Dr. Amundson’s convocation address to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, August 26, 2016
I find myself inspired by the focus this year in chapel on a study of Ecclesiastes. And surprisingly so: it’s not the book that many people would first look to in order to find optimistic inspiration to kick off a new year at college. It’s a book that expresses, or at least seems to express, significant frustration, almost nihilism, about inequities and injustice. Yet maybe this is exactly the book for this moment: I expect your social media feeds, like mine, are full of commentary on Black Lives Matter, reflections on the real meaning of today as the anniversary of the amendment that grants women the right to vote, criticism of French cities banning the burkini as well as of the French state prohibiting those bans, as well as endless arguments on immigration, especially in the midst of a presidential race that promises to only become more and more contentious.
My first response to counter this general somber, if not downright negative, mood was to look to John 16:33:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
A life raft for troubled times, to be sure.
But on a second, and deeper, consideration, I find a sliver of hope in the book itself. Without trying to unpack the nuances of Ecclesiastes in ten minutes, I will suggest a few insights from the third and fifth chapters. In these, the author refers to work and the potential for satisfaction and enjoyment in work. To be “happy in this toil” is a “gift from God,” he writes (Eccles. 3:22).
At least in part, this appeals to me through its echoes in the nineteenth-century writings William Morris. Morris occupies a significant position in design history, in part for being a central proponent, in theory and practice, of the Arts and Crafts Movement (with interests in all the disciplines represented in our School, with the exception of film, and only because he did not live long enough to see moving image). But he has more to offer us than beautiful books, wallpaper, and furniture. His greater gift stems from what we now call social justice concerns, promoted by his early association with other students from Oxford University who commenced their studies in theology but who found their way to art as a means to more effectively bring about the social and cultural change they so desired for post-Industrial Revolution England.
In one essay from 1877, Morris wrote at length about the two great blessings of life being “fearless rest and hopeful work.” According to Morris, we are at rest when we are surrounded by simple and beautiful things; we find hope by freely pursuing “the work we were born to do,” the process of which ennobles and dignifies us, and the products of which enhance and improve the world.
What an opportunity we have to take part in what Morris outlined. Humanity is largely led by its eyes, and finds instruction, inspiration, peace, and dignity where artists, designers and architects have taken the time to plan, design, craft and build in such a way that feeds that primary sense, which leads to engagement of the other ones, as well as our mental faculties, and our hearts.
I find his words encouraging in the face of our need to come to terms with our place here in a world that we are called to be in but not of. Rather than reject the shortcomings of this world, we have a responsibility to do something about them. That’s a mission of every program across this campus, which is full of good people who want to use their chosen fields to make the world less of a mess and bend it toward the justice that Dr. King talked about.
We have a particular opportunity here the School of Art, Design & Architecture because of our gifts and talents. We in this room are wired in a special way that connects our hands to our heads and hearts: to shape, rearrange, propose and project a better vision of the physical world we live in—to bend it toward an image of the one to come. To fill it with things that people respond to with the powerful sense of vision through which most of us negotiate and understand the world primarily. We have a responsibility to use these gifts not just for our own whim and indulgence, but for the world, for the people of the world. I’m reminded here of Carl Sagan, whom I once heard talk about climate change. He implored individual potential and responsibly to address the issue, with some vigor and immediacy, rather than waiting on government intervention. His mandate was simple: “We have waited on the politicians, and their response has been inadequate.” I think we can say the same for the injustices we can identify in the world, our nation, our state, our city, our campus: to not wait on the people who hold office or bear titles to do something about it. This is all our work.
This is also our call to remember that we have each been given particular spheres of influence, to influence. Leadership is not the sole job and responsibility of people who occupy certain positions in a hierarchy; people with titles on their nametags. Overall I would love for all of us to replace that word, leadership, with influence. We are all better off when we intentionally act on our opportunities to encourage, ennoble, help and support the people whom God has put closest to us. The “priesthood of believers” needn’t wait for the leaders when we are all already in positions of influence.
Toward the end of Morris’ essay, he claims that the “end of education” is to learn how to gain both fearless rest and hopeful work. So let this be a year for all of us to come closer to that goal: to enjoy the fearless rest with which we are blessed, as well as to engage fully, with all our faculties, in that hopeful work that makes the world a more just and beautiful place: work that blesses us in the doing, and blesses others in its having been done.
Let me leave you with one final reflection from Morris, written late in his life, and which I think might inspire all of us, no matter how far down the path we have come or have yet to go:
With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.
 William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life,” delivered before the Trades’ Guild of Learning, December 4, 1877; collected in Hopes and Fears for Art (London: 1882).
 William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (vol. 1)