Story posted August 30, 2006
"Serendipity, Knowledge, Community"
Cristle Collins Judd, Dean for Academic Affairs, Professor of Music
I am deeply honored by the invitation to present this year's Convocation Address. Along with the Class of 2010, I join Bowdoin as a "first year," both as a newly minted full professor in the Department of Music, and as the newly installed Dean for Academic Affairs. When Barry invited me to give this address earlier this summer, I assumed that I would be speaking today as something of an outsider. Over the last two months, my family and I have been warmly and graciously welcomed in the community here and I have enjoyed the enormous privilege of getting to know the faculty and staff of the College. While I still have much to learn, I am profoundly grateful for the ways in which I have been welcomed here. To the class of 2010, let me say that you, too, have come to an extraordinary place and I know that you will find yourself at home here.
I would like to begin by sharing a fable with you. First published in mid-16th century Venice under the title Travels of the Three Princes of Serendip, the fable claimed to be a translation from the Persian.¹ The story goes like this: A great and powerful king had three sons. The king wished not only to endow them with great power, but also to educate them in all the virtues they needed. He travels through the island of Serendip (another name for island we now know as Sri Lanka), searching for the best tutors for his sons. Gathering a number of scholars, each of whom specializes in a different field, the king directs them in the education of his sons. The three princes, possessing exceptional intelligence, are soon highly trained in the arts and sciences, but the king reacts skeptically when the tutors inform him of his sons' achievements. Requiring proof of their wisdom, the king sends the sons on a journey where, through a series of encounters, they display their wit and sagacity. Their first encounter is with a camel driver who has lost one of his camels and asks if they have seen it. They amaze the driver by asking if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth, and lame (which, of course, the camel is). At a later encounter, they add that the camel carried a load of butter on one side, a load of honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. As the princes' travels and travails continue, they are imprisoned as the suspected thieves of the camel for they seem to possess knowledge that only one who has seen the camel can hold. It becomes clear that they have masterfully interpreted scant clues along the way as they journeyed for other purposes: which grass has been eaten, where lumps have remained, the camel's tracks, the path of ants and flies, and so forth.
I will resist the temptation to regale you further with the continued peregrinations of these princes, apart from saying that upon their eventual return to their father, not only is the value of their education proven, but the three wise sons become three wise rulers.
Many aspects of this fable are apt as we begin this academic year. This past week, I have spoken with the parents of the Class of 2010 who—like the good king—are anxious over the education of their children. We have gathered here at Bowdoin a faculty who—like the tutors that king sought—comprise the very best teachers, scholars, and artists from around the world, each highly specialized in his or her field and carefully identified as the right person to teach these students. And we are at a moment when the wider world—not unlike the anxious king—questions whether a liberal arts education is sufficient to the demands life will place on our students and ponders how we will evaluate its merits.
While this fable could thus serve broadly as an allegory on which to base a convocation address, I want to focus on what might be called the princes' habits of mind and the nature of serendipitous discovery. From that point of departure, I will offer some reflections on the pursuit of knowledge and the acquisition of wisdom, and what the nature of that pursuit means to us as the Bowdoin community.
The story of the three princes was one of many such works popular in the mid-sixteenth century with its riddle guessing and its exotic setting. It holds a particular relevance for us because from it Horace Walpole coined the term "serendipity": a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity while in the search of something else; an unintended revelation due to keen insight and an expectation of recognizing the unexpected.
My choice of The Three Princes of Serendip to begin this address, was, well, serendipitous. Like those of you in the Class of 2010, I am beginning a new stage in life as I, too, join the Bowdoin community. Like you, I come to Bowdoin with confidence born of past accomplishments tempered by uncertainty in the face of a new place, new challenges, and new friendships. And at roughly the same time over the past year, like you first-years, I have experienced the inevitable introspection and reflection generated by personal statements and interviews and I have struggled to understand the things that defined Bowdoin and my potential place here.
My decision to talk about serendipity grew out of my reflections on who I am as a scholar and the central influences on the direction my own research has taken as well as the underlying continuities. The fable about serendipity resonates with my own work. It was first published in Venice in 1557; I have spent much of the last decade exploring questions that center around that place and date and books like this one. Further, it purports to be a translation from earlier Persian materials and my own work has turned from Renaissance sources to classical Arabic writings on music and translations from earlier traditions. But as with so many stories that look a little too neat on their surface, I actually got to these princes and their mid-16th-century Venetian origin as I researched the history of the concept of serendipity, not through my work as a scholar of the Renaissance or any prior familiarity with the tale.
As students and academics, we often describe ourselves by what we do: our prospective majors, our areas of research, the departments we call home. As a new member of the Bowdoin community, I would like to take a moment to introduce my work to you and offer some thoughts on my understanding of the importance of serendipity in its sense of "unexpected discovery through keen insight."
In a dinner conversation, when asked what it is I "do," the exchange goes something like this:
"I'm a professor." (Even as a dean, I hope to continue to think of myself in this way.)
The response: "Oh, what do you teach?"
My answer: "Music."
Here, I have committed my first sin of simplification and misrepresentation because the inevitable follow-up question is:
"What do you play?"
To this I apologetically reply that I played the oboe in a former life, that I still very much enjoy playing and singing, but that I'm a musicologist. Specifically, I'm a music theorist. At that point, my conversation partner either glazes over slightly, looks at his or her now-empty glass, and moves on ... or I try to explain what it is that I do.
As I already hinted, much of my research has been centered in the Renaissance. The original attraction was my engagement and fascination with a series of pieces that I first heard, performed, and studied as an undergraduate. In some ways I have been grappling with that fascination ever since. In retrospect what is most memorable about my encounter with this distant music was that it allowed me to consider music not only, nor even primarily as sound, but in its broader cultural contexts. From a dissertation that was a detailed analytical study of the sacred works of a single composer (Josquin des Prez), I found myself drawn into a study of writing about music, and writers about music, in the Renaissance. That opened a world of thinking about the visual ways music could be represented in early printed books, and the potential political and theological agendas that music might advance. And in turn, that took me to a theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino, who was also a composer—and to Venice and the 1550s—with an edition and first modern performance of an extraordinary group of works. (There, you have it in a nutshell, graduate school to full professor.) But even as I moved ever deeper into the Renaissance world, I was drawn out in two new directions, again to writing and thinking about music, in classical Arabic texts on the one hand, and to nineteenth-century women writers about music on the other. I have begun to think about writings on music that translate an older tradition, and I have come to understand that those works—which I expected to act in a way as guidebooks to unfamiliar and even lost musical repertories—are often using music as a way to transmit and explain ideas. Music becomes the means of translating an intellectual tradition as classical texts on music are explored and reshaped in a new context. This for me has offered a profound insight in understanding a difficult relationship in which writing, on the one hand is explaining music, but music, on the other hand, offers the means of explaining ideas.
In reflecting on my best work, what strikes me is the role that serendipity has played, offering not only the opportunity, but the imperative to move in unexpected directions. Thus the fable with which I began this talk resonates in my personal intellectual journey. The Three Princes of Serendip was published in mid-16th-century Venice, a time, a place, and a culture to which I have devoted countless hours (and from which at some moments I have wondered if I would ever emerge). But I confess as I prepared for this talk, thinking at first that it would be reflective, I found myself carving out time in the last few hectic and overscheduled weeks to read on the fascinating history of "serendipity" as a word, on the role of serendipity in sociology and the sciences, and even a children's bedtime-story version of the fable. So to draw together the first two words of my title, "serendipity" and "knowledge," I would offer this advice to you as the class of 2010: Equip yourself for serendipity moments. Know, expect, and react rightly when you encounter them, as you certainly will. I don't mean this in the vague sense in which the word "serendipity" is often used to mean "happy accident" but in the specific sense I have described of discovery that brings to bear, and into relation, all of one's knowledge in unexpected ways, the discovery that is made possible by a keenness of observation and putting together information in new and unable-to-be-predicted relationships. The corollary to that advice is to find the courage not only to choose and follow those paths, but, as did the princes of my fable, to allow the encounters on those paths to shape a quest for knowledge that grows to wisdom, for developing habits of mind, for forging a way of living.
You, the Class of 2010, are the first Bowdoin class to embark on a new curriculum. The faculty has spent the last few years in an engaged, creative, and sometimes heated conversation about a liberal arts education at Bowdoin. The result, it seems to me, embodies what the Offer of the College stands for as cast for the 21st century. While the cynical among us may view the positioning of such statements as the Offer of the College as mere "branding," historical documents do, in fact, hold long influence in defining institutions and the ways in which they function and identify themselves. Thus our new curriculum reflects a 21st century understanding of the opening line of the Offer—To be at home in all lands and all ages—by asking you to "explore social difference" and "international perspectives." Similarly, requirements in "inquiry in the natural sciences" and "visual and performing arts" may be seen as a response to counting Nature a familiar acquaintance, and Art an intimate friend.
These are heady claims about knowledge and paths to knowledge. And the king in our fable was right to ask how he would measure the success of his sons' education. That brings me to the third element in the triad of my title: community. What of the penultimate claims of the Offer: to lose [oneself] in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends?
Even when painted in strokes as broad as those of this address, I realize that a description of my research has the potential to seem arcane, even self-indulgent—a nostalgia perhaps for a time when music and its study held a central role in education; special pleading for a return to that role even in a post-enlightenment epistemology. And it also runs the risk, frankly, of being deemed irrelevant. As you first years have chosen and registered for courses over the last couple of days, the specificity of many of the titles may have given you pause. For in our day and age, the pursuit of knowledge, the so-called "life of the mind," seems indelibly marked by specialization and, with it, a sense of fragmentation and the potential for being overwhelmed by rapid change and the production of new information. This even as the catch phrases across academic culture these days are words like "interdisciplinary" study and "integrated" learning.
As I have come to know Bowdoin over the past few months, one of my first impulses (which perhaps says something about who I am) was to wonder what those ellipses in the Offer of the College appearing on the Bowdoin Web site represented, and how Hyde's statement had been adapted for its present use. So I located a copy of The College Man and College Woman, a collection of lectures and addresses first published exactly a century ago by William DeWitt Hyde, seventh president of Bowdoin. Much of Hyde's prose feels decidedly from another time and place, but it is striking to read in his lines the need for an engagement with community.
The main reliance of a college for its molding of men and women is not preaching or exhortation, still less rules and regulations, least of all threats and penalities; but actual living, in an atmosphere of freedom, where each person has returned to him frankly, swiftly, mercilessly, the ... judgment that his acts invite and his character deserves. The ethical ... fruits of a college course, likewise are ... to be measured mainly ... by those deep-grooved sub-conscious habits of good-fellowship and courtesy, kindliness and courage, thoroughness and patience, sincerity and sympathy, servicableness and self-sacrifice, which ... are the marks of the true College Man and College Woman. (The College Man and College Woman, ix)
Hyde's words reflect the paradoxical nature of the individual "life of the mind" in tension with inherently collective "college." How do we hold the demands and desires of autonomy in balance with community?
As we begin this academic year, we re-form as an academic convocation committed to the pursuit of knowledge and the Common Good. It is a truly exciting moment to become part of the Bowdoin community. The strengths of the institution are manifold and clear: a sustained focus on intellectual engagement, a renewal of the campus with renovations and new construction, a heightened concentration on the arts, and an extraordinary legacy in the scholarly and artistic work of faculty, students, and alumni. ("Best Food" ratings don't hurt, either.) The challenge remains to solidify those strengths as a community, to sustain conversations across disciplinary and departmental divides, to engage, rather than merely to tolerate. I offer a final illustration from the fable with which I began: There were three princes on the journey, each possessing complementary gifts and skills of a very special nature. In the course of their journey, each was able to contribute in ways that were interpreted and built upon by another in unexpected ways. Their ultimate achievement and the individual rewards accrued depended on their collective success.
I feel deeply honored to join the Bowdoin community along with those of you in the class of 2010. I share with you the anticipation of getting to know and learning from and with the faculty here, of pursuing knowledge with an openness to unexpected discovery seasoned by keen insight, of being willing to allow those discoveries to take me in unplanned-for directions, of tackling the hard work of explaining my own research and learning about that of others and understanding how it fits together, and, most of all, of losing myself in generous enthusiasms while cooperating with others for common ends.
¹Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo; tradotto dalla lingua periana in lingua italiana da M. Christoforo Armeno (Venice: Michele Tramezzino, 1557). The work appeared in a series of translations and republications in German, French, and English into the eighteenth century. For a modern English translation, see Theodor Remer, ed., Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio of 1557 (Norman, OK, 1964). A condensed retelling by Richard Boyle appears at livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm. The work was also adapted as a pair of children's books by Elizabeth Jamison Hodges titled The Three Princes of Serendip (New York, 1964) and Serendipity Tales (New York, 1966).