Class of 2010 SPEECHES
My name is John Rickard, and I am a Professor of English here at Bucknell. My role in this ceremony is to speak on behalf of the approximately 300 professors on the faculty to welcome you to Bucknell. My welcome is supposed to be deep, moving, intellectually serious, and – most important – less than five minutes long.
In addition to being a professor at Bucknell, I am also an alumnus; I graduated from Bucknell in 1975. So, thirty-five years ago, I was sitting where you’re sitting and wondering what college was all about. I’ll try to say something brief but meaningful to you across that gap of years.
Like any good English teacher, the first thing I did when I was asked to give this talk was to run to the dictionary. To my surprise, I found that the word "matriculation," which means "to admit (a student) to a college or university" comes originally from the Latin word matrix. The word matrix originally meant "womb" in Latin, and it comes from mater, the Latin word for mother. So this matriculation ceremony represents your admission into a matrix of sorts, a place that prepares and allows you to grow or develop into a new form – but what kind of matrix? For those of you familiar with the film of that name – The Matrix – this strange connection between ‘matriculation’ and ‘matrix’ may stir up some troubling thoughts.
As most of you know, the film The Matrix tells the story of a character named Neo who discovers that he has been living in a dream world, that the life he thought he knew is an illusion. Another character, named after the Greek god of dreams Morpheus, offers him a choice – to take a blue pill and go back to the life he has been leading, or to take a red pill and seek a deeper truth. The more I considered it, the more this seemed to me to be an interesting and appropriate way of thinking about entering the university, about matriculation. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean to imply that the life you’ve led up to now has been an illusion, but rather to suggest that all human beings are always embedded in a matrix or a series of matrices – social life, political life, the life of the mind and the life of the body – there are many such networks or matrices. Too often, these matrices we live in envelope us like a kind of habit, or blind us to other ways of seeing reality. Like Neo (and Neo, as you know, means "new," so today you are "neo" at Bucknell) — too often we live day-to-day on the surface of things, lacking the time or the means to dig down, to take the red pill and "see how deep the rabbit-hole goes," as Morpheus puts it in the film.
We on the faculty hope that Bucknell will offer you the time and the means to learn more about your reality, to open your eyes more widely, to question and ultimately to affirm the solidity of the life you live and to fashion new tools with which to explore the world. For this modern film, after all, doesn’t ask any new questions, but instead raises some of the oldest questions facing humanity. In fact, the Greek philosopher Plato devised a very similar myth 2500 years ago – the myth of the cave – where he suggested that each of us can be compared to a group of people trapped in a cave, chained and forced to face a wall where echoes and shadows cast by a fire would seem to be our only reality. Imagine, Plato suggested, what would happen when such people were freed from their chains and dragged out of the cave into the sunlight; imagine how long it would take for their eyes to adjust to the bright light of the world outside the cave, for them to realize that what they thought was reality was only a dim reflection of the truth. You will encounter similar questions throughout your studies at Bucknell, questions asked by philosophers and poets, physicists and psychologists: How do I know what is real, what is true, what is good? How do I know whether my view of reality is the "correct" one? Whether my time in the world is being spent in worthwhile and productive ways? Whether I ever really "see" the world clearly, or, as the Bible puts it, only "through a glass, darkly"?
I and my colleagues on the faculty believe that, at its best, a liberal arts university provides a new, positive matrix – a matrix of ideas – a place where, perhaps for the only time in a very busy life, you may have the freedom to explore whatever topics or dreams you choose, to ask new questions and find new answers. We hope that this road will not be an easy one for you: we will push you – and ourselves – to think in new ways, and we will insist that you work hard as you do so. But we will also be there with you and for you, to share in the satisfactions of thought, creativity, research, and experimentation.
A matrix, then, can be "a place . . . of origin and growth," and we hope that, following your matriculation this evening, Bucknell will become a wonderful new kind of matrix for you. In the classroom and the laboratory, in our office hours and beyond, we are truly excited to have this opportunity to dig deep with you – using literature, languages, engineering, the arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences as the red pills that will, we hope, open up new realities for you and also for us as we travel with you down the rabbit-hole of intellectual discovery. Welcome to Bucknell!