Convocations showcase Centre’s engaging intellectual atmosphere
September 19, 2013 By Mariel Smith
Centre prides itself on its wide array of yearly convocations—these semi-formal talks, lectures, demonstrations and performances provide eye-opening and thought-provoking insights into a variety of subjects, from performing arts and literature to scientific discoveries and political theories.
All students are required to receive 12 convocation credits each year, a practice that promotes Centre's tradition of lifelong learning and curiosity outside the classroom. In the first three fall convocations alone, the breadth and depth of interesting and unique subject matter is apparent.
Daniel Alarcon – "Fiction and Reality: Inside Peru's Largest Prison"
Daniel Alarcon is a fiction and non-fiction writer who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up in the United States. Named one of the New Yorker Best 20 Writers Under 40, Alarcon writes about the political and social struggles of Latin American countries. His novel Lost City Radio explores violence and memory during the violent upheaval of 1980s and 90s Latin America. His newest book, At Night We Walk in Circles, will be released in October.
Alarcon co-founded Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language storytelling podcast, and most recently worked with University of California at Berkeley, where he served as a fellow in the investigative reporting program and the Center for Latin American Studies.
His talk blended readings of his fiction and nonfiction with pictures from his visit to Lurigancho, Peru's largest prison. He spoke at length about his experience in the prison, particularly the stories of many of the inmates and how these informed At Night We Walk in Circles.
"These people wagered on an idea and lost," he explained, "on a methodology for social change that failed miserably. They paid for that mistake with their lives. Most of them have been in prison since they were 18, and were now almost 40."
Alarcon described the overcrowded and chaotic nature of Lurigancho, where 11,000 men were crammed in a complex designed for 1,000. Open drug use, unregulated contraband and drug cartel bosses continuing their trade from within prison were all a normal part of daily life. With an average of 100 prisoners to every guard, policing of rules and regulations was virtually nonexistent.
The most fascinating thing about the prison for Alarcon was that it is run not with government money but with inmate income. Those incarcerated are required to buy a cell or rent one from someone else. Anything prisoners need to buy while locked up requires money from visitors who bring it to them. Interestingly, newly incarcerated inmates are more likely to have frequent visitors and therefore an influx of cash. When the prison closed its doors to new inmates in 2009, it crippled the internal prison economy by choking off this source of funds—funds which are necessary not only for prisoner well-being but also for maintenance and repair of the prison.
The shocking conditions of the prison inspired Alarcon to write about them; he explains, "Lurigancho kind of saved my book, in an odd way. I didn't understand what was happening inside, and whenever I have something I can't understand, I have to write my way through it."
The result was an amalgamation of both real people he met while visiting Peruvian prisons and his own imaginings. Commenting on this intricate balance of truth and fiction, he explained, "Any time I have to choose between how authentic my writing is versus how compelling it is, I always go for what's made-up if it's what the story demands.
"I want my story to be plausible, not necessarily true," he continued. "If you can believe what's happening and get lost in the story, then I've done what I wanted to do."
When questioned about his writing process, he explained the organic and at times inexplicable nature of writing.
"You don't decide to write a novel—you just start writing," he said. "And then it keeps getting longer. And then it's a novel.
"Writing is such that it's something one can't not do," he added. "If I don't write, I don't feel good inside. I have to write. It comes from my gut, somewhere inexplicable. I do it because I feel compelled to from some place I can't explain."
Dr. Temple Grandin – "The Autistic Brain"
Temple Grandin is a beloved and forward-thinking public figure known for her research on autism and cattle-handling. The Boston native was born with autism and didn't speak until age three. Thanks to mentors and dedicated educators, Grandin overcame her communication difficulty and was inspired to study science and industrial design, leading her to a B.S. in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a master's in animal science from Arizona State University and a Ph.D in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, she is a professor at Colorado State University.
Named one of Time's Top 100 Most Influential People, Grandin is famous for her innovative cattle chute designs and her 10 books, including Thinking in Pictures, which the Class of 2017 read over the summer before arriving on campus.
Grandin opened her talk with a question: "What's the difference between what's normal and what's an abnormality?"
This answer is of interest to her, she explained, because "autism is such a wide continuum. A little bit of this type of abnormality can make people very creative and give them an advantage, but a little too much of this trait gives people horrible handicaps."
For Grandin, autism is not a specific illness or disease—it is a behavioral profile.
"Don't get hung up on these labels," she said. "Autism is one of those continuous traits. For example, when does feeling sad become depression? When does shifting attention rapidly become ADD?"
Grandin also gave insights into her particular brand of thinking, explaining that she is a photo-realistic visual thinker.
"I don't think in words, I don't think abstractly," she explained. "I think completely in pictures. If someone said, 'think of a factory,' I see specific ones. I'm thinking of the John Deere plant in Iowa."
Grandin went on to explain that autistic children learn and understand the world differently and need a slightly different education as a result. She advocated allowing children gifted in one subject to continue advancing and harnessing autistic children's passions to motivate them to learn and excel. She also voiced a desire for more hands-on learning in the classroom, such as woodworking, auto-repair, sewing or cooking, because these are often ways that autistic children learn best.
"Helping these kids succeed requires several things," she noted. "First off, they need to be stretched, pushed to learn social skills; second, they need dedicated mentors who will help them; and lastly they need to learn working skills—this can be any job, from running a paper route to walking dogs. They need that kind of structure and routine."
Grandin showed multiple images of her own brain's learning, visual, auditory and verbal centers, explaining how hers are differently formed from other people and how that has affected her working life. As a successful industrial designer, writer, activist and teacher, Grandin has certainly worked with her strengths and around her weaknesses, and she encourages others to do the same.
She closed her talk by stressing that autism is not a weakness or disability but rather a different way of viewing the world that can oftentimes be very useful. She cited the flawed design of the Fukushima power plant in Japan and her work with meat-processing plants as examples of how different ways of thinking can be extremely useful.
"Autism is not the sole essence of my identity," she said. "It's very important to who I am, and I wouldn't want to change it, because I like the logical way I think, but it is just one part of me. I see too many kids hung up on the fact that they have been labeled 'autistic' who don't get interested in science or other things."
Judge Nathaniel R. Jones – "Repairing America's Frayed Covenant"
Nathaniel Jones is one of America's most prominent civil rights activists, serving as Executive Director of the Fair Employment Practices Commission of the City of Youngstown, Ohio; Assistant General Counsel to President Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission); general counsel of the NAACP; and Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
Jones opened his remarks with a sobering remark: "It's difficult to decide what to focus on this evening—there are so many issues that should command the attention of students in the academy, students who are about to go out into the world."
His speech was attended by one of Centre's most distinguished alumni, Judge Pierce Lively ’43, whom Jones referenced frequently with admiration and affection.
"It was Judge Lively who first introduced me to Centre College," he explained, "when he invited me to speak at the 1981 Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial convocation. It was an invitation that I enthusiastically accepted."
The Judge's remarks, though spanning decades of his work and the work of those before him in regard to civil rights, focused primarily on the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, a text that Jones stressed repeatedly is a kind of covenant between the government and its citizens.
Jones also referred to the period following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case as a "second Reconstruction" in terms of its efforts to improve the civil rights of minorities.
He was particularly concerned with how newly proposed voter ID laws restrict access to the ballot for certain groups of Americans. He likened the voter ID laws to the repressive practices of poll taxing, literacy tests and grandfather clauses in place in the American South before the Civil Rights movement.
"The nation's sordid history regarding the franchise is replete with instances of states' rights advocates, fearful of losing their control, taking measures to restrict access to the ballot for many groups," Jones explained. "When they did not succeed with legal strategies, they resorted to violence and intimidation by agents of the state and their colleagues, parading under interesting names such as the Ku Klux Klan."
He went on to list the graphic and disturbing deaths of Medgar Evers and the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., as examples of what it took for the public to realize how serious these civil rights issues were.
He also emphasized that the Preamble of the Constitution "Is a covenant. It is binding. It imposes an obligation on every American to uphold it."
Jones maintained that strong federal power and Presidential leadership were vital in overcoming the prejudices gripping the nation in the 1950s and 60s, citing Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as examples.
In closing, he thanked Judge Lively for appointing him to an international relations judicial committee, which he says gave him the opportunity to go abroad and tell the American story to developing democracies, particularly South Africa as it rewrote its constitution after Apartheid.
Jones left Centre students with a powerful charge: "I urge you to arm yourselves with the facts of the past. Expand and deepen your knowledge of the Constitution, for it envelops you by virtue of your being an American. If you do this, you will be performing the most fundamental obligation of citizenship—that is, to help America save its soul."
To see the complete convocation schedule for this semester, click here.
Centre College, founded in 1819, offers its students a world of opportunities, highlighted by the nation's premier study abroad program and a faculty ranked #5 in the nation for "Best Undergraduate Teaching" at a liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report in 2013. Centre graduates enjoy extraordinary success, with entrance to top graduate and professional schools, prestigious fellowships for further study abroad (Rhodes, Rotary, Fulbright), and rewarding jobs (on average, 97 percent are employed or in advanced study within 10 months of graduation).