Welcome to GW – the biggest philosophy department of all

Feelings of dizziness always threaten to overcome me when I’m asked to welcome a new freshman class to The George Washington University. It seems like only yesterday I myself was a freshman at Columbia College in New York, trying to craft a role or persona that would look as plausible as those of my fellow members of the Class of 1959. But the world keeps telling me that I am now 60 years of age and president of GW. Between those two perspectives, I struggle for calm.

But after dealing with my momentary vertigo, I’ve resolved to communicate to the students in GW’s Class of 2002 the biggest truth I can manage about what awaits them in the next four years. And the truth is that what awaits you is an experience so total and complex that few have even attempted to describe it.

Never in the history of the human race have so many people been concerned about their professional futures. Let anyone declare that a particular field is “hot” and a dozen voices immediately will be heard: “Yes, but for how long?”

Let someone else venture to say that a specific field is “dead,” and from coast to coast, voices will flood in saying that English literature or ancient Greek is doing just fine in their corner of the United States.

Yes, you will have to work hard in order to earn good grades. Yes, you will have to acquire some very important habits and skills – including the ability to present yourself, with minimum advance notice, as an expert speaking to influential people. And yes, you will have the hard work of forming new friendships with other GW students – which means deciding whom you can really trust.

But over and above all this, you will be engaged, over the next four years, in deciding who you really are and where you really belong in this world of ours. Will your interest in art add up to a career as a museum curator or perhaps a controversial career as a cutting-edge painter?

Do you like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf enough to write a Ph.D. dissertation on him or her and gradually turn yourself into a world authority on Ulysses or To The Lighthouse?

Will your passion for mathematics sustain you all the way through a major in the subject?

Or will you become one of the GW students who spends more time over at The Hatchet or playing basketball than laboring over your studies?

Acts of self-definition have long been the norm for our species, especially for those of its members who are in their teens and twenties. But a university like GW can be defined as a self-definition hothouse – the biggest philosophy department of all, devoted to nothing less than hundreds and ultimately thousands of individual philosophies of life.

After an average day of looking out over GW from my office in Rice Hall, I find myself asking some self-definition questions of my own. “When did I actually choose to become a university administrator?” is one of them, and it’s often followed by: “Wouldn’t life have been easier if I’d just held on to my previous career as a hard-working lawyer?”

Welcome to GW! And welcome, simultaneously, to the start of your journey toward what nature and/or God and/or destiny have intended you to become.

-The writer is president of The George Washington University and a professor of public administration.

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