Opening Convocation 2007: "Living Up to the Enlightenment"

President Anthony W. Marx, 2007 Convocation
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President Anthony W. Marx
Monday, September 3, 2007

Class of 2011:

By now you have heard often how talented you are: the most selective class ever admitted to the most selective and diverse liberal arts college in America. You are indeed the newest heirs to the finest undergraduate education in the world. Congratulations.

Let us begin by putting this moment and this place in a larger historical context. As a liberal arts institution, we are an invention of the European Enlightenment, and we’d best understand what that means, what values it means we observe.

By “Enlightenment,” I mean the modern era of Western history, starting in the 1600s, when discoveries by Newton and other scientists of verifiable principles, of nature and of our place in it, paralleled and stirred religious tolerance, social justice and economic might.

“Enlightenment” is perhaps too perfect a term, not distinctive enough. For who would prefer being children of willful ignorance?

But, my friends, just such an alternative is peddled today, its threat increasingly apparent. That we must yet fight for the Enlightenment may not be obvious, but it is real. Coming here, you join in a centuries-old tradition of commitment to that struggle.

In the medieval epochs of Europe, leading right up to the edge of the modern, authority was established by deity or absolutism. Monarchs and priests directed humanity’s understanding of nature, of sickness and health, of earth’s horizon, of the motion of the stars. It is hard for you now to imagine that way of life, in which such authority was not questioned. But the power of individual insight, yearning and industry were just beginning to coalesce, producing revolutions that replaced despotism with democracy, feudalism with capitalism and fundamentalism with religious choice.

Imagine the scope of those revolutions. One of the Enlightenment’s central figures, Immanuel Kant, did not seem a revolutionary. They say you could set your watch by his walks in Königsberg. But it was he who, in 1789, shook the world, calling on mankind to abandon its “self‑inflicted immaturity.” He found a new potency in the ancient maxim of Horace—“sapere aude,” or “dare to know”—and translated that simple call into a mission for his and our age: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s categorical imperative “to act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law” would shake absolutism. No longer could one ruler’s views trump all others. The fundamentals of democracy and of individual human rights emerged. A populace that had been enchanted by pomp became disenchanted, but also became enchanted with the greater power of reason and sensibility.

Perhaps the Enlightenment seems foreign to you. It should not. This was the era in which far corners of the world suddenly became aware of one another, in ideas and in commerce, even at their peril. Seafaring Captain James Cook discovered the exotic and was then eaten by it. The press and the book exploded the flow of information, which had been resisted even by centuries-old universities that feared threats to their doctrines. As we now adjust to a world of media beyond books, the medieval world’s halting acceptance of uncontrolled information should not seem so strange.

Also, science emerged. Mankind began rationally to experiment, to find just how much more could be not just predicted but measured and understood: the laws of gravity and inertia, the refraction of light. Ideas were subject to verification but also to falsification in the search for truth not assumed. Such perceptions may seem obvious now, but the individual sorts of genius that could attain them took hundreds of years to arrive, as did the notion that it was our place to find such explanation.

In the Enlightenment, we re‑thought our relation to God. There was the tame version of John Locke, who argued for toleration and a freedom to worship any God, without rejecting the role of God or tradition. But there was also the more radical view of Baruch Spinoza, whom I remember discovering when I was a college freshman. For him, freedom of thought meant a radical re‑thinking of God, not as revealed truth, but as nature. Spinoza is perhaps the first great modern, noted for placing the Bible on his bookshelf next to the Koran as studies of man-made belief, expelled from the Jewish faith for that audacity.

The Enlightenment had its downsides. There remained an elitism, a sexism (valiantly challenged by Mary Wollstonecraft) and racism, all of which have remained threats to enlightenment. Disagreements on religion, science, morality, law and politics raged. Rejection of traditional authority opened such great debates and made impossible their too easy resolution.

But two things changed forever. First, wide acceptance of the value of the individual suddenly punctured authority based merely on hierarchy. We take that for granted now, but if you were then a serf or anything other than one of the few aristocrats who too long fascinated history, you would not.

Second, we began to sense human possibility. What had been a world subject to “fortune’s wheel,” to random repetition, was replaced by “time’s arrow,” a more progressive image. The word progress began acquiring today’s broader meaning. The very idea of an advance in knowledge and social justice based on reason emerged.

Seeing history as a continuum, we needn’t argue that the Age of Enlightenment ended with the advent of Industrialization or its cultural response, Romanticism, in the 19th century. Even as the Enlightenment still calls us to understand and use our common gift of reason, we also recognize reason’s limits. As Alexander Pope wrote:

The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great…
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Class of 2011, this is the moment you arrive, here, at this quintessential Enlightenment institution, the great liberal arts college. We stand for the proposition that society is best served by the rigorous and intense education of each person to her or his highest ability. Amherst prizes individual reason over unearned authority. We believe that the cross‑cultural understanding of a complex world informs all of our progress. We believe in “progress”: that new knowledge advances us. Just as we believe in science, we also respect and take strength from faith, not as a closed system but as an inspiration, as another kind of journey, for each to examine and decide for herself or himself. Although we know we cannot reach perfection, we believe in striving for the improvement for all.

Amherst invests a tremendous amount in each of you, confident in your individual potentials, relying on your advancement. We expect you to challenge accepted truths even as you learn from traditions. Moreover, we expect you to form habits of such challenge and learning. You will not get to celebrate on the sidelines just for being here. Rather, dive into the intellectual firmament. Bring your faiths and critical attitudes to the fore, even when everyone else seems to be arguing against you. We will enjoy games and contests, but this is not a game. It is the fundamental work of civilization.

We call you to this work at a time when the inheritance of the Enlightenment is again challenged by literalism, fear, inequality and deprivation.

It is a cruel irony that some discoveries of the Enlightenment have now brought threats to it. Industrialization fueled by the scientific revolution has also continued to effect social and environmental harms we struggle to curtail. The popular science of evolution has fed a terrible Social Darwinism, by which some argue that they are destined to prosper more than others, disputing the universal worth of the individual.

Such arrogance leads to reduced and unequal investments in education and even in our public health. Global outreach that has enriched many also brings fear of those deemed foreign. In a world addicted to Internet speed, we no longer read carefully enough. Distracted by spectacles of entertainment, we lose critical insight. Too cautious of publicly examining our personal answers to fundamental questions, we let the shrill cries of literalist faith and authoritarian zeal set the terms of debate.

Against such trends, this little college and others like it, which educate a small but essential corps, stand, debating robustly how best to respond to threats and live up to our great ideals. We, the Amherst faculty, are debating our curriculum, as we have and must always do. We are debating how to ensure your abilities in writing, how to assess so as to ensure your and our continued improvement, how to invest in the finest faculty in academic areas the future requires and how best to maintain strong departments while ensuring that our disciplinary expertise strengthens rather than constricts us.

Amherst has re‑committed to enrolling the best students from all backgrounds and interests, regardless of ability to pay. We have resolved to eliminate loans from financial aid packages so that the days of students scared away by debt, or of Amherst students constrained in career choices by debt, will end. We have re‑committed to the traditions of service. We hope our new Center for Community Engagement will inspire you to see that an Amherst education comes with an obligation to serve for a lifetime. We are increasing opportunities for students to learn languages and to engage with faculty in research, knowing that you must be our partners in scholarship. We are imagining the future of the sciences, of the arts and of the library, so that we can ensure they continue to thrive at our center.

Class of 2011, you should expect such efforts of your college, just as we expect much from you. We will not be satisfied by standing on our laurels, nor by brand‑name appeal, but will demand substance, the demand of the Enlightenment, which we expect you also to demand of yourselves.

Ours may not be the popular approach in consumer society, where even universities are tempted by self‑aggrandizement to forget our higher calling. But we are not here to aggrandize ourselves as a college, nor to teach you to be smugly satisfied by such self‑regard, to assume status based on position alone. That would be a modern rejection of the Enlightenment, a return to the dark ages of static hierarchy. We will not let you or ourselves rest on that false foundation. Instead, we are here to remind you, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” The wind of the age is against us, but we will push against it, giving each other strength. We gather here, now, to begin again that effort. I can’t promise you anything easier.

I can promise we will expect the utmost effort from you to pursue and bring into practice those ideas that might lift ever more of the world “from brutality toward civilization,” that missionary calling for which this college was founded, which we still embrace. By insisting on this aim from each of you, we seek to live up to the Enlightenment that gave us birth.

We start now, for you uniquely, a crucible for the modern era. Your will to engage with its greatest ideas sets the course for a lifetime. The challenge lies before you here. Joyfully, we join with you as you chart your own course to a personal enlightenment.

Welcome to Amherst College.