn even more. And I hope—and I think my faculty colleagues agree with me—I hope all of you will engage in research here, that you will learn to create knowledge, create art, even in your first year. If you want to best prepare in the information-rich, globally-connected world, you must meet the future right here at Dartmouth, now.

As a life scientist and educator, I want to take a few minutes talking about something that I am finding particularly exciting right now, and that is about the new discoveries about our learning brain—and how our growing understanding of our essence as social beings is impacting the way we think about learning. We have big brains, and these big brains have been developed and fine-tuned over millions of years in an intensely social environment. We have learned to understand that perhaps the greatest evolutionary challenges—the challenges that actually give rise to our extraordinary intelligence—were challenges we created ourselves: the challenges of living, working, surviving, competing, collaborating, and succeeding in the company of other smart people.

It is actually by working together over many, many generations that humans have created the knowledge from which new tools, technologies, awesome power, and sometimes forces that we have yet to understand, have emerged. Also the great masterpieces created by the human mind and hand have not been produced in a vacuum. These have arisen and actually only have meaning in a cultural context. They are built upon our interactions—–upon sharing of ideas, philosophies, science, technology, humanities, and the arts. Although we all may sometimes like to think that as individuals we are succeeding on our own steam, no—all our creations and our legacies are fundamentally collaborative.

Now, given what we are learning about the origins of human intelligence, it is not surprising that the most effective learning experiences are active, they are challenging, and they are collaborative. We know where you live, who you meet, can be what you learn. However much you take away from a written text, you are going to take away so much more from a social context. We learn from our surroundings without even trying—though, on behalf of the faculty, I strongly recommend that you do try, especially, on finals.

But I think, as we learn more about these processes that are shaping our brains into these awesome cognitive tools, we are finding that the brain is a masterful instrument for learning because it continues to grow and change; it is not fixed with birth. It grows and changes not only when we are kids, but over our entire lifetimes, and we are discovering more and more about what kinds of stimuli drive that development in our brains. Of course, honesty compels me to say that brain imaging studies also have confirmed what your parents have always feared—your brains really are on autopilot a lot of the time.

But that is probably why it makes me excited that my colleagues are learning about new discoveries to create more effective learning experiences and that will actually help take your brains out of autopilot, and helping you reach your potential.

You can use this knowledge about what stimulates your learning to make your life in and out of the classroom more coherent and creative. You are going to learn lots of disciplinary knowledge, it is deep, but it is also siloed and fragmented. When you go out into the world you find complex problems are rarely solved by any one discipline or any one perspective. We know that your generation is going to need skills that are going to weave those disciplinary threads into interdisciplinary solutions, if you are going to tackle questions to keep our fast-changing, globally interconnected systems on stable, healthy, sustainable trajectories.

When you think about this quest for coherence or resilience in global systems in many ways it reflects the same quest that you have heard others talk about, which is a quest for coherence and integration in your Dartmouth experience that can make it richer. We in the faculty and the administration understand very well how important your social experiences are. The drive to engage with friends is at the core of our nature as social beings, and of course it is at the root of powerful forces at work in our bodies and in our minds.

So, what about coherency and integration? Can you, by being here, learn to bring your social experiences together with your learning experiences to bring together your classes with your other activities, your spiritual beliefs, your learning experiences abroad?

It is not easy to do that, but many of the Dartmouth graduates who have stayed in touch after they graduated have told me that yes, that did happen for them at Dartmouth, but it took effort and thought, but it was the best investment for those who did it that they made in their lives, and was the greatest reward. They found different paths to make that integration work—but each one of them said the integration grew by intentionally, thoughtfully getting off auto-pilot, getting out of group-think, and intentionally working to respect new connections, embrace new relationships, test each idea they questioned, and each uncertainty that they embraced.  And they found these integrations were core to their capacity here—they learned not what to think from other people, but how to think for themselves. For them, when everything fit together, they said they found unexpected, incredibly deep reserves of energy and confidence. And ultimately they realized that they had built a foundation for something deeper—something that some of them even began to call wisdom.

Now, when I look out at the Green from the President’s Office—where I had a such wonderful day yesterday welcoming each of the 16’s personally at Matriculation—I see a beautiful environment that invites learning, it invites reflection, it is filled with excitement, it is filled with buzz. I see students, I see faculty and staff, crisscrossing on their different paths, to and from classes, they are going to the Hop, they are going to the new VAC, they are going to cafeterias and the gym—each of them carrying individual preoccupations, each heading somewhere with a purpose, but each carrying unique histories and dreams.

At the same time, I see the intersections that bring you together—you can look out and you can see those points where the paths meet, and it is at those points where you will embrace confrontation, however uncomfortable, and from which you will learn empathy and humility.

How, Class of 2016, you learn to interact together, is going to determine how far you go as individuals. As you build respectful learning connections across our community, you are going to strengthen our community. Just as your brains are growing by forming new connections, you are going to learn by building bonds with people from different backgrounds, different disciplines, and with different points of view. You will be able to make yourselves wiser, and then you will make the campus more vibrant, and you will graduate prepared to make the world more prosperous, more just, and more hopeful.

Women and men of Dartmouth, this is the promise of your college that you enter today. It is a promise that members of that first brave class of women fulfilled with incredible grace. It is the promise that thousands of graduates, including Ricki Stern, have fulfilled through the lives of service, feats of innovation, and moments of great courage. And it is a promise that is not just your legacy, it is your responsibility, to keep. As I look around the room today, I do not have any doubt that you will do so.

More than just retaining facts, by being here you are going to will create new knowledge. More than just celebrating the accomplishments of the past 40 years, by being here you are going to set your sights on the next 40 years. More than visitors passing through campus, you will be members of the community. The Green will be your classroom. The people in this room and beyond will be your collaborators. And Dartmouth will, indeed, bear your mark.

So, from this day forward, you will always be students and graduates of Dartmouth—and it is my great honor to welcome you. Thank you.

Office of Communications