Only Connect

Posted by James Rainey - 16 August, 2016

IMG_2779The following is the text of my address to the Upper School student body on August 10, the opening day of the 2016-17 school year:

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Now, if you do not hear the humor in these statements, I regret to inform you that you are infected with an acute case of "adolescent brain" – because it was of course Twain himself, and not his father, who matured over those seven years.

But if you insist on taking Twain at his word, then you might also appreciate the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, who wrote in the year 1728, “When a great genius appears in the world, the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” By this standard, every teenager who ever lived was a “great genius,” and all the parents, teachers, coaches, and other advisors who tried to guide her or him through the chrysalis of adolescence were a “confederacy of dunces.”

And now, a non sequitur: Would the faculty please stand? Students, please look around the room at these men and women, and please know, despite the fever and fog of "adolescent brain" that may beset you, that this is not a “confederacy of dunces,” but rather a faculty of selfless advocates for you and your education who are committed to caring for, inspiring, and challenging you in the coming year. I am privileged to work with them, and – make no mistake – you are privileged to learn from them.

A shepherd in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale laments, “I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but… wronging the ancientry, stealing, [and] fighting.” Well, fortunately for all of us – perhaps especially for us “ancients” – great teachers do not share the dim opinion of Shakespeare’s shepherd. They love you for who you are at this crucial phase of your lives, and who you are becoming. I urge you to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that such love affords you.

My own embarrassment of riches as a young man is to credit for my knowledge that the very phrase, “embarrassment of riches,” is an idiom coined by John Ozell, an eighteenth-century English translator and writer who, as it happens, was an intellectual antagonist of Jonathan Swift, whom I quoted earlier. My ability to quote Jonathan Swift in the first place, to quote Shakespeare, to quote Mark Twain – to know that the word “crucial,” which I used earlier to describe the adolescent phase of life, derives from the Latin word “crux,” meaning “cross” or “intersection of significance” – to know that the word “chrysalis,” which I also used earlier, refers to the pupal stage of butterflies – to know that a “non sequitur,” another term that I referenced, is a figure of speech meaning, literally, “it does not follow,” or in our present vernacular, “random" – my ability to know all of these things that I listed is not the gift of my “great genius,” but is rather the gift of the “confederacy of dunces" who loved me, and taught me, and modeled for me the terms of a life fully and meaningfully and consequently lived. It does not matter what I know nearly so much as it matters that I know how to know. This was the gift of my teachers to me, and it will be the gift of your teachers to you.

And by the way, Mark Twain’s father died when he was only 11, so Twain would not have had a relationship with him between the ages of 14 and 21. In fact, there is no written proof that Twain ever actually said this very clever thing about growing up that is so often attributed to him. And how do I know this? How did I have the instinct to check my sources, to think critically, and not just believe the first thing that Google whispered in my ear? Because I learned how to think critically – not just cynically, as adolescents are sometimes inclined to do, but truly critically – from my teachers.

Twister on the Commons Lawn, August 2013 Twister on the Commons Lawn, August 2013

I will leave you with the simple epigraph of the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster, words of which I am aware, again, thanks to the embarrassment of riches of my own education: “Only connect.”

As you prepare yourself for this year – as you set goals for yourself and commit yourself to the hard work of taking advantage of the opportunities that Randolph affords – “only connect.”

Connect with your teachers, with your coaches, with your advisor, with your friends, with other students, and with your families. More broadly, connect with the past in your history classes, connect with the natural world in your science classes, connect with human stories in your English classes, connect with beauty in your visual and performing arts classes, connect with another kind of beauty in your math classes, connect with your physical selves in HHP and our athletics programs, and connect with other cultures in your language classes. You can even connect with me, if you’d like, through the “5 Questions” elective course that you will find in your Canvas account. (Yes, that was a shameless plug.)

We are so excited to have you back at school with us. It is a wonderful time of year, a wonderful time of life. The Cubs have won eight in a row. Life is good! You are beloved, and an embarrassment of riches is spread before you. Make it a great year.

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Topics: community, learning, Head of School, curiosity, Faculty, cognitive growth, Community of Learners


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