Hear the panel discussion, see photos of the ceremony and more on the Inauguration page.
Anthony W. Marx
October 26, 2003
One hundred and eighty-two years ago here in this place, an emerging town a long horseride from urban centers, our founders established a center of learning. Seven years earlier they had opened a secondary academy; they then added this, an institution of higher education, funded to allow students to attend who could not afford to pay. In their words, they established “a permanent charity fund as the basis of an institution in Amherst . . . for the classical education of indigent young men.” As a community they invested their wealth and their efforts not only to educate their own, but those less fortunate. They established a private school with a public mission.
Our founders aspired not just to finding truth within, but to sending their graduates forth to enlighten and inspire the world: “Terras Irradient.” They understood that the message of the book on our seal must speak beyond our campus and town borders. Our founders were, in a world of wilderness, inspiring cosmopolitans.
They were also modern. Our founders knew that markets alone would not provide for the social progress they sought. To educate only those who could afford to come, would not ensure opportunity nor prepare all who are capable for leadership. And they sought to spread the word of God, but also of the enlightenment, beyond this place and these majestic hills of New England.
They pledged, as stipulated in the Charter, not to discriminate on the basis of the ability to pay, but also not on the basis of “any particular religious opinions.” They thus powerfully expressed tolerance toward sectarian differences that had torn apart the Old World, which their ancestors had fled to escape persecution. In this, they advocated liberty of conscience and freedom from tyranny, in a land that remembered the hoof-beats of Shay’s Rebellion.
Our founders were not without their flaws, at least from our current perspective. They gathered in a town with colonial name, and the scar of native settlers wiped out. They were moved by a missionary zeal that for some would cross over into moral imperialism. But they were — as we continue to be — a community of great teachers, scholars, students and citizens.
We are that same great college, dedicated to the art of learning, symbolized by this library in which knowledge is stored and from which knowledge now overflows into the ether. A young and gallant president, John F. Kennedy, came here to break ground for this library exactly forty years ago today. He spoke of our founding goals and our flaws, of inherited wealth and of inherited poverty, and of educational inequities. And President Kennedy reminded us how poetry can save power from itself, and save us from our prejudices.
In Kennedy’s words, Robert Frost, the poet — and I take it, the college — “brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. ‘Because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair.’ When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence....The great artist (like the College) has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. Sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. In a democratic society, the highest duty of the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may; in serving his vision, the artist (again like the College) best serves the nation.”
Kennedy can then also be understood as reminding us, through his tribute to Robert Frost, of the College’s role in the world. If we extend Kennedy’s metaphor, the poet becomes the college, or a perfect vision of us, speaking truth to power, and provoking the young — and the old — to think. The President concluded, in words he penned onto his text as his cavalcade approached Amherst, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
The College, this college, can be understood as akin to the poet and artist of which the President spoke. We must contribute to one another’s spirit and not to self-aggrandizement; to self-understanding, not arrogance; to enlightened humility and not the power of domination.
We still aspire to this mission decreed at our founding and elaborated on that day Kennedy spoke here forty years ago. The number of less wealthy students at American colleges and at Amherst College has risen — perhaps still not enough, but risen — since Kennedy took its measure here with startling statistics.
But the disparities overall within the United States — which the president also enumerated here — and in the world as a whole, have grown. Inequality has worsened. This, in a world to which we still are called to respond, as intellectual, moral leaders. The dream of our founding has not yet been fulfilled, the work not completed.
To quote again from President Kennedy, “privilege is here, and with privilege comes responsibility.” What is our responsibility? JFK was clear. “What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?... This college... was not done merely to give this school’s graduates an advantage, an economic advantage, in the life struggle.... Unless the graduates of this college are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion back into service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”
Our responsibility remains to select the best of diverse students, to learn from each other. To ensure that they balance learning and effort of mind, spirit, talent and body. To fire in them a life desire for learning and moral reasoning and action. To inspire to do what the college was founded for – to enlighten, care for and advance society as a whole, and its faith, within and beyond our borders.
It remains our students’ responsibility to learn, engage and change the world. It remains the faculty’s to inform teaching with scholarship that is deep but also broad in the way it can be only at a great liberal arts college. And it remains our duty, together, to serve the community, and thereby learn further. To work with those less privileged. By serving our core mission of education, we serve beyond it.
Why is this 19th-century mission so important today? Why are we not simply an antiquated holdover?
This college is a gift from one generation to the next, the quintessential inter-generational investment. But the ideals on which this college was founded are today under threat. Our concern for the less privileged has wavered. Here in the U.S., our public schools — the level of education with which our founders began when they established the Amherst Academy — are floundering, threatening the future of our prosperity and our democracy.
The market is transcendent — we are in danger of forgetting historical warnings of how and when the dynamic of the market requires moderation. The great scholar Karl Polanyi observed that the very idea of society was born in defense against the ravages of the market. Where the market prevails unchecked, communal bonds weaken.
Despite our expanding commercial markets, our tolerance for difference, which has grown within our country (although imperfectly), has not spread well beyond. While the market erases borders between nations, nationalism still inflames. And with nationalism, as Hannah Arendt described it, has come racism. We live still in a world that denies peoples basic moral and legal rights.
Today we hear invoked across the land certain truths. Truths are precious when based on critical examination or as part of an unfulfillable search. But truths asserted as doctrine and ideology are divisive. Such dogmas will never protect us for long. Nor should we be protected by them, for such protection stands in the way of thinking.
Many of these threats to our liberty leave us — as I am left — to reflect on the word “we.” It is a powerful word; the most powerful word in politics, for it defines the scope of our solidarity, our sympathy and obligation. It is the first word of our constitution, though even that document faltered in incorporating women and those of African descent within that founding “we.” In our society, those not immediately present have too often been forgotten or left out, unseen over the hills, not part of our privilege. Who is considered worth educating has too often been circumscribed. We have too often constrained who is considered capable of deliberating on truth.
We have sometimes fallen short in meeting our ideals, here and in America. But now we face the staggering challenge to expand those ideals to the world. The “we” continues to expand, as it has done for a half millennium or more. We are pressed to enlarge our engagement and compassion faster than our minds and our institutions may seem capable of envisioning.
If we so falter, then we must remember for ourselves — and remind society — whence we come, who we are and where we must aim. Amherst is a uniquely American College, a crown jewel of the finest educational system ever seen. But small as we are, we are not so contained. We must not ever become a gated community, for we are that poet who Kennedy praised and on whom democracy depends.
It is the enlightenment ideal that all can learn and participate. If this society’s commitment to that ideal wavers, we must not acquiesce. As our founders intended, we must resist ephemeral trends toward isolation and self-indulgence.
We are an American College — like America today, a privileged and powerful place. Nothing about being so privileged by itself ensures the responsibility to engage the world beyond that which sustains privilege. It takes an act of consciousness, of will, of thinking, to lift one’s gaze beyond the near hills toward what must engage the power, the compassion, the vision we have sharpened through education.
Few have the opportunity that we enjoy here. That privilege must not dull us into complacency, into the indolence of prosperity nor assurances of power. Let us come together, inspired by our founding; remember, revise and refine our ideals; and live up to them as best we can. We do already a great deal; we must always seek to do more. To constantly imagine and construct a newer world and newer selves to sustain it. To build a more robust, less fearful community. To comprehend a “we” more various, enlightened and engaged. One far less violent, and thus strange to us now, more tolerant, generous and creative.
I return then to a theme enunciated here not by John F. Kennedy, but by one of our own college presidents, Alexander Meiklejohn, speaking at the one hundredth anniversary of this college and thinking ahead to the next hundred years, to the bicentennial moment we now approach. Lifting his own eyes to the future, Meikeljohn saw that the most pressing question would remain, “How shall we live together?”
And who is that “we?” In his words, “We need the wealth and spirit which the other” — I would add all other — “ peoples have to give. Here in the American College that fusion must be made. Our people must be formed and shaped into the rounded wholeness of a single life. This is a splendid College task.” It is splendid. His call of more than eighty years ago, the call of our original mission, can still broaden our grasp, bind and inspire us.
Our task remains, as T.S. Eliot said, “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To see and act in this life, now, in accord with our founding ideals of inclusion and diversity, toward that tolerance that nurtures a strong, purposeful identity. To make of ourselves all that we can, leading and inspiring others to do the same. To make real the model community we strive to construct, not to stay too comfortably within a circumscribed arena of learning or interaction.
Looking back to our own founding, we see that the ideals on which this College was founded are those of the nation in which it was born and which now engages with the world. We must spread enlightenment through ourselves and throughout the world. Terras Irradient. There is no other way.
Meiklejohn warned that to instead enforce our “dominance secure” cannot work. We must instead stay true to ourselves and to the best of our culture, and then “let our culture take its chance on equal terms, without advantage... in the free play of a great people’s fusing life.”
In difficult days, the temptation is to do otherwise. As Meiklejohn reminds us, “Men lose their poise in days like these, grow frightened by events which they themselves cannot control, put their faith aside. Colleges (our college) must tell them if faith is sacrificed today, it will cost more to win it back tomorrow.” Especially when days seem dark or threatening, we must aspire higher and strive for better. In dark days, we must and can shine all the more brightly.
As Emily Dickinson wrote, “We do not know how high we are until we are asked to rise.” Let us acknowledge how high we are, and ask ourselves then to rise together to the ideals of our past and of our future.