Retiring Professor of Sociology, Kersti Yllo, talks about what students should prize in the Wheaton tradition of education and why a sense of purpose should be more important than finding your passion.
May 5, 2016
Professor of Sociology
I’ve spent a surprising amount of time thinking about this talk, this ceremony and this place - and I’m honored to be here. This is quite an important place and it’s a beautiful space. And as I thought about it, I realized that I see this chapel as a sacred space. But I don’t mean sacred in the traditional, religious sense of the word. I definitely don’t think of it as sacred in the way I’m sure the other Wheaton sees their chapel as sacred. I mean “sacred” in the sense that Emile Durkheim – French founding father of Sociology – conceived it. Durkheim distinguished between the sacred and the profane; profane - not like swearing is profane- but profane meaning the everyday, mundane aspects of our lives: classes, cell phones, workouts, laundry. But the sacred is a space apart - one that has real meaning for us and inspires a sense of awe and deeply felt community. That’s why we gather here today - in this important place.
We gather here for rites of passage that honor the academic freedom, inquiry and excellence that we value. Seniors, you began here on your first night at Wheaton for an initiation ceremony. We joined together here to welcome President Hanno into our academic community. And today we honor the wonderful work that you all have done.
We also gather here for the joy of musical performances – from our acappella groups to President Crutcher’s Klemperer Trio to Yo Yo Ma.
We also come together here in sorrow. I’ve been to many memorial services here. And you gathered here just a few months ago to remember your classmate Brandon Williams who was lost to us much too soon. Sharing the sadness of our losses here - together – helps, and makes us all stronger.
At other times we gather here when we are hurt and angry. A few years ago we had a painful and contentious community meeting here in response to a controversial sexual assault case. That led to a full transformation of our approach to rape. More recently, we’ve joined together here to express our outrage over racist and xenophobic graffiti and leaflets. Coming together doesn’t automatically fix things, but it does let us express our support for those who are violated and reaffirm the values we believe in. We’re a community committed to gender equality, racial justice and the sustainability of this planet. This space, more than any other, holds Wheaton’s values and collective emotions – its soul.
You may be wondering at this point why this talk is titled “Deep Wheaton”. For you techies out there – this isn’t a reference to the deep web. Deep Wheaton is a phrase coined by Dean Jack Kuzaj in his retirement talk last year – and I’ve thought about it quite a bit since then. I think “Deep Wheaton” incorporates all the values I’ve been talking about - but it is more than that. Deep Wheaton isn’t an abstraction – it’s all of the relationships we have that embody our values and our special sense of community. And I think it’s a community where friendship is the model and we generally prefer to be linked rather than ranked. Deep Wheaton is lived experience.
Now some of you are probably thinking that this whole “Deep Wheaton” idea is just too sappy, (Dean Jack does sometimes have sappy ideas) so let me be clear that I’m not naïve or nostalgic about it.
There’s no question that ours is not an ideal community, there’s a lot of “shallow Wheaton” for sure: gossip, yikyak, micro-aggressions and physical aggressions, misogyny, racism, homophobia. Sometimes it feels like it’s all over the place. But we stand against it. It’s shallow and it’s not who we are.
I’m also not nostalgic for some old “Wheaton Way” – the good old days. I’m not saying “make Wheaton great again!” I am proud of much of Wheaton’s history – after all, we were founded on the radical feminist idea that women can and should be educated. That’s still a great idea! But – back in 1835 - that meant young white women who knew how to act like “ladies”. Despite their education, they were expected to marry and find contentment as their husbands’ property. The lucky ones got to be Wheaton faculty.
Deep Wheaton does not mean yesterday’s Wheaton, even as we honor our liberal arts heritage - which is also our future. I do think that Deep Wheaton stands against the corporatization of higher education. I think faculty feel strongly that education is not a commodity, not a product that we are selling to consumers. Seniors – you didn’t buy a Wheaton degree, you earned it!
But that doesn’t mean that Deep Wheaton is an impediment to change – not at all! In fact, I think our deep Wheaton values and relationships are the main reason we are so good at change. Deep Wheaton fosters our resilience and flexibility, our creativity and ability to adapt and to change.
From the beginning we were committed to women’s education – yes - but we were a pretty parochial white “girls’ school”. We were wrong when we denied admission to Booker T. Washington’s daughter. And we were wrong when we had a quota on Jewish students. One of my students working in the archives even found a letter from President Cole’s wife to the admissions office warning against letting in too many Jewish students because, she wrote, “they’re just as bad as Methodists”! Say What?
Fortunately, Wheaton has changed - a lot. Our “girl’s school” became a women’s college with a feminist consciousness - and then became a coed college that recognized men as equals - who also had gender. And we’ve worked to become a more diverse, international and inclusive community - and in that process we’ve become better, much better. Change keeps an institution alive. I think that the many changes that are ahead – like the new curriculum - will be more powerful and productive if they are grounded in Deep Wheaton - in our values and our relationships.
But here’s the thing – Deep Wheaton isn’t a given; it’s not permanent; it’s not engraved on a plaque. As I said, Deep Wheaton is lived experience. It has to be created by faculty and students and staff in collaboration as we go about our daily lives here. We create this community every day in our mundane – or in Durkeheim’s term ‘profane’ – activities. And then we come together here, in this sacred space, to honor and celebrate what we’ve created.
So, it’s the end of the semester and here we are, together again, to celebrate academic achievement and, especially, the accomplishments of the senior class. And that means that change is ahead for you – and for me. You’ll be graduating and I’ll be retiring, along with my colleagues John Grady and Ed Gallagher. Prof. Gallagher is skipping these end-of-year celebrations. Apparently, he has an aversion to hearing people say nice things about him. And I’m afraid that Ed may be the last of the great Wheaton curmudgeons. (Newer faculty: think about filling this vacuum. I see some potential out there!)
And Seniors: We’re in the same boat – and that boat is leaving Wheaton. I’ve been teaching here for 35 years (ever since I was 11- a child prodigy.) And you all have been in school for 16 years - or more. And every year you pretty much knew what you were going to do the next year: go back to school. And now it ends – and I feel some real trepidation about that. But some trepidation in the face of change is normal and healthy (at least I hope it is, otherwise I’m in serious trouble.) It’s not easy when lots of well meaning people ask you ‘What are your plans? What are you going to do? You’re going to do what?’
You seniors know what I’m talking about.
I do admit that leaving Wheaton is a bit easier for me than for you. I don’t have to find a job. But, like you, I have to figure out what’s next.
Speeches like this one often end with the cliché of ‘follow your passion’. I’m not sure that’s always a good idea. Donald Trump is following his passion and I shudder to think where that may lead us! And I know exactly one person who was able to turn his passion for weed into an actual, legitimate career.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of passion – but not necessarily as a life guide. Instead of following a passion, find a purpose. Take your values and your talents and turn them into action in the world. As the great philosopher Mae West once said, ‘You only live once. But if you do it right – that’s enough!’
As we move on from Wheaton - this place we love - we can draw on the wellspring of Deep Wheaton. And we’ll be fine.
We’ll find out where we need to go by going.