Disagreement, negotiation are at the heart of what we do here

By Joe UrgoJoe Urgo

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.

So begins the Wallace Stevens poem “Two Things of Opposite Natures Seem to Depend,” a poem I have often found necessary in my capacity as dean of faculty. I invoke it now to suggest that opposition, contradiction, conflict and the alterations of mind and spirit that result are essential elements of a college community and a college education. And I think that the line between the mind and its time, place and environment is fuzzy, and that negotiating that fuzziness ought to preoccupy us.

College is a place where we cultivate ideas, grow them like wild things. College is a place of contention and disagreement. In fact, if you didn’t get contradictory wisdom from your professors at Hamilton, please file a complaint. If we did not disagree — if the materialists did not wrangle with the idealists, if the free-market advocates did not suspect the planned-systems scholars of insanity, if the “great figure” theorists did not become agitated at the mere sight of the behaviorists, then we may as well build a big bonfire in front of the Chapel, roast marshmallows and close up the place, singing “We Are Family” all the way down the Hill past President Stewart’s house into the Clinton graveyard wherein are interred things that no longer move, whose wildness has withdrawn.

“This is the origin of change.” What is it that makes the negotiated interdependence of oppositions endurable, profitable? Such negotiation may be among the most important things that college means. We must negotiate the real and the imagined, the intersection of mind where learning happens.

Negotiation — a noble human activity, the essence of humanity as distilled by academic preparation. Not collaboration; we collaborate with those who are like us and who want to help us and have us help them. Not charity; we are charitable toward those who are helpless or powerless and who cannot harm us or help us except to make us feel good for helping them. Not love; love has its rewards and serves the self’s most basic needs and desires. Collaboration, charity, love – these are fine things. But I would suggest that a fourth noble human trait is negotiation.

A negotiator acknowledges the humanity and worthiness of an adversary in the form of a person or an idea. A negotiator contemplates someone without whose presence things would be easier, if not quite pleasant, and commits to interdependence. A negotiator inhabits a world not of dictatorial truths but where knowledge is established, challenged, revised and supplanted. A negotiator not only inhabits the world, but cohabits — always already in shared space. A negotiator knows where she must go, has a path to follow, but knows also that because she cohabits, she may do so on an unstable foundation. She is not alone to make the world, but knows herself to be interdependent and deeply implicated within those very forces that might destroy her, or prop her up.

In college we learn to read attentively and analytically; we hone our writing skills and our ability to speak clearly and with purpose; we learn to chart a path through the modes of thought and academic inquiry that characterize a modern educated mind. But our path will lead no further than our egos if we never learn to negotiate.

And North and South are an intrinsic couple
And sun and rain a plural, like two lovers
That walk away as one in the greenest body.

Thus Stevens contemplates the relationship between inter-dependence and creative change.

Don’t you find that there are moments when poetry is necessary?

Professor of English Joseph R. Urgo served as vice president and dean of faculty at Hamilton before assuming the presidency at St. Mary’s College of Maryland on July 1. This text is adapted from his August 2007 convocation address to the College.

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