Convocation 2013

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President Martin Welcomes New Students, Urges “Bridging” Friendships

September 3, 2013

Amherst marked the beginning of the 2013–14 academic year with Opening Convocation at Johnson Chapel on Sept. 2. The first formal gathering of the first-year class, the annual ceremony enables the college’s president and the faculty, dressed in their academic regalia, to officially welcome the new students. Every year, it features a procession, music by the Choral Society and the awarding of master of arts degrees to faculty who have reached the rank of full professor but aren’t graduates of Amherst.

transcript  Read full text of President Martin’s speech.

photos  View photos of the entire event at the Amherst College Flickr set.

In this year’s Convocation address, President Biddy Martin took on those who question the value of a liberal arts education by sharing her own story and citing the role Amherst plays in reducing prejudice and ignorance by educating students through their coursework and their relationships with each other.

“The friendships you form here matter, and they matter not only to you as individuals or to the institution, but they matter on a much larger stage.”

“My message tonight, not surprisingly, is focused on the value of residential liberal arts education at Amherst College and emphasizes the importance of taking it seriously,” she said. “I want to get at that value by focusing on the prison house of ignorance and prejudice, about why I think the stakes in education are so high."

“I’m a little worked up about some of the attacks on liberal arts education and higher education in general,” she added. “Calls to keep higher ed accessible, affordable, and of high quality are legitimate and have to be heeded, but some of the gleeful proclamations of disruption and demise are pernicious."

Martin revealed to this year’s first-year students, 18 percent of whom are, like her, the first generation in their families to attend college, that she was raised “in an environment and a family that feared education because it has the power to change us.”

Because of her experiences, she said, “I have thought a lot over the course of my life about the benefits of education, but also about what can be difficult in it.”

convocation 2013

What can be difficult at Amherst and other schools, she noted, is “combining the intellectual quality of this community with an effort to take better advantage of the differences among us, to ensure that we teach and learn as rigorously as Amherst faculty and students do, but also learn more from our encounters with one another.”

One way for students to learn from each other, she said, is to build not only “bonding” relationships with people who are familiar but also “bridging” relationships with students from other backgrounds.

“Bridging relationships are the means by which we acquire the information and knowledge that allow for social and economic opportunity for individuals and groups, but they are also the domain in which commercial and political influence are negotiated,” she said.

Citing research by Amherst psychology professor Elizabeth Aries and others who find that white U.S. students from more privileged backgrounds tend to do the least crossing of boundaries in their friendship networks, Martin urged all students to use their time at Amherst to resist the “comfort and safety” of insular networks.

“The friendships you form here matter, and they matter not only to you as individuals or to the institution, but they matter on a much larger stage,” she said. “The relationships we build here are experiments in the kind of social world we could imagine and would like to have.”

Prior to speaking to the first-years, Martin conferred honorary master’s degrees on William A. Loinaz,  professor of physics; Anna M. Martini, professor of geology and co-chair of the environmental studies department; and Matthew Schulkind, professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department.

convocation 2013


President Biddy Martin’s 2013 Convocation Address

My message tonight, not surprisingly, is the value of residential liberal arts education at Amherst and the importance of taking advantage of it.  I want to get at that value by focusing on the prison house of ignorance and prejudice, and say something about why I think the stakes in education are so high.  I am worked up about some of the attacks on higher education.  Calls to keep higher ed accessible, affordable, and of high quality are legitimate and have to be heeded, but some of the gleeful proclamations of disruption and demise are pernicious.

I begin with 9/11 and a speech which I will always remember.

Three days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, on what had been designated as a national day of prayer and remembrance, Walter LaFeber, historian of U.S. foreign policy, stood before an audience at Cornell University and asked us to honor the victims of the attack by remembering a larger context and a longer time horizon.  President Bush had announced, but not yet declared a new war and LaFeber urged us to put that new war in the context of many others fought in the name of freedom.  His remembrances that day were courageous; they also showed what an historian offers a nation reeling from the loss not only of thousands of lives, but also of its sense of security.

“We fall to easily,” Lafeber said, “into [grieving] for a lost innocence and supposed security.”  The assumption of a prior innocence suppresses a complex history.  “We remember,” he said, “what the Founders rightly warned, that a republic cannot be both ignorant and free. Two hundred years later,” he continued, “in a time of instant mass communication and disappearing borders, we remember that … we cannot be ignorant of other peoples and remain free; that we cannot be intolerant of great cultures and races with which we share a shrinking planet and remain free; and that we cannot surrender centuries-old constitutional principles, especially in checks on each branch of government, and remain free.”

These remembrances are eerily, if necessarily salient in September, 2013.

LaFeber was addressing a crowd of students, faculty, and staff at a university and he reminded us of our responsibilities.  “Every American community,” he said on that day of remembrance, “but especially the university and the government, has the sacred responsibility to reveal, to protect, yet to continue to test those fundamentals of our freedom,” fundamentals that include individual rights, individual obligations to the larger community, constitutional principles, and knowledge of others.

I do not believe that these sacred responsibilities can be fulfilled by an education that focuses solely on job skills and future income. An education that has only narrowly instrumental purposes, explicitly economic or not, will not be adequate to the task of combatting ignorance and prejudice or guiding the many difficult decisions we face; those tasks require that we appreciate complexity, be capable of thinking historically, put ourselves into question, and respect our shared humanness.

The assumption of a lost innocence blinds us to our historical and current entanglements with other nations, cultures, and peoples, entanglements that we need to understand.  For LaFeber, the alternative to an assumed innocence is not an assuming of guilt.  The alternative is hard-won knowledge and wisdom, which is much harder-won.  In the immediate wake of 9/11, he exemplified those options:
We remember, when we must, that the United States is the world’s most powerful nation: militarily strong while others feel defenseless; rich, while others are poor; often cultural dominant, while others fear the loss of their ancient traditions.  We should remember from the study of a long history that these disparities will inevitably change.  If we are fortunate, wise, and remember, we will help guide that change, rather than having changes imposed on us.

Ignorance is not the absence of information. It is not a simple emptiness waiting to be filled. If it were, we would not need our Amherst's. We could rely exclusively on the electronic transmission of information, on google searches, or on point-and-click technologies.  Ignorance is active, even willful, though often unconsciously so; it is structured by configurations of power and distribution of resources; it works through us by virtue of the ways we are enfolded in those configurations.  It is cemented by bonds of love—by the attachments and loyalties that shape us, and sometimes lead us around by the nose.  The undoing of ignorance requires awareness and guts, which depend on the fellowship, the guidance, and support of others who are committed to rigorous analysis, that “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” to use the words of the Regents of the University of Wisconsin when they defended academic freedom in the late nineteenth century.  Contesting ignorance requires that we be guided by principles, that we be willing to put our own prejudice to the test. It requires friendship, the kind of friendship that we find in a community like Amherst.  All of which is to say: it matters to have great teachers who care about your learning and talented classmates with different backgrounds and perspectives with whom to take this journey.

I am passionate about education of the sort that stares down prejudice and admits of complexity, because that kind of education opened up worlds that would otherwise have eluded me, imaginative and affective worlds as well as opportunities in the external world.  Both forms of expansiveness are essential.  I was raised in an environment and a family that feared education because it has the power to change us. The people around me masked their fear with disdain and contempt for the educated.  My father was a WWII veteran--a casualty of that war, who never got relief from the trauma he experienced as an artillery gunner from North Africa all the way through the end of the war in Europe. When he got going on one of his frequent rants about all the groups he hated, he never failed to include eggheads, the over-educated, who, as he put it, think they’re better than we are. Educated women were horsy, educated men not quite men, and all were traitors to their (white) race and country. Given his own history, my father’s rage was understandable.  Somewhere, however, the pattern has to be broken.
His form of anti-intellectualism is, unfortunately, still with us, even if that brief account makes him sound to you like an extreme case. Safety and self-worth are secured by too many through the exclusion of others and an assumption of their lesser value, by the denial of scientific facts, and by opposition to education against ignorance.

When I was in a very early grade in school, I asked my father to help me write a paper about the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties; to this day, I remember what he told me to write—that the Democrats cared about the little man, about people like him—a cookie deliverer who lost his job and his line of work when the chain stores swept into rural Virginia. Not long thereafter, as the civil rights movement picked up steam, he made the switch that so many white Southerners made, before and after the march on Washington, which we commemorated this past week, to the Republican Party.

I, having been given too little reason to feel safe or valued in my family, developed a secret obsession with John F. Kennedy whose defeat of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960 Democratic primary had been the last straw for my father, confident as he was in 1960 of Johnson’s racial loyalty, but certainly not Kennedy’s.  My family romance with JFK at the head led me to memorize his speeches and collect every newspaper and magazine article about him I could find.  I was especially fond of the ones that included photographs.  I found him very good-looking.  His assassination, fifty years ago this November, only amplified my attachment and gave it a morbid quality.  In the family, I became known as the betrayer—of family, race, gender, eventually of sexual norms, and, once all those lines have been crossed, inevitably, or so they thought, of the country itself. 

Against their better judgment, my parents relented and permitted me to attend college—an experience they considered useless, even dangerous for girls.  They did not have college degrees, but had sent my slightly older brother off to a junior college to play football, a more useful undertaking in the rural south than academic work.  And I have always been a die-hard football fan.  In the late sixties and early seventies, their worst fears about college education were realized, in their view, when they discovered that I, too, was boycotting classes in protest of the Vietnam War.  For my father, understandably, failure to support the war and those who were fighting it felt like a direct attack on him.  But the clearest sign to them that I had crossed over was their perception that I had begun to talk funny—to use big words and lose my accent.  “We didn’t raise you to talk like that” became a form of mockery, but also, sadly, a howl of despair. The process of separating from what they had in mind for me was not easy. When familial bonds depend on the sharing of so much hatred, when they seem to deny reality, those bonds are isolating prisons.  I was able to avoid going home after graduation by the interest that my college professors took in me; the English professor who knew I loved Tennyson and Hopkins and the German professor who knew I loved language  encouraged me to do something that I am not sure I even knew was possible, much less imagined for myself—to apply for graduate school. They not only encouraged me, I think one of them may have filled out the forms.  One of them also began referring to my family as “hicks” and “rednecks,” and that reminded me that I was living on a kind of edge.

Because of my experiences, I have thought a lot over the course of my life about the benefits of education, but also about what can be difficult in it.  I think it is important to emphasize both.  Those of us who come from an environment that is hostile to higher education end up appreciating what it offers, while also living with some irreconcilable tensions.  Ultimately, those tensions can be teachers.
Because of my background, I have thought a lot about what we too blandly and uncritically celebrate as “diversity.”  It is possible to make of it a kind of fetish when it is not connected the work of the institution and the vision for our relations with one another.  It becomes a fetish when the responsibility for it is left to those who seem to represent it, rather than being assumed by every one of us.  I think about the gift that our different histories are, and about the barriers to appreciating them.  The question I have asked about Amherst since my arrival is how we combine the intellectual quality of this community with an effort to take better advantage of the differences among us, how we ensure that we teach and learn as rigorously as Amherst faculty and students always have, but also learn more from our encounters with one another.  Every major challenge we face in the world—the decision about Syria, radiation at Fukishima, climate change, growing inequality, violence against women, to name only a few--requires that we bring knowledge and wisdom to bear from a wide range of quarters, that we use communication and negotiation rather than annihilation as a way of sorting things out and, in the case of violence against women, that we honor one another’s personhood and bodily integrity. We need not only information.  We need not only to understand, cognitively; we need to learn how to establish the social connections and, in particular, the friendships that will make more lasting change possible.

This summer, I had an opportunity to read a series of essays that were recommended to me by one of our trustees, who is also a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  Danielle Allen suggested I read some of the literature in the social sciences on social capital, which emphasizes the personal, social, and economic benefits of broad and diverse social networks.  Danielle wondered whether the distinction in that literature between bonding and bridging relationships might help us conceptualize some of the challenges on campus as we extend our discussions of difference and community. Bonding relationships are defined as the strong connections between and among people who are alike or familiar and, supposedly, safe--family, members of the same racial, ethnic or religious groups. Bridging relationships, on the other hand, are said to be the weaker, but no less important connections that are established across the boundaries of more homogeneous groups.  Bridging relationships are the means by which we acquire the information and knowledge that allow for social and economic opportunity, but they are also the domain in which commercial and political influence are negotiated or established.

In this literature, there are numerous articles that focus on college as an important social connector, emphasizing the durability of college friendships, and their importance over the long term as forms of social capital.  The most helpful thing I read on race, class, and friendship in college is the work of our own Professor of Psychology, Elizabeth Aries, Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College.  I will return briefly to her study in a moment.

Much of the literature on social capital that I read refers to Robert Putnam's 1995 article, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, and his book published in 2000 entitled, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Putnam laments the decline of civic and community life in the United States. Drawing on data showing a decrease in Americans’ participation in various civic organizations and other forms of communal activity, Putnam ends up suggesting that increasing diversity has the short-term effect of diminishing community, as members of all socioeconomic and racial groups in mixed neighborhoods tend to “hunker down” in the assumed safety of familial bonds. Putnam emphasizes the long-term benefit of pluralistic societies and has developed a range of ways of mitigating the effects that diversity can have, short term, on people’s sense of community.  But, as many scholars have pointed out, he remains too wedded to the notion that community requires likeness, failing to recognize that the differences within our supposed differences from one another have already created a society that eludes capture by a rigid distinction between bonding and bridging.  Some, like Danielle Allen, ask whether the forms of association he studies are the best indicators or the best foundation for civic community in a democracy.

The criticisms of Putnam suggest that we ask ourselves, when we feel a lack of community: what the roots of that sense of community have been in the past, whether our habits or our arts of association (Allen) are likely to yield openness and have egalitarian effects or not.

Allen shows that several Supreme Court cases  in the 1970s redefined rights of association, by balancing those rights against the potential for discrimination. In an unpublished article, entitled:  Social Capital and the Art of Association, Allen shows how Putnam fails to take account of the court decisions and their impact on the rates of participation he has studied.  Rather than lamenting a decline in community, we could instead ask questions about the nature of the community for which we find ourselves longing.  Are we grieving an assumed innocence and false homogeneity?  Could we imagine more inclusive forms of association as the basis of our social fabric and our democracy? Should we assess our bonding relationships for their support of bridging? Allen asks how we might develop a new art of association and what skills it would require.  I think her work has the potential to help us think through a range of challenges and I hope you will read it.

What role does the College play, what role do you and I play in the project of re-imagining and developing new arts of association? You who are our students do this to some extent simply by virtue of who you are.  But it is worth pursuing the challenges with awareness, choice, and intention.  Elizabeth “Buffy” Aries in-depth study of students at Amherst shows the importance of in-group bonds, especially for members of groups that have been and still are subject to discrimination, but also for others. Aries also shows the concrete benefits for the students she studied of cross-group friendships, and she emphasizes how entangled relational bonds and bridges are becoming, even as she shows us what a long way we have to go.

Her research, and the research of other scholars on college friendships, shows that there are two major predictors of which students will develop friendships across socio-economic, racial, and ethnic lines.  The first, not surprisingly, is your previous experience in high school, whether you had cross-group friendships there; and the second predictor is the relative diversity of the student population you join. In addition, she finds, as do others, that more privileged, white U.S. students tend to do the least crossing of boundaries in their friendship networks. Some forms of privilege blind us to the fact that there are boundaries to cross.  When the norms of our institutions match so much more neatly with the norms of privileged groups than they do with those of more marginalized groups, those who have enjoyed privilege will see the institution and their forms of association within it as self-evident, neutral, open to anyone.  Amherst, like all other institutions, has a history that has made some more immediately comfortable than others.  Comfort is essential, but, in the end, it is not comfort if it limits the richness of your social connections or closes you off from their benefits.  In speaking about the research on cross-group friendships, I run the risk of reproducing forms of political correctness that turn every one of our choices, in our private and public lives, into moral judgments.  The appropriate response to our various forms of blindness, denial, and limits or what LaFeber called our assumptions of innocence is to seek the alternative of knowledge, wisdom, and friendship.  The culture of knee-jerk indignation and moral self-righteousness is often just the other side of a bad coin and coerced forms of association are hardly a basis for democracy.

The friendships you form here matter and they matter not only to you as individuals or to the institution, but they matter on a much larger scale. The relationships we build here are experiments in the kind of social world we could imagine and would like to have.

From my point of view, our differences are so evidently the most enlivening basis for community and for much-needed change in the world, when they are mediated by the things we have in common at Amherst--eagerness to learn, belief in the importance of education, love of thought and discovery, and joy in the close colloquy between students and faculty. Our best hope for the revelation, preservation, and continual testing of fundamental principles are the friendships that are forged here between students and faculty, students and staff, students and students, as long as we not only derive comfort, but also learn from the challenges those relationships present.

We remember that we cannot remain intolerant or even ignorant of one another and be free.  We remember that our sacred responsibility is “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” a lifelong purpose that can only be fulfilled in friendship and in social relationships that free, rather than imprison us.  I am glad you are all here and deeply grateful that I am.

Have a wonderful semester.