Chilly January sunshine greeted visitors to Sewanee for the Opening Convocation for the Easter Semester, held Monday, Jan. 11, in All Saints’ Chapel. Conductor, musicologist, and college president Leon Botstein gave the Convocation address and received an honorary Doctor of Music. The university awarded academic gowns to 109 students during the Convocation.
Botstein began his remarks with an appreciation of Sewanee’s “resistance to fashion” and its isolation—both proper conditions for higher education. He addressed the current suspicion of a liberal arts education, which is sometimes said to be perceived as useless in the minds of the public. Botstein argued that education in the humanities is not good merely for its own sake, but that this kind of knowledge helps one conduct one’s life.
He spoke about the challenges presented by technology and by extreme personalization. Technology, said Botstein, creates an illusion of discontinuity, and reduces both our sense of history and our curiosity about it. “What you can find on the Internet is not all that needs to be known,” he said. A university should demonstrate how to use technology without succumbing to its allures. Universities must also help students find ways to debate and ways to disagree in a culture in which political identity has become personalized. Botstein argued that we have an obligation to reconcile our common humanity with those things that make each of us distinct.
Botstein closed with congratulations to the students who received gowns during the service, and a reminder that “no one has ever achieved anything without failing,” that overcoming failure is a critical component of achievement.
Leon Botstein is the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College in Annandale, New York, a member of the Association of Episcopal Colleges. Since becoming president of Bard College in 1975, he has extended the college’s reach internationally, guiding the creation of new programs on several continents while also leading Bard to become a forerunner in art and culture. Botstein, who is Bard’s Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities, has been a pioneer in linking the liberal arts and higher education to public secondary schools. As music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and founder and co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, Botstein is known for his innovative programs and interest in contemporary and neglected repertory.
Also honored during the Convocation were Harvard English Professor James Engell, who received an honorary Doctor of Letters, and Bishop of the Diocese of Mississippi Brian Seage, who received an honorary Doctor of Divinity. Read more about all the honorary degree recipients here.
See photos from the day here.