First-Year Preceptorial: Introductory Lecture, 2009

Below you'll find the text of the opening lecture given on Tuesday, September 8.  Click [here] if you would like to download a .pdf version of the text.

Catherine Denial, September 8, 2009

The theme of First-Year Preceptorial – the course you're about to take – is 'Conversation in a World of Strangers,' riffing upon the subtitle of one of the core texts for this class: Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. 

Today, we'll explore that theme – explore questions of individuality, community, and strangeness; the idea that conversation can help us recognize each other's humanity; and the assertion that reading, writing, listening and speaking are skills that are worth all the time you can invest in them – and that we will ask you work on again and again.

Appiah has provocative words to offer about our place in the world, and the way in which we are bound to something much larger than ourselves:

"Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities; to say this is," he argues, "to affirm the very idea of morality."1

"Each person you know about – "

Whom do you know about? 

Your family; your friends; your neighbors.  The people sitting in this auditorium right now; the staff you've met over the past few days; the faculty you've read about on the college website.  The other people on the train that brought you here; the passengers in the cars you passed on the highway; the folks at the gas station; the travelers packed into the plane that flew overhead as you charted a path toward Knox.

"Each person you know about – "

You know about the politicians you voted for last fall, and the ones you didn't; the appointed officers of government and leaders of industry who made headlines last night or this morning; the men and women who hover behind the unemployment figures; the people who call in to talk shows; the litigants suing companies for malpractice; the corporations announcing new products and innovations;the meteorologist telling you how hot it'll be today, and whether that tropical storm plans to turn into a hurricane.

"Each person you know about –"

The musicians who recorded the music on your iPod; the photographer who created the shot you've pinned to the wall in your dorm room; the factory worker who wove your rug or sewed your sheets together; the laborer who made your t-shirt or your shoes or your jeans or your bag; the farmer who grew food for your breakfast down the road in California, or in Brazil, in Bangladesh; the engineer who designed the boat carrying goods across an ocean toward you; the child with the flu; the doctor without adequate supplies now the typhoon has passed.

"Each person you know about –"

The rich; the poor; the educated; the illiterate; the peacemakers; the warmongers; the religious; the profane; the poets; the painters; the astronomers; the astronauts; the physicians; the physicists; the suicide bombers; the fisherwomen; the monks.

"Each person you know about . . . is someone toward whom you have responsibilities."

If you're like me, you're thinking – that's an awful lot of people; where do I start?

It's easy, when confronted by the complexity of the world in which we live, to try and withdraw from it, to create boundaries within which exist only those people to whom we think we're similar (or whom we like). 

That's not the world we want you to embrace here at Knox, and a good part of your education at this institution will be based upon pushing past boundaries, sharing ideas with people who hold very different views, and learning about our individual and collective blind spots – the places where we huddle, intellectually and emotionally, without fully seeing the damage our fear can do to ourselves and others. 

Undoing that fear is the gift of a liberal arts education, if you'll accept it.  A moment has been carved in time, dedicated to your questions and the inescapable fact of your growth and change, during which the insights of the sciences, mathematics, the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences are at your disposal.  Conversation can become your life's vital work. 

Every student already at this institution, every member of the faculty and staff will enter into this challenge with you, to consider "each person you know about"; to add to that store of people known; to accept responsibility toward them; to figure out what form that responsibility will take.

It takes a lot of words to sum this up in English, but in the Nguni languages of Africa, this approach to life is called 'ubuntu.' 

Ubuntu, declares Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, "is to say, 'My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.'  We belong in a bundle of life.  We say, 'a person is a person through other persons.'  It is not 'I think therefore I am.' It says rather: 'I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.'"2

If this sounds idealistic, let me reassure you it isn't just religious individuals like Archbishop Tutu, philosophers like Appiah, or historians like me who believe our lives are about community, not isolation.  Neuroscientists have discovered, for example, that not only do neurons in our brains fire when we undertake a task, like reaching for a glass of water – but they also fire when we observe someone else undertaking that same task.

What does this mean?  Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran told John Calapinto of the New Yorker "'These mirror-neuron experiments are showing that, through and through, the brain is a dynamic system not only interacting with your skin receptors, up here' -- he point[s] at his own head – 'but with Lance!' He point[s] across the cafeteria table at [his colleague]. . . . "Your brain is hooked up to Lance's brain! The only thing separating you from Lance and me is your bloody skin, right?'. . . Ramachandran has dubbed mirror neurons "Gandhi neurons" – 'because,' he said, 'they're dissolving the barrier between you and me.'"3

As humans, we are so dependent on social interaction to create and maintain a sense of self that removing that interaction – throwing us into solitary confinement –causes us to lose our minds.  Studies of prisoners and hostages kept in sustained isolation show that their brains undergo such a radical transformation that it's as though they've sustained a traumatic head injury.   People lose memory, language skills, and mobility; they harm themselves, hallucinate, and in the worst cases become catatonic.  Hostages Terry Anderson, Frank Reed, and John McCain all called their experiences of isolation torture; in each case their recovery took months, and was rarely total.

Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who researches the effect of sustained isolation on the human psyche, has estimated that up to a third of prisoners kept in solitary confinement become psychotic because of the experience.  Our need for human contact and community is not simply social – it's biological, the basis upon which our brains support our individual sense of self.4


"We have obligations toward others," argues Appiah, "obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship."  Part of that obligation is, he asserts, "to take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance."5

Which is how we arrive at conversation.

Conversation is not a concept our society values.  We spar and debate and fight and disagree; we seduce and flatter and issue compliments; we persuade and confess and mock and defend – but too often, we forget to converse; we forget to listen to those around us and give considered, thoughtful replies; we forget that we don't already know it all, that there is much we can learn from others.  We often leap to action – problems must be solved, suffering alleviated! – but unless we listen first, unless we enter into conversation, we cannot know one another or understand the practical form that compassion should take in each particular instance.  

To take just one example, Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina argues that "A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it's a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it . . . And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming 'I will do it.  I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,' and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts. . . . That should not be a way that human beings deal with each other."6

In 2002, David Schulman, an American-born, Jewish Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University in Israel, helped, with other peace activists, to gather the olive harvest in the towns of Aqraba and Kafr Yanun in Northern Sumaria.  It was one of many harvests he had participated in, hoping his presence would help protect the Arab farmers from harm, and he ruminated that this time, at least, he and his fellow activists were "spared the standard ritual of  . . . [listening to countless] speeches.  But perhaps," he went on to reflect, "it is this that the villagers wanted more than anything and that we denied them.  They need someone to hear them. . . .These people need no spokesmen to speak for them; they need no one to give them voice or words.  They need listeners.  They are astonishingly eloquent if you only listen, as they tell you the simple facts; the settlers came here, they did this, they killed that one, the soldiers stood by and watched, then the families started to flee . . ."7

This is a universal need – to listen; to speak. 

"We live," says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh,"in a time when we have a very sophisticated means for communication, but communication has become very difficult between individuals and groups of people. A father cannot talk to a son, mother cannot talk to a daughter, and maybe husband cannot talk to a wife. And Israelis cannot talk to Palestinians, and Hindus cannot talk to Muslims. And that is why we have war, we have violence. That is why restoring communication is the basic work for peace."8

We recognize, on an individual level, the power of communication – "Speech is one of Life's greatest pleasures," argues Andrew Solomon in his landmark study of depression, "and the will to communicate is enormously powerful in all of us (including those who cannot produce coherent vocal sound and therefore use sign language, gesture, or writing to express themselves).  People who are depressed lose interest in talking; people who are manic talk incessantly.  Across broad cultural divides, the most consistent mood-enhancer is speech."9

The hostages and prisoners I talked about before, kept in solitary confinement to the detriment of their physical and mental health, so longed to speak and to be heard that they talked to themselves, carried on conversation with imaginary companions, and yelled for attention lest they lose their hold on life. 

It is in conversation that national wounds, like apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, and human rights abuses in Chile and Argentina, have begun the fragile business of healing.  "You know, we often say, 'My God, the years that we wasted. Why didn't we talk 30 years ago? Think of the bloodshed we would have saved," remembers  Charles Vila Vilencio, former director of research for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  "But, yes, I suppose us frail human beings, us strong-headed human beings, need time to learn to speak. And we were so desperate that we realized that if we did not speak, there would be nothing left to speak about."10   South African journalist Antijie Krog puts it another way: "We tell [our] stories not to die of life."11

It is in speech that we recognize each other, that we name each other and our problems, that we ask for help or refuse it, that we identify the reach of our worlds and our words. 

"There is no chair without legs," argues the Dalai Llama, "[without] a seat, a back, wood, nails, the floor on which it rests, the walls that define the room it's in, the people who constructed it, and the individuals who agree to call it a chair and recognize it as something to sit on."   Without conversation we are adrift, unable to understand what we're seeing, the limitations of our own points of view, the miraculous stories in ourselves and in others.12

So why, then, is this not a class created wholly around the idea of speech?  Why do we insist that each of you read and write so darn much?

Reading and writing are two avenues that lead us toward a greater understanding of every subject we encounter.  No matter what your discipline, your background, your interests, your major, or the course you think your life may take after you leave this institution, you’ll be expected – both here and in your later life - to engage with ideas written by others, and to write down your own in turn.

It means something to read and write, to engage critically with your world through those mechanisms.  There may be times when your real, honest to goodness, physical voice is silenced.  There may be times when your ability to act – to move in space and time to engage with the world – is limited.  But reading and writing are skills that will never cease to matter - that equip you to engage with every messy, complicated, knotted community of which you are a part, to decide what you will demand of the world and give back to it, and to communicate your frustrations and desires. 

We rarely think of reading and writing in this light – but when you crack the spine of a book or set your fingers to a keyboard, you are defining yourself and your world.   Reading seriously and writing well are skills that deserve your attention, that require an investment of time.  We will ask you to write every week; we will ask you to compose papers, then revise them – make your words better.  We will require you to read dozens of pages for each class – not because we can't think of other pastimes, but because we believe that words are a common currency between us, illuminating, enlightening, frustrating, and new. 

We expect you think about spelling and grammar and organization because to do so is to think about how best make yourself heard.  We expect you to read, because to do so is to listen.  Only then can you speak as someone who understands they belong to a community, who understands that your words matter, that words – written down, read by others, said aloud – are the beginning of everything between us.

"For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere," said President Obama on June 4. "When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings."13

These are the subjects about which we must converse.

"I suppose us frail human beings, us strong-headed human beings, need time to learn to speak."

This is your time to learn to speak; to experience the art, the frustration, the transcendence, and the plain, everyday nuts-and-bolts business of finding your voice – of conversing, of writing, of sharing your ideas with others, of reading and hearing theirs.

We're listening. 

Find the conversation meant for you.

And welcome to Knox.


1.  Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.  xii

2.  Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness.  New York: Doubleday, 1999.  31.

3.  John Colapinto, "Brain Games." The New Yorker, May 11, 2009.

4.  Atul Gawande, "Hellhole."  The New Yorker, March 30, 2009, 36-45.
5.  Appiah, xv.

6.  Interviewed by Krista Tippett on NPR's Speaking of Faith.  Transcript at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/ethicsofaid-kenya/transcript.shtml, accessed August 31, 2009.

7.  David Schulman, Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.  University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2007. 113.

8.  Interviewed by Krista Tippet on NPR's Speaking of Faith.  Transcript at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/thichnhathanh/transcript.shtml, accessed June 8, 2009.

9.  Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  Touchstone: New York, 2001.  419.

10.  Interviewed by Krista Tippet on NPR's Speaking of Faith.  Transcript at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/truth/transcript.shtml, accessed June 4th, 2009.

11.  Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.   64.

12.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.  Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.  64.

13.  President Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009.   Transcript at  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/us/politics/04obama.text.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1, accessed June 4, 2009

Other Books Consulted

Reza Aslan, How To Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.  New York: Random House, 2009.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid.  Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2003.

Adina Hoffman, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Art, Imagination, and the Power of the Creative Spirit.  New York: Vintage, 2007.

Roger Kamentz, A Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.  New York: HarperOne, 2005.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.  New York: Little, Brown, 1994.

Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President.  New York: Harper, 2009.