121st Academic Year of Concordia College
9:20 a.m. September 1, 2011
Play Your Part
Good morning! To the greetings of our provost and our student president I add my own to all: returning students, faculty, staff, community members and, in particular, the Concordia College class of 2015.
The president has a part to play in this ceremony: to speak the college’s call to engagement. You know already that our faculty have designed a curriculum to challenge you to become responsibly engaged in the world. But the title of my talk (Play Your Part) may seem strange to you: At the call to engagement, at this formal and formative moment, is the president telling us to go out and play? Here is my short answer: Yes.
Consider with me some ordinary uses of the verb to play:
- play piano
- play second fiddle
- play soccer
- play the fool
- play the field, which means something different in Little League than it does in your love life
- play a fish
- play hard
- play hard to get
- play false
- play fair
- play on words
The origins of the word are not fully clear, but it may well come from an Anglo-Saxon verb that means to move briskly and, later, from a Middle Dutch word that means to dance, to leap for joy (Mac Dashboard Dictionary; OED).
But I expect that my title for today sounded strange to many because so often the word play is not associated with what really matters—or with what is good. It evokes idleness, as in "stop playing around and get to work." More troubling, it has for a long time been used to express a kind of manipulation. In Hamlet, when two of the prince’s friends have turned to spies against him, he shoves a recorder into the face of one of them and says, "Play it. " The friend says, "I can’t," and then Hamlet replies,
Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play me. (3.2.355-57)
So playing is linked not only with idleness but also with unscrupulous control of others. And it is linked more broadly with fakery in general. Back to Hamlet: When he returns to Denmark and puts on a suit of black, his anxious mother urges him to cast off his mourning clothes. But his response is that he is not playing at grief. He is no actor: he is the real thing.
So why am I telling you to play your part? I am telling you to play because in the liberty of mind and spirit suggested by the word you may begin to discover who you are and the roles you are to enact here at Concordia and in the larger world. In a book called Not for Profit, read by our faculty and staff this summer, philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes an argument that what we learn in the humanities (in studying literature, language, religion, philosophy, history) and what we learn in the creative arts is essential for our lives as citizens. It may surprise you then that in the midst of this serious argument, she writes a lot about play, describing it as a space that "connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety" (101). Play allows us to take risks.
Children’s play almost always involves some kind of border crossing. Do you remember Lucy crossing through the wardrobe into Narnia? Play imagines other worlds, as do the sciences and the arts you will encounter here at Concordia. Good scientists and mathematicians will tell you how crucial it is to be able to try something, to see if a different vision of how things are will work; likewise for poets and those who love their work. Poets deal in metaphor, another Greek word, meaning to carry across. When Shakespeare begins his 73rd sonnet like this—"That time of year thou mayest in me behold,/ when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang"—he carries the reader across from the fading of a human life to the dying of the year, both of them sad, and both of them beautiful. Play then connects us to the rest of life, enhancing our sight, and leading us into wonder. You will soon learn that the first goal of the common curriculum at Concordia is to instill a love of learning in our students. Wonder is where that love begins.
But playing a part? That still sounds suspicious. So I want to talk about a different sort of part playing: the kind that allows you to imagine and even try on another identity. Further goals for Concordia’s core curriculum challenge you to make connections across cultures and to seek a more fully examined understanding of your self. There is in my experience no better place than a liberal arts college to imagine yourself anew. I mean this in two ways: First, you will meet people here who are in some significant ways not like you—they come from different homes, schools, states, countries, cultures, faiths. Listen to them; study their culture; take the risk to imagine what it would be like to be them, to play their part—you will find your world is extended. Second, imagine your own part changing, perhaps not as you expected when you arrived: College is filled with those for whom a room suddenly opens, and a different life appears—the accounting major who goes to seminary, the gifted musician who falls in love with physics, the religion major who feels compelled to study law.
And now to close with one last form of playing a part. In 1516, Thomas More, chancellor to King Henry VIII, published a book about an imaginary world, Utopia. It begins in a garden in the Netherlands, where More and a friend are talking to the man who has just returned from Utopia, full of wisdom about how a commonwealth should be governed. More urges this philosopher to make himself counselor to a king but, he replies, in effect: "Are you crazy? No king will listen to me and change his foolish ways." But note More’s answer: "There is a form of philosophy," he tells the visitor, "which knows its stage; adapts itself to the play in hand, and performs its role . . . appropriately" (49-50). More is talking about being a player in the sense that we mean when we compliment an athlete—"She’s a player," meaning that she knows the game, knows herself, knows how to make moves that recognize the resistance she faces but that are not overwhelmed by it. The concluding goal of your Concordia curriculum is this: To encourage responsible participation in the world. Again, how does this happen?
In April of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail, a letter to clergymen who had accused him of being "unwise and untimely" in leading the demonstrations that led to his being imprisoned. King responds to their complaint with a courageous defense of nonviolent resistance. But equally striking is the fact that the nonviolent protests were carefully staged, and thoroughly rehearsed. King explains "four basic steps [in a civil rights campaign]: collection of the facts . . . ; negotiation; self purification; and direct action." He says that each participant was led through "a series of workshops" and asked whether she or he could play the part that would be facing all the demonstrators: "Can you accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" (African Studies Center). Even the time of year was carefully staged: the Easter season, when any reduction in shopping would have hit businesses hard.
Playing your part does not always require resistance, but it always requires humility (in the form of recognizing that what you thought was so, for you and for the world, may not be) and courage (in the form of taking risks in your learning and in your life as a citizen and a professional). As I call you to engagement, I am calling you not to falsehood but to art: imagine your life, imagine the lives of others, learn everything you can about the play in which you find yourself, and work to see, to know, to act for your own good and that of your neighbor.
Play your part.
King, Martin Luther. "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."
More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Edward Surtz, S. J. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964.
Nussbaum, Martha A. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2010.
"Play." Mac Dashboard Dictionary.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Pelican Shakespeare. Ed.
Willard Farnham. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 73." In The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore
Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.