The following is the complete text of the keynote address "There’s No Knowing Where We’re Going," delivered by Anne-Marie Reynolds, assistant professor, SUNY Geneseo School of Performing Arts, at the New Student Convocation on Aug. 29:


The title of my talk is borrowed from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At a climactic moment, Willy Wonka says to his entourage of visitors: "There's no knowing where we're going, or which way the river's flowing, there's no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going..." On the eve of starting college, you too are at just such a climactic juncture, where everything is possible and it's anyone's guess where you're headed. But there IS one thing you can count on: the next four years will be all about CHANGE.

"That's not me," you may protest, "I have a plan: I already know what I'm going to major in, and the minute I set foot in that department, I'm going to begin networking, so as not to waste any time getting ahead in my career or spend any more of my parents' money than I have to."

Such a statement shows determination and focus -- both good qualities -- but also a sort of tunnel vision that I believe is actually the OPPOSITE of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about.

As I see it, the point of College is to fight isolation -- isolation of the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual kind. I don't know about you, but I was very lonely in high school. I expended tremendous energy just trying to appear normal, even tho I never knew quite what that meant. It seemed I didn't fit in anywhere, not with the eggheads, the party crowd, the jocks, or the parking lot loiterers. College was a relief from all that. In the first months I was presented with a wealth of choices, and through making them, created my own niche and a self I could live with. The feeling of being a freak was gradually replaced by a sense of belonging to a community, through connections to new friends, campus organizations, and faculty mentors. And in my courses, I was continually presented with new ideas, challenges, and opportunities.

Two other experiences have shaped my perspective on the purpose of a liberal arts education:

1) The first was going to graduate school at the Eastman School of Music. The focus and intensity of such a place was fabulous for high-level study. But meanwhile I observed the undergraduate curriculum there, and felt it lacked something essential. The students were required to take mostly music courses, but on the SIDE were given an introduction to literature, a cursory exposure to a foreign language, and a smattering of courses in other subjects. But what they DIDN'T get was the experience of studying shoulder to shoulder with people who were passionate about those subjects entirely in and of themselves. Without the influence of a differing perspective, many music students dismissed whole fields of inquiry as peripheral to their existence, the courses as an annoying imposition on their time. "To think I could be practicing!" was a typical lament.

2) The second experience was attending what's called "the people's school" in Denmark. This is not actually one school, but rather a series of over one hundred schools for adults, scattered all across the country, each focusing on a different discipline. No matter what the stage of life, every adult in Denmark is permitted to take a paid leave of several months from their job to attend a school of their choice in some field OTHER than their own. They are given living quarters large enough to house the entire family. The education they receive costs them little and yields them nothing concrete. I remember the Americans I was with asking, aghast: "But what do you get for it? A degree? A promotion? A raise?", and our Danish guide replying simply, "An education.~, In other words, no reward of any kind except the opportunity to learn itself.

So my advice to you as you embark on your Geneseo education is to throw yourself into each new subject you undertake, first trying to see it through the eyes of your professor and the students majoring in it. Ride the wave of their enthusiasm and passion, even though you may not yet feel it yourself. Then, over time, look for connections to emerge between the disparate subjects you've studied. The universal will begin to appear in the particular, and everything will seem to be of a piece. It's like listening to a symphony. You hear section after section and initially are struck simply by the many contrasts. It is only upon reflection that you notice how the various themes are related.

So please: don't approach the courses required for Core as though they are irrelevant to your main interest, whatever you perceive that to be at this time (and it may change more than once during the four years!). Be open and attentive to possible connections, and have faith that afterwards, looking back over the four years, something of a logical plan will emerge in time to write that graduate school application essay.

The point is to live expansively while you're here, step out of the shadows, and take risks -- branch out from what you already know you're good at and try something totally new. Don't hang back! Be someone who, as Vincent Van Gogh put it, is "always seeking without absolutely finding -- the opposite of saying 'I know, I have found it.' "

College may be the only time in your life when you have the freedom to do this. If not Astronomy now, when?! I remember when I was in College I decided to take a Physics course since it was way outside anything I'd ever experienced (and besides, science was part of the Core). When I wasn't doing well in the course, the professor tried to console me by saying gently, "Remember: anything worth doing is worth doing badly." It is advice that has served me well since -- again and again and again.... You don't have to excel at everything, and sometimes the experience is more important than the result.

That Physics course was enough of a challenge for me that I must confess I remember very little from it -- except the time the professor shot himself across the room on a toilet-turned-rocket. Now THAT was an experience!

There's always a popular alternative, one succinctly summarized by that great sage of the twentieth century, Homer Simpson, when his son Bart is having trouble learning something new: "If it's hard, son, don't do it!"

The biggest mistake I think you could make is to approach your undergraduate years as simply a means to the end of securing a marketable degree. First of all, how can you KNOW what's going to be marketable in four years? Second, I have news for you: these days you can get a degree over the Internet without taking any courses or exams, or even getting out of bed! Hey -- how [the hell] do you think I got mine? Seriously, I firmly believe that college is the greatest time of life, when all paths are open to you -- which is why when you leave in four years, I'm STAYING! While you're here the possibilities are limitless, and you will never be this unencumbered again [ -- no nagging spouse, no spoiled and ungrateful children, no monotonous 9 to 5 job].

These are the years to celebrate uncertainty. How many of you are willing to admit you're indecisive? Well, I say to all you equivocators out there, YOUR TIME HAS COME! College is your Mecca! Here you are granted permission to reinvent yourself over and over again, until you finally hit on the self that "fits" you best. Remember: too much certainty is like too much starch -- it causes a sort of rigor mortis that makes you dead to the opportunities and connections that are out there. Be like Albert Einstein who said "I have no special talents. I am simply passionately curious."

There's plenty of time in graduate school to specialize. And there's plenty of time after THAT to live completely "in and of this world," to busy yourself with the mundane obligations of the "here and now" -- doing house repairs, changing diapers, and paying the bills.

As the educator Sir Richard Livingstone said: "We are tied down for the greater part of our days to the commonplace. This is where great thinkers and great literature help. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own."

Believe it or not, the broad range of courses you end up taking during the next four years will likely HELP you in your chosen career. I think of a former student who majored in biology and music. When she applied to medical school she was perplexed that all they wanted to talk about in the interviews was music. Afterwards she was told that it was the breadth of her experience in subjects OUTSIDE of medicine that got her accepted at Johns Hopkins.

Who knows? Your indecision may even get you elected to our brand new chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious honor society, since breadth is one of the primary criteria.

Celebrate uncertainty within the classroom too, rather than seeking the one right answer that seldom exists. Delight in dilemma, marvel at multiplicity, and embrace ambiguity! For example, at dinner tonight, the most interesting discussion focused on the gray areas of Mary Jemison's story: students stressed that the author presented neither the Native Americans nor the Whites in an entirely positive light, and suggested ambivalence on Mary Jemison's part about which culture she identified with.

Since this is probably your first move away from home, you must be feeling nervous and homesick, but also excited, am I right? It is up to YOU to fill your time now; no parent is looking over your shoulder to make sure you're spending it meaningfully. It's a delicious freedom but an awesome responsibility too. Countless opportunities await you here, both academic and social -- don't let them pass you by. I hope, for instance, that while you're here you'll take advantage of the junior year abroad program, which allows you to receive college credit while studying in Europe, the many ensembles including the orchestra, jazz band and Chamber singers, the theatrical productions including Tracers and Kiss Me Kate this fall, the College Honors program, internships and student teaching, the English department~s literary forum, student government, and one of our twenty varsity sports. And perhaps most remarkable is the opportunity to collaborate with faculty members on research and presentations at national conferences. For instance, you might work in the experimental social psychology lab with Anne Eisenberg, or conduct research in Antarctica with Sid Bosch, study rocks in New Zealand with Jeff Over howler monkeys in Costa Rica with Barbara Welker. Or perhaps you'd be interested in researching the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi with Emilye Crosby, or working with the Yucatec Maya women in Mexico with Ellen Kintz, or Haitian communities with Rose-Marie Chierici. Then again, you might choose to teach with Zhiming Zhao in Shanghai, study Native American culture with Paul Pacheco, try Asian theatre with Randy Kaplan, or lobby on behalf of the National Science Foundation with Wendy Pogozelski on Capitol Hill.

To relate what I'm getting at to the summer vacation you're probably still reliving in your mind: imagine college as a jacuzzi and the bubbles as ideas. While you're here, spread out, immerse yourself, let the water jets push you to and fro, and see how many small bubbles you can combine into larger bubbles. In the warmth of this sheltered cove, you'll grow and develop as never before, until you're ready to brave the less temperate waters beyond. And when you get out, I guarantee you're going to see things differently; your old perspectives will have softened like so many shriveled-up, prune-like toes, and you'll be looser and more limber, your senses heightened by a joy of learning that hopefully will sustain and inspire you after college.

And once you get out, of course, whether we're talking jacuzzi or college, you're going to want to get out of that ridiculous, wet suit! Our graduations are typically as rainy as our summers.

Speaking of summer memories, I've just returned from a reunion in California, where decades later, I was reunited with four close friends from College. What I want to leave you with tonight is the image of a photograph taken years from now, of YOURSELF and four people who unbeknownst to you, are sitting somewhere under this tent at this very moment. In the photograph the five of you are crowded around a table at a Mexican restaurant, margaritas raised in a toast to the year 2008, smiling at the camera. By this time you may all look like caricatures of your former selves, with more chins than a Charpei and you may barely recognize the nervous, shy freshmen who befriended and helped each other survive transplant shock in the fall of 2004, far from the familiar support of family and childhood friends. But something in the eyes of the people in the photograph will remind you of the heated arguments, uncontrollable laughter, deep confessions, all-night study sessions, and countless pizzas you shared once you settled into College. And you'll realize that the self you've become was shaped through your special connection to these people, during four of the most memorable years of your life. The bond with these kindred spirits is perhaps the most important one you'll make while you're here.

So, now, get going and find them!

But first, let me close by again quoting Willy Wonka: "Welcome! It's nice to have you here. I'm so glad you could come. I hope you enjoy it . . . and I think you will."

Thank you.