Pomp, circumstance and ‘uncomfortable learning’

The fall Convocation ceremony for the Class of 2000, held on September 17 in Chapin Hall, centered on the theme of “Uncomfortable Learning.”

This year Convocation was held in conjunction with a full weekend of events celebrating the life and teachings of Robert L. Gaudino, a professor of Political Science at Williams from 1955-1974 who believed passionately in the idea of uncomfortable learning.

The ceremony was called to order by James J. Mooney, Special Sheriff of Berkshire County, at 11 a.m. After an invocation by Reverand Robert K. Buckwalter, Andrea Mazzariello ’00 and Kenric Taylor ’00 performed an original piece for piano and voice, written by Mazzariello, entitled “Madonna Above the Cigar Butts.”

Dean of the College Peter Murphy delivered some brief remarks, congratulating seniors on arriving at the top of the undergraduate hierarchy, and invited them to enjoy the view as the year progresses.

Murphy then introduced this years members of Phi Beta Kappa, elected at the end of their junior year, and presented the Grosvenor Memorial Cup to Erin Morrissette ’00. Murphy’s remarks were followed by two poems by Jonathan Plowman ’00, then remarks by Co-presidents of College Council Medha Kirtane ’00 and Bert Leatherman ’00.

Leatherman began his remarks by praising the diversity of people and ideas at Williams. Kirtane, referring to the October departure of President of the College Hank C. Payne and the arrival of Interim President Carl Vogt ’58, called this year a “Period of transition marked by discomfort,” but stressed that it should be seen as a “great period for potential growth.” Kirtane urged her classmates to be involved in the College and in to be good and active citizens.

Both Leatherman’s and Kirtane’s remarks focused on the Convocation theme of discomfort and difference as assets, rather than obstacles to learning and growth.

Following Kirtane and Leatherman’s remarks, baritone Richard Giarusso ’00, accompanied on piano by Ryan McNaughton ’01, performed Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

Payne began his remarks by telling the senior class he identifies with them, as both he and the class will soon be leaving Williams. “We come to Williams in order to leave,” he said, “It is our destiny and we should embrace it.”

Payne spoke about the anxieties and opportunities of graduating from college. “What you do will have consequence,” Payne said. “That consequence may be anxious, but it will also be enriching.”

Following his own remarks, Payne read the convocation address of Preston R. Washington, Sr. ’70, the scheduled Convocation speaker, who was unable to attend the ceremony due to of illness. Washington, a pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem is President and CEO of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, an interdenominational group of 60 congregations that develops affordable housing and commercial opportunities for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Washington is also a trustee of the College. In his speech, which he dictated to Payne, Washington praised Gaudino for challenging the minds of his students and breaking through “the barriers that restrict their consciousness.” Washington lamented the increasing intellectual comfort of a liberal arts education, calling it “tiptoeing through the tulips,” and reminded students “when we are called, we are sometimes called to sacrifice.”

Professor of Political Science Mark Reinhardt followed Payne’s reading of Washington’s speech with an address of his own. When Washington fell ill, Reinhardt, the current Gaudino Scholar, was asked to prepare an address.

Reinhardt centered his speech around the promise and the limits of the liberal arts. “The more you learn, the more you realize how much is left unlearned,” Reinhardt said. Therefore, a liberal arts education, by awakening students’ intellectual curiosities, will set them free from a lifetime of boredom. Williams students, he said, have entered seriously into the life of the mind, and have a better opportunity than almost anyone to maintain that life.

Since his role as Gaudino scholar is to serve as a “Socratic gadfly,” Reinhardt posed for the seniors an uncomfortable question. The liberty implied by the term “Liberal Arts,” he said, has traditionally had less to do with the liberating effects of education and more to do with the privelege and status of those able to afford such an education. How different, he questioned, are things now?

The Convocation ceremony followed a full day of activities commemorating the life and teaching of Robert Gaudino. Friday morning, former students of Gaudino gathered at Mount Hope for three-part seminar celebrating Gaudino’s methods. Former College professors Craig Brown and Kurt Tauber, as well as Marty Linsky ’61, a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, acted as discussion enablers.

The traditional Convocation-related seminar on the theme of “uncomfortable learning” took place Friday afternoon. The participants were Mark Edmundson, Jane Gallop and Noel Ignatiev.

Reinhardt moderated the discussion. Each of the panelists delivered brief remarks, and a discussion followed.

Edmundson, a Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of an article in the September 1997 issue of Harpers entitled “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students.” The article discusses the pressures of consumerism on liberal arts colleges, began by describing his teaching method. He begins class by asking three questions: “How do you imagine God?” “What does it mean?” and “Is it true?”As religion begins to lose its power, he suggests, we will turn to literature to find models for our lives.

Gallop, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, spoke next. She drew a distinction between an uncomfortable environment, which she believes is necessary to learning, and a hostile environment, which is an obstacle to learning. Gallop defined a hostile environment as “an environment where students belonging to some social groups encounter obstacles to learning not present to other students.”

She said, however, “an environment in which a student is too comfortable is an environment hostile to learning.” Gallup concluded by saying “What we need is not universal comfort. What we need is equal opportunity discomfort.”

Ignatiev, an Associate Professor of History and American Studies, Massachusetts College of Art, and author of the book How the Irish Became White, spoke last. He began by saying his life had been defined by radical political activity and that in many ways, his teaching was the day job that allowed him to continue his involvement in political causes.

Although Ignatiev said no one had been politicized by participating in his class, the college campus can be a terrain of political struggle. He posed three questions he thought participants in liberal education should answer: Is democracy compatible with inherited privilege? What is the role of elite liberal arts colleges in reproducing existing hierarchies? What are the responsibilities of participants in liberal education?

After brief responses from each panelist, Reinhardt opened the floor to questions, and a lively discussion followed.

The discussion was followed by a dinner at the Faculty House, attended by more than 150 family members, former students and colleagues of Gaudino, faculty members and convocation participants. The evening culminated with former students and colleauges of Gaudino sharing their own experiences with the man.

The weekend, which was very well attended by former students of Gaudino, illustrated the powerful effect that Gaudino’s teaching had on a generation of Williams students. Paul Lieberman ’71 wrote in the convocation dedication; “For 19 years, Robert Gaudino sat around seminar tables at Williams asking soft-spoken questions that shook students to their core, while inviting them to confront ‘otherness’ in the world, whether in the culture of India, the inner city or Iowa, or in the political philosophy of Plato. Until his untimely death 25 years ago, the slight, modest ‘Mr. Gaudino’ also invited a steady stream of students into his home, imploring them to leave their shoes outside, take a cookie and face yet more unsettling questions – thus carrying on the Williams tradition of Mark Hopkins and the Log, which says that great caring and teaching must forever be the foundation of this institution.”