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Head of School's Remarks by Robert Henderson Jr. '76

The big event in Lebanon, N.H., on November 17,1847, was the opening of the railroad. This was a huge civic moment. Everyone in the community came. Indeed, people traveled from all around the state, and some came all the way from Boston (an arduous, multi-day journey by carriage or horse in those days, to get to the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River). The railroad, it was felt, would convert Lebanon from a small country town into an important regional crossroads for commerce and travel.

The guest of honor was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. Born in New Hampshire and a graduate of Dartmouth College, both states claimed him as their own with equal vigor. Webster was an orator of astounding ability, and oratory, in an age without any radio or television, was both a profoundly valued skill and an essential form of public entertainment. Plus, Webster always looked and acted the part of the “distinguished senator.” Indeed, one of his political contemporaries once quipped that no man could possibly be as great as Daniel Webster looked and sounded.

So you have to imagine the setting as Webster addressed the gathered crowd. Slowly the wind filled his sails as he spoke without notes, as he built to his bellowing conclusion. His topic was the wondrous period in which they lived in the 1840s, because of the technological leaps of the day, such as the railroad line they were inaugurating.

Webster said: “It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before. I will not pretend, no one can pretend, to discern the end; but everybody knows that the age is remarkable still for the application of this scientific research to the pursuits of life. The ancients saw nothing like it. The moderns have seen nothing like it till the present generation…We see the ocean navigated and the solid land traversed by steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity. Truly this is almost a miraculous era. What is before us no one can say, what is up on us no one can hardly realize. The progress of the age has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to Omniscience.”

That sense of amazement at the impact of new technology is from over 165 years ago. While Webster seemed to know that there would be many more changes to come, he could not possibly have imagined where we are today. The difference for him, as compared to the graduating seniors sitting before you, is that the rate of technological change in 1847 was a new reality in and of itself. In contrast, for the Class of 2013, the extraordinary, accelerated pace of change in today’s world is a fact of life, a condition of their existence. Completely disruptive change will likely occur many times in their lifetimes. We all marvel at the technologies that now dominate our culture, yet it is not the technologies themselves that really amaze me. Rather, it is the adaptation of humanity to the pace of change itself that I believe is so remarkable. I would posit that when the Class of 2013 gathers here in the year 2063 for their 50th Reunion, the world they live in will be utterly transformed in ways that we cannot remotely predict today.

Given the the ongoing and profound transformation of our world, what is in a Nobles education that will matter in 50 years? One thing is almost for certain—these students will have immediate and unlimited access to data and information. Using a cell phone, or whatever device for personal communication that evolves in the years ahead,everyone will be able to get any question answered instantly. So teaching and learning cannot be simply about packing heads full of statistics and facts. Yet I believe there are things that are and will remain transcendent about their experience here, and I hope these are skills and experiences that they will take away as they depart today.

The capacity to understand, evaluate and utilize data will be more important than ever in the future. The ability to think clearly, and to reason through complexity and ambiguity will be at a premium. Effective communication, both in writing and orally, will matter immensely. Successful collaboration, in small groups and as part of larger teams, and with highly diverse people, will be a critical talent required in every workplace. Creativity and imagination will be viewed as the path to advancement and to solving the myriad problems faced by humanity. And the vision to explore across the individual silos of academic and professional disciplines, to make the intellectual connections between fields of study and work, will be in tremendous demand.

Above all, however, it will always be critical that you think carefully about the sort of person you intend to be. Our mission as a school is not to produce the graduates with the most information crammed into their heads. Rather, our purpose is to impart the elements of character and intellect essential to provide leadership in our society regardless of changing times. It will always be our purpose to develop leaders with the skills I described who can also function with integrity,empathy, honesty and respect. The mission of the school is timeless, and Nobles will remain, as it always has been, a place where we hope to guide students to discover a path to “the life well led” and to make a difference for the better in the world.

This is a very special class to me because I have a significant vested personal interest in it. I extend my thanks, congratulations and very best wishes to the Class of 2013 for the wonderful challenges and adventures that lie ahead of them!

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Graduation 2013: Head of School's Remarks by Robert Henderson Jr. '76