Welcome Back Letter, Spring 2017

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

Welcome to 2017 and a promising new semester! As was noted by many news outlets, social media channels and other sources in the past several weeks, we said goodbye to a great number of people in 2016. Some we knew by the characters they portrayed or the songs they wrote; others we knew for the fame they had achieved; and still, there were a few – like Arnold Palmer – who we knew as family. This loss of many brought to mind New York Times columnist David Brooks’ idea of “résumé virtues” versus “eulogy virtues” – or the professional skills we acquire versus the type of people we become.

At Wake Forest, we have committed to be a community that educates the whole person. Our academic mission is central to what we do, whether conveying the principles of economics or teaching theories of political thought or understanding the composition of molecular compounds. Our mission also calls us to a higher purpose. We are a place that asks us to face challenges so that we may develop humility, gratitude, resilience, honesty, compassion and kindness. And after those tests and lessons, we ask you to take your knowledge and your character and better the world.

The value of education is not simply found in what we are able to learn, but who we become in the process. The lessons we learn are not isolated to textbooks and classrooms; each person and situation we encounter offers us something. I will never forget the thoughtfulness of John Murrin, my doctoral director. On the very weekend he was moving, in stifling hot St. Louis weather with his apartment piled high with boxes, he took the time to read and carefully critique my first dissertation chapter. It was a great gift to a nervous aspiring historian and a meaningful example of some of the qualities I wanted to emulate.

As we begin a new semester, we have the opportunity to learn from the people and situations placed in our path. I am convinced we must use this occasion to redouble our efforts – as individuals and as a community – to think hard about what kind of persons we want to be and what kind of community we want to build. Can we cut against the grain and demonstrate what it means to bridge differences and to uphold the common good?

This semester we will focus on what we can do to improve our community. For the next several months and into the 2017-2018 academic year, we are planning a series of activities, conversations and events to strengthen our community as we all prepare to serve in an increasingly global, diverse, polarized and virtual world. A team of people across campus is starting to work on this initiative, and additional information about how you can be involved throughout the process will follow. But here are a few ideas about how we can start improving our community together:

  • Offer the gift of conversation. For a place like Wake Forest, conversation is at the heart of what we do because it combines ideas and human interaction, the intellectual and the personal. Real conversation is a deeply moral act, an act of character, because it means that I go beyond myself to be interested in my friend or to explore the views and feelings of someone I may not understand. The lives of classmates and colleagues are messy, and conversing with them – coming together – requires being fully present. We have to break out of the bubble of our own preoccupations and manifest real interest and empathy in others, in a community larger than ourselves.
  •  Seek to understand. Our world is far too complex to be understood in sound bites, through Wikipedia moments, via 140-character tweets or by listening to talking heads that debate the predictable. Read both sides of important arguments. Compare the best minds in the world on a given topic of interest. Refuse easy answers. Compare the wisdom of the ages with contemporary fashion. Base your convictions on deep understanding. The best dividends of learning do not come to the shallow explorer.
  •  Extend grace. Life for most is not a straight path. There are stops and starts; mountains and valleys. In fact, the contour of life is more of a jagged arc than a straight line. We may not know if another person is experiencing a time of joy or a season of suffering, but no matter. Our challenge is to be quicker to react with grace than we are to pounce with judgment. Human relationships are rich but demanding. They require care, and they most certainly demand grace.

It is up to us to become the kind of people – and the kind of community – known for our eulogy virtues. Let this not be a semester strictly reserved for the building of résumé virtues, but let these next months also be the practice ground for the virtues we hope will define us – the ones used when it comes time to describe who we are.

I wish you the very best this semester and in the coming year.

Nathan O. Hatch

Categories: Letters