New Student Convocation Address 2015

Faculty keynote address delivered at the inaugural UNC Charlotte New Student Convocation, 24 August 2015

Questions That Matter

I’ve been told that I can give you some advice about how to succeed in college. But I won’t do that. You’ve gotten more than enough advice from the folks at SOAR and from your relatives and your friends; more advice than you can possibly remember.

So instead, I’d like you to think with me for a few minutes about a story told by one of my own teachers, Robert Launay, an anthropologist who lived and worked for several years with the Dyula, a Muslim trading people who live in the northern part of the Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

Ivory Coast Map 2

The Dyula, Launay said, have no common generic word for “brother” or “sister.”[1] When talking about your siblings you always use specific words indicating their relative age, “older sister” and “younger sister,” “elder brother” and “younger brother.” Your older brother is your koroce and your younger brother is your dogoce. Your older sister is koromuso and your younger sister is dogomuso. Sometimes people drop the gender marker ce for males and muso for females, and refer to their siblings simply as koro and dogo, older and younger.

The words describe a relationship of authority. So for example, younger brothers owe their elder brothers loyalty and obedience, and do work for them, such as running errands. In turn, older brothers help provide for their younger siblings and take care of them.

Now, this naming tradition raises an interesting question. If you have to refer to siblings as either older or younger, what do you do with twins, siblings born on the same day? Which one do you call older?

Well, clearly you know from the birth order, the Dyula said. One twin is always born before another; that’s how you know who is koro and who is dogo.

Ah, Launay said, as he wrote this down in his notebook: the twin who is born first is the koroce, the older brother.

No, corrected his Dyula friends. That would be ridiculous! The second-born twin is obviously the elder.

Now, the idea that the second-born twin is older might seem strange to us. But it comes from local perceptions of the authority relationship between siblings. You see, the Dyula explained, when it’s time to be born, the unborn elder twin sends his younger brother on an errand, as older siblings often do. “Go out into the light of the world,” he says, “and check things out. And if everything looks OK, let me know, and I’ll come out when I’m ready!”

So for the Dyula, you don’t get to be the older twin by being first into the world. The relationship between elder and junior is already set before birth, already part of the order of the world. Birth order doesn’t create the relationship of elder and junior. It doesn’t determine the relationship of authority. Birth order simply reveals the relationship, brings it to light.

Now back up.

Half a minute ago, I said that this strange-sounding idea depends on local practices and understandings of authority. The way the Dyula name twins makes sense as soon as we place that practice in the context of other parts of their culture. But if that’s so, then the same must be true about our own instinct to frame the elder-junior relationship in terms of who has more clock time in the world. Our assumptions about the connections between time and status are neither more natural nor more logical than Dyula assumptions. We’re just used to them.

So here we face a choice about how to interpret the story. We can learn an important lesson about cultural difference–the Dyula do this, and we do something else–and just leave it at that.

Or, we could ask whether perhaps the Dyula understanding of status might be more perceptive than our own. The Dyula perspective on twins seems to imply something that social science is still trying to come to terms with: that each new life comes into being in the midst of a world already in motion, and that in many ways the place of each new person has already been set long before their birth. This idea bothers Americans, because we believe that our paths through life should be primarily the result of our own individual efforts, what we’ve done with our own clock time in the world. But nobody really lives this way. Our own paths through life are always shaped by something bigger: existing social structures, economic systems, political institutions, cultural expectations, environmental opportunities and constraints, and so on, even down to unpredictable influences like the unique constellation of personalities that surround us in our families.

Take the example of Isidor I. Rabi, who used to teach physics at Columbia university in New York City. Rabi won the Nobel Prize in 1944 for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance. According to Donald Scheff, a friend once asked Rabi why he became a scientist rather than a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman like the other immigrant kids from his neighborhood. ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it,” he replied. “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me a scientist!”

Let’s think about what makes asking good questions possible.

The best questions are the ones we don’t have answers to yet, questions that push us to look beyond what seems like common sense. To pursue an understanding of what is invisible and to put it into words (or into the language of mathematics or the language of images or the language of music)–to bring the unknown into the realm of description and understanding–that’s a real and enduring kind of success.

But like the Dyula twin, whose status is set before her birth, these arts of questioning are traditions that have existed since long before any of us was born. You’ll hear a lot of people say that college is about jobs, and what employers want from college graduates is “critical thinking skills.” What they usually mean by this  is that they want women and men who can solve the practical problems their bosses give them. Those are good skills to have, and you’ll pick up some of them along the way.

But real critical thinking is something more than that. We don’t want you just to be able to solve the problems someone else gives you. Our goal is to help you become people who can decide what are the questions that matter. We have brought you here because this is a place where you can start to build a better way of understanding the world. This is not an easy thing to do. It will take years of hard work and practice on your part. But it’s the only good reason for you to be here. We don’t know where the jobs will be when you graduate, but we’ll always need people thinking not just about how to answer the questions given to them, but thinking about what the important questions are in the first place.

Chancellor Dubois has told you about buildings in bricks and mortar, and Michael Wilson has told you about building your own futures. But there is another building behind all this, a vast structure of multiple traditions of questioning that stretch back thousands of years in thousands of places around the globe, some of which now find their place here. And like the Dyula twin, you will have to learn how to work and to create with the tools your traditions provide, in this case traditions of inquiry, of thought and debate, of criticism and rejection, of modification and further exploration, which are tools for you to help create the future.

We are not giving this tradition to you. It doesn’t work that way. And you are not purchasing it with your tuition. That’s impossible. There is no idea more stupid than the idea that what universities do is merely to transmit information to their students, selling them ready-made boxes labeled “Chemistry” and “History” and “Nursing” and “Engineering.” These fields are not boxes of facts. If they were, you could get your education for free at the public library. These fields are called disciplines, and they’re called that for a reason.

We have brought you here, your teachers and families and neighbors have brought you here, the State of North Carolina has brought you here, to introduce you to these disciplines not in the form of crates stuffed with facts, but in the form of a heritage, a genealogy of thought, a network that extends outward from where we are now to connect different places and times. Just as my teacher Robert Launay learned how to be an anthropologist from his teacher Jack Goody at the University of Cambridge, who learned from his teacher Meyer Fortes, who learned from the great Polish ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied at the London School of Economics with Charles Seligman and so on back; and just as each generation creatively adopted and reacted against and added on to the discoveries and concerns of its elders, so you will be taught by women and men whose own skills and habits of thought have been shaped by having worked closely with previous generations.

You’re coming into the middle of conversations that those generations have been having over the course of centuries: Conversations about the characteristics of time and matter; about the nature of justice and the problem of human suffering; about what beauty means; about the operation of complex systems and the mechanics of life all the way from the molecule to the biosphere. You’re becoming part of an institution dedicated to furthering the arts and sciences of creativity in order to build a world we can all live in more responsibly.

We have brought you here to take your places in these conversations between generations, in this meeting place of researchers and teachers who have converged here from Moscow State University and from UNC Greensboro, from the universities of Oxford and Tennessee, from the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Shiraz in Iran; from Wuhan University in China and Cornell in New York, from Wisconsin and Bombay, Toronto and Minnesota; from Georgia to Argentina and from Lagos to Cairo and from Yale to Salt Lake City. And even a few from Chapel Hill.

And each of these institutions were in turn the centers of immense networks of thought and endeavor reaching across time and space, networks of exploration within which your task is to find a place.

So as you become UNC Charlotte students and join these conversations and begin learning how to think about what questions matter, the first question I have for you is this:   

Are you ready?



[1]  Launay told a version of this story in either Peoples of Africa, or Social Organization, both of which I took in the early 1980s. I’ve used it over the years off and on in the kinship section of my Introduction to Anthropology class. But in preparing this talk, I could not find anything like this information in his published work. So I wrote to him. Verifying that I had it more or less right in my memory more than thirty years later, the Elder provided the actual kinship terms, but nevertheless qualified my claim by saying that  “It is not technically true that there is no generic term for ‘brother’. That would be ‘balimace’ (the c is pronounced tch). But this is not common usage. For one, balima is sort of generic for kinsperson of any sort (a sister would be balimamuso). But introducing someone as your balimace in Dyula would be rather like introducing them as ‘my sibling’ in English! Not even anthropologists talk like that, at least in normal life.”


About Gregory Starrett

Professor, Department of Anthropology
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