Following a week of orientation, the 509-strong class gathered Tuesday, Sept. 9, in Lorimer Chapel, marking the 198th time first-years have gathered at Colby to open the academic year.
President David A. Greene said it was his hope that the students would learn to “find comfort with uncertainty, with the understanding that you might not always be right, that your long-held convictions might be flawed, that no one has a monopoly on good ideas.”
Posing hard, serious questions, Greene said, “is a sign of respect that requires careful listening and analysis.” He decried a trend toward silencing of speakers on college campuses. “There is no victory in shouting someone down, shutting someone out,” he said. “But there is revelation in the well-crafted query, the judiciously constructed argument.”
Greene introduced convocation speaker Associate Professor of Philosophy Lydia Moland, a Hegel scholar who teaches the philosophy of humor and began her speech with an old joke about an elephant camouflaged on a pool table.
Moland said a liberal arts education is the perfect training for the task of seeing others and embracing new ideas, even those that had been camouflaged by our own preconceptions. It was Hegel, she said, who was dismayed and disillusioned to see that the French Revolution, the seminal event of his time, proclaimed the need for equality but in action turned to violence and terror.
Hegel concluded that it was the abstractness of the revolutionaries’ ideals “that prevented them from recognizing their fellow citizens as human beings.” That realization prompted Moland to ask herself “what views do I hold that contradict my professed belief in human equality?” Citing the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, she said, “Of course I believe that these refugees, as human beings, are my equals. … But what more am I called on to do in order to ensure that my commitment to equality is not hollow or hypocritical?” – Gerry Boyle ’78
Lydia Moland: Hegelian Ethics and Comedy, Seriously
When new students hear Associate Professor of Philosophy Lydia Moland address the 198th First-Year Convocation Sept. 8—the formal beginning of their college career—they’ll be exposed to two dimensions of Colby’s extraordinary faculty: the intense scholar, intellectual, and author of an important book on Enlightenment philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and a compassionate, often downright jovial colleague whom students and faculty members respect and love to hang out with.
“She combines wisdom and wit, and that’s symbolized by the Comedy, Seriously humanities theme that she led in 2012 and ’13,” said Kerill O’Neill, associate professor of classics and director of Colby’s Center for the Arts and Humanities. “She was able to look quite seriously at what makes us laugh. She can make students engage with very serious ideas in profound ways and moments later make them explode with laughter,” he said.
In her address, Moland said, she will begin with a joke (fittingly, she teaches a popular course called The Philosophy of Humor) but will move on to Hegel and how his political and moral philosophy stressed the need for people to truly recognize each other’s humanity.
Just 19 years old and a college student at the time of the French Revolution, Hegel had great hopes that the call for equality would help turn Europeans from subjects to citizens. Instead it unleashed a reign of terror, a tragic turn of events the cause of which the young philosopher sought to understand.
“One of the things that Hegel predicted is that the modern world would continue to generate new ways in which we need to recognize each other,” Moland said. His writings have relevance to today’s crises, from race to police shootings to the refugee crisis in Europe, she said.
“I think it’s really easy for us to say that all humans are created equal. But what does it really mean when we know that there is a refugee crisis going on, to really recognize those people?” Moland asked. “We don’t think, ‘How did they get there? What would I do in that situation? What kind of resources do I have to address this?’ I think Hegel would say … if you don’t engage in that way, you’re not actually recognizing those people as human beings.”
The liberal arts in particular, she said, are very good at helping us recognize our place in the world more concretely. That, she said, is “the shared project we have at Colby.”
Moland’s students have embraced that shared project. Benjamin Hill ’13, a philosophy and German studies double major, appreciates the same duality in his former professor and mentor that O’Neill observed. “A serious scholar she is,” he said via email from Germany, where he’s working as a writer, translator, and tutor. “She is a great teacher: methodical, organized, able to break down complex material (I’m looking at you, moral philosophy texts) into digestible lectures with plenty of participation, putting lots of weight on our abilities to give presentations.” But she’s also “more relatable than any teacher I think I’ve ever had in my life … one of the coolest teachers on campus.”
Moland earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston University and joined Colby’s faculty in 2008. Her book, Hegel on Political Identity: Patriotism, Nationality, and Cosmopolitanism, considers patriotism as a component of practical identity, not only historically but also in contemporary society. She takes her study of Hegel’s idealism and applies it to our current collective and national ethical obligations.
An example was her civic engagement course Philosophical Approaches to Global Justice, in which the class studied the history of the native Wabanaki tribes of northern New England and Atlantic Canada. After 90 percent of the Wabanaki died between 1616 and 1619, and after governments took native children away from families to force cultural assimilation up until the 1950s, Moland asks the philosophical questions “What is our collective responsibility?” and “Can it be rectified?”
“She can make students engage with very serious ideas in profound ways and moments later make them explode with laughter.”
Taylor Associate Professor Kerill O’Neill
Such deliberations require intellectual heavy lifting, and to what end? “We don’t want to be sending our students into the world without their having thought very carefully about the history and the theory and all of the complexities that go into these things,” she said discussing her work at an inauguration faculty showcase event in 2014. “We want that knowledge to engender some humility, as well as adventurousness.”