This scenario was offered in 1939 by a thinker and writer named Kenneth Burke to illustrate the unfolding drama of language. Burke, as it happens, has connections to Penn State. He did a little teaching here, and when he died in 1992 the library acquired his papers. If you go into the special collections room at the library, you'll see a very large bust of him.
Burke refers to this imagined scene in the parlor as the "unending conversation."
This unending conversation can be read as a metaphor for life, in the sense that everything is ongoing, then we arrive, and after we depart, everything will still go on.
But the unending conversation is mainly about the give-and-take of discussion, of deliberation. Conversations like the one Burke describes go on everywhere in your lives, and in the next four years, they will continue to play out in your classrooms, on your Facebook pages, and in your civic spaces. As you well know, and as Burke knew too, these conversations can get heated; they can get gritty. They also involve everyone around us, including those with whom we disagree and those who might agree with us.
A heated--very heated--set of discussions is going on, not just at Penn State, but about Penn State. Like it or not, each one of you has been drawn into that conversation. And while that conversation may be the loudest right now, it is not the only one.
Over the next four years, you will participate in all kinds of conversations, and one of the most important things your college education will help you do is to prepare you to respond, to equip you to figure out what's being said, what values are being defended or cast aside, and what you might want to say about it all.
You'll recall Burke's scenario marks out a period of listening. Learning to listen to people who think differently from you might be one of the most important lessons of higher education. Too many people flee from disagreement, thinking it's rude or scary. But disagreement is crucial for a smart, thriving citizenry. Taking the time to listen is crucial; listening will improve the conversation; listening will help you reflect on what is really at issue in the conversation, and it will lead to more thoughtful responses when you decide to put in your oar. When disagreement is cast in terms of good and evil and the discussion becomes so polarized that it devolves into shouting or name calling, that's when we are in trouble.
Your education will also help you become better participants in conversations, because the courses you take here and the disciplines you study will give you ways to find out what you think and help you know when to put in your oar: in a philosophy course you might inquire into belief itself; a history course will help you examine conversations from the past; a literature course will introduce you to some of "the best that has been thought and said"; a chemistry course will show you how to test knowledge through rigorous experimentation; a sociology course will give you tools to learn about how people interact, and so on. All, I contend, will help you be a better participant in these ongoing conversations. You will leave here knowing more stuff, sure, but the important thing is that you leave here not necessarily knowing what to think, but how to think, how to really ruminate over hard questions, and how to do this for yourself and in relation to others who are different from you. This, to me, is the lasting value of the education you are about to begin: all the knowledge you will acquire, make, and deliberate about will help you become more thoughtful, active, respectful, and emphatic citizens in your communities, your countries, and in your world. On behalf of the Penn State faculty, I welcome you to the university and encourage you to embrace the intellectual challenges of this lively, unending conversation.