Welcome to a new semester at Wake Forest. Whether you are embarking on your first experience on campus or you’re a familiar face on these grounds, we all approach this beginning with anticipation and uncovered potential. Together, we have the capacity to pursue new intellectual discoveries, create extraordinary relationships and seek to live as a community that cherishes innovation, virtue and civility.
This summer, I have been struck anew at the baffling complexity of our world. One book that I read underscored this reality: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. A distinguished Israeli journalist, Shavit has lived a most interesting life, serving dutifully in the Israeli military and later as a peace activist.
He gives a compelling case for the rightful identity of a homeland for the Jewish people, but at the same time objects strenuously to the ways Israel has disposed the Palestinians and continues to build settlements in occupied territory. The book offers great insight, but no easy answers. I came away with a deeper sense of the complexity of the issues and the limitations of my own understanding.
At times, I reach a similar conclusion about our own society. There seem to be no easy answers to the polarization of politics at home and a sluggish economy that makes it difficult for young people to find meaningful work. Racial tension continues to divide this country a full half-century after passage of major civil rights legislation. And as a society, we seem hamstrung in addressing the country’s major problems — whether immigration reform, the national debt, our crumbling infrastructure or declining educational standards.
Abroad, the world seems to lurch from one crisis to the next — in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe and in Africa. For so many problems, there are no ready solutions. Old dogmas, left or right, seem incapable of resolving chronic problems.
We, at Wake Forest, are in the business of trying to make a difference in the world — to lead lives that transcend mere self-interest. We aim to commit ourselves to larger purposes — Pro Humanitate. Yet that is not easy in a world of problems that seem mounting and intractable. Where does one find a place to stand, a place of leverage from which one can begin to speak and act and make a difference?
At such times, I am grateful for the tradition and the promise of a liberal arts education. What we need, more than ever, is understanding; and that can only come through serious study and engaged inquiry. We need firmer grounding in history and the social sciences, literature and the arts, religion and philosophy, science and economics. We need greater understanding of ourselves and our own assumptions and beliefs. We need empathy to understand the convictions of others and communication skills to engage them with civility.
At the beginning of another academic year, I am grateful that we have these resources of the liberal arts to begin to plumb the complex world of today. To understand more fully will liberate us to act more wisely. I am also grateful for the distinguished traditions of professional education that Wake Forest enjoys — in law, medicine, business and divinity. Those disciplines, too, have shaped the modern world and are necessary to grasp its complexity.
I have a simple personal hope for this year: to use the great resources of Wake Forest to grow in understanding. Please join me on this journey.
Here are some ways to gain understanding this semester:
I look forward to learning from and with you this year. May this semester be one of adventure, creativity, kindness and understanding.