Convocation speeches do not always come as naturally to me as you might expect of someone who has been delivering them for more than twenty years as a college president.
A few years ago, I was having difficulty writing a mid-winter address. Unable to find an anchor for the address, I went to bed wondering what I might say the next day. That night I had an extraordinary dream.
I was standing at the podium from which I was to give my speech. I was terribly thirsty and felt like I would die if I couldn’t get a drink. Suddenly a full tumbler of ice water appeared on the podium, lifted itself into the air, and floated from west to east across the platform, out of the room and over land until it led me to a well. By the time I arrived, I had with me ten camels. Rebekah was there with her jug, drawing water from the well, and I asked if I might have a sip. She said, “Drink,” and I drank. Then she said, “For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.” (A camel can drink up to 50 gallons of water after a desert trek, so Rebekah was extremely generous to make me this offer.)
And in my dream I became my ten camels and drank all the water. I reflected upon my master, Abraham, happy that he had been a digger of wells, that he had chosen the desert for his home and had worked hard and dug deep, for now we just might have wells enough to satisfy my thirst.
And my mind drifted to Noah, and I wondered whether we’d have had no flood if he had only taken a few more camels with him on the Ark. And I became Noah and turned my head up to the heavens when it started to pour rain, and I opened my mouth and drank for forty days and forty nights. And still I was thirsty, yet the earth was covered with water. And I recalled the beginning of it all:
“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was water and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‛Let there be light.’”
And I knew then that there was water and thirst before there was light. (Yes, I actually dreamed all this.)
And I became Job and cried out to the Lord, “What have I done to deserve this thirst? Why do you not answer me?” And the Lord answered me from the whirlwind:
“Who dares speak darkly words with no sense? Where were you when I founded the earth?…Who barred the sea behind double gates as it was gushing out of the womb?…Who…clove the path for the thundershower…to feed a wasteland, fill a desolation, make it flower, sprout grass?”
And I saw that I spoke with no wisdom of things that were beyond my ken.
And I came upon a wedding and saw that Jesus had turned water into wine. And I thought that if he could do that he could also turn wine into water.
And I came to the Red Sea and raised my staff and the waters parted. And I walked into the midst of the sea and called upon the waters to return; and the waters were all about me.
And my staff became a sword as the river rose up, and I fought with many men and with the river itself, and the river god called out to me saying, “Achilles, stop this terrible slaughter while you can still drink from my stream, before it turns red with blood.”
And then I was Odysseus, crossing the wine-dark sea, washed up on the shores of my native Ithaca. And then I was Aeneas, braving storms to found Rome.
I became a great white whale, consuming volumes of water, along with all the fish in it.
And I swam to the mouth of the Mississippi River, where I became Huckleberry Finn, sitting on a raft, unable to drink from the muddy water. So I paddled upstream to drink at the headwaters, where the mighty river begins in a trickle of clear mountain runoff, sparkling in the sun.
And there I pondered the United States Constitution, wondering whether the Mississippi River was a navigable waterway subject to the interstate commerce clause. And I heard the voice of Justice Somebody-or-Other proclaiming, “A navigable waterway is a body of water large enough to float a Supreme Court opinion in.” And I opened my mouth to drink, and gulped down page after page of Supreme Court opinions.
Then followed each of the books we read at St. John’s College. I became a freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior in succession, and I swallowed the books in as they floated toward me, written by Homer and Aeschylus, Herodotus and Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy, followed by a hundred more in chronological order—with one exception. As a thin blue paperback of Freud’s On Dreams floated toward me, I turned my head and let it pass. And I said aloud, “I’m having none of that today, thank you very much.”
And I rolled over in my bed, swinging my arm in a great arc when my hand actually grasped a bottle of mineral water. While I was struggling with the forces of nature and the stream of great books, my wife Joyce, my very own Rebekah, had arisen in the night and brought each of us a bottle of water.
At that point I awoke fully and drank the whole bottle down. And I realized that my convocation speech had written itself. Though I had refused to analyze the dream while having it, once awake its meaning was completely obvious to me, as it would be to any college president.
We all know that most of our students come to us with a thirst for knowledge, for learning, for experience, for growth, and perhaps even with a deeper longing—let’s call it a thirst for meaning. They would not come to college if they were not seeking sustenance for their hearts and minds. Institutions of higher learning exist, in the first instance, both to help them find that sustenance and to guide them in learning how best to absorb it.
My wild, chaotic dream was reminding me that higher education has a responsibility to foster the faculty that, more than any other, permits us humans to locate the life-giving stream and drink from its inexhaustible sources: the faculty of imagination. I worried about the state of education today: consider that while we furrow our brows over methodologies and logics, pedagogy and content, measurements and outcomes, students could actually spend four entire years with us without increasing appreciably their capacity to extract meaning from images, to create their own images, to imagine themselves as others, or others as themselves.
Do I really think that our students can learn something important from imagining themselves to be present at the Creation or to be a guest at the wedding in Cana? From becoming, in imagination, Noah, Moses, Abraham’s servant, Job, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Huck Finn, a commercial lawyer, ten camels, and a whale that swallows great books in chronological order?
I do. I believe that developing our capacity for imaginative involvement is like awakening from a dream, and that the education our students can make for themselves from their studies may actually bring a kind of clarity to their lives—especially if they can learn to use imagination with deliberate awareness, and not just as it comes in dreams or daydreams.
Active imagination focuses attention. Let beginning students vividly imagine themselves as the ideal student: a person who learns for the sake of learning itself, for the sake of coming to know, and not for the approval of teachers or for the grades they give; a person who permits the questions asked in and out of class to slip past the barriers of unexamined opinions and prejudices; a person who integrates what is learned into his or her very being, rather than merely accepting what is handed over; a person who concentrates intently on examining—with the help of teachers, students, and anyone who shares a serious interest in truth—everything that has passed itself off as knowledge so far. Begin to act like that person, and your studies will come into focus pretty quickly.
Those of us who labor in the vineyards of higher education have a deep faith in our students. We trust the power of their intellects and the strength of their characters, and we want to rejoice with them as they make their education their own, as they assimilate the knowledge that passes the test of their own examination, and as they become the ideal students they so much long to be. We delight in their successes at growing into the freedom they must master in order to conduct such examinations. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance we can to help them acquire the tools they will need for the educational project that will—if they are lucky and determined—consume them for the rest of their lives. And we wish them many nights and days of thirst, together with countless opportunities for drinking deeply at the well.
Books mentioned in this speech may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.