Skip to Main Content
Convocation Address 2010
David Fenner headshot

David Fenner

Distinguished Professor

Professor Philosophy

College of Arts & Sciences

Watch Video

Thank you very much. This honor far outstrips my desert of it. I want to thank many people, so many I am afraid were I to try to express my gratitude here, music would need to start playing to get me off the stage. So I will address those debts privately.

Over the last few years, these convocation speeches have incorporated autobiographical elements, and I would like to begin with a story in that vein. My mother – Maria Guadalupe Teodosa de la Fuente Rosas Garza – came to the United States when she was eleven years old. The heaviest thing she carried was her name. She had been orphaned since the age of six, and after her grandmother died, her brother Lazaro, only a few years older, brought her across the border to McAllen, Texas. Lazaro, who worked painting cars, enrolled her in school where she eventually found a friend in her seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Roberts. When my mother was in ninth grade, Mrs. Roberts moved to Edinburgh, taking my mom with her. That year my mother was deported, but eventually she was allowed to return to Edinburgh. For the Roberts family, my mother cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, and did all the domestic chores. All while going to school herself. In payment for this work, the family provided her
with room and board. When she was 21, the Women’s Missionary Union gave her a scholarship and she enrolled in nursing school at Hillcrest Baptist Hospital in Waco. Upon finishing nursing school, she met and married my dad. I was born in San Antonio, and all the announcements of my birth were in Spanish.

I am a believer in diversity. I believe in it for two reasons. First, I believe in the social agenda that informs a commitment to providing, in a realistic way, access to opportunities that would otherwise be denied or simply kept hidden. Were it not for this agenda, I am sure I would not be here today; I am only two or three degrees removed from the life of an itinerant farm worker. More generally, I believe in this social agenda because it promotes justice. It is immoral to deny opportunities, either explicitly or tacitly, to classes of people simply because of their membership in those classes. Affirmative action and equal access and equal opportunity programs work against this injustice.

The second reason I believe in diversity is that without it education is impossible. Without diversity, learning cannot take place. Let me try to explain what I mean. Aristotle is oft quoted as saying “All men by nature desire to know.” The American Pragmatist Charles Peirce qualifies this, saying
Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. (C. S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12, November 1877, 1-15)

One of our goals at UNF is to provide every student opportunities for transformation, for the chance to have life-altering, life-enriching learning experiences. This is a worthy goal, but in one sense it is a goal not restricted to just one set of learning experiences. All learning, qua learning, is transformative. I know I am not the first person to make this observation, but my point is that regardless the level or depth of
transformation, learning at its heart is about moving from a “calm and satisfactory state” to a new one, from one set of beliefs and attitudes to a new set – whether that set is radically different or modestly so. The point is change, and change is dependent on difference. From one state to a different one. From one belief to a different one.

If students leaving UNF after four or five years were to think the same thoughts and know the same things, we surely have not done our jobs as educators. Our stock in trade is ideas, and just as all progress in our disciplinary literatures is predicated on the introduction of differences of opinions, so does the introduction of diversity of ideas occasion intellectual growth in our students. Probably emotional growth, too. We do our jobs precisely when we provide to our students in pedagogically sound ways
new ideas, ideas we have learned from others and ideas we have thought up on our own, results of investment in our own learning and discovery.

Diversity of ideas is important, but it is only one sort of diversity necessary in an education worthy of a 21st century student. Dr. Pekarek, whose accomplishments are so rich as to make it inevitable that he will appear on this stage again soon, would not be educating his students fully were he to introduce them to Newtonian mechanics and stop there. A 21st century physics education will include at a minimum Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg – clearly I am out of my depth here – but even I know this.

A 21st century education, broadly conceived, must include exposure to a very broad range of diversity – not just of ideas but of people who exhibit diversity in race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, and disability. No education today that does not provide for this exposure and for the opportunity to appreciate difference can be said to be an excellent one.

My closest friend in grad school, Cuauhtemoc Tomas Lara Vargas, teaches philosophy of science at UNAM in Mexico City. Tomas is married to Sang-Hye, who teaches Korean there. My closest friend from college, Andy Bailey, lives in Suzhou, China. He has lived in Asia for almost twenty years and in China for over a decade. Andy is a writer and an English teacher. He is married to Ivo, an Indonesian artist and entrepreneur. Both Tomas and Andy have daughters – Raquel and Vanessa – who are about the same age. Raquel and Vanessa each speak three languages that they use daily.

This is the 21st century world. In terms of communication and interaction, it is a small world. In terms of experience, values, beliefs, and attitudes, the world is huge.

Wittgenstein said that if a lion could talk, we would not understand him. So different is his form of life that we lack the common ground necessary for communication. Doubt only leads to resolution when dialogue is based on common ground, on an adequately similar set of experiences and values.
This is not an argument against diversity; it is another argument for it. Let me try to explain what I mean.

The focus of my scholarship over the last six years has been the exploration of the subjective context brought to bear on understanding the value of works of art. While I leave it to others to discuss what art is an expression of, I am convinced that works of art are the purest form of human expression. Even when they are thick with purpose and function, as human expressions – intentional human creations – they are the immediate products of particular human psyches. And they are taken up by their audiences in an immediate way – I mean “un-mediated” way.

My work is about the impact context has on the value of works of art, and while I am interested in all contextual matters, I tend to focus on subjective ones. My central thesis has been that most times these contextual issues actually enhance the value of works of art. To know the origin of a work, to identify with a character or a narrative in a work, to gain insight into the social or sexual perspective of the artist, to see a moral story, to be moved to fear or reverence – many times consideration of these matters makes all the richer the experiences audience members have.

It follows then that the richer the context, the richer the potential for quality art experiences. The more deeply the audience member is engaged – the more personally connected she is with the work, cognitively, emotionally, aesthetically – the greater the value. Engagement can be enhanced through the introduction of more avenues of connection, and the introduction of more avenues of connection is a straightforward matter of diversity. The more diverse the pool of perspectives open to the audience member, the greater the potential for high quality experience.

One who upon viewing a work by Mark Rothko or Robert Motherwell cannot focus on anything but his five year old daughter’s ability to produce something of equal technical merit is likely not ready for much of an art experience. This can be explained in two ways.

First, he may not be prepared. The pool of perspectives open to him may be too limited to allow for appreciation of Rothko, Motherwell, Pollock, or – can you imagine? – Robert Mapplethorpe, Judy Chicago, or Damian Hirst.

Second, the introduction to diverse perspectives may not have proceeded upon ground he shared with those with whom he now shares audiencemember status. If one has any hope of understanding the words of an English-speaking lion, one needs to start by trying to understand the words of an English-speaking house cat. Forgive me for pushing the metaphor, but the point is that progress must be made upon familiar ground.

Appreciation of diversity moves in a very similar way. We move on familiar ground until we are ready for more.

Are we providing that common ground to all our students? For some students, are those before them lions, speaking from foreign perspectives about foreign matters? Or do some of their professors speak like them, look like them, have the same kinds of experiences they have?

If it is necessary that we offer our students exposure to diverse ideas, it is necessary that we offer our students – who are diverse themselves – exposure to professors who embody the full range of diversity. We must do this for both of the reasons offered above. First, because we owe them exposure to the new and the different. Second, because as they themselves are different from one another, we owe them familiarity – professors who fluidly speak their experiential languages, professors who will function as mentors, as exemplars, as intellectual companions as these students begin their exposure to the new and the different.

It is insufficient to believe in the truth of these matters if this belief does not inspire action. Integrity demands that what we believe, what we say, and what we do cohere, and inclinations to justice in the absence of action are impotent. Faith without works is dead.

There are some who are committed but when the tasks are at hand they demure. There are others who upon accomplishing a single assigned task go rest. There are some who work hard and meet what is expected of them. And there are some who work until the work is done, until the goal to be achieved is secured. It is this last group who have the honor of bringing about lasting change.

For those truly committed to the social goods diversity commitments are meant to foster, they need do nothing more than see others possessing the same interests and needs they possess. This is the essence of justice – to see that others could stand in our shoes, to see that in basic ways we are each similarly deserving of equal consideration.

What helps in some cases to turn motivation into action is the gain of a still stronger insight. While justice requires only that we see our interests as possessed by everyone, compassion – care, empathy – means that we understand the interests and needs of others contextually. Justice is to see others standing in our shoes; compassion is seeking to stand in the shoes of others. The greater the diversity – the less the proximity – the more work it is to put oneself into the shoes of another, and yet without this
work, understanding – transformative understanding – cannot be achieved.

I have had the experience, moreso recently than in the past, of students in my classroom advancing opinions that compete with mine – and then apologizing for it. This is a lamentable occurrence. Diversity of opinion should not be an occasion upon which the parties feel apology is a necessary rejoinder. On the contrary: challenge should be encouraged and celebrated.

While it is true that conflict for its own sake is a waste of time, and wasting time is immoral; while it is true that tenacity of belief can kill dialogue, difference of opinion is what allows for intellectual progress. Not to point too fine a point on the matter, but it is the ONLY thing that allows for such progress.

In a moment I will stop bloviating and we will move a step closer to getting a hamburger. If you join the picnic, my hope is that you sit next to someone who thinks that I am full of baloney, perhaps someone who thinks that I am just spouting off what might be expected of a left-leaning liberal elitist.

For the record, most left-leaning liberals are not elitists. Most think they’re better than that. ...Everybody get that joke?

I hope I am not an elitist. Elitism breeds entitlement, and entitlement breeds exclusion. But I still hope that you sit at a table with lots of different opinions, and I hope that they are shared and debated. In short, I wish you a lunch filled with difference and doubt – the sort rich with the promise of transformation.

Thank you.