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1998 Commencement Address - Mental Fight at Amherst
May 24, 1998
I don't need to tell you who are graduating today--and I absolutely don't need to tell the faculty--that Amherst is an argumentative place. People here argue over many issues, sometimes issues that the outside world would not understand or think worthy of argument. Principles are articulated for nearly everything that we do. And at times it seems that we do nothing--even eat, drink, or sleep--without first battling over the theory of it, the justice of it. This is right and good, as I see it, and makes us the college that we are.
William Blake called it `mental fight', and in his boldest assertion of its rightness said "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." So too at Amherst there is an unceasing mental fight over what it means to have this college on this hill built and rebuilt daily by students, by faculty, by staff, by alumni.
As you graduates make your way down Route 9 today I want to urge you to keep on fighting, to keep on arguing, in the tradition of this college and its scholars. Think of Amherst as a place where everything is questioned and challenged, yes; but think of it too as a place where some things are put forward and defended with the sword of argument. These two intellectual postures--of question and assertion--will prove vital to your intellectual and moral lives in the years to come. Works of the imagination, works of reason, works of compassion: all must take some question as their own and make some assertion, some statement of faith, in response to the world.
More mental fight is needed precisely because mental fight substitutes for and makes unnecessary the physical fight that so often settles questions in the world at large. "Rouse up," Blacke said, to stop those who would "forever depress mental and prolong corporeal war."
There can be no Jerusalem, no realized ideal, without sustained mental fight.
Let me give you two examples where the American Jerusalem--by which I understand the American democracy--needs more-- and more passionate--mental fight.
For many, many years, Amherst college has held fast to an ideal of financial assistance that we have described with the awkward term, `need blind.' Let me be plain about what that means to us. It means that we admit our classes without regard to the means of their families to send them here. We say, in effect, "come to Amherst regardless of your wealth or poverty: if you cannot afford our charges we will reduce them with financial aid." It means as well that we will provide enough aid to make it practical to come. We will, in other words as we say, meet the `full need' of those we invite to come. We have worried in the last several years, that our calculations are not generous enough for students with family incomes particularly in the middle range. We have known all along that `generosity' here must be defined in relation both to what families have to spend and to what Amherst can reasonably budget. But `generosity' must also be measured on a marketplace that has become newly frenzied in the last decade and even in the last year. More and more schools have decided that they will not treat all students equally in distributing financial aid: some will get more than others not because their families need more help but because someone has decided that the students in question are more desirable or more deserving than other members of the incoming class. Thus these scholarships are called across the land merit scholarships; they go to students without regard to need. They are in fact enticement scholarships, meant to promote the enrollment of students with somewhat better grades or SAT's or a better passing arm and what have you. So many of our brethren institutions offer these that I hesitate to condemn merit scholarships out of hand.
But as citizens we need to argue this question out with care. If there is a limited amount of money in a college endowment or a government program of financial aid, then it is simple arithmetic to conclude that the more money that goes to those who do not need it the less there will be for those who do. And as competitive anxieties spread the practice from one institution to the next--as we watch both Swarthmore and Williams for example do this for instance--then the total amount of money available to those with the greatest will diminish as the money is used to enroll those deemed meritorious.
At Amherst we know that we will be pressed to be more generous. I want to hope with you that we will never be pressed so hard as to give up our commitments to an egalitarian admissions process where financial aid goes to those who most need it. Across the country, and in the congress in particular, this argument is going to grow more and more heated in the years ahead. And I don't tell you where to stand; you know where your alma mater stands; But I do tell you to engage in this fight, civilly, thoughtfully, intelligently but with the passion that comes from a sense of just how much is at stake for our American democracy.
A fierce but none too mental fight now rages in California and Texas about the next steps beyond civil rights towards real integration--real wholeness--in our democracy.
We all know that the recognition of civil rights for all citizens has not brought us into our American Jerusalem. We still have castes of a sort in America: whole groups of people whose economic and political future is settled almost in advance by their racial or ethnic identities. And the plight of these castes has not much improved--and in some cases has much worsened--in the great internationalization and expansion of our economy over the last decade and more.
Where do we go as a country from here? This is a large question with many sorts of answers. At Amherst we have been resolute about one aspect of this question: for a generation and more now we have believed passionately, on the board, in the faculty, among our students and alumni, that Amherst's classes should be as fully integrated as we can make them. We have practiced an aggressive affirmative action of seeking out qualified students who might not think of Amherst at first. And we have been definite about the need to have classes like your own where the backgrounds and colors and convictions of our students bespeak an American intellectual leadership truly if imperfectly integrated.
There are sharp disagreements in America and in the world about how to reach our Jerusalem of an integrated democracy without castes or exclusions. Some argue that race neutrality or color blindness is what is needed. This is a powerful argument, but not, in my view, a deeply historical or practical one. It is an argument with a question behind it, an urgent question for you in your lives as for Amherst in its life: how can we reach the place we all know to be the right place, the place where you can open any door in America, in any office or studio or classroom, and find a person there who found her or his way without race dictating the outcome?
At Amherst we are committed to the widest possible diversity. We need to take risks as an institution to achieve that diversity. We need to use our resources aggressively, and, above all, to push ourselves hard to approach our ideal of an American Jerusalem. You may disagree with Amherst's commitments and policies; we welcome argument and we welcome disagreement. But I ask you to take on the mental fight needed to keep these questions and commitments before us and before our country. An Amherst without diversity is a less interesting, less exciting, less intellectually and morally challenging place. It is not the Amherst we know and love, and the one we care enough to fight over. But an America that does not realize its ideals of integration and participation is much worse than uninteresting or unintellectual: it is illegitimate and in an important sense is undemocratic.
I hope we have challenged you here, each of you. And I hope that you have acquired a taste for mental fight. Go now and challenge yourselves on a wider front and in a bigger struggles. Challenge us all and build your own Jerusalem.