Convocation 2012: Crossing Borders
August 18, 2012
Good Afternoon students, parents, faculty, staff, friends—and Welcome to Westminster College.
Today marks an important moment for you freshmen. Whether you realize it or not, you are at a border. No, not a literal one. Our lives are often a series of border crossings, both symbolic and actual. Today you stand at the border of who you were, and who you will become.
Let me share an example of what I mean.
I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. The city is located on the eastern shore of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. We could look across a few hundred yards of water and see our northerly neighbor, Canada. When I was a young boy, it was our family habit on Sundays after church to take a ride in the country - to a museum, arboretum or a relative’s house. We would occasionally drive over the Peace Bridge that spanned the Niagara River and take a ride through southern Ontario - even to Toronto. I still recall a particular excitement upon crossing the actual border between the U.S. and Canada, marked on the Peace Bridge by the flags of the two countries. It was exciting to me to imagine that I was in fact traveling to a completely different country. And while I grew to take that proximity for granted as I made more and more excursions to Canada to play hockey, go to the beach (yes, Canada has beaches) or even to buy cheaper gas, that feeling of excitement about crossing borders has always stayed with me.
Perhaps my most significant border crossing was from the comfortable confines of Kaisertown, the clearly defined neighborhood where I grew up. Just 24 city blocks long and 3 blocks wide, Kaisertown was an ethnically and religiously homogenous enclave, with three Catholic parishes defining its residents' primary identities. It was a small town within a city. The outside world rarely intruded upon our slice of New York, but it wouldn’t always be that way. Lizabeth Cohen, an historian, has described the decline of ethnic cultures due to the growth of mass consumer culture in early 20th Century Chicago. So too was our little neighborhood gradually merged into the growing consumer culture of America. Television, movies, and radio made me aware that there were ways of thinking and knowing that were different from the dominant beliefs in my neighborhood.
The world had shown me that Kaisertown’s borders had to be transcended, so I travelled across town to attend a high school with students from all around our region. I began to think about college, by then knowing that I needed to grow even beyond my city’s boundaries. In the pre-internet (even pre-computer) days, that meant hours at the downtown library pouring through college catalogs. These became, in the words of that classic blues number by Big Bill Broonzy, my Key to the Highway, my ticket out of Kaisertown. As Broonzy says in his song:
I got the key to the highway,
and I'm billed out and bound to go
I'm gonna leave here runnin',
cause walkin' is most too slow
I'm goin' down on the border,
now where I'm better known
For those students sitting here today, I say this: as you embark on your education here at Westminster, remember that crossing borders and confronting the unknown or the different isn’t merely a process of “escape.” Far from it. It is, rather, an engagement with the broader world, brought about by exposure to new things. And this can have wide reaching impacts—to you personally, as well as your community.
As a historian of Russia, I will draw on the example of the elite officer corps of the Russian Army at the beginning of the 19th Century. These young army officers from well-heeled families were hardly much older than you, yet defended their own territory from Napoleon and then pursued the Grande Armee all the way to Paris. Along the march across Europe these Russian youths were introduced to cultures and cities they had never known, and these encounters altered their views on their own country forever. From that moment onward, they demanded more: more education, more freedom, more material progress. They began a "westernization" of Russia intellectual life that reformed the land, education, the laws, the army and the government and led eventually to the overthrow of autocracy and the Romanov dynasty. Now, I am not suggesting that you charge across the Salt Flats and invade Nevada as a way to expand your horizons. Rather, I am suggesting that your days here at Westminster will be filled with eye-opening experiences as you meet people from distant lands, delve into complicated ideas, undertake a service learning project, or even participate in a study abroad program.
So what happens if one does not cross over borders? What if you fail to move beyond your comfort zone? Well, those borders can become barriers. Jonathan Sacks, formerly the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth of Great Britain, wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference, that humankind in the 20th Century had increasingly withdrawn into its comfort zones. Religion, politics, individual behavior, he argued, moved from a politics of ideology to a politics of identity. He wrote: "The very process of creating an 'Us' involves creating a 'Them' - the people not like us. In the very process of creating community within..borders, (identities) create conflicts across those borders." What Jonathan Sacks is saying is that it is far from healthy to close yourself off. The results of doing so range from the paralyzation of progress to distrust and hatred. . Those who remain safely ensconced in their narrowly defined kingdoms may soon become convinced of their own superiority. By being here today, you have taken a vital step toward understanding and living in the broader world around you.
The education you can take from Westminster will prepare you to confront those borders in your life, intellectually as well as personally. You will learn to think in the ways of a specific discipline. Yet you will also learn to synthesize - to bring various perspectives and understandings to bear on a problem, to work with a team of colleagues to solve problems from the most advantageous perspective. Knowledge today is itself crossing borders. A 2001 report on nanoscience described a "concentrated effort (to) bring together nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and … cognitive science." Today, the idea of cross-disciplinary learning and research is alive and well, and at the very heart of what we do here at Westminster. The borders, even between often very entrenched academic and scientific disciplines are becoming more permeable and resulting in new discovery. You will need new tools and new ways of learning to navigate these changes, tools you will acquire at Westminster, tools that will give you an adaptability to meet the professional and personal changes you will experience in your lifetimes.
You will have the opportunity to be creative. This means not only learning to appreciate and actually practice in the fine arts, but to apply the breadth of the perspective you gain through a study of the broad liberal arts, to the problems of the world. You will cross the borders between theory and practice. In the great tradition of American higher education, you will gain practical skills and apply them to real problems in our community. That engagement with the world is a cornerstone of your Westminster College experience – one we take very seriously.
We are here to present to you a borderless world of opportunity and knowledge. We want you to learn how to learn. If Rabbi Sacks is correct, some of you might fear having your preconceptions challenged, and possibly seek refuge from the true knowledge that can come from crossing those borders.
But I hope you will welcome the challenge. A former colleague, Bill Robinson, President of Whitworth College in Spokane, often spoke of keeping his campus open even to ideas that challenged the very faith-based culture of his Presbyterian college on the grounds that if his community was afraid to challenge its beliefs, then their faith was not strong enough and needed those very challenges to become even stronger.
Walking into this field house today through the welcoming assembly of our faculty and staff marked the first of many border crossings for you. I hope that you confront your borders with the same excitement and wonder as I experienced in my family car crossing that Peace Bridge into Canada. I know that crossing those borders will open up new possibilities and dreams for each of you. I also know that confronting the limits of those borders will make you stronger.
On behalf of the entire faculty and staff of Westminster College, I welcome you students and your families and loved ones to this – our Westminster community. We look forward to getting to know you, to helping you achieve your goals. And most of alI, I look forward to shaking your hand at commencement in four years, when you will not only receive your degree, but also celebrate your own border crossings.
 Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 120-132.
 Marc Raeff, The Decembrist Movement, Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 6-22
 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Continuum Press, 2002, p. 10 et. seq.
 Here I borrow just three of the “five minds” discussed by Howard Gardner in Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006
 William Sims Bainbridge, Nanoconvergence: The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science, Prentice-Hall, 2007, p.12