posted August 29, 2004

Convocation Launches New School Year

It's likely that the Opening Convocation address at Hope College on Sunday, Aug. 29, began and ended unlike any other at the institution.

Speakers Dr. Stephen Hemenway and Dr. Jennifer Young preceded their remarks by blowing bubbles. And they concluded by having those in the audience in Dimnent Memorial Chapel - some 1,100, mainly new students and their families--do the "wave."

In between, no less energetically, they shared reflections on how the members of the new Class of 2008 could be equally active participants in the "life of the mind" that they will find at Hope. They titled their remarks "Bored of Education: A Call and Response to Binge Thinking."

"If I had only 10 seconds to say something to the Class of 2008, I would say this: Stand up! Ask questions! Make this life your own!," said Young, an assistant professor of English. "If you're bored, it's because you've allowed others to lull you into passivity."

"Our dialogue today is your introduction to the life of the mind, to the intellectual component of your days at Hope," said Hemenway, a professor of English. "College is definitely the place to question everything."

The address title was a play on the title of the college's forthcoming Critical Issues Symposium: "Race and Opportunity: Echoes of Brown v. Board of Education," which will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 28-29. The symposium is an intensive exploration of a single topic, featuring multiple speakers, interactive focus sessions and related activities. This year's event will examine the May, 1954, Supreme Court ruling that asserted that separate but equal education for blacks and whites is unconstitutional, emphasizing the challenges that continue to face society.

Hemenway and Young previewed the symposium as an occasion for the sort of inquiry that the students can both experience and learn at Hope. Fall semester classes at the college will begin on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

"Actually, I think that this Critical Issues Symposium may be a spring board not only for binge thinking about 'Brown versus Board of Education,' but also for binge thinking about many moral and political and social issues that every faculty member on this campus wants Hope students to investigate from numerous angles," Hemenway said.

The two speakers offered personal perspective on the historic court decision and its subsequent impact. Hemenway, who is white, graduated from college in 1964. Young, who is black, is a 1997 college graduate.

Joking about his age, Hemenway noted, "Indeed, I am so old that I was in sixth grade when the 'Brown versus Board of Education' decision was reached," he said. "As a naïve Northerner, I recall being baffled at why people of color were even forced to attend separate schools. My family had just gotten a black and white TV, and those nightly news pictures the next few years of black schoolchildren escorted by federal troops - while white adults screamed obscenities and racial slurs at them - still haunt me today."

"I may not have been around in 1954 like you, Doc," Young said, "but every aspect of my life has been affected by this controversial decision. I do not know what it is like to live under segregated, unequal circumstances. I don't know what it is like to attend all-black schools with courageous teachers who had to make the most of decrepit facilities and overused textbooks that contained lessons, storylines and formulas biased toward white audiences."

Young noted that she had asked her family about life before the "Brown v. Board" decision. "They likened the desegregation process to a light bulb being turned on," she said. "In other words, they did not know what they did not have because they had never had it."

At the same time, the speakers cited ways in which society continues to wrestle with race and racism. Michigan, Hemenway said, was "recently listed as one of the most segregated states in the nation for black school-aged students." Young mentioned the recent lawsuits involving affirmative action and admissions at the University of Michigan - a topic that will be explored during the symposium.

In considering this year's symposium topic and other such issues, Hemenway and Young said, the students should both speak up, and listen and be active.

"I recently talked with several alumni who told me that they wished they had spoken up more often in classes," Hemenway said. "They also stressed, however, the importance of listening with respect to the voices of their teachers and classmates and teammates."

"At any rate, there needs to be energy, and lots of it, in every exchange," Young said. "That's the whole point of being critical, isn't it? We can't be lazy or unengaged."