The following speech was given by Chic Eglee ’70 during Convocation on September 14, 2018. Read more about Chic here. See photos of the event here, and video here. Read Head of School Robert W. Hill III’s address here. Read the address by Class President DJ Poulin ’19 here.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Depending on who and where you are, those famous words of Charles Dickens would ring true at just about any point in human history. They certainly described the world during my time here at Williston in the late 1960’s.
It was the best of times because I was young and everything I was experiencing was brand new. It was the best of times because of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, brilliant autumn afternoons with foliage that seemed almost psychedelic, and falling in love for the first time. It was the best of times because of the friendships I was forging here at Williston, and the discoveries I was making. One or two actually in a classroom.
It was the worst of times because of the self-doubt that walks in lock step with youth. Where did I fit into a world that wasn’t making a whole lot of sense anyway? It was the worst of times because of the heartbreak that inevitably follows first love. I struggled with depression during my time here that only deepened in the bell jar of the dank, grey Massachusetts winters. And looming over it all were the riots shredding our inner cities, and the meat grinder of the Vietnam War, which steadily escalated throughout my four years here. The church bells in town would toll for every soldier from Massachusetts killed in battle. At times it seemed as if the slow cadence of those bells would never stop.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I suspect you will look back at your years here and feel much the same way. Under BOT (for short) you’ve got Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Drake, Nicki, and, yes, Cardi B. Who, after sober reflection, I have to admit, is not without skills. Then of course, there’s falling in love, Instagram… You don’t need me laying it out. You know what you got going on.
Under WOT, is anyone else getting sick of Mumble rap yet? Then there’s falling out of love, school shootings. And whatever your political persuasion, there’s the on-going clown show in the body politic.
Throughout it all, by the Grace of God, and the robust financial support of parents and alumni, the Williston Northampton School endures. In some respect, everything’s the same: Ford Hall, term papers, the Williston Pond, final exams, and Mr. Gregory. I’m old. You, sir, are eternal. In other respects, the school is completely, mind-numbingly different.
When my parents dropped me off in Easthampton freshman year, my father told me I wasn’t coming here to fill my head with information, useless or otherwise, but to learn how to think. Along the way, I still managed to pick up a fair number of factoids. Bucephalus was the name of Alexander the Great’s horse, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast was: “mene, mene, tekel upharsin” (no clue what it means). And the principal parts of the irregular Latin verb meaning to bear, carry, suffer, or endure are: fero, ferre, tuli, latum.
I was pretty sure I already had the hang of knowing how to think. I mean, I did have to pass a test to get into the place after all. What I soon discovered was that this school was teaching me how to organize my thinking. But of even greater consequence, it was opening me up to the possibilities of what to think about.
In 1966, Williston Academy, as it was then called, wasn’t a wildly diverse place. For starters, it was an all-boys school, so half of humanity was excluded from the academic experience. The more intuitive half, skilled at utilizing the entire brain, not just the front part. Also, to its detriment, the school was not as diverse as it is today. But coming from a small town in Connecticut, Williston substantially broadened my horizons nonetheless. My freshman roommate was from Venezuela and spoke fluent Spanish. I developed friendships with kids from Liberia, Libya, Thailand, and Egypt. At an early age, I learned that this great nation of ours exists in a whole world of nations. And that teenage boys are wired up pretty much the same wherever they come from. It wasn’t a leap to conclude, therefore, that people are pretty much the same everywhere and want the same things: to be safe, secure, loved, and respected. A lesson that seems to have eluded a surprising number of people in our country these days, who regard the other seven billion of us as: The Problem.
During my sophomore year, I took a religious studies class. We had to write a term paper—something about the teachings of The New Testament in action. I picked up a book called Delano by John Gregory Dunne about the California Grape Boycott. I’d never heard of the town of Delano, or John Gregory Dunne, or a labor dispute involving grapes. I reasoned that at only 225 pages, a book set in Surfin’-USA-Cali Caliente about grapes, wouldn’t unduly tax my young mind.
What I discovered writing that paper was the heroic work Cesar Chavez had been doing, fighting for the rights of Mexican migrant workers in the fields of the state responsible for 13 percent of America’s total agricultural output. Despite the enormous value of the contribution these people were making to the national economy, they were being systematically exploited because of their ethnicity.
That paper was my introduction to a political struggle that would frame the social dynamic of a place that I would eventually call home for the next 50 years. And what I learned in that classroom in the basement of this building would prefigure much of the political turmoil over immigration roiling our nation still.
Barry Moser, my art history teacher, taught us that the role of the artist was to show the rest of us how to see the world in a new way. Our assignment, therefore, was to go out and look for something we had never seen before. Without missing a beat, the comedian sitting next to me in class pointed to my face and said: “a new zit I have not seen previously.” His assignment complete, the comedian got to his feet and announced he was heading back to the dorm to blaze up and listen to the new Doors album that had just dropped.
Mr. Moser offered a tight smile and said this was, in fact, a serious assignment that would factor heavily into our final grade. So we set out to discover that one detail in God’s creation that so far had eluded us in our 17 years of existence. As you might have guessed, the exercise didn’t yield any benzene-ring-level discoveries. For my part, I noticed during a winter rain that afternoon, that the raindrops falling into Williston pond remained discreet and intact for a split second before being absorbed, no doubt due to surface tension. A eureka moment far less colorful than the comedian who discovered that the guy driving the Zamboni at the Lassonne Rink had a birthmark in the middle of his bald spot shaped like Peru.
The point of the exercise, Mr. Moser elucidated, was less about what we saw, than adopting an attitude of looking at the world with greater acuity, being alert to details we might otherwise look past, learning to see with fresh eyes. A skill, he suggested, with broad application in all areas of our lives. In today’s parlance, Mr. Moser was in essence urging us to “Stay Woke.”
But one of the most important things I learned at Williston wasn’t something I picked up in the classroom. “This fine old school,” as Phil Stevens, our then headmaster, used to call it, wasn’t a rigid environment. But it wasn’t exactly the Woodstock Nation either. Jackets and ties were mandatory. No long hair (which, if you can believe it, I found especially onerous), mandatory chapel, etc.
On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were killed by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest on campus. Sadly, nowadays, in an era when school shootings are as common as clay, that
would be celebrated as a low body count. But it was like a bomb went off on this campus. The roar of the B-52s flying out of Westover Air Force Base, and the tolling church bells had long since become part of the fabric of everyday life. But to most the students here, many of draft age, those four dead college kids brought the war home.
The next morning, a significant number of us skipped class and met here in the chapel. There was general consensus that we had to do something. Otherwise, our silence would be consent, as one of the slogans of the day chided. So we decided to leave campus in protest and walk the five miles to Northampton to join one of the many demonstrations being held in the Five College area. We would be doing so without permission. In fact, the headmaster ordered us back to our classrooms confronting each of us with what seemed like the biggest decision of our young lives.
Furious calls went out to the colleges we’d already been accepted to. Would those acceptances be withdrawn if we got kicked out of school? Everything we’d worked so hard for, for four long years, hung in the balance.
The headmaster stood his ground. We streamed past nonetheless, on our way to Northampton in violation of the rules of this fine old school. Rules that gave structure and organization to the institution where we were learning the mastery of critical thought.
It was on that day I learned about another attribute at work in this place. It had been there all along, just I hadn’t mastered the requisite alertness to see it: Emotional Reason, as I would later come to understand it.
Phil Stevens did not march back to his office and fire off stern letters to our parents, informing them that all that tuition they’d been shelling out for their little angels had just gone down the drain. No. If he couldn’t stop our protest, he would lead it.
Now I have no idea what that man’s politics were. But there he was: “Single file boys, single file. Nicely boys, nicely.” He was looking out for the safety of his students of course. But he was also affirming the commitment he saw in our young faces, opposed to a war we could find no justification for.
To be sure, many of the old guard on the faculty registered their strong disapproval. Especially when our protest was followed up by teach-ins on campus about Southeast Asia, neo-colonialism, and the underlying cause of the conflict. “Change for the sake of change,” they grumbled, “This fine old school was going to hell in a hand basket.”
Anything but. In fact, it was emotional reason, embedded in the very fiber of this fine old school, that has allowed it to continue to evolve and grow. It was only a couple years after my graduation that Williston underwent a profound transformation, which occasioned a radical improvement in the quality of its academic environment: co-education. Just one of the many dramatic changes that continue to make this fine old school finer still.
By now you’re probably asking yourself, did old dude just blow into town to drag the rest of us down his memory lane? Back when he and Rick Teller wrote term papers by whale oil lamps, dreaming of one day being allowed to grow their ponytails?
I was aware there might be some expectation that I should perhaps offer some insight into the contemporary zeitgeist that might be useful to you folks during your time here.
When I was a student back during the Age of Aquarius, the single biggest technological advance that had most altered the course of history until that time was not the bomb, or television. It was Gutenberg’s printing press, which had facilitated the dissemination of empirical knowledge, causing individual insight and scientific study to supplant religious dogma, thereby ushering in the Age of Reason. The arrival of the Internet has allowed access to, quite literally, unlimited information, giving name to the current epoch. A good thing, right? Most assuredly. But the benefits of this revolution in technology come at a price, with a potentially perilous downside.
In the June issue of The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger of all people, the regnant boogie man of my youth, wrote, “The Internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data.” Accumulation and manipulation of data. Think about that. The emphasis is no longer on conceptualizing or contextualizing meaning. We are witnessing a shift away from interrogating history and philosophy. And I’m paraphrasing Dr. Kissinger here: instead we seek information relevant to our immediate practical need. In the process, search engine algorithms predict the results we seek, returning data preselected to comport with a premise that we are, in effect, guided to.
As a consequence, critical and analytic skills begin to atrophy. Original thinking, that creative voice inside each of us, runs the risk of going the way of the auto mechanic. When you take your car into the shop for servicing, what do they do? They hook it up to a computer, which produces a read-out showing what parts need to be replaced. More convenient and cost effective to be sure. But someone who actually understands how the various systems in a car function, with the requisite skillset to ascertain the cause of a system failure, and the ability to repair it—a mechanic in other words—has been superseded by a parts replacer.
Now most of us don’t know how to shoe a horse either. Information no longer essential to how we live our lives. So maybe the skills involved in critical analysis are no longer necessary either?
Just as The Enlightenment was coming into full flower, the most unenlightened of all practices, the enslavement of one human being by another, emerged in all its horror as a potent force in international trade when Queen Elizabeth the First issued the charter for The Royal Africa Company. At the time of the nation’s founding two centuries later, the routinized savagery of slavery had elevated what otherwise would have been a peasant economy in the American colonies to a lucrative financial empire with global reach. Accomplished by means of labor stolen from millions of African Americans through bloodshed, torture, and unspeakable terror.
Now you’re thinking, “Didn’t he just say he was gonna talk about this zeitgeist, as in the here and now. What does any of this have to do with us?” Everything.
America was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded on an idea. Not blood and soil, not tribal, or religious affiliation. The country was founded on the idea of “We the People,” around the spiritual principle that “all men are created equal… with certain unalienable Rights.” Jefferson’s aspirational language in the Declaration was undercut to the point of contradiction, however, when it came to the fiscal demands of this bold experiment in self-governance. The three-fifths compromise enshrined in the new republic that African American slaves did not count as a whole person in the census, used to bolster the voting power of the slave states. In fact, in the eyes of the law, they weren’t regarded as people at all. They were property. And for the record, women of any color weren’t accorded these unalienable rights either.
But you’re wondering, wasn’t all this resolved seven score and thirteen years ago in a civil war? Consider if you will, an algorithm selecting for the spiritual principal of “Justice for all,” but weighted in favor of a material necessity that insured the rights of some members of our society are more unalienable than others. Hit search, and the results you will get is the society we are living in today. America’s original sin looms over us still. In theory, we are all equal before the law. In practice, however, our experience, too often, is informed by the color of our skin, or the financial resources at our disposal.
OK, America still has some work to do. Not a news flash. But aren’t things better than when I was a student here? Yes, in some ways. Others, not so much. It is a well settled political tradition in this country to disavow racism, then go to the ballet box and vote for a broad agenda of discrimination. When people become fearful, they are especially susceptible to selling out their spiritual principles to shore up their material security, just as our founding fathers did. At a time when we are more inclined to accumulate and manipulate data than interrogate it, this propensity of ours, this human frailty takes on a dire urgency.
In the last election, a majority of white voters backed “the least racist person you’ve ever met,” who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities. A promise made and a promise unfortunately kept. Now don’t think I’m just another coastal elitist picking on this particular administration. They’re just selling a new version of an old saw that gave us the Clinton crime bill, Bill’s throw down with Sista Souljah, and Willy Horton. Though I will say this current regime is the most unadulterated version we’ve seen since George Wallace. But the problem is so much greater than one man or one party. Whether the issue is prison reform, financial regulation, medical care, voter rights, education, the list goes on and on—the solutions we select for do not favor the interests of minorities. Most of the time, the disenfranchised are blamed for being disenfranchised.
OK, so what can we do about it? Consider Dr. Kissinger’s observation, again, I paraphrase: inundated with opinions on blast from social media, we are diverted from introspection, weakening our fortitude to develop convictions forged by traveling the lonely road. An intellectual journey that is the very essence of creativity. And the antithesis of the cyber constituencies, ginned up by half-truths and ghost stories that now pass as our civil discourse. We’ve become siloed off into echo chambers of partisan belief, no longer tested by vigorous debate. Without debate there can be no consensus. Not only does truth become relative. Truth is whatever’s trending. As long as we are cocooned away, behind barricades of self-justification against some fictional “other,” we will fail in our attempts to form a more perfect union.
You are the ones who hold the key to insuring that doesn’t happen. How? Consider for a moment that the solutions necessary to achieve social justice might not be found in cyberspace. But in here. Or in the heart of the person sitting next to you. Instead of reaching for the keyboard to stave off loneliness, try embracing solitude. You might discover that the answer you seek can be found in the silence, rather than the cacophony of social media. Instead of looking for affirmation in the things you know, or think you know, give yourself the assignment to actually look for something new in your experience, something you’ve never seen before. Let me hasten to add here, I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not urging you to become one either. There is no better America to go back to, even if you could. Time moves in one direction. “Imua” is the Hawaiian word for it: Forward.
Be critical in your examination of ideas, and creative in your search for solutions. Do not be afraid of failure. From my own experience, I can tell you it is a far better teacher than success. I know that sounds counter- intuitive, because everything in our culture teaches us it is better to win. But next time you find yourself in an argument with someone, especially if it’s someone you don’t like, try listening to them. I mean really hear what they are saying. Accept them right where they are, and support them in their belief. I don’t mean shine them on cynically. And you don’t have to agree with them. Just sit with their point of view as an exercise. You might reach a consensus a whole lot sooner, than by demolishing them with those potent rhetorical skills you are learning here. You would be surprised how often being right about something, ends up being the booby prize.
I was studying for final exams in December, 1969, my senior year at Williston on the day Jay Z was born. Decades later, I would read his musings on hip-hop and life in his autobiography, Decoded.
Young Hova wrote: “Flow is like a heartbeat or the way you breathe. It can speed up or slow down, stop, or pound right though like a machine. If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere. But every life has to find its own flow.” I began to find mine on this campus, and in these mean streets of Easthampton. It was a good start. I was very fortunate. So are all of you. Good luck. Imua.