“Embrace Reality in All of its Wonder and Horror,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin Tells Class of 2012

Submitted on Monday, 5/21/2012, at 1:38 PM

May 20, 2011

AMHERST, Mass. — In her first graduation address as Amherst College’s new leader, President Biddy Martin this morning exhorted the members of the Class of 2012 to “embrace reality in all of its wonder and its horror, without giving in to cynicism or despair on the one hand or sheer fantasy on the other.” She offered this bit of advice and several others during the college’s 191st Commencement, which took place under sparkling blue skies on the Main Quad at 10 a.m.

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Amherst President Biddy Martin

Martin’s remarks, and the exercises themselves, capped a weekend of activities celebrating the graduating seniors. The events also included the awarding of seven honorary doctorates to distinguished guests and 441 bachelor’s degrees to the students. There were also lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees and photos from the weekend can be found on the college’s Commencement website.)

Martin began her address by comparing the day’s exercises to those of the past. The first Amherst graduations, she noted, were daylong occasions full of speeches and celebration. “Commencement in the 1830s was regarded as a holiday for the entire region of Western Massachusetts and, as such … it particularly harmonized with the habits and tastes of the people.” Modern commencements are quite different, she said. “What we see here today … is the full measure of a college—a multigenerational, international network of support and community, on a gorgeous campus, that will have given you a strong sense of place and a sense of embeddedness in a long history. You will have all those things for the rest of your lives.” She explained that the assembled graduates will also have for the rest of their lives a significant gift: a quality liberal arts education. The purpose of that education “is not to yield a particular job, but to teach you to think, to accept complexity, to express yourselves well—even beautifully—and to love learning.”

“You’ve combined the serious tasks of gaining autonomy with the business of learning from accomplished and dedicated scholars and talented peers,” she continued. “This is a winning combination; there is no combination like it. The building of friendship, the building of character with active learning from people all over the world—there is no replacement for it. If you have learned to read critically, write well, think analytically, do quantitative analysis, question conventional wisdom, challenge your own assumptions, approach problems with relish and understand the value of love and friendship, then you’ll be taking with you a great deal of what you’ll need, no matter what else you do.”

Martin went on to discuss the state of the world and the post-graduation advice of various notable commencement speakers—including Amherst alumnus David Foster Wallace ’85, journalist and author Fareed Zakaria and writer Charles Wheelan, to name three—but outlined her own charge to the students quite simply: “Your challenge is to embrace reality in all of its wonder and all of its horror, without giving in to cynicism or despair on the one hand or sheer fantasy on the other. Both are forms of narcissism.”

Noting that she was asked by some members of the Class of 2012 not to speak about how special they are, Martin then segued instead into her impressions of them, citing various arts performances, athletic feats and honors theses. She issued the graduates another challenge, to “embrace what is special about each of you, ignore people’s resentment of it—when it arises—seek out people who are supportive of what’s special about you, give it substance, keep your humility about it and use it for the good of yourselves and others.”

Martin concluded by describing a conversation she had in January with two students sitting on a bench outside of the college’s dining hall. The trio had an impromptu but intellectual exchange about James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. “When I left them, I thought to myself that the value of a college education should probably be measured at least in part by the number and quality of such encounters,” she said. “They have something of the everyday in them and something quite exceptional. I told myself, ‘Biddy Martin, build more of this into your daily life.’  I suggest it for everyone. There is nothing more enlivening, or more productive—to use the business term—than the use of objects we love to make contact with ourselves and with one another.”

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Elias Johansson-Miller ’12

Prior to Martin’s remarks, the graduates heard from Elias Johansson-Miller, who was chosen by his classmates to speak at the ceremonies. Johansson-Miller took the crowd through a humorous journey back through his four years at college and touched on, among other things, his first-year orientation, classes, experiences meeting new friends and going abroad his junior year. He poked fun at what he thought Amherst would look like in the future—“After building the Christiane Amanpour Science Center, the Robert Frost statue came back to life and demolished it, so they just rebuilt Merrill Science Center”—and then listed a few things he learned at college. (Three include how to take things less seriously, read with purpose and write clearly and actively.) He told his classmates to hold on to small memories and the epiphanies that sometimes accompany them, citing as an example “walking across the Main Quad on a clear fall afternoon, with the sun streaming through the buildings behind me and realizing how lucky I am to live among such natural beauty.”

Johansson-Miller ended by offering his own take on life after college. “While being forcefully ejected from our Amherst cocoon can be frightening—and I’ll be the first to admit it can be terrifying at moments—it is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty incredible position to be in,” he said. “We have a few more hours together before plastic no longer works to enter locked buildings. We have a few more hours together here as Amherst students. I, for one, could not be happier to spend these next few hours with all of you.”

Following Martin and Johansson-Miller’s speeches, the college awarded bachelor of arts degrees to the graduates and honorary degrees to seven special guests. Honorary doctorates went to CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour, former UMass professor and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Sheila Bair, playwright and gay-rights activist Martin Duberman, Iran hostage crisis negotiator Ulric Haynes Jr. ’52, chemist David K. Lewis ’64, New York Public Library President and former Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx, and acclaimed narrative nonfiction writer John McPhee. (Hit songwriter Jim Steinman ’69 was also slated to receive an honorary degree, but had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances.)

Also recognized during the ceremony was ’62 alumnus George W. Carmany III, who received the Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. In addition to serving as a class officer, member of both the Alumni Council and the Society of the Alumni, Carmany founded and organized, along with classmate Gerald R. Fink, Amherst’s annual Fink Bioscience Symposium, which “enables students who aspire to careers in health care policy, medicine and bioscience research to interact with Amherst alumni who are leaders in these fields.” Teachers Alexis Nogelo Dekel, a math teacher previously at Pittsfield High School in Pittsfield, Mass., and currently at The Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School in Adams, Mass.; Jacson Lowe, a psychology teacher and baseball coach at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough, N.C.; and Eyal Wallenberg, a math teacher at The Urban Assembly School for Law & Justice in Brooklyn, N.Y., were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors whom they had taught in high school. Richard M. Lipton ’74 served as the honorary marshal for the ceremonies.

The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given by the trustees of the college to members of the senior class who have shown by their own determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, was awarded to Rachel Kaye Brickman of Cumming, Ga., and Michelle Johnstone of Buena Park, Calif.

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods and Charles B. Travis of the Class of 1864, was awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Benjamin Thomas Miller of Concord, Mass.

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