Loury to Class of 2012: Fashion your own paths

By
Thursday, September 4, 2008

Members of the Class of 2012 should not limit definitions of themselves to those imposed by society, Professor of Economics Glenn Loury said in the keynote speech of this year’s Opening Convocation.

Under the soft breeze of a warm September afternoon, the freshmen marched from the Van Wickle Gates to the Main Green to hear Loury challenge them to script their own path.

As the freshmen took their seats — some chattering with new friends, others studying their newspaper-sized orientation guides — they heard the plaintive tones of a bagpipe and watched faculty march by in lavish robes.

Loury told the first-years that they should use their time at Brown to forge their own values and determine their own priorities.

A prominent academic and social critic known for his bold opinions and dynamic life history, Loury used a personal anecdote to illustrate the challenge of “self-authorship,” common to students of all backgrounds.

He recounted his adolescent friendship with Woody, a man with black ancestry who appeared to be white. Both whites and blacks rejected him for not being “one of us,” Loury said, though Woody asserted that he was ” ‘a brother, too.’ ”

During a rally of the Black Panther Party, Woody raised his hand to voice his opinion, only to be silenced by a party member calling him ” ‘a white boy’ ” with no business telling black people what to do.

Loury said he chose not to defend his friend, for fear of having his own blackness called into question. He predicted that the class of 2012 would face similar tests of moral courage.

The tendency to sacrifice “authenticity” for “identity” affects everyone and is not limited to questions of race, he said.

Loury stressed the importance of independent thinking and the danger of trying to “pass” for a certain identity to gain the validation of others.

Awareness of race or any other socially determined dimension of identity is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of a meaningful life, he said.

“The particular features of one’s social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of a life. They do not provide a script.”

While upperclassmen sprawled across the grass to hear the speaker, the Class of 2012 gave him a standing ovation.

In her introduction of Loury, President Ruth Simmons told first-years that despite their different paths to Brown, they all shared a spirit of independence.

Dressed in a long black robe accented by her signature gold earrings, Simmons also said that Brown now must not only serve its own community, but the world at large.

“The world calls, and we must respond,” she said.

Pointing to a white “Building Brown” scrim to the audience’s left, she said that Brown’s “knowledge and demands are constantly changing.”

Justin Williams ’12 said Convocation confirmed his decision to come to Brown in the first place; “I feel very welcomed. The speech was enlightening, and it reaffirmed the sense of community that Brown is offering.”

Likewise, Allison Palm ’12 felt emboldened by the keynote address. “[Loury’s speech] was very inspiring. Coming in here I hadn’t been exposed to ideas like that before. Hearing such a worldly perspective makes me excited to be here.”