Convocation 2011

I want to welcome all of you - the Class of 2015 - to Occidental College.  It has been wonderful to greet all of you at the President's House and meet your families.  You have come at an auspicious time.  This year we will be celebrating our 125th Anniversary.

As is appropriate on such occasions there will be a celebration marking the longevity and achievements of this remarkable institution.  We will begin by identifying 125 alumni who have made a difference.  Throughout the anniversary year each academic department will be asked to invite back its most distinguished alumnus to speak to their students.  It is typical on such anniversary occasions to take stock not only on where we've been, but where we are going.  We will use Founder's Day in April to bring together the rich and varied conversations that have been part of a two year strategic planning process.  On that occasion, I will lay out a "Vision for Occidental College" that will draw on the values, history and commitments of this special institution in order to provide a blueprint for its future.

Today, however, is about you.  I want to share my thoughts with you about the extraordinary community you have joined.  After all the receptions, parties;  the trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond and to Underground Los Angeles as part of Oxy Engage;  the anxious rituals of greeting new roommates and taking leave of your parents;  you may have wondered about what you have gotten yourself into - or rather, what kind of community you have become a member of.  I'm going to try to answer that question indirectly by talking a bit about the nature of communities in general and liberal arts colleges like Occidental in particular.

I spent this summer reading about a variety of utopian communities in the United States.  Don't ask me presidents find solace in unusual places.  And what is more unusual than the notion of a utopia?  A community grounded in the hope that if they could just get human arrangements right, they could create the circumstances for happiness here on earth.  It is a wild, romantic notion, but it has been a compelling one nonetheless.  There are, as you might expect, many different kinds of utopias.

  • Plato's Republic imagined philosopher-kings who would be educated to lead the rest of us.  (There are traces of that particular ambition in liberal arts colleges like our own - with all the cautionary hubris that entails.)
  • There are feminist utopias which try to reimagine the relationships between women and men.
  • There are technological utopias which put their faith in our capacity to invent futuristic devices that will eliminate the sources of human misery.
  • And there are socialist utopias which grow out of a skepticism about the competitive nature of capitalism.

Most utopias seek to reconfigure the basic elements of our existence:  work, sex, authority, property, education.  Some with greater success than others.  As a cultural historian, I was drawn less to the literature of utopia than to the actual instances of it in 19th century America.  The heyday of utopian experiment in the United States was in the 1830s and 1840s when such communities seemed to be everywhere.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed that "We are [all] a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform.  Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket."[i]  (You will meet a few of those "reading men and women" here at Occidental.)

The raw nature of industrial capitalism in 19th Century America spawned a desire for alternative modes of living in places with evocative names like New Harmony, Hopedale, Fruitlands, Oneida and most famously, Brook Farm.  You can still visit many of those places.  Ask my kids:  I've dragged them around to more than a few of them - most of which required five or six hour drives on hot, humid summer afternoons to remote places like New Harmony, which is located on the banks of the Wabash River in the wilds of southern Indiana.  To walk around the ruins of New Harmony is to confront a sense of hope and perhaps even a generosity of spirit greater than our own.  There is something quite moving about such experiments in living and the faith they entail, which seems to suggest that truth, beauty and justice are within our grasp if we can just get the arrangements right.

The Shakers are certainly the most long-lived utopian experiment in the United States.  Founded in 1747, the Shakers grew to 20 settlements and attracted more than 20,000 converts.  Today, there is only one remaining Shaker community, located at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.  It is still active, with just three members left:  Sister June Carpenter, Brother Arnold Hadd, and Sister Frances Carr - in case you are counting them.  The Shaker tradition is notable for many things:  the beauty of their craftsmanship (in everything from their barns to their furniture), their keen sense of humility and most notably, their celibacy.  They believed that celibacy sublimated bodily desire and the cacophony of emotions that go with it into a purer state of spiritual awareness.

The Oneida Community, on the other hand, was famous for its celebration of what they called Complex Marriage or if you prefer, "free love."  They believed that monogamy isolated people from each other and made it impossible for large communities to function harmoniously.  For them, sex was a form of prayer, as well as the highest of the arts.  So they spread their love around.  Needless to say that got a lot of attention from the neighbors, journalists, prurient tourists and eventually from the authorities.

Brook Farm is probably the most famous utopian community in the United States in part because it came out of a circle that included George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The experiment attracted a great many eccentrics, or as one resident put it, the "oddest of the odd: Those who rode every conceivable hobby...come-outers;  communists, fruitists and flutists, dreamers and schemers of all sorts."[ii]  George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm, envisioned a community based on the following principles.  Listen to this carefully because his goals are typical of most utopian experiments:

Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists;  to combine the thinker and the worker, to guarantee as far as possible the highest order of mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry;  ...and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.[iii]

Ripley and his followers at Brook Farm set a very high bar and believed that their success would serve as a model for the rest of the world. Judged by those ambitious standards, Brook Farm was a failure.  Among other things, the residents of Brook Farm never managed to reconcile intellectual and manual labor.  Nathaniel Hawthorne - a resident of Brook Farm and one of its most acute critics - captures the dilemma perfectly:

We had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor.... Each stroke of the hoe was to uncover some aromatic root of wisdom, heretofore hidden from the sun.... [But] the clods of earth, which we...turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought.  Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish.  Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening.[iv]

"Intellectual activity," Hawthorne concludes, "is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise."  I'm sure Jaime Hoffman, our Director of Athletics, and her coaching staff, would beg to disagree.   Emerson visited Brook Farm often, though he never joined its ranks, concluding:  "It is only as a man detaches himself from all support and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and prevail.  He is weaker by every recruit to his banner.... Is not a man better than a town?"[v]

I want to come back to the isolated integrity of this stance.  There are some problems with it, but it also has much to recommend it.  Emerson may have been skeptical of the regenerative capacities of the community or the town, but he believed profoundly in the capacity of the individual to achieve something like the perfection the utopians sought.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, believed in neither.  Why he became a denizen of Brook Farm is hard to fathom.  He eventually left and wrote a novel about his experience entitled The Blithedale Romance, which some of you may have read - a thinly disguised satire.  For Hawthorne, sinfulness and its tragic consequences were so thoroughly woven into human behavior that he could not imagine utopia as anything other than folly.  Hawthorne concluded ruefully that whatever their high-minded intentions, all communities (utopias included), "invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison."  A pretty damning epitaph.

That's all very interesting, you might say, but what does it have to do with your presence here as freshmen at Occidental College?  It has been observed that the liberal arts college is the longest running utopian experiment in existence.  Harvard College was founded in 1636 as the first institution of higher learning and the liberal arts in the United States, but you can go back even further to Oxford and Cambridge which were founded in the Middle Ages.  The Shakers may be down to just three members - celibacy will do that - but meanwhile, the liberal arts college continues to thrive.  This year, as I mentioned earlier, will mark Occidental's 125th Anniversary.  Not bad for a utopia, especially when one considers that few utopian communities have lasted longer than a decade.  If you doubt the analogy, consider this description of Brook Farm.  It could easily pass for a description of life at Occidental.  Ripley writes:

Devoted Brook Farmers...[indulged in] "moonlit walks in the pine grove... [enjoyed] picnics, dances, and evenings devoted to dramatic [activities]....Read passages from Racine and Moliere's plays in the original...performed pieces by Beethoven or [joined voices with] the glee club to sing Mozart's...psalms and masses."[vi]

Substitute moonlit walks on Fiji Hill for moonlit walks in the pine grove;  imagine the community garden at UEPI standing in for the fields that once supported Brook Farm;  add Gospel hymns and "Occidental Faire" to the list of songs performed by the Glee Club;  and you could easily imagine that life at Occidental isn't that far from Brook Farm after all.  (Note:  I did not say that life at Occidental resembles life at Oneida, though I suspect we are closer to the free love of Oneida than we are to the celibacy of the Shakers.)

In all seriousness, it is not an overstatement to say that the liberal arts college is an intentional community with utopian aspirations of its own.  Like all utopias, the liberal arts college is an experiment in communal living - though the wretched state of some dormitory bathrooms may leave one to wonder whether that which is held in common is, in the end, held in much esteem.  Like most utopian experiments, the Occidental community in particular spends a great deal of time thinking about "the good life."  Differing notions of the good are often the subtext of disputes in the dormitories; readings in philosophy or political science;  various forms of civic engagement;  or debates over diversity.  (Who, one might ask, is served by these different definitions of "the good" and who is not?)  But what Occidental has most in common with Brook Farm and other utopias is its optimism, its commitment to experiment, its willful naivete.  I use the latter phrase with some apprehension.  By "willful naivete" I mean a deliberate refusal to take the world on its own terms;  a desire to think through what might be possible instead of what merely is.  Like all such utopias, Occidental is located at some distance from the marketplace and even from the very world it seeks to transform.  Some dismiss this stance as that of an "ivory tower."  Hawthorne called it a "Counterfeit Arcadia" in which we grown-up men and women were making a playday of the years that were given us to live in."[vii]  But this removal is a self-conscious choice designed to provide the space for speculation, experiment, play, and risk with limited consequences.  That kind of experiment constitutes the essence of a liberal arts education, and it is what makes places like Occidental so special.

Despite everything I have said, there are reasons to be skeptical of the communal impulse.  Henry James acutely observed that "the common good may cover a hundred interested impulses and personal motives;  [Communities are often] bound together more by [their] delusions, [their] mutual suspicions and frictions, than by any successful surrender of the self."[viii]  That's sometimes true even of communities as generous as Occidental.   At times community can be as tyrannical as it is affirming.  The Oneidans held sessions that they called "Mutual Criticism."  They used those sessions to engage in critiques of individual behavior which they felt departed from the values and norms of the community.  In the end those sessions became vehicles for conformity and the reinforcement of power.  Hence, Emerson's isolated stance:  "All I shall solidly do, I must do alone."[ix]  Pay attention to people like that.  They are often the only ones brave enough to buck the unthinking sentiments of the crowd.

All right.  Where does this leave us?  Having looked at the affirmative and negative aspects of communities as they are refracted through the observations of enthusiasts and critics like Ripley, Emerson, and Hawthorne, what are we to think?  It's not for me to say.  That is up to you to decide as you go through the next four years.  But I do want to leave you with this final thought.  

I hope that you will take these next four years in the same spirit as the participants in Fruitlands, Oneida and Brook Farm.  That means an attitude of experiment, an embrace of oddballs and eccentrics, a willingness to build community and imagine its perfection.  It may be a willful naivete, but few things in the world have been accomplished without it.  Even a man as skeptical of human motive as Nathaniel Hawthorne summarized his experience at Brook Farm thus:  "Whatever else I may repent of, therefore, let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies, that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world's destiny-yes!-and to do what lay in me for their accomplishment."[x]   I expect no less of you.  Thank you.  And good luck.

1 Klaw, Spencer (1993): Without Sin: the Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Penguin Books.

2, 3, 5, 6, 9 Delano, Sterling F. (2004): Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

4, 7, 8, 10 Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1964): The Blithedale Romance. New York: Oxford University Press.