Keystone College Spring Undergraduate Research and Creativity Celebration 2018

I remember reading a massive tome in college that had been written in 1961 by the historian and architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, called the City of History. He argued that cities evolved largely as military entities, and their walls were the most evident sign of their profoundly warlike character.

There is some truth to the assertion that early city walls were built partly as a kind of social armor, sometimes protecting a single settlement and sometimes an entire region, such as the Great Wall of China. But one of Mumford’s other insights was that these walls were not merely for defense. They were also an early form of surveillance. Those in power used walls to watch who left and who entered through the gates—potential adversaries within, as well as those from without.

Evidence of city walls dates back more than 9,000 years to the Neolithic period, such as the famous walls of Jericho whose destruction is recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures (Joshua 6:1-27), thousands of years before the gradual settlements that developed into famous ancient cities such as Babylon, Athens, Sparta (c. 3000 BCE), and Alexandria (331 BCE). The vast majority of these walls did not seem to have primarily a defensive purpose. Rather, the first walls probably emerged as individuals and groups outgrew the smaller hunter-gatherer land-sharing arrangements. Walls helped to prevent floods and provide support for homes, hearths, and protection for livestock and food, as humans transitioned from nomadic living to hunter-gatherer communities living in year-round shelters.

In a novel I read a few years ago entitled, Cassie Draws the Universe (Baber, P.S., 2010, Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Inc.), the main character notes that there are four kinds of people in the world:  “Those who build walls, those who protect walls, those who breach walls, and those who tear down walls.”

I think that we are these four kinds of people at different times in our lives. Sometimes we are called to build, other times to preserve or protect. In times of injustice, we may be challenged to breach and even dismantle some walls. For example, I remember visiting the Berlin Wall when I was in graduate school in 1984. This was a wall that from 1961 to 1989, divided Berlin, Germany, with a 12-foot high concrete barrier that included guard towers, barbed wire, and a large boundary area nefariously known as the “death strip” to prevent vehicles from passing. The wall was intended to keep so-called “undesirables” out, and those who sought to defect or emigrate, were kept in. The mayor of West Berlin was once quoted as calling the structure a “Wall of Shame,” and I remember thinking that such a wall would someday be torn down. Five years later, on November 9, 1989, its destruction began, and it was completely dismantled by 1992. I have a small piece of concrete from that wall to remind me to create roads of unity and community, not barriers of separation and xenophobia.

Students, we are here today because you have learned to build, to protect, to breach, and when necessary, to tear down the walls of tradition and convention. Your journey at Keystone College is an exciting adventure filled with discovering who you are, where you are going, and how will you make a meaningful difference in the world. The world is open to you because you have sought to embrace the truth of your life, your work, and your relationships. It is essential that we build and protect our gifts and talents with care and confidence, but always bounded by humility. If we are humble, then together we stand strong and create learning and living spaces that provide security and a noble life. I suspect that the mighty walls of Jericho that I mentioned earlier, probably fell due to the inhabitants’ trumpeting of self-importance and pride from within, more than the Israeli army circling without. Similarly, the likely-mythic Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) was described as a circle of stones built into a high wall where the inhabitants’ hubris, pride, and intolerance for diversity ended in disaster.

And if you must breach or tear down a wall, this act of dismantling is also an opportunity to join with others to concurrently build community and commitment. Many of your contemporaries from Parkland, Florida, and other survivors and family members who have lost loved ones to violence from around the country* have taken the devastation of their times and have begun to build foundations of hope for peace, mutual respect, and a more civilized world.

Walls have consequences. Just ask Humpty Dumpty. Regrettably, some would use walls to keep people out from our college, region, country, and parts of the world. At Keystone, we have created low walls around the campus that are made from numerous stones, symbolizing our unity-in-diversity. These low stone walls are capped with Pennsylvania Blue Stone and are intended to be places to gather, talk, think, and read, rather than walls that keep people apart.

As members of an American educational institution that is 150 years old, Keystone is in concert with the American poet, Robert Frost (d. 1963), in that our community does not agree with the adage that “good fences [or walls] make good neighbors.” In his 1914 poem, “Mending Wall,” Frost aptly observed:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes the gaps even two can pass abreast. . . .

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out. . . .

Creativity, innovation, virtue, and research are 50% inspiration; the rest is perspiration. We are here to celebrate as a community a milestone marking your hard work and commitment. Thank you for sharing your talents, effort, and time so generously. As you continue on your journey here and throughout life, build and preserve the structures of unity, truth, and virtue. And in times of injustice, find the courage to be joined together with others to breach and even dismantle such obstacles.

Know that we believe in you, you will always belong here, and we are counting on you to help us to build the best school, community, country, and world that we can become together.

–President David L. Coppola, Ph.D.

*Cp. Roseburg, Oregon (2015); Newtown, Connecticut (2012); Virginia Tech (2007); Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania (2006); Littleton, Colorado (1999).