In a little while I will be heading over to this year's opening University College reception; this is the first one that I am attending as the person in charge of the program (the Headmaster, if they'll let me use that title -- the jury's still out on whether I can officially call myself Headmaster, although that's how I think of my job when it comes to the UC program). As such I
The theme, or rather, the point of departure for my remarks will be the sorting hat that I've brought with me today. [Normally it lives in my office, which is where sorting hats are supposed to live, right?] Why bring such a thing to an opening reception? Largely because it's a reminder, here in the midst of our opening-of-school celebration, that we have all been selected to be here. We, all of us, have been sorted, and we will continue to be sorted during our time together. Indeed, you might even say that the central purpose of the University College program is to help prepare students to be properly sorted as their college career proceeds.
What do I mean that we've all been sorted? Well, every student in the UC has already been sorted at least three times: they were admitted to AU, they were admitted to the UC, and they were placed in their particular seminar. Every faculty-member was hired, and then specially selected to teach in the program. Every administrator was chosen to take on the responsibilities with respect to the program. And every parent, every family-member, has been placed in a position of giving support and encouragement to the student in their family; thus family-members also have been cast in a role in this particular drama.
I am deliberately doing something that high school English teachers would not like, and that is speaking in the passive voice. I am not identifying a sorter or a decider; I'm leaving that open. See, in the fictional world of Harry Potter, there is a magical object -- the Sorting Hat -- that is uniquely responsible for all of those decisions. There's a doer for the deed of sorting, some-one or some-thing that is responsible for placing students in houses. But in our world, things aren't quite that simple; there's rarely a single identifiable sorter that is completely responsible for where people end up. Finding oneself someplace is usually the kind of thing that can be traced to the influence of many, many people and events; generally, no one person puts anyone anywhere.
Even those of us with some authority to decide where people are going are only presenting people (UC students, in this case) with a set of options and a set of experiences; what they do with those options and experiences will largely determine the kind of person they become, and bereft of the magical insight of the Sorting Hat we mere mortals just basically stumble along dong the best we can with no guarantee that we are placing people where they really belong. So we all play roles, but none of us play definitive roles.
So why talk about "sorting" at all? Why not just talk about people deciding to be where they are? I think that the language of "sorting" is important as a corrective to our culturally-induced habit of assuming that everything that happens is somehow traceable to something we've more or less deliberately done. If we're honest, how many of us ever are in a position to know all of the consequences of the choices we make? We make decisions, and then things happen that we couldn't possibly have foreseen -- and we end up someplace different than we'd planned to be, perhaps because of the unintended consequence of someone else's choices. So, to be philosophical for a moment, we might say that choices are causally connected to outcomes, but not because of the goals of those choices. Instead, how we come to be at a certain place is a function of a very complex and subtle interaction of different factors, many of which we may not even be aware of -- and many of which, I would bet, have little to do with anyone's deliberate decision. And even those factors which are related to choice don't invalidate the notion of "sorting," because even in the Harry Potter universe the Sorting Hat takes people's choices into account when placing people into specific houses.
Speaking in terms of "sorting" also, I think, puts us into a different frame of reference. If we've all been sorted, then the question we all have to ask ourselves is: how do I make the most of this situation into which I have been placed? How do I live into this house, this seminar, this program, this university, this city, in which I find myself? If we focus on decisions instead of on sorting, we might miss large portions of the experiences that await us because we're too narrowly committed to the reasons why we thought we came here in the first place. And we thus close ourselves off to the kinds of growth than can take place when we open ourselves up to the present and its possibilities.
Sorting is about possibilities, not about clearly defined outcomes. We've all been sorted, which means that we have been placed in situations with various possibilities for growth -- possibilities that need to be seized and implemented in order to be realized. Our job in the University College is to help you specially selected students to develop your potential, and in particular to learn how to best take advantage of the experiences that await you in college. We have a lot of resources to help you do just that, and if you adopt the attitude appropriate to one who has been sorted, an attitude of trying to explore all of the myriad possibilities available to you instead of just leaping quickly to some pre-defined end, I have no doubt that you will live into your true potential and prove the sorting process right in the end.
[Not sure exactly how much of this I will use in my remarks. Stay tuned.]