Transcript of 2019 Senior Assembly Speech
I am Catherine Epstein, professor of history and Dean of the Faculty, and welcome to Senior Assembly for the class of 2019. Senior Assembly is when we celebrate the academic and other accomplishments of the senior class. And today we are celebrating you, the class of 2019. Do you remember four years ago, when you were first-year students, you came to Johnson Chapel on labor day for convocation? This was the day before your very first classes at Amherst College. And as you filed into the Chapel, the faculty sat in the middle section where many of you are seated now. So right down here, you sat all around the faculty on the sides, on the edges of the faculty. But this afternoon, the seating is reversed. You are in the middle and the faculty surrounds you. We, the faculty, envelop you, we embrace you. And today you are at the very heart of our community. Now while you will always be part of our community, today's celebration is part of the launching you into the world, part of us launching you into the world.
You will soon leave the physical space of Amherst and live and work and love in other parts of the country and indeed the world. And this brings me to the College's motto, terras irradient. And I brought a prop today. So it's right there. That's not usually there for Senior Assembly, but I brought it for you. And most often we translate this motto as "Let them give light to the world." Bear with me as I dwell on this for a few moments. In Latin, terras irradient means earth or land and Irradient is a verb in the third person as in they give light. Those words are found in the middle of our College seal. Above the words, there are the rays of the sun streaming down and below the words, there is an open book. This seal has been with us since the College's founding. It was designed by Professor Nathan Welby Fiske, a professor of Latin and Greek. Professor Fiske readied
The seal for the College's first commencement in August 1825. There is little doubt of the seal's original meaning, the sun and a Bible illuminated the terrestrial globe. The sun captured divine truth, and it poured into the Bible, the written word. The "them" in terras irradient, as in, let them give light to the world, referred to the graduates. Armed with divine truth, graduates were to spread the Christian gospel at home and across the globe, or as another translation of the motto reads, let them enlighten the lands. In the first decades of the College's history, Amherst graduates fulfilled this mission in spades. Many of our graduates became ministers and not a few became missionaries abroad. Between 1830 and 1950, roughly 140 Amherst graduates served as missionaries in Hawaii, the Middle East, India, China, and Africa. For them, terras irradient meant spreading their Christian truth. And they did so with great zeal and great sacrifice.
Others understood terras irradient somewhat differently, if quite literally too. They chose to light up the world by spreading the powerful model of an Amherst education. Indeed, Amherst graduates have founded or helped found important institutions of higher education abroad, institutions and their graduates that have now, in their way, enlightened the world, such a small school, but what a huge impact on higher education. Edward Jones class of 1826, was the first African American alumnus of the College. After graduation, he enrolled in the African mission school in Hartford. The school sent him to Sierra Leone where he became the principal of Fourah Bay College founded in 1827. As principal, he helped to develop an Amherst-like curriculum. Fourah Bay is today the oldest university in West Africa and was the first Western-style university in Africa altogether. Another graduate, Daniel Bliss, class of 1852, experienced a Christian revival at Amherst and became a missionary. Bliss went to Syria and founded Syrian Protestant College in Beirut,
Now Lebanon, in 1866. Syrian Protestant College was renamed the American University of Beirut, AUB, in 1920. And in the history of the Middle East, AUB has played a significant role in developing and spreading notions of Arab sovereignty and nationalism. In 1871, Bliss gave an interesting speech at the laying of the cornerstone for a new building at Syrian Protestant College. This College, Bliss said, is for all conditions and classes of men, without regard to color, nationality, race, or religion, a man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammadan, or heathen may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. Yet he then added, but it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief. It is this surety, this keen sense of knowing the truth. To which I will return in a minute.
One final Amherst-inspired founding of an institution abroad. Joseph Hardy Neesima, class of 1870. So his portrait is right over there next to the door. Neesima was the first Japanese citizen to earn a college degree in the United States. He was bent on learning about Western science and Christianity. To do so, he escaped Japan under threat of death. After he graduated from Amherst, he attended seminary and was ordained a minister. His goal was to return home to found a Christian university in 1875. He founded the Doshisha English School in Kyoto in 1920. This became Doshisha University and under Neesima, Doshisha started with eight students. Today, it is a university of 30,000 students and is considered one of the most important universities in Japan. At Doshisha, the word Amherst commands great respect. Some of you may know a new cafe in town, Shiru Cafe. Shiru's business model is that it takes your resumes in return for cheap or even free coffee and Amherst was chosen as one of the company's first U.S. Sites because Shiru's CEO went to Doshisha and knew all about Amherst College.
Let's get back to the seal here. By the 1870s, the religious deal that initially motivated the founding of the College had waned. Amherst, like the United States as a whole, secularized. In turn, interpretations of the seal change too. In 1937, for example, the Student claimed that the sun personified natural sciences and the open book, the Bible, and that the two illuminated the world with their radiance. The Student further wrote though that quote some authorities, however, are of the opinion that the opened volume represents book learning. So I suspect that when many of us think of terras irradient, we think along these more secular lines, that Amherst graduates, that is you will take your broad liberal arts education, and light up the world. That your Amherst education will equip you with what you need to approach the world's many-faceted problems. I have no doubt that each of you will light up the world and that you will bring the intellectual skills that you have honed here to solve the critical problems facing society.
But here's the thing. I've always found the terras irradient motto just a little bit troubling. What about the world? I've wondered. What role does the world play in all of this? How many of you studied abroad? Raise your hands. Nice. Okay. Keep your hands raised. You've got to keep them raised. How many of you otherwise went abroad during your time at Amherst? Add more? Good. Good. How many of you experienced a very different part of the United States while you were at Amherst? Did any of this change, you? Maybe a little? Not at all? Not sure? Wow. All right. Maybe just a little bit. It changed. So, to me, our motto hints a little bit too much that we know what is best for the world. In either its religious or secular variants, terras irradient involves a tinge of righteousness of moral superiority.
And I worry about all of us being just a little bit too sure of ourselves, that we are all a bit too sure of our convictions, and that we are all too quick to assume that those who think otherwise are simply wrong. What seems missing in our motto and what sometimes seems missing in our exchange with one another is humility. Humility involves questioning ourselves, our motives, our truths, our sureties. It involves a recognition that others with whom we don't agree may still have profound insights. Humility involves thinking that exposure to the other, whether in places like Sierra Leone, Beruit or Kyoto, or simply to other views, will strengthen our thinking. As you spread light through the world, I hope that you will do so with a certain humility, that is in a spirit of openness generosity and exchange. Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist, once wrote humility, like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights. So I repeat, humility like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights. It is my expectation that you are leaving Amherst with many intellectual strengths, but it is my hope that you are doing so with a measure of humility that will truly light up the world. So terras irradient. And before you go, we are now going to celebrate the light that you have produced here at Amherst. So welcome to Senior Assembly, class of 2019.