The following is a transcript of the remarks President Sean Decatur gave to members of the Class of 2016 at Kenyon’s 188th Commencement ceremony May 21, 2016.
As our ceremony comes to a close, I’d like to leave you with some thoughts and reflections on your Kenyon education. Before that, I’m going to take a detour to discuss one of my favorite spirituals, “Wade in the Water,” which features a simple but powerful chorus:
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God is going to trouble the water
Conductors on the Underground Railroad used this spiritual as a sign for escaping slaves that hunters were in the area, so they should find passage in a local stream or river. More recently, jazz arrangements of this piece (by Ramsey Lewis) and choreography by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company have used the simple melody to convey textured narratives of the African-American experience.
One of the puzzles of this piece is the meaning of the word “trouble.” The most common definition of “trouble” as a verb is to disturb, or to agitate. If the water is going to be “troubled,” why should we wade into it?
The answer comes in part from a verse in the New Testament, in which the ill and the withered were instructed to wade into the waters that had been “troubled” by an angel, and if they did so, those who were suffering would be healed and restored. “Troubled” waters can therefore be seen as restorative waters. In this context, the directive of this spiritual to wade into the waters, expecting them to be troubled, is an instruction to seek out a source of healing and restoration. With all due respect to Paul Simon, if you want to ease your mind, you should wade into the troubled waters, not take a bridge over them.
What does this mean for your Kenyon education?
A liberal arts education does many things: it prepares you for lifelong problem-solving in a range of contexts; it helps to sharpen your communication skills; it supports you for engaged citizenship. All too often today, when we speak of the value of education, we focus on these utilitarian outcomes — the measurable, if not material, ways in which the liberal arts experience makes your life better.
What gets lost in that analysis is how a liberal education enriches your life in a multitude of ways that are less quantifiable. A liberal arts education should strengthen and develop your strength of character; deepen the sense of empathy that you feel toward those who are close to you as well as those who are unknown or far away. A liberal arts education should expose you to the resources one needs to get through pain and grief that is otherwise unimaginable. A liberal arts education should enhance your understanding of the workings of the universe and your place within it.
In other words, a good liberal arts education, in the words of that powerful, old spiritual, troubles the water, presenting you with a resource in which you can wade, not just now but again and again, throughout your life, to seek solace and restoration, to provide inspiration and insight, and to give you the strength and resolve to overcome obstacles, whether professional, personal or communal.
In my own education, I discovered texts, works of art, and music that move me emotionally; ways of examining and analyzing the world, whether from linear algebra, molecular biology or political history, that never fail to give me insights to break through or solve a problem. I discovered things that give me great joy, and I learned narratives that give me the courage to move forward in the face of daunting obstacles. I return to these texts, ideas and thoughts again and again — they are my troubled waters, my sources of intellectual and emotional restoration and healing.
During your time at Kenyon, you have grown and developed intellectually, you have found friendships and connections that will last a lifetime, you have identified passions to pursue and you have obtained the skills to achieve your goals. You leave this Hill with ideas, drive and energy about your future, including, in many cases, jobs or graduate school slots already in hand.
At Kenyon you have also faced many challenges, individual and collective. You or close friends may have suffered loss or tragedy; you may have had experiences that have shaken your beliefs about justice, equity and fairness; you may have had your fundamental assumptions about your world challenged. But remember that you also have discovered your own troubled waters, and that you will carry these with you for the rest of your life.
So in the future, when faced with what seem like overwhelming challenges, whether global in nature (like the challenge of climate change) or personal (like balancing the demands of family, work and self), don’t just fall back into despair. Remember to wade into your troubled waters. When you see injustice around you, don’t reduce yourself to a powerless victim or, even worse, a cynic who merely launches complaints from the sidelines, but rather wade into your troubled waters and find the insight, courage and determination to actively fight and challenge for justice. When there are opportunities to lend your voice to important discussions, don’t shrink back in fear or sink into a sea of silent apathy, but wade into your troubled waters and listen, speak and engage.
Remember, Kenyon has helped you trouble your waters — it is up to you to wade in.
Good luck, and I look forward to seeing you again soon.