[Watch the video here.]
It’s a privilege to speak this morning, joined as I am by faculty, members of our Foundation Board, staff and colleagues, especially Joy Connolly, our new provost.
It’s a privilege because we celebrate the beginning of the academic year and welcome you—our new students. You number about 550 all told. I’ll avoid the convention of praising just how terrific, talented and diverse you are. But you are. And you should feel real pride in joining the Graduate Center community: never in our 55-year history has admissions been more competitive, or you, our entering students, more accomplished.
We share your excitement. We have chosen you, and you, us. We know that you’ll succeed.
I’m indebted—no, we’re all indebted—to Matt, Craig, Cathy, Subir and Marie-Ange for sharing their thoughts and talents today. We’ve assembled in an auditorium named after Harold Proshansky, a professor of environmental psychology who was President of the Graduate Center from 1972 to 1990. The Proshansky is a frequent venue for public lectures, conversations, performances, ‘the Life of the Mind in the Heart of the City’, as we say. This may be your first time in Proshansky, but let it not be the last. Make a habit of it.
In colleges and universities, ‘convocation’—the calling or summoning that begins the academic year—is bookended by ‘commencement’, another self-important word that confusingly denotes its end. A degree completed, one commences with one’s life or career—or so the idea.
‘What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning’—that’s how T. S. Eliot puts it in ‘Little Gidding’, a meditation on time, language, change—and much more besides. ‘The end is where we start from’, as Eliot puts it. It’s because you’ve brought your undergraduate or master’s degrees to such successful ends that you’re making this beginning.
I find myself in our program between Subir, who’s recently finished his degree and made a wonderful start to his career, and Marie-Ange, who, in beginning her DMA at the age of 18, must be setting a Graduate Center record for precocity.
Sandwiched between a mathematician and a musician, but also affected, as we all are, by an extraordinary succession of political and social convulsions, I’ve found myself thinking: thinking about beginnings and ends, about knowledge and practice, and so about the responsibilities that we—as scholars and graduate students alike—all bear.
You may not know it (I certainly didn’t), but in beginning your graduate study you begin to acquire responsibilities. And one is ensuring that you put the knowledge you will create to the right ends.
A moment ago I used a strong word, ‘convulsion’. I used it advisedly. It captures, I think, the impact and reflex of the violence that we’ve been witnessing—carnage that feels almost quotidian and, precisely because it has become routine, threatens to dull our feelings of shock, outrage or grief.
‘Convulsion’ also captures the ruptures and crises that constitute this, our age of political discord. Polarization and rancor—these, too, have started to feel natural.
Of course it is not just in America, which celebrates itself in national myths of opportunity, that optimism is giving way to fear, even dystopia. And it’s not just Americans—two thirds, according to a recent poll—who state that we ‘are on the wrong track’, and who pine for a populist authoritarianism that reassures. So, too, a growing number of Europeans, who would wish to abandon long-term social democratic ideals and institutions in favor of particularism and nationalism.
Globalization is an important part of the explanation. Not only does it shift jobs. It also corrodes or destroys local traditions, and spawns especially malignant forms of parochialism: xenophobia; racism; sectarianism.
Two political crises this summer, both thousands of miles away and both of personal impact for me, speak to academic responsibilities.
The first, on June 23rd, was the Brexit vote. I may not sound it, but by passport I can count myself British, having spent 14 years in the UK, where my children grew up, and where one still lives. When I woke up on the 24th, my first thought was that my passport, like the pound, had been devalued overnight.
My second (and better) thought was the recognition that passports mean different things to different people.
To me, my UK passport was at once a token of a multicultural and tolerant Britain—the London of my experience and imagination—and a certificate of inclusion in that larger transnational project that is the European Union.
But passports are polyvalent. As our own John Torpey has written, they are nothing if not instruments of national control. They are wielded by states that allow or forbid, as they see fit, the movement of people made citizens by these and other instruments, institutions and traditions. In his Refugees’ Conversations, Berthold Brecht has a character named Dumpy call the passport ‘a person’s most precious organ’: its validity eclipses an individual’s character.
To many of those on the pro-Brexit side of the debate—those who clamor to ‘take control back from Brussels’—the passport, inscribed with both British and EU insignia—is no longer doing its job. Removing that EU insignia will make the passport a sharper instrument of exclusion—or so they imagine.
The second event that had some personal impact, on 15th and 16th of July, was the failed coup in Ankara and Istanbul.
By no definition can I count myself Turkish, but the history of the Middle East is my area of expertise. More important, on the 16th (a Saturday), my Turkish father-in-law was hours away from returning to Germany from Istanbul, where he’d been visiting family. (He also holds two passports.)
So we were up half the night. We were following the news as an anti-democratic movement sought to topple what it regard as an increasingly autocratic government. And we were wondering where and how my father-in-law was. We were ambivalent, confused and worried.
The Brexiters won, and they’re now trying to work out the consequences of their victory. The coup plotters lost, and a massive purge—military, political, legal and academic—is now underway.
For all the contrasts, Britain and Turkey both illustrate the allure of imperial nostalgia and authoritarian nationalism—and with it, the responsibility of the historian.
In Britain, one can find a parochial narrative of non-European identity, a distinct Britishness that features a glorious Elizabethan break from Catholic Europe and crystallizes in empire. It’s a narrative preserved and performed in ruling institutions, in popular culture and, most obviously to the outsider, in the tourist industry.
In Turkey, there is a comparable narrative—of a glorious Ottoman past that is similarly conjured and curated: soap operas of the 16th century are the analog to Downton Abbey; mammoth neo-Ottoman palaces, their ceremonial guards caparisoned in Ottoman dress, these parallel the Queen’s Guards at Buckingham palace. Opportunistic politicians have even been mocked on social media for wearing Ottoman headgear.
There’s much that is benign here, and even a comic absurdity to the spectacle. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted from the malignant: chauvinism, ethnocentrism, racism—these can lurk in the dark hallways of such palaces. The harder right you travel in the UK, the more deferential the attitude to order, the deeper and more exclusive the sense of Englishness, and the greater the celebration of a Commonwealth that, because it is white, remains open for immigration.
Remembrance, in the striking phrase of David Rieff, can serve as ‘hatred’s forge’, commemoration ‘the present in drag’. At some level, ritual and sponsored memorialization always reflects ideology and politics. Marita Sturken has shown how two American memorials, to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and to 9/11, narrate a myth of national innocence, one belied, in reality, by the exercise of American state power.
It falls to scholars to insist on the difference between myth—staged, directed and projected—and history, which is unruly, spontaneous and organic, which spreads blame, which documents promises kept and promises betrayed, abundant possibilities and few inevitabilities.
Genuine understanding of the past thus comes with responsibility for the present.
But my comments are not addressed only to historians-to-be.
None of us, mathematician and musician alike, is off the hook. We all bear responsibilities to ourselves, to our friends and family, to the public who fund us, and to the disciplines and institutions that will welcome us.
Embedded within the example I just described is, arguably, the most fundamental responsibility of all: to knowledge itself.
It is true that the wars and genocides of the early and mid-twentieth century disabused us of many moral certainties. And the epistemological debates of the latter part of that century reminded us that knowledge always carries the freight of culture and politics. Still, our claim to authority—to influence debate, inform policy and the like—must be grounded in the elements and engineering of knowledge: careful reading and observation; dispassionate and fair argument; accuracy and precision; an understanding that objectivity, however impossible to grasp, must be our ideal. This is especially the case because we live in an age awash with data, information and opinion, one in which facts can be wished away because they’re incompatible with conviction.
Without that mooring in properly ordered and interrogated facts that we call knowledge, we’re just pundits and critics. And society will be all the poorer for it.
There at least three more responsibilities, each subsidiary to the first. All are non-negotiable, and I present them as imperatives.
One is a responsibility to protect and respect—not just to be ethical in an experiment in the natural sciences, or a survey in the social sciences—but to be mindful of perspective. Do no harm in trying to do good or well. And leave to others hubristic claims to absolute certainty. For all the care we invest in assembling knowledge, as scholars we know that our constructions are always provisional.
The second responsibility we bear is clarity of communication. By all means, do acquire the technical terminology of your field; understand your discipline’s vernacular, and deploy it to maximum effect.
But understand as well that disciplines constitute themselves through language, and seeing across disciplines means being bi- or even trilingual in disciplinary languages. Above all, do not incarcerate yourself in jargon. Instead, communicate in ways that invite non-specialist and public understanding.
Eliot was writing about a different kind of diction, but his words can apply to academic prose:
And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Third, and last, we’re responsible for clarity of purpose—why we research what we research.
We live in times made extraordinary by convulsions that are born of what appear to be intractable problems—not just globalization, but gross inequality, perilous climate change and environmental fragility, deep injustice.
This doesn’t mean that you must set your compass to addressing such pressing issues. Graduate education—indeed, higher education of any quality—is more capacious than that: it cultivates not just problem-solving of an applied sort, but critique, aesthetic celebration, theoretical adventure—and much more besides. When I was a first-year Ph.D. student I had my head in the clouds: I had to stumble over the obvious fact that who Muhammad was, or what jihad meant, mattered.
However applied or arcane or abstract the work you choose to do, your responsibility is that it matter. Thinking big doesn’t necessarily mean posing big questions, though it can: over time, the narrowest inquiry can have wide impact. The more you understand your field, the clearer your role in advancing or changing it, and so, even, changing what’s beyond it.
To me, that’s a life’s work for good purpose.
I wish you my very best as you begin your study. And I look forward to seeing you, either here or at a community meeting, or perhaps even at my office hours.
Thank you very much.
Chase F. Robinson,
 And not all such forms fall into predictable categories. As good an example as any is the Iranian-German who killed 9 people in Munich on July 22nd. He was no Islamist; in fact, he didn’t even see himself as Muslim. His ideology of hate was Aryan supremacy, and he seems to have specifically targeted Albanian Muslims.
 D. Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting (New Haven, 2016).
 M. Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham NC, 2007).