USC New Student Convocation

August 19, 2010
By C. L. Max Nikias

Welcome. I want to thank the members of USC’s freshman class, our transfer students, and our parents for being part of this very special occasion.

This ceremony is a rite of passage. Today we induct you into this academy, and we embrace you as scholars.

The gowns you wear today are more than merely costumes. They represent an unbroken chain uniting scholars of today with those of the Middle Ages.

While this ceremony contains echoes of the past, it is also a prelude to the future. Today we have gathered together in Alumni Park to signify the beginning of your academic careers at USC. In a few years, you will return here – again dressed in a gown – to celebrate your graduation from this noble university.

This morning I want to talk to you, about something you might find to be an unusual topic, at a highly-selective university such as USC.

Today I want to speak about literacy.

Prior to this century, literacy was merely a distinction between those who could read and write, and those who could not.

Literacy was a skill that differentiated the educated from the uneducated.

You, of course, know how to read and write. That’s clear. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But today, as students at one of America’s elite universities, you need to be literate not merely in the traditional meaning of the word.

I hope that during your time at USC you will become literate in imagination, in the world, in the arts, in digital media, in the great literary works, and, finally, in ethics. I believe you will find USC to be a place that helps you learn these literacies.

Let me begin with imagination. What is imagination? It has been called the beginning of all creation, a preview of life’s coming attractions, the eye of the soul, the voice of daring, the oxygen of the mind.

All of the world’s greatest breakthroughs emerged from the primal mist of imagination. Not so long ago, the things that are essential to your lives – the laptops you carry in your backpacks, the songs you can listen to, on your iPhones and iPods and iPads, the movies you can watch on your touch phones – were just the wisp of an idea.

Before taking material form, they appeared in the mind as a flash of intuition, a flicker of insight, a spark of imagination.

If imagination is so important, how do you nurture it? It is a living thing. Like all living things, it must be encouraged, developed, and cared for.

Scientists are learning more and more about the brain and creativity. In fact, there are professors here at USC who are pushing out the frontiers of research into creativity, and how it works in the brain.

But one thing is certain. Imagination doesn’t like routine. Imagination thrives on diversity, on variation, on change. To be truly imaginative, you will have to open yourselves up to the world, expose yourselves to new experiences, get yourselves out of your comfort zones.

That is true exploration, and we stand ready at USC to help you explore. Find creative people. Spend time with them. Take their classes. Seek out people—professors, your roommates, your classmates—who challenge you, who inspire you with their viewpoints and passions.

I urge you to explore as broadly as you can in your classes. And I’ll give you a little insider information. You may have declared a major. Or you may declare one, in a year from now.

But then you’ll take a course outside your major. And maybe that professor gets you all excited. Suddenly a whole wonderful world opens up. And you think, Oh, I want to major in this subject instead; I want to change majors, or I want to take a minor.

This may happen to you. Don’t feel guilty. Do your research and find out more about that major, talk to your advisor, then make your decision. My two daughters are both Trojans. While she was an undergraduate here, my elder daughter changed her major twice. My younger daughter, twice, too.
So students – and especially parents – don’t worry about this if it happens.
As you go forward from here, you’ll find that if you are literate in imagination, you will also be literate in exploration. And USC strongly encourages both of these.

Which is why you should also be literate in the world. And the best way to gain this knowledge is to travel.

Some of you may think travel is too expensive. But you can find deals even on a college student’s budget. Take an afternoon, or even a day, and go somewhere new. Find a week, and find a cheap flight to a foreign country.

As you travel, take Henry James’ advice and be “one upon whom nothing is lost.” Observe and absorb. Open your mind, and you will start becoming a true citizen of the world—a person at home in a global society, which will be a tremendous advantage for you.

USC offers many opportunities to study or volunteer abroad. You will also make friends with fellow students from around the world here on this campus, and you may get to visit their homes.

And know that as you travel, you will learn that the world around you has the power to shape the world within you.

The next area in which you should become literate is the arts. Although I am a career technologist, I have always had a passion for the arts. I believe that science and technology are tools toward an end, but great art is our end as fully mature human beings.

When I was a student, I immersed myself in the Greco-Roman classics—the plays, the chronicles, the myths, the poetry. The arts and the humanities shaped my views and helped define me as a person.

I believe in the power of art to transform us. I believe that the arts should not be located on the outskirts of our lives, but at the heart of our existence. The arts should not be part of life. They should be a way of life.

The arts and humanities are our teachers, helping us discern what it is to be truly human and to live together in human society. The arts will change you, and they will transform your relationship to the people around you.

You are very fortunate to be at USC, where artistry and creativity are constantly surging around you. Here we have five schools devoted solely to the arts along with a broad array of programs, courses, and majors in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

We also have Visions and Voices, our arts and humanities program, which I created four years ago just for our students. Visions and Voices allows you to attend music performances, film screenings, plays, art exhibitions, and lectures, both on campus and off.

At each event, you will participate in discussions with some of the world’s great poets, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and performers. And the great news is that all Visions and Visions events are free!

Regardless of your major at USC, I encourage you to graduate with an appreciation for, and a solid foundation in, the arts and humanities. I encourage you to become well-rounded.

The next area in which you should be literate is digital media. I don’t need to tell you this, of course. Yours is the generation of texting, and blogging, and social networking. Your world has always been connected and online.

At USC we are here to help you remain on the vanguard of new tools and new ways of communicating. We are here to encourage you to read or write or tell a story not just on a traditional page, but in new digital forms. We want you to express yourself by dipping your brush into digital media.

At the same time, however, remember that data is not wisdom, that sometimes more information can make us less informed.

Yes, we welcome the creators. But we also need the interpreters. I hope you will develop into people who can search through this constant stream of information to find the nuggets of wisdom. We need people who can analyze, examine, and explain. People who bring together information in new ways, people who can give it new meaning.

Many of you know how to use digital media better than your parents or professors do. You’re helping to blur the line between the teacher and the student.

We are all a community of learners now.

And we must all, together, keep pace with a world that is constantly speeding into the future, and we must innovate even as the tools of creation are constantly changing.
The fifth area in which you should be fluent is perhaps more similar to traditional literacy. And that is, great literature. A window into the human heart, the human condition, the human spirit, literature gives us insight into humanity’s hopes and dreams, passions and desires, triumphs and failures.

It has been said that books are not “lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on shelves.” By becoming literate in the great masters, you are engaging in a conversation with those minds.

As you explore new worlds of literature, you should converse with Homer as well as Hawthorne; with Shakespeare as well as Shaw; with Tolstoy as well as Twain; with Sophocles as well as Dickens; with Goethe as well as Austen.

Get to know the great characters of literature. Spend some time with Odysseus and Aeneas, the Man of La Mancha and the Great Gatsby, the Prince of Denmark and Anna Karenina. Let them live with you, move you, teach you.

I’m going to be your ally in this. Every April I will post a summer reading list for you on my Facebook page. This list will most likely contain my recommendation of a work from antiquity, another from later years, and something contemporary.

Remember that the best way to be well educated is to be well-read. A world awaits you in our libraries, in “the minds alive on shelves.”

Now let me talk to you, finally, about the one thing that makes all of the previous kinds of literacy worthwhile. And that is ethics.

Nearly twenty-two hundred years ago, the great Roman politician and philosopher Cicero sent his only son away to college. All the wealthy and powerful families in Rome wanted to send their sons to the famous Academy in Athens established by Plato 500 years earlier.

And Cicero wanted his son, Marcus, to enjoy the advantages of the finest education to be had anywhere.

Now, Marcus had been studying oratory and philosophy in Athens for a year when Cicero started to be concerned about his son’s education. You see, Marcus, like many students his age, was more interested in the social aspects of higher education. He was neglecting great ideas in favor of a good time.

So Cicero wrote an entire book of letters to his son to emphatically remind Marcus what his responsibilities were to himself, his family, and his society, and how best to lead an honorable life.

Cicero titled the book On Duties, or in Latin De Officiis. This was in fact Cicero’s last book. Even as he wrote it, he was aware that his opposition to the Roman emperor Mark Antony might risk his life. Within a few months, he would be executed.

Let me share with you some brief thoughts from Cicero that he hoped would be meaningful to his son, and that I hope might inform your early days at USC.

What, Cicero asks, distinguishes a man from a beast? Animals are moved only by their senses, and cannot perceive past or future. Humans, by contrast, possess a unique ability to reason, and to comprehend the chain of consequences, perceive the causes of things, and connect the present and the future.

A man “can therefore easily survey the course of his whole life and make the necessary preparations for its conduct.”

So to paraphrase Cicero: The choices you make today will shape the person you become tomorrow. The actions you take today will have consequences in the future. Use your reason to make honorable decisions–decisions that will benefit you, your family, and your society.

Cicero also tells his son, “We are not born for ourselves alone. We do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our friends, have a share in us.”

Today as you embark on your Trojan journey, remember that you do not live for yourself alone. Simply by virtue of your being human and living in human society, you have obligations to others—those closest to you and the wider human community.

And by enrolling in the University of Southern California you are now part of an extraordinary community called the Trojan Family.

All of you have come here from different geographic regions of the country or of the world. You have different majors and career goals. You have different beliefs and backgrounds. But what unites you—what unites all of us now—is our membership in one family . . . the Trojan Family. And that includes parents as well as students!
As the Trojan Family we enjoy an unusually deep and loyal bond to one another. You will see for yourselves. It is something very real and very special.

And like any family we also share traditions and pass them down from generation to generation. Let me close with one of these traditions.

It’s a simple gesture that all Trojans know. We lift up this sign when we see another Trojan on the street, anywhere in the world. It’s a gesture we all use whenever we hear the song “Conquest.”

You will know a true member of our family because they will flash the Trojan Victory sign and say, “Fight on!”

So on the count of three, let’s all raise our Trojan Victory sign and say those two words: One . . . two . . . three . . . “Fight On!”

Welcome to the Trojan Family. One of the best ways to understand what it means to be part of the Trojan Family is to get caught up in the spirit of campus, which is largely influenced by the athletic spirit. Go to games. Go to the Coliseum. Go to the Galen Center. Cheer our student athletes. Soak up the sights, the sounds, the experiences. Enjoy it all.

And as the new president of this noble institution, I commit to you, I will “Fight On”, always, for the very best interest of the University of Southern California.

Thank you.