GCAS Convocation Keynote Address

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Below is the Keynote address delivered at GCAS’s first Convocation on October 5th, 2019, by Professor Jane Gordon, PhD, Asssociate Professor at UCONN.

I am delighted to be here with you today for GCAS’s first Convocation!

As some of you will know, this Convocation falls during the Jewish New Year.

The Jewish New Year is not like the one celebrated in most secularized Christian societies where you stay up until midnight, drink some—or maybe too much!—champagne, and then have a day off.

With the Jewish New Year, you do begin by celebrating the transition from one year to the next, devouring slices of apple dipped deeply into bowls of honey, hoping that the new period will be a sweet one.

But this is followed quickly by a longish window, during which you are required to engage in intense introspection and then some pleading.

What you are to consider—under your own and G-d’s gaze—is why it is that you actually merit having another year of life on the Earth.

A friend, preparing for this period of self-assessment, shared a poem by Marge Piercy, entitled “The birthday of the world.” It goes like this:

On the birthday of the world

I begin to contemplate

what I have done and left

undone, but this year

not so much rebuilding

of my perennially damaged

psyche, shoring up eroding

friendships, digging out

stumps of old resentments

that refuse to rot on their own.

No, this year I want to call

myself to task for what

I have done and not done

for peace. How much have

I dared in opposition?

How much have I put

on the line for freedom?

For mine and others?

As these freedoms are pared,

sliced and diced, where

have I spoken out? Who

have I tried to move? In

this holy season, I stand

self-convicted of sloth

in a time when lies choke

the mind and rhetoric

bends reason to slithering

choking pythons. Here

I stand before the gates

opening, the fire dazzling

my eyes, and as I approach

what judges me, I judge

myself. Give me weapons

of minute destruction. Let

my words turn into sparks.

One of my mentors, Anne Norton, then added these lines:

Let our words burn like a prairie fire.

this year. next year. and be our burnt offering to the divine.

I offer these thoughts because the Jewish New Year—like a Convocation—is a ritual. And it is widely experienced as a profoundly meaningful one, even for many Jews who are not particularly religious.

I think the reason why is that the new year punctuates and gives structure to time and through it we are, in the midst of the ongoing trajectory of our lives, offered a fresh start.

At the same time, we are given the fresh start on the condition that we consider what we did with the previous fresh starts and whether we can be understood—when we are honest—to have done them justice.

Some of meriting a new year is about avoiding conventional, petty sins—but as I have been lucky to encounter it, the focus is much more on dignifying what it means to be a human being in a human world.

A central dimension of that dignification involves being the kind of person who is capable of continuing to learn and to grow. This in turn demands being able to embrace our incompleteness so that we remain open to expanding our minds and our hearts through engaging with others—whether they are living, dead, or still unborn.

Tied to this point is a final one about the Jewish New Year: while some of the reckoning we are to do is with ourselves and with G-d, we are expressly told that where we have acted in ways that damaged the social fabric of our relations with others, we cannot seek a divine out. Instead we must reach directly to the people we have hurt, asking if they will work with us to mend the harm done. This begins with telling them that we value the relations enough to be committed to try to make things right. Even if it is not at all clear how it is that we will do so.

As someone deeply committed to public education, working as a professor in a U.S. university can be deeply distressing. After all, in addition to movies and television, one of the greatest contributions of the U.S. to the globe has been its model of undergraduate and graduate education.

While we still have remarkable students and many remarkable faculty and kinds of curricula, in far too many cases in the United States today, pursuing further learning comes with immense—sometimes insurmountable—economic costs. These costs are so pronounced that many Americans see a young person wanting an advanced education as selfish since their doing so will require families with too much debt incurring even more.

One element of GCAS that is admirable is that it refuses to contribute to such a model. GCAS instead sets the conditions through which pursuing an education clearly and undeniably opens and enriches lives. It rejects the false choice of having to opt for an intellectual or an economic future.

This is in part because, as a political project, GCAS takes seriously that innovation is not only about generating the content we offer students as subject matter but in creating a viable twenty-first-century model of education and of public knowledge.

At the center of this model is a commitment to co-ownership of GCAS by GCAS faculty, staff, and graduates.

And that co-ownership in turn is based in its own unique economy, one in which the primary currency is creativity, solidarity, and hope.

Rather than exhausting energy and talent in naysaying—in complaining about the current organization of higher education while affirming that nothing can be done—the GCAS community focused that same time on establishing a new form of learning institution.

Rather than arguing with the naysayers, the GCAS community devoted its attention to transforming the fruits of their imaginations into relationships that would bring new opportunities for others into being.

One of the greatest fruits of these efforts is the 40 of you who are the focus of today’s celebration!

The quality of GCAS’s record of innovation has generated the trust and enthusiasm of others that are represented in the newly accredited courses through GCAS’s partnership with Goddard College and the creation of the GCAS-base in the farm in France amidst dense fields of tough and beautiful sunflowers.

During periods like the present that bombard us with profound challenges, I like to spend free time becoming better acquainted with intellectuals from the past who faced similarly seismic questions and dilemmas.

Since this past May, I have been studying the life and work of the 19th century Polish Jewish Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

Every day that I spend thinking with her is enriching intellectually, spiritually, and personally.

This is because to encounter her is to encounter someone who was fearless. It didn’t matter that she was physically small or was considered disabled or belonged to a group that faced systemic discrimination or lived in a country that was regularly occupied by hostile external forces. She worked tirelessly for the conditions that she thought could bring about human living conditions for the masses of laboring people worldwide.

She brought to this ferocious energy, extraordinary curiosity. For instance, when she wanted to grasp the workings of capitalism, she argued that you couldn’t do so without studying imperialism and that meant seeing the connections between her Russian-occupied Poland and what was transpiring in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Americas and in Asia. Her thirst for developing ever more comprehensive understanding was insatiable.

But while her curiosity led her to work through some highly abstract economic questions, she always pursued them for the sake of connecting the strengths of people, most especially their abilities to insist on their dignity in the face of protracted challenges to it.

For her, such struggles were rooted in a love expressed in wanting others to thrive and to grow. This extended also to the Earth and the smallest of its creatures, which, for her, were all also indispensable comrades.

Unlike most of her Marxist contemporaries, Luxemburg believed that the minds of the majority of people would decisively determine the shape of their times and the times to come. For that reason, even though she had no interest in becoming part of the academy—as one of the first women in Europe to earn a PhD in Economics—she always had time for teaching workers and trade unionists. Indeed, it was in and through her work with them that she developed many of her most historic and enduring ideas.

When I try to imagine the kind of approach to education that would actually mirror the global nature and character of Rosa’s thinking, GCAS seems to get much of it right.

Your decision to become a GCAS student and a member of the GCAS community already represents an unusual degree of intellectual and personal independence and bravery.

In the year ahead, may you challenge yourself to see in your education the opportunity and responsibility to become more fully yourself in ways that dignify this new beginning.

MagazineThomas Hampton