Colleges and Universities

Rewriting the Single Story

May 16, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the keynote address during the 2019 Georgetown University Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Ceremony on May 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you and congratulations to all the inductees and graduates, and to all families and faculty who are here.

Future graduates, I hope you’re proud of the ways that you’ve given and grown in this place and space and time.

Our family is exceptionally proud of our daughters Sarah, Caroline (Class of 2020), and Lizzie (Class of 2019) who truly created her own education here, with her distinct voice and choices and stride, supported mentored by superb and caring professors like Marc Howard, Elizabeth Velez, John Hirsh, Sarah Stiles, Pamela Fox, Joan Riley, Marcia Chatelain, and many more.

It’s an honor to be with you today. Almost every day I give thanks for Georgetown University and the gifts it has given me since 1979.

Of course, over four decades, much has changed. For example, during my college years, Copley Lawn had a parking lot, Healy Hall had a pub, and Village B had a roof.

At the same time, much has stayed the same. Back then, Patrick Ewing was the biggest man on campus, Fr. Otto Hentz was the coolest man on campus, and the baddest man on campus was a power-lifting, Springsteen-quoting Ph.D. dude named Jack DeGioia—all 100 percent true today.

Back then, this Phi Beta Kappa chapter was active. We called it “Club Lau”—and, little known fact, it turns out that the more hours you spent in Lau as an undergraduate, the more you actually begin to look like Lau in your older years. I know it’s hard to wrap your minds around this concept right now, but don’t worry, I’m sure there’ll be a treatment when you get to my age.

Induction into Georgetown’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter isn’t just an honor; it’s really another form of the invitation extended to all Georgetown students—to live “the life of the mind for the life of the world,” as the Carroll Fellows Initiatives puts it.

In fact, that’s a very big idea—a larger “why” for learning and research that will fuel your best and most brain-building work far better than plain old careerism.

For me, helping people emerged as my life’s calling thanks to countless Georgetown forces—the professors who taught me, and the life partner I met here in Karen Herrling, and, more recently, the students I taught and the colleagues I teamed up with. From 2003-2011, Karen and I raised our children in Copley Hall as faculty in residence, truly a joy, and I taught more than 1,000 students in those years while also working with Dr. DeGioia on strategic development.

Giving all that up in 2011, making a change and moving to Franklin & Marshall College, was only possible because of the belief, which I hope we share, that we don’t leave behind the best of Georgetown but rather take it with us, going out to set the world on fire, always more than ourselves because of the vision this university instills.

In 2003, right in this hall, English Professor John Glavin gave one of the greatest lectures I’ve ever heard when, after pointing out the alumni names enshrined on the walls that surround us, he reminded the assembled faculty that the young cannot be their own ideal. It is to role of educators to orient the imaginations of the young towards others who are applying their Georgetown education in the world beyond the campus walls, the society toward which the John Carroll statue is directed.

One hopes that your professors and educators will be such role models for you, as they were for me—but also, this weekend, the deans have done an exceptional job selecting Commencement speakers who have chosen the eminent path of living lives of service. I’d like to say a few words about some of your speakers in the hope of drawing out a theme I see running through this weekend and, indeed, your Georgetown years.

First, there’s the College’s speaker, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Idichie. Maybe some of you are among the five million who have viewed her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” by which she means totalizing narratives that silence and overwhelm the voices of others, limiting the “possibility of connection as human equals.”

Chimamanda tells us, as a child in Nigeria, she believed that literature was always and only written in English, was always and only about white people, and was always and only set in parts of the world she had never seen. Of course, she learned the truth early and became a great author—but first she had to free herself from that single dominant narrative that wrote her out of existence.

Chimamanda tells us that the power and poison of single story grows with its repetition. Soon the single story with its stereotypes or erasures isn’t a story at all; it’s just the way things are. Like, for example, the story that America’s westward expansion is the realization of something called manifest destiny and not genocide. Or the story that America has two kinds of people: makers and takers. Or the story that women own the household while men get the public stage. Or the story that immigrants are taking American jobs when in fact what they’re doing is renewing American values.

By creating her voice, Chimamanda confronted and overcame the danger of the single story. We will get to honor her and hear her this Saturday. Now she’s working to amplify and elevate more African voices. A major take-away of her TED Talk is that it’s on us to use our critical judgment and intellectual abilities to reject the notion of single stories and thus bring more voices and perspectives to the table.

This leads me to think about the other single stories that some of this weekend’s other speakers have deconstructed.

Take Brian Ferguson, Class of 2018, who spoke today. The single story of the American incarcerated is that they’re a menace to society, each capable of the worst that any of them could do. That they may be parents or poets, mentors or leaders, victims, or searchers, or creators is not the working story of the penal system. That story, the single story, is that they must be confined and contained, stamped and surveilled, but never that they are teachers or souls in flight or, God-forbid, wrongly convicted.

Because of our fellow alumnus Brian Ferguson’s story, we know differently.

Then there’s McCourt School of Public Policy speaker José Andrés, the renowned chef. The single story in disaster relief circles was that people like him should donate money and leave life-saving work to the experts. Instead, José Andrés created World Central Kitchen which has served 3,000,000 healthy meals in Puerto Rico when so many others have looked away and blamed Puerto Ricans for their predicament.

One more…  School of Foreign Service speaker, Madeleine Albright, who just published her sixth book, Fascism: A Warning. Secretary Albright shows how would-be dictators try to create politically persuasive single stories, always brimming with scapegoats and drivel, to justify seizing power and silencing others. Her warning to us is to step up and say no to the single story of political actors who demonize the vulnerable, criminalize dissent, attack the press, and politicize the military—all in the service of a single story made up of friends and enemies, patriots and traitors. When we tell a single story about a person or people often enough, Chimamanda warns, the story is what they become. When a regime does so, Albright shows, whole peoples can be ignored and erased.

I’m speaking of these themes to you today and at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony because I believe one of the responsibilities that comes with our Georgetown education is to insist that others not impose single stories upon our world today. This is not easy. It requires us to think critically, marshal evidence, and speak up.

This is one of the eminent purposes for which you’ve been preparing yourselves through all these years of study and scholarship—to live the life of the mind for the life of the world. I know it is not easy, and there are days when other people complain that you are ruining a simple, even beautiful story by saying that the truth is not univocal. But it is essential to our society. Single stories will hold us back…and sometimes the person most invested in a single story is not a public figure or a writer but, to get to the heart of my speech, the person in the mirror.

What happens when we’re in the thrall of a single story and yet don’t see it that way? How do we break out? The answer is that we need help from others and the perspectives they offer, always available to us if we practice open-mindedness and empathy.

Which brings me back to my earlier remarks about the story of Georgetown University, this place that I will always revere.

For years I have told myself and my students a story that I held and believed but didn’t really interrogate, a story with three telling facts.

The first was that our founder John Carroll came to the colony of Maryland—the best colony for Catholics in a time of religious persecution—and rejected the notion of creating an enclave for Catholic boys in favor a learning community “open to students of every religious profession” and all economic backgrounds, with course catalogues in three languages besides English.

The second fact was that our first student, William Gaston, used his education to become a prominent abolitionist in North Carolina.

And the third was that, after the Civil War, President Patrick Healy, who was the first African American to lead a major university, reunited blue and gray and fashioned Georgetown into a modern research institution.

These three facts served a larger story, to put it simply, that Georgetown had always been a progressive institution, ahead of its times, and far more inclusive and less discriminatory than our peers—and thus that our heritage, our story, predicts and promotes our most progressive and inclusive actions today.

Just as this institution is a part of me, so too this story has been a part of me. I’ve told it as a member of a team throughout the 2000’s seeking to develop Georgetown for our future and in support of relatively new resources that were here for you during your Georgetown years, like the Center for Social Justice, the Georgetown Scholars Program, our relationship with the Cristo Rey Schools, and our branch campus in Qatar.

A compelling story—a single story—an incomplete story. That story required us not to know that in 1838 the Jesuits of Maryland, including two presidents of Georgetown, sold 272 children, women, and men into the Deep South—separating families—in blatant contradiction of the professed commitment of the Church then and now to uphold human dignity. And not knowing this story means we don’t know the story of these 272 human beings and their descendants who lived then and now in communities throughout the south, in brutally unjust conditions, in slavery and after, a legacy that still exists today. These stories are part of Georgetown’s too, and yours and mine, and America’s.

It is early, but, with the descendants, and their stories, a new narrative is emerging. The original story was inspiring to some—to me—but it is incompatible with the human facts that have come to light and so, because it is incomplete, morally incomplete, it is incorrect.

As an alumnus, I admire the University and President DeGioia for seeking out a path forward, and I admire the student body for holding the referendum about reparations. It’s extraordinary that so many students engaged the question and chose to vote. How any of you voted individually is far less important to me than the fact that you voted though a process of dialogue and debate.

Few people could possibly have been more invested than me in the original story, because I thought it was both true to my values and my alma mater’s and also practically relevant to the differences Georgetown can and should seek to make in our contemporary world. But the story isn’t true. There’s so much more to learn, and new lessons to apply today. That work is just beginning and it doesn’t have a playbook.

But here’s the point of this talk, which I think you as students have already shown that you understand. It’s that a true story is a song sung by many voices, sometimes soaring and sometimes solemn, always inclusive. Or, more to the point, our identities aren’t so fragile that they need to be held up with incomplete or false narratives.

As we look to the words above the entrance of Lauinger, we see, “The truth shall set you free.” We believe that freedom and truth are stronger building blocks with which to construct the great civic ideals and institutions of the future than the wormy wood of ignorance. It’s likely that the new story will be even more relevant for Georgetown’s future service than the old one.

When we liberate ourselves from a single story, we are not necessarily damaging admired or beloved institutions. In most cases, and certainly in this one, we are renewing them.

We gain because we gain understanding and inclusive community. We gain because we make more stable both our institutional foundations and our personal foundations as members of an institutional community. We gain because we can build a better tomorrow out of genuine, open, inclusive understandings of the many stories that matter.

As a student body, you showed the power of rewriting Georgetown’s single story—our single story—by doing your part to engage the question of our individual, collective, and institutional responsibilities to make reparations for an inhumane practice and crime that helped save the college that grew into the university that helped shape each one of us. Hoya Saxa. To the Class of 2019, from one member of the Class of 1983, thank you.