Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

The Awesome Power of Rigorous Inquiry

Sean Decatur
August 22, 2017

Editor's note: President Decatur delivered these remarks to the Class of 2021 at Opening Convocation on Aug. 20, 2017.

Tomorrow afternoon, the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth in a solar eclipse observable across a wide swath of the continental United States. Here in Gambier, beginning at about 1 p.m., we will be able to view this event as a partial eclipse, reaching maximum coverage of 85 percent at about 2:30 p.m. Solar glasses will be available on Middle Path between Olin Library and Ransom Hall (please use them — looking directly at the eclipse without appropriate eye protection can be dangerous).

Solar eclipses have carried significance for both ancient and modern cultures. In some contexts, eclipses are considered supernatural events reflecting bad omens. Eclipses are common tropes or metaphors in popular literature and song. Somewhat embarrassingly, I cannot hear the word “eclipse” without immediately recalling the smash hit song of 1983 by Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”; or perhaps Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse,” Soundgarden’s  “Black Hole Sun” or the ever popular third novel in the “Twilight” series.

A total eclipse happens somewhere on Earth every 18 months on average, though most are observable only from the ocean or sparsely populated regions. What makes them extraordinary to humans is that they are only rarely observable in any given place on the planet, so the opportunity to witness a total eclipse is very special. And the phenomenon itself — the temporary daytime occultation of the star that provides not only light but the very possibility of life — brings to mind the true meaning of the word awesome: something that fills us with awe.

There is a great lesson in this for members of the Class of 2021 as you begin this next phase of your life. One could argue that a solar eclipse is merely a highly predictable natural phenomenon; we can describe and predict the movements of both the moon and the Earth in detail, and from this predict all eclipses (solar and lunar, full and partial) and the points from which they are visible.  

Yet in many ways, it is this predictability that adds to the sense of awe instead of detracting from it. The collection of knowledge that has led to the understanding of this event — centuries of careful observations by astronomers, analysis by physicists and mathematicians, the invention of new tools (such as the calculus) and new concepts (such as gravity), and new ways of looking at our universe (such as relativity) — have all contributed to our ability to map and predict the motion of celestial bodies with great detail, to place on the calendar the next eclipses to come. Knowledge has made the supernatural understandable and predictable; indeed, this eclipse reminds me of the awesome power of rigorous inquiry to make the world around us understandable, to transform the world.

I’m guessing that one of the things that has attracted you to Kenyon is that this is a place, at its core, all about the power of rigorous inquiry and knowledge: absorbing ideas through reading, listening, observing; articulating ideas in writing, speech and artistic expression; responding to ideas through feeling, linking heart and passion to thought and intellect. Because we are an institution that embraces the liberal arts tradition, you will be guided to explore the disciplines fearlessly; to take on new areas of study that seem unfamiliar at first, embracing the challenge of topics that seem difficult or that require a struggle to master; to seek answers to the big questions about the world around us, our place in the universe, and what it means to be human from the perspectives of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences.  

How will Kenyon help to shape your skills at inquiry? I’d like to illustrate this using some concepts from chemistry.

In chemical terms, a catalyst increases the rate of a chemical transformation, reducing the barrier (or “transition state”) between the reactant and the product, but it itself is not consumed by the process. Catalysts often function by creating an environment that spurs molecules to react, or by bringing together particles that otherwise are unlikely to come into close proximity. But perhaps most importantly, catalysts are sources of stress and strain — they push or pull on the reactants, using the forces of strain to move the transformation process forward along its path.

Kenyon is a catalyst, in the strict molecular sense. Kenyon exists to help you, as students, complete your transformation, something that has certainly begun in the years leading up to this moment. There are ways in which Kenyon provides an environment that is safe for you to explore the many different possible conformations in search for the structure that feels right for you. Yet an environment that facilitates your exploration of ideas, and forging new and lasting relationships, is not, and should not be, one that is comfortable at all times.  

Indeed, the power of a liberal arts education lies in the ability ideas to challenge us, to push us out of our comfort zones, to stress and strain us. This is what moves us along our path of transformation and development. Texts and readings may be both inspiring and difficult, requiring students to return to them again and again, and at times introducing concepts or ideas that are jarring, or even painful at first. Conversations and discussions won’t always be easy, but the difficulties in these will be part of what advances your learning.

Neither the rigorous inquiry that characterizes learning at Kenyon, nor the process of personal and intellectual transformation that occurs here on the Hill, takes place in an isolated vacuum. Kenyon is a residential college, bringing together students, faculty and staff from all of the nation and the world to this place on the Hill. And this coming together transcends mere cohabitation — we come together with a shared purpose and commitment to the idea that a liberal arts education is strengthened by the act of learning within a diverse community. Nathaniel Hawthorne expresses this well in the opening of “The Scarlet Letter,” remarking that “it contributes greatly to [one’s] moral and intellectual health, to be brought into the habits of companionship with individuals unlike [oneself], who care little for [one’s] pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities [one] must go out of [oneself] to appreciate.”  

Listen to and challenge opinions and ideas with which you disagree — that process of listening and challenging will make you a better thinker and catalyze your transformation towards being a better person. Remember that the act of listening does not signal agreement. Rather, listening, especially to ideas that are new or in opposition to your worldview, is an essential part of the type of rigorous discourse that is the heart of a liberal arts education. Challenge rigorously, but with respect.  This must be a central principle of rigorous education within a diverse community.

Catalysis alone is inadequate to describe a Kenyon education; we also need to consider the concept of equilibrium, the condition of a system in balance. While the mechanism of catalysis can be described in terms of individuals, equilibrium is a property of a system or community. The Kenyon community pushes, challenges and strains, but it also supports and encourages. As you may find yourself thrown out of balance by any type of setback — a disappointing grade, a disappointing performance, a personal tragedy or setback — your community can act as a “heat sink,” helping to restore you to a sense of balance and equilibrium.

To illustrate, I want to turn back to reflections on the eclipse. Well, not really the eclipse, but rather again the Bonnie Tyler song that has been stuck in my head for months now, ever since I starting anticipating tomorrow’s events. And while the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is likely ancient pop culture history to members of the Class of 2021, I am certain this will be familiar to at least some of the parents here today (and to you, I apologize for planting this earworm for your entire return trip home).

The song itself is a bit of a melodramatic mess, but as the song opens, the narrating voice repeats some words that universally resonate: “Every now and then I get a little bit lonely … Every now and then I get a little bit tired … Every now and then I get a little bit nervous … Every now and then I get a little bit terrified.” And, during the next four years, it is likely that you will experience all of these things — moments of exhaustion, anxiety and fear. The next four years are not just about your intellectual transformation, but also about your personal growth and development; about developing the ability to navigate exhaustion, anxiety and fear and to sustain yourself through challenging moments.

You will find the Kenyon community to be an important part of this process. You will form friendships here, with peers, with faculty, with staff: friendships that will last a lifetime, friendships that will help you get through challenging times. Remember to take time to share in moments of celebration and joy with those around you; to lend an ear to those who need to talk about difficult challenges; to be willing to take the risk of opening yourself up to others. Also remember to take care of yourself — sleep, exercise and good nutrition are all essential, and sometimes it is far too easy to leave these out of your daily routine. And remember the importance of the relationships to family and friends who helped to bring you here to this place; take time to maintain these connections as well. Finally, remember that many of us here — the faculty on this stage, the staff in offices through the campus — are resources for help and support, to help restore equilibrium. We are all here for you.

So we welcome you to this place where you will have a chance to experience awe at the wonder of knowledge; to be challenged and strained to transform your thinking and view of the universe; where you will engage in rigorous learning while immersed within a diverse community; and where the relationships and resources will help sustain your equilibrium through challenging times.  

Again, welcome, thank you for being here, and let’s get started on the next four-year adventure together.