By Emily Gold Boutilier

In his final Commencement address as Amherst president, Anthony W. Marx asked graduating seniors to think about hard choices faced by real people: the mayor in Japan who, confronted with the impending tsunami, had to choose whether to stay at work to evacuate people or rush home to save his family; the human rights activist or soldier worried that helping Libyan rebels might result in their suffering even more if the regime holds; the overworked teacher forced to choose between focusing on students who can more easily move up or those who need extra help; the mother who must decide how forgiving or strict to be to a child.

“I can judge none of these in the abstract,” Marx said. “I know only that I would want for the person deciding to be possessed of that mindful and moral baggage which a liberal arts education provides.”

Marx’s address capped a weekend of festivities celebrating the 482 members of the Class of 2011—the largest graduating class in Amherst history. Marx, who left the college on June 30 to head the New York Public Library, examined in his speech the college’s mission statement, including its exhortation of graduates to lead “lives of consequence.”

“What ‘consequence’ should your life have?” he asked.  “Here we are on controversial ground, judging by the vigorous debates within the Amherst community. Some have thought the college presumes to judge the lives of its alumni, or that we refer here only to public achievement and belittle the creation of families, or that we ignore disappointments … or risks that fail. … No such narrowing is intended.

“But to those who say this statement means we believe in the idea of an elite, to which Amherst contributes, I plead guilty. This is an elite institution; we teach a select few, at great cost, who will bring the advantages of this intense schooling into society. That doesn’t mean everyone must become a head of state. … Creating families, enlivening friendships and communities, are consequential.”

The audience also heard from class speaker Gregory J. Campeau ’11. “We stand precariously on the cusp of a brave new world in which our neighbors will not all be our best pals and confidants—empathetic, sympathetic pairs of ears to listen, reassuring mouths to encourage and sharp minds to sometimes push back,” he said. “The enterprise of true, fruitful education seems to necessarily involve others supporting us as well as challenging us. Without this component, it all falls flat.”