“You Already Know Enough”

Professor of french Nathalie Rachlinby Nathalie Rachlin, Professor of French

Interim President Weis, Dean Conrad, Dean Wood, distinguished faculty, students, and members of the Scripps community, and especially to you, class of 2012: I am honored by the opportunity to speak to you today and to welcome you, the 82nd class of Scripps women, to our beautiful campus.

Today represents the official beginning of your career at Scripps, and first, I want to congratulate all of you for having been admitted to Scripps. You have worked hard to get here, your many accomplishments, both in and out of the classroom, speak volumes about the quality of your character and about your ability to learn. And so, I would like to start my remarks with a piece of good news: You already know enough. You already know enough to live a happy and fulfilling life and more knowledge will make little or no difference. If it is simply more knowledge that you seek, you don’t need us. You can get that anywhere, at any school. Smart as you are, you can probably acquire most of it on your own. However, before you get up and leave, and since you are here anyway, let me give you an idea of what Scripps is all about.

When she founded Scripps College in 1926, Ellen Browning Scripps wrote:

“The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”

Today, this quote is inscribed on the wall next to Honnold Gate. You may have passed through it on your way over here.

At first glance, the mission of the college as envisioned by Miss Scripps seems rather commonplace and not particularly inspiring. It starts with the usual reference to what we would call today, “critical thinking” (“to think clearly and independently”) and ends with a seemingly vague and, perhaps a little condescending, statement about how one should live in the “real world,” after college. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, let’s see. I was one of the best students in my high school and I have impressive SAT scores: I can certainly think. I am already pretty confident, pretty courageous, and I am certainly hopeful as should be expected: I am, after all, 18 years old! So, let’s see: Thinking? Check. Confidence? Check. Courage? Check. Hope? Check. College? Piece of cake!”

But again, before you get up and go home, why don’t we take a closer look.

Here is a little trick from a literature professor: Sometimes, it is the little words or the words that are not there that can give you a clue as to the deeper meaning of a statement. For example, note the indefinite article “a” in the beginning of the quote. “The paramount obligation of ‘a’ college.” Not “this” college or Scripps College, but a college, any college has that obligation. Note also the absence in this quote of the word “women” or “women’s college.” What are we to make of this glaring omission?

Well, Scripps was not founded as a college that belongs to a sub-set of colleges, that of women’s colleges. Neither second-class nor marginal, Scripps College was founded on the idea that women deserve, need, and have a right to the same level and quality of education as men AND on the idea that women’s colleges educate women better. Consider the difference: Of all women who attended a U.S. college or university in the past 30 years, only two percent are graduates of women’s colleges. Yet, these graduates of women’s colleges constitute 20 percent of women in Congress and nearly 20 percent of the 2005 Fortune magazine “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” list.

Furthermore, Ellen Browning Scripps did not specify what women should be taught, or how the content of women’s education should differ from that of men. I would suggest to you that she didn’t do this, not simply because she did not want to presume what a woman’s education should be like, but perhaps because she did not want to presume what a woman is, what a woman can be or what a woman can do. She knew that the place of women in society had changed radically in her lifetime, and that it would change again; that women should be able to fashion their own ways of being a woman, and that they should forge their own paths in life, free from discrimination and prejudice. She was, after all, very involved in the woman’s suffrage movement. It is a movement which, in the English speaking world at least, started in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a text which I know you are reading at the moment for Core I. Ellen Browning Scripps in her lifetime (she was born in 1836) saw American women fight for the right to vote for well over half a century and, when she endowed Scripps College in 1926, at the age of 90, the 19th amendment granting the ballot to American women was only 6 years old. This is the context: Women in her lifetime went from being second class citizens to rightful participants in our democracy. No wonder Ms. Scripps chose to found a college that would continue to open new horizons for women. Her commitment and her faith in our future is her legacy to you.

Turning again to our quote: Where are the words that you would expect to read in a college mission statement, words such as knowledge or learning? Instead we find two verbs, “to think” and “to live.” “A college must develop in its students the ability to think… and to live…” Isn’t it strange that there should be no mention of the acquisition of knowledge as the primary goal or, at least, one of the primary goals of an undergraduate education? Why should “thinking” and “living” be privileged over “knowing?”

Albert Einstein is often quoted as having said, “Any fool can know; the point is to understand.” Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist, in Exterminate All the Brutes, an essay on the origins of European genocides, makes a similar distinction between knowing and understanding in a quote that inspired my initial remarks:

“You already know enough. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

Both knowing and understanding refer to steps in the cognitive process, with understanding situated at a higher level of integration and complexity. Knowing brute facts is of course necessary to understanding, but it is not sufficient. In order to fully understand something, you may have to contextualize it, you may have to put your object of study in relation to other objects, and you may have to illuminate patterns, differences or analogies. Understanding means also that new information or data concerning your object of study will have to be integrated with existing concepts or past experiences in order to form new concepts that in turn will lead you to new ways of understanding that object. Finally, it is only through this process of understanding that brute facts acquire meaning and start to make sense. For example, you may know a piece of music if you can play all the notes perfectly, albeit mechanically; but you truly understand that piece if you can interpret it in such a way that your audience suddenly finds the music you are playing meaningful and is moved by it. This is not easy to do and this is why we so admire virtuosos, such as our very own Professor Hao Huang, whose piano performances will be some of the most memorable experiences that you will have at Scripps.

Now, I have taken an example from music, which is not my field of expertise, and so I could not tell you what methodology a music professor uses to take you from simply knowing a piece of music to truly understanding it. All of the disciplines have their own methodologies to turn knowledge of brute facts into understanding. As you take courses in economics, mathematics, literature, biology or photography, for example, you will be exposed to all kinds of distinctive methodologies. When you move from single disciplines to interdisciplinary fields, such as neuroscience or black studies, you will encounter fields that attempt to integrate several methodologies to bring forth new, more complex and multifaceted understandings of their objects of study. But do not think that such integration is easy or seamless. Disciplinary methodologies sometimes compete with one another and sometimes even clash, and that clash makes interdisciplinarity, one of the hallmarks of a Scripps education, both unsettling and exciting.

And so when Lindqvist tells us that we already know enough about genocide, he means to say that while it is important to know where, when, and how genocides have occurred in the 20th century, it is not sufficient. In order to fully understand genocides, we have to pull together the methodological resources of history, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and even literature and the arts. But these disciplines, more often than not, offer conflicting explanations of the same phenomenon. The challenge for anyone who wants to understand why genocides occur and whether they can be prevented is to look to that clash of interpretations for insights that no discipline alone or together can provide. These insights may help us understand why genocides occur, but also – and this may be more disturbing – they give us some inkling of what genocides reveal about human societies and about human nature itself.

Lindqvist tells us something else here, too: by asking us to draw conclusions, he is asking us to use our understanding of genocide to act as moral agents of change. For it is only through true understanding, that we can act in the world as informed, and hence effective, moral agents.

So it would seem, and I hope you will agree, that “knowing”, as both knowledge of brute facts and as understanding, is a crucial aspect of what constitutes a liberal arts education. And so, again, why did Ellen Browning Scripps choose here to emphasize thinking over knowing?

In order to answer this question, we must now turn to a wise man for help, Socrates. Socrates was the wisest man of his time. Says who? None less than the Oracle of Delphi, and Socrates, being a pious man, could not disagree with the oracle. But he was initially confused, so he proceeded to speak to those who, in his day, were considered experts in the fields of politics, arts, and crafts. What he realized was that each of these men was unaware of his own ignorance. Let me quote the passage from Plato’s Apology in which Socrates makes his discovery:

“I am wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks that he knows something that he doesn’t know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate, it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.” (Plato, Apology)

While other men were proud of their knowledge, Socrates embraced his ignorance. Why is that? For Socrates, awareness of one’s ignorance is not just a fact; it is a prerequisite for further inquiry. And as an act of piety, he chose to dedicate himself to inquiry in search for the truth as a way of life – a courageous choice which eventually led to his execution. Having the courage to embrace our ignorance, having the courage not to know is what compels us to keep thinking, to keep asking questions, to keep wondering, to keep our minds open to fresh ideas, and new discoveries. It is a motivation for ever more thinking, for ever more inquiries, for ever more skepticism. The important question for Socrates then was not: How much do you know? But rather: Are you still thinking?

Ellen Browning Scripps, by emphasizing thinking over knowing from the onset, placed the college within the Socratic model of education. It is a model in which the professor’s role is not simply to share information, nor is it to impose her own understanding of a subject matter on her students. Rather, it is to cultivate in her students their own curiosity, their own passion for understanding and their own ability to think for themselves. Socrates compared the role of a teacher to that of a midwife who helps her students give birth to knowledge. You can be sure that your professors at Scripps will encourage you to keep thinking, to keep pushing on.

Recognizing your own ignorance then, is only half the story. It takes courage to keep thinking: you have to be willing to be wrong (and that may be embarrassing at times!) you have to be willing to have your world shaken, to have your beliefs put into question, and to let yourself be transformed by your discoveries. It also takes courage to challenge your peers and defy established ideas, and as a group, you will have to learn to be comfortable with conflict and disagreement. Above all, you have to have the courage to stand out there without the comfort and the safety of dogma. The temptation of dogmatism will always be there and it is for this reason, in the Socratic tradition, that one must always favor thinking over knowing. For fear is what turns inquiry and knowledge into close-mindedness and doctrine, and this is true in religion, this is true in the intellectual pursuits, and this is even true in your personal life.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point:

“One day Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance and evil, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. He saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendants asked what that was and Mara replied, ‘A piece of truth. ‘ ‘Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of the truth, O evil one? ‘ his attendants asked. ‘No, ‘ Mara replied. ‘Right after this, they usually make a belief out of it.'”

And this brings us to the last obligation of a college, according to Ellen Browning Scripps: “to develop in its students an ability to live confidently, courageously and hopefully.

So what does it mean to live confidently, courageously and hopefully? Is it a kind of poise that comes from a sense of self-assurance and optimism? What is living hopefully? To have confidence in the future, to sit and hope for the best? I think not. These terms, you see, do not refer to affective states at all, but to a way of life; they do not describe passive modes of being, but they point to a deliberate and ongoing commitment to self-creation and to an active engagement with the world.

Living with confidence begins with taking yourself seriously. You need to take yourself seriously enough to recognize your own intrinsic value, and trust that, with the proper work, you have something worthwhile to contribute to this world. There is greatness within you and, with a little luck, you may achieve great things. And so what is the proper work? It is the work of self-knowledge and self-creation – and these go hand in hand. We are suddenly back in ancient Greece, back in Delphi, where the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo bore the inscription “Know thyself.”

To know yourself is to recognize your talents and shortcomings, to understand your principles and values, and to see who you may become. But this process of self-discovery is not simply the result of introspection. Your actions in the world will teach you about yourself and will test your values. And the more you challenge yourself and your values, the more you will learn about yourself and improve your abilities. In the process, you will inevitably be changed and, with each new challenge, a new “you” will emerge, armed with more sophisticated skills, more nuanced values and clearer principles. Discovering and becoming who you are, is then one and the same. To illustrate this process of self-discovery, I want to borrow an image from the Greek philosopher, Plotinus, who wrote in The Ennead:

“Withdraw into yourself and look. If you do not yet see your own beauty, do as the sculptor does with a statue which must become beautiful; he removes one part, scrapes another, makes one area smooth, and cleans the other until he causes the beautiful face in the statue to appear. In the same way, you too must remove everything that is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked and purify all that is dark until you make it brilliant. Never stop sculpting your own statue [ until the divine splendor of virtue shines in you].” (Plotinus, The Ennead)

Never stop sculpting your own statue and let your deeds be your chisel. For in the end, living confidently means knowing what to do because you know who you are.

What about living courageously? We’ve already talked about the courage it takes to think for oneself and Scripps does much to encourage intellectual risk-taking: we do it through small group discussions in which we expect you to speak out. If you are wrong, someone in the class will call you on it, and that is how you get smart: by engaging in conversation with other people about things that matter.

You will have plenty of opportunities for those dialogues here: in class, starting with Core I, but also outside of the classroom, in your dorms after class, at the end of a Humanities Institute lecture, after a film screening, in front of a provocative work of art in the Williamson Gallery, or late at night around a cup of coffee at the Motley. Intellectual risk-taking is also fostered here through the assignment in many courses of research papers or creative works, and the requirement, unique in Claremont, that every single Scripps student produce a senior thesis.

But living courageously involves another kind of courage. Just as fear is what leads us to dogma and closes us off from the truth, so can fear in our personal life close us off from one another. And so, just as intellectual honesty can save us from dogmatism by urging us to follow an argument wherever it may lead, so can honesty in our relationships with others open us up to the dignity and respect we owe each other. To live courageously then, you must be willing to be honest, with yourself as well as with others, and to act accordingly.

I come now to the last, and perhaps the most significant, term in the quote: “hopefully.” What does it mean to live hopefully? Again, we are not talking about a feeling and we are not talking about the passive attitude of hoping for the best. Hope here is self-confidence and courage set in action. It is faith that things can be better and that I can make them better. Ellen Browning Scripps saw that great things were possible for women. She did not just hope that good things would happen. She endowed a college. Living hopefully is action in the service of the future. It is taking responsibility through your actions not only for your own future but for the future of others, whether they are in your dorm, in your community, in your workplace, or in your country. In other words, living hopefully means taking the mantle of leadership. For what is being a leader, if it is not assuming responsibility for implementing your vision of a better future?

As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, women’s colleges have an outstanding record of producing women leaders. But leadership does not have to be a solitary enterprise. In fact, leadership often comes from a group of people emulating each other rather than from a lone wolf leading the pack. Talent is often developed in groups and the talent for leadership is no different. I hope that you will take every opportunity while you are at Scripps, to practice leadership by seeking out women who share your goals and together collaborate on projects that will make a difference.

Eli Winkelman, who graduated from Scripps in 2007, did just that. During her sophomore year, Eli became president of Hillel at the Claremont Colleges. She wanted to build the Jewish community on campus and she was also committed to making a difference in the world. She had one special brand of expertise: she could bake a mean Challah, the traditional Jewish bread! The vice president of Hillel at the time was Melinda Koster, and she had just returned from a summer program during which she had learned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Sudan. They got together, got a few other students involved and, armed with a recipe for bread and a cause, they founded Challah for Hunger, a student-run volunteer organization which they started in the Scripps dining hall kitchen, baking Challah every Thursday night and selling it the next day in Seal Court. The proceeds of the sales go to assist refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan. The organization also encourages advocacy to stop the genocide by offering a discount to customers willing to write a letter or make a phone call to an elected official or a media outlet. Today, thanks to Eli’s tireless efforts to inspire and train students at other campuses, Challah for Hunger has become a national student organization. As of May 2008, it has raised more than $50,000 for Darfur nationwide. In his book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, President Bill Clinton, uses Challah for Hunger as a compelling example of ordinary people making a difference in the world. He also mentions a quote by Rabbi Tarfon that Eli has on her business card. For those of you who might be thinking that changing the world for the better is too grandiose an aspiration, let me read Eli’s motto to you: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but you are not free to withdraw from it.”

Returning one last time to Ellen Browning Scripps’ statement, you now can see that the heart and soul of what makes a Scripps education unique, is to be found in the verb “to live.” Scripps educates women for life. We at Scripps believe that education should be life changing and that, if it does not change you, if it does not help you define who you are or help you become what you want to be, then it is not an education. It is mere training. A Scripps education is not about accumulating credit, it is not about preparing for a job, and it is certainly not about collecting pieces of truth; it is about a way of living in the world.

And if you don’t believe me, take the time to meet some of the alumnae that will no doubt visit the campus during your four years here. Someone like my former student Kelsey Phipps ’01, who discovered her passion for public service at Scripps. She is now a top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy and has just been accepted to Georgetown Law School. Someone like Louise Francesconi ’75, who has excelled in the manliest of man’s worlds. She recently retired as president of Raytheon Missile System and for three years she earned a spot on Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list. Try to meet someone like Gabrielle Giffords ’93 who shattered the proverbial glass ceiling by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State senate, where she served from 2003 to 2005. She is currently Congresswoman from the 8th congressional district in Arizona. And finally, go visit Tanya Tull, class of ’64 in Los Angeles, a remarkable woman who has devoted her life to finding innovative solutions to chronic poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles and nationwide.

These four women, from different generations, may or may not have set out to have the careers that they have had, but one thing is sure, all four had the confidence and the courage to seize the mantle of leadership when the opportunity presented itself.

Look around you now; you will never be among a more exceptional group of women than you are now. All of you have the capacity to lead exceptional lives. Get to know as many Scripps women as you can. Some of these women will become your best friends and may remain so for the rest of your life. You need to recognize this. For you see, in the end, Scripps is not simply a beautiful campus, a challenging curriculum, an approach to education. Scripps is you. You are Scripps. And your class is a special one because it arrives at a turning point in the history of the college. We have a new Dean, we are searching for a new President, new faculty is being hired, and new administrators, buildings, and facilities are being added. But our work is not done. All students before you have helped shape the college throughout its history. It is your turn now: Never stop sculpting the Scripps statue. It is a beautiful and inspiring statue. Chisel it! Polish it! For it is yours. It is you.

But enough talk. You already know enough. Now, let’s get to work.