David Nolan, Phi Beta Kappa Speaker, 2013

Care to Reconsider

 In a speech about conversation, you would think that I would avoid talking for an extended period of time without letting others respond. While you’ll have to forgive me today -because that’s exactly what I’m about to do–perhaps it’s not too big a fault as I’m the only person on this stage who doesn’t get paid to do this.

A few weeks ago, after my last class here, my English professor invited a group of us to snack bar to continue chatting. Most of the class went by choice; some of us fell prey to the coercive power of free food. We talked and talked, and eventually all of us agreed that when we were freshmen, we were more confused than coherent.

Four years ago we professed that we cared a lot: about school, about activities, about world issues. But we’ve had to learn the difference between words and actions. At times, under the stress of a heavy workload, it was easier to dismiss other people’s ideas, easier to diminish their successes, easier to conform to an expected viewpoint. We were tempted to believe that we would be most successful if we avoided disagreement. This year I was surprised when I heard some underclassmen say, “I don’t get this professor, I don’t know what she wants to hear.” What surprised me the most was that these students were not talking about an English essay, but a math quiz…I’m guessing that professor wanted to hear numbers…?

But then there was that class that invaded your life outside of the classroom, that conversation that called into question your most sincere beliefs, those performances that highlighted a classmate’s skill beyond the scope of your imagination: those were the moments when we realized the shallowness of apathy (and even the inevitability of a murderous envy). Yes, I would kill for your skills.

I’m sure many of you have had, with friends, heated arguments on topics of massive importance–be it religion, politics, the environment, what pizza to order at the ’82 Grill. These arguments have demanded of us the self-control to voice disagreement without ending the conversation. If we closed the door to conversation there would be no future hope for us to convince others of their fault or for them to convince us of ours. But we couldn’t just disengage–we learned to care enough to disagree and to be humble enough to reconsider.

This is the disposition that, for four years, we have worked to foster in ourselves and in those around us. With the support of a caring Williams community, success in this venture was possible but not assured. Everyone here will be part of different conversations, in the boardroom or the courtroom, in the hospital or the newsroom, and in each case, we will have to maintain the loving engagement that we have learned and practiced here: we must vocally disagree, actively reconsider, and always converse. Only then do we avoid a disengaged tolerance and offer to ourselves and to our communities a path through a land divided by ideological warfare.

At the end of our snack bar conversation on that sunny day, my professor said, “It’s probably time for us all to go do our work.”

Today, I want to congratulate you all for having already begun the most important work of your lives. of your lives.

David Nolan