Presidential Scholars Remarks 2006


Remarks by President John F. Schwaller
May 20, 2006

In both the Aztec tradition and in the Judeo-Christian tradition the notions of seasonality and the cyclical nature of the world play very important roles. Those of us who went to college in the 1960s cannot forget a passage from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes that was the basis for a popular song:


    To everything there is a season
A time for every purpose under heaven  

For the Aztecs we are living in the last of five creations of the world.  Each of these creations came to a devastating end.  The current epoch began when the gods gathered to do sacrifice to kindle the fires of the sun. 


    They gathered themselves together
And took counsel among themselves  

  Once they completed that task, the current cycle began.  The creation myth concludes as follows:


    When the sun came to enter the place where he set,
Then once more the moon moved.
So, there they passed each other
And went each one his own way.
The sun comes forth and spends the whole day at work;
The moon undertakes the night’s work.  

The cycles of time are deeply ingrained in the academic endeavor.  Our school calendar is based on an older agricultural cycle.  Children could attend school after the harvest and up until planting.  Modern societies have pushed both ends of that calendar so now we begin long before harvest and end long after planting. 

All of us who live in the academic community are deeply attuned to the cycles of time and seasons.  I remember the first time I was a Dean and did not teach a course in a fall term.  It was a tremendous shock.  For forty years I had entered into a fall semester ready to return to the classroom, first as a child in school, then high school, college, graduate school.  Except for the periods when I lived abroad engaged in research, every fall had brought with it the beginning of classes, the return to the classroom.  I was completely and totally out-of-tune with my environment.  Everyone else was preparing for the classroom, but I was not.  It was an odd sensation.  I realized how alienated an administrator could become from the academic enterprise, and vowed right then to prevent that from happening again to me if at all possible.  Subsequently there have been  a few falls in which I haven’t entered the classroom, but only a very few. 

Of course the coming of classes in the fall is but one type of cycle in which we live, the slow procession of seasons along an annual cycle.  Another cycle that bears on us is a larger cycle of growth and maturation.  As a child you grew in your family home.  Then you went off to grade school, middle school, and now college.  From here you embark on a new cycle.  The formal part of your education nears an end and the real, day-to-day education begins.

We tend to think of ourselves as unique, and our experiences as being different from all others.  Nevertheless, we recognize the commonalty of all peoples.  Among the Aztecs, the people I study, the cycle of life was not all that different.  Children were welcomed into their family homes with naming ceremonies, and given token gifts that represented their station in life.  Girls received brooms and implements for weaving cloth.  Boys received toy shields, bows, and arrows.  As small children they learned from their parents.  But at about 10 they went on to formal education.  Most children went to the calmecac, the house of ropes, to be trained in history, religion, and other liberal arts.  The children of the elite went to the telpochcalli, the house of youths, there they learned the same areas, but also warfare and statecraft, to be trained as warrior, leaders, and priests.

We envision times as divided into twelve months, into a year, and 100 years in a century.  The Aztecs, and many native peoples of Mexico used two daily calendars at the same time.  One was a ritual calendar for some religious ceremonies that had a 260 day year.  The other was similar to ours of 18 months of 20 days each with 5 left over days.  These two calendars would coincide every 52 years, which made up their century.  In our culture it was a tradition to name a child after the saint on whose day they were born.  So many Aztec children were named after the day on which they were born in the 260 day ritual calendar.  They would have names like five monkey, or two house. 

These cycles are deeply embedded in our culture and in our own psyche.  Living in a region where we have four very distinct seasons, we pay close attention to the passage of the seasons.  In tropical regions where the changes are more subtle, not so much attention is paid.  These cycles are so deeply embedded that we simply do not think of them often.  Yet they form the very weft and warp of the fabric of our existence. 

You all now stand at the intersection of cycles.  You will be leaving school to pursue your futures.  Some know what you’ll be doing, others are not so sure.  The moving on from Potsdam is surely a part of the cycle of your life that is a very natural and positive experience, if you allow it to be.  Whenever we stand on the verge of one cycle, one set of experiences, we are in a very unsettled state.  Many cultures fear these transitions.  In fact the ceremonies in which you all are participating and will participate are developed precisely because we fear these changes and need to control them with ceremony.  Ceremony allows us to feel that we control the change, we put structure onto flux.  Baptisms, confirmations, marriages, are all the response of the Church, and European culture writ large to try to control change.

The gods assembled at Teotihuacan to try to control change.  They took upon themselves the act of creation for a new world.  So now you stand at your own Teotihuacan.  We provide you with the structure and the ceremony within which to proceed but it is your responsibility to bring about the change, to create the new world.  Armed with your experiences here at Potsdam, the lessons learned and the ability to pursue life-long learning, I am confident that your new world will be a brave new world.

And so I would like to conclude with the words I am going to use at commencement, quoting from Garrison Keillor:  “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”  Remember that Potsdam is your home, and it’s always a good idea to keep in touch with home as you go through life.