The Courage to Chart a Different Course

Carol Quillen and Student at Commencement

Thanks to our incredible community, Davidson held a commencement ceremony on May 11. What a gift it was to share some thoughts with these amazing graduates! Below is an edited excerpt from those remarks.

Our society is fragmented and a lot of us like it. Many in this country are demonstrating by the daily choices we make that we prefer to eat, pray, snapchat and even read online news with people who are pretty much just like us. 

We don’t seem to value pluralism. Some of us resist even thinking about crossing lines of class or race or religion or wealth or party. As a result, efforts to build a more just and humane world stall. The status quo prevails. 

This fragmentation is happening in part because of the expectations we bring when we engage with one another.

Think about it. We go in battle-ready. We willfully misrepresent the points of view of people with whom we disagree. We distort what actually happens, just to make our point. When we’re talking with strangers or with people with whom we might disagree, we listen for indicators that let us put this person in a box. Is this person a gun owner? An immigrant? Is this person pro-life or pro-choice, friend or foe to Donald Trump, for or against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act? 

Our society loves the clarity of a litmus test. Many of us want to classify everyone into stark categories: ally, alien, enemy. 

This is not a great way to have a conversation. It’s combative. It’s often disingenuous. It easily devolves into cynicism or contempt for democratic institutions. And if you’re a person who likes to learn, it’s stultifying. 

Every person is more than one position, one cause, one attribute. We’re each more than one thing. To cram us into a box, you usually have to hack off an arm. 

At Davidson we aspire to be different. Many of you during your time here have lived with people who think, pray and dress differently from you. You’ve sought this out. And, guided by the example of our faculty, you’ve engaged people across fields, discarding long held assumptions and devising new framings for old problems.  

Davidson’s Statement of Purpose calls us to cultivate humane instincts. This means that in our initial posture toward other people, we are open and generous, called not to judge or label but to connect, especially with those with whom we disagree, even with those whose views we despise. Say you and I vehemently disagree on abortion. Maybe we’re also both parents who want good public parks. If we get stuck on our disagreement, we’ll never know we have common ground. And that park? It won’t get built. 

This year has challenged our ability to cultivate humane instincts. The pandemic scared us and made us feel helpless and alone in the face of enormous loss. You lived through this with compassion and courage. 

While I know it’s the last thing you want to do, I’m asking you to remember these feelings—the fear, the isolation, the helplessness. Because there are a lot of people who live with such feelings every day. And all of us feel these things sometimes. 

If you remember how fear can make us lash out, and how helplessness can make us look for someone, ANYONE, to blame—if you remember these feelings, what it’s like to feel them and how you worked through them, then your humane instincts will grow robust. You will find common ground that no one else can see, and you will courageously chart a path to a more just and humane future for all. 

Carol E. Quillen


This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2021 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.


  • June 21, 2021