The following is the text of President Ames’ welcome address to students at Fall 2017 convocation.

Welcome Sage students and congratulations on having made such a smart choice about where to go to college!  You will find here the small, personal world of a liberal arts college combined with a focus on professional preparation delivered through nationally accredited programs—and that is a combination that will prepare you for success, a fulfilling career and a life dedicated to making a difference in the world. You will find here dedicated, caring and inspiring faculty and staff whose top priority is your education and success. I’m convinced we offer the best of both worlds: the personal attention of a small residential college and the professional preparatory programs normally associated with a university.

I’m honored to be able to welcome you to Sage, and I look forward to engaging with you in various ways throughout your years at Sage and as proud alum. I encourage you to follow me on Twitter @SagePrez and check out my regularly updated blog on my page on the website.  And, of course, I look forward to talking to you on campus and seeing you at athletic contests, performances, lectures and events on both campuses.  Please remember that your identity as a Sage student gives you access to resources and events on both our Troy and Albany campuses.

The first day of college is one of those great transitional moments or rites of passage.  I hope that you will think back to this day when you walk across the stage to receive your Sage diploma; I hope that you will also think back to this day at various transition points throughout your lives, perhaps even when your children or other loved ones march in a commencement. To mark this special occasion, I’d like us to read and think about a poem together, because I believe it will illustrate something important and even surprising about the education you are embarking on.

Robert Frost at Sage
Robert Frost at Sage

I’ve chosen a poem that is a great rarity in contemporary American culture:  That is, it is a poem that I suspect most of you have heard.  It is also a poem with, perhaps, some Sage connections.  As you know, Sage just celebrated our centennial: we were founded in 1916.  In that same year, Robert Frost published this poem that has become so strangely enshrined in American culture to stand for almost the opposite of what it actually says.

And here’s the poem:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost, 1916

There’s probably a 50/50 chance that someone quoted this poem at your high school graduation ceremony—or that someone sent you a greeting card inscribed with the closing lines. There’s even a bestselling self-help book that takes its name from the poem. These speakers will echo a message we hear with ironic frequency in our mass consumer culture: be independent and have the courage to take the less traveled path in life; as Frost says, it will make “all the difference.”

The trouble is that neither Frost nor his poem really say that.  “The Road Not Taken” is one of the most famously misunderstood poems, and those misunderstandings illuminate the poem’s cleverness and the power of the societal message it questions.

Reading the poem afresh, we recognize almost immediately that the poem is an extended metaphor.  The metaphor of life as a journey or path is so engrained that we hardly think it a metaphor.  We know the poem is saying something about life’s choices, not just about picking a path in the New England woods.

So what does the poem tell us about making choices in life?  First, that we must make choices based on limited information about the consequences: the speaker “look[s] down one [path] as far as I could,” but it isn’t very far.  Second, the poem amusingly reminds us of how we kid ourselves: “I kept the first for another day,” the speaker says, admitting in the next lines that he doubts he’ll ever return.

Most casual readers will move quickly over these points to seize on the main lesson of the poem: the speaker chose the less traveled path and that made a profound and positive difference in his life.  This message resonates so powerfully with the values of American culture that it sounds almost like a pleasing gong: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

But there’s a problem: the speaker does not actually take the road less traveled!  What evidence is there on this point?  Well, evidence supporting the less traveled reading occurs once in the second stanza in which the traveler asserts that he took the second path “because it was grassy and wanted wear.”  But notice how that statement is framed by two qualifiers.  The poet first declares that the second path is “just as fair,” that is, equal to the first.  Then he qualifies the assertion that it “wanted wear” with the word “perhaps.” Next he adds the qualifying phrase “though, as for that.”

The poem then twice bluntly tells us exactly the opposite:  they are worn “really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.”  Thus the assertion that the path “wanted wear” parallels the assertion that “I kept the first for another day”:  the poet makes a romantic assertion and then corrects it with a more realistic perception. In fact, the poem tells us three times that there is not a less traveled path: “just as fair,” “really about the same,” “both that morning equally lay.”

So how do we understand the famous last stanza?  Note the shift in verb tenses and the time frame that suggests.  The first three stanzas are in the past tense, as are most narratives (that is, “Two roads diverged in a wood”).  The last stanza is set far in the future: “ages and ages hence.”  Thus this little poem has three time frames: the present of its utterance, the remembered past of the choice, and the future re-telling of the incident (“Many years from now, I will tell this story this way.”)

We are invited to imagine the speaker as an old man by the fire, regaling his grandchildren with tall tales.  We even hear his aged voice creak as he repeats “I.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The response is likely an exasperated, “Right, grandpa; we’ve heard all that before.”

Faced with choices that we must make almost blindly, we later romanticize them into stories of our own individuality, spinning tales of ourselves as brave pioneers.  Thus, I would argue, the poem’s most famous lines are presented as a fabrication or exaggeration that the poem gently makes fun of.

The poem thus becomes a tale of how humans distort their pasts into stories that the culture teaches us to tell and to hear.  Frost is so on target in identifying the American myth that shapes how we fabricate our life stories that his poem has become part of the very myth he criticizes.

Is there a lesson for incipient college students in this darker version of Frost’s poem?  I think so.  We must be attentive to and critical of the great myths of our culture, narratives that get retold in popular song, television sitcoms and reality TV, Hollywood movies, commercial advertising, internet memes–and in literature and history.  Those myths are so powerful that they can keep us from understanding the words we read on a page.  Frost’s poem invites us to exercise our ability to read critically so as not to be duped by stereotype and platitude.  And that is exactly the kind of critical intelligence that we cultivate at Sage: an intelligence that doesn’t believe everything it hears; a mind attentive to detail and able to read critically; an ability to see through slogans to the more complex and nuanced truths that lie underneath.  This is not just a skill taught in our literature classes, by any means: it is a skill behind the scientific method, behind evidence-based practice in the health sciences such as correctly diagnosing an illness, behind informed critical thinking in forensics and criminal justice, political science and law and society. It is a skill that lets you distinguish the genuine in theatre, art and design.  It is also a crucial skill for living in a democracy.

There may never have been a time when our society more needs people who critically evaluate the world around them, who respect and understand various points of view, who don’t fall for romantic oversimplifications or slogan politics.  Sage will help you attain the skills to be a leader in your field and society—and that may make all the difference.

Christopher Ames
President, The Sage Colleges