Throughout high school, students’ educational careers are largely distilled down to their GPAs and SAT scores. When author Dave Eggers addressed the Class of 2018 at last Thursday’s First-Year Academic Convocation, he challenged the crowd of students to resist all of those numbers and rankings.
This year, The Circle by Eggers, whose grandfather attended Boston College, was distributed to the incoming freshmen at orientation. The book, which is about a woman who works at a technology company that soon makes her life public, is a cautionary tale about the far reaches of technology in personal lives, meant to set the academic theme of the year. In years prior, the annually chosen convocation books have included Run by Ann Patchett and Dreams From My Father by then-Senator Barack Obama.
Rev. Joseph Marchese began the event with a brief talk during which he emphasized the importance of creativity and mentioned how The Circle will provide an academic backdrop for the upcoming year. Creativity may be the most important thing to move toward a more just and loving society, he noted.
“You are precociously and intellectually motivated students,” he said. “I think The Circle by Dave Eggers provides us a template to discern our lives as we enter this great University and begin to make choices for our future.”
After Marchese addressed the audience and before Eggers began his talk, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., described three pieces of advice to the new freshmen: take care of yourself and let others take care of you, take time to reflect, and invest in your BC experience.
“You wouldn’t be here unless you had talent,” Leahy said. “I urge you to care and to let others care for you, to reflect, and then, to invest—to give of yourself, to engage. And that’s what this institution has been about since it was created in 1863.”
Eggers has written over 10 books and is also an editor, publisher, and educational activist. In 2002, he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit in San Francisco that is dedicated to helping students between the ages of six and 18 with their writing skills.
When working at 826 Valencia, he found that students needed much more individual attention to create digital resumes than he had originally anticipated. This idea of solving digital issues with human connections inspired him to write The Circle.
In his speech, Eggers highlighted the idea of the authentic person. The Circle is about someone who chose work over her family and friends and ultimately became alienated and changed.
“You could say pretty definitely that she strayed far from that authentic self,” he said.
Eggers noted that he has recently spoken to many college students and has found that, due to the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, many of them alter their behavior in order to gain approval, resulting in feeling increasingly adrift, he said.
“It’s a very new thing and something only your generation has had to grapple with—the fact that friends and approval can all be measured, or seemingly measured,” he said. “Are we our best selves when we feel even our capacity for friendship is being measured?”
Later, Eggers touched on the issue of democracy and privacy rights. Current students are in college at a very different time—there are applications parents can use to see where their children are at any given time.
“There’s evidence that we’ve lost trust,” he said. “Your parents, you want them to trust you, but what if they don’t have to trust you? They can track you. Why trust when you can track?”
“We have to allow for ambiguity,” Eggers said. “That ambiguity is crucial for the growth of trust and the growth of your own person.”
Although the use of both surveillance and ranking systems is increasing, Eggers emphasized that people are still messy, chaotic, and capable of defying expectations.
“We do great things for no reason,” he said. “We do great things without anyone seeing them. We do great things without anyone liking them. But we do them because we’re human.”
To be human is to act and to do things, Eggers said, not to be a part of a ranking system. Students should understand, he continued, that strictly quantifiable academic numbers such as one’s GPA or standardized test scores do not define them.
“Your professors told you to set the world aflame, and I hope you do because you can’t measure a flame,” Eggers said. “You can’t measure the human spirit on fire, which is the only way a human spirit should be. On fire, unstoppable, unimprovable, unmeasurable.”
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff