2012 Commencement Address by President Biddy Martin

On Sunday, May 20, 2012, President Biddy Martin delivered the 191st Commencement Address at Amherst College. Play video and read the transcript below.

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Graduates, at dinner at my house a few weeks ago, I asked a small group of you what you’d like to hear from me at graduation, and you said you’d like to hear something encouraging, but you did not want me to tell you how special you are. So I’m going to accommodate your wishes.

You are the 191st graduating class, so not the first or the only ones [but] the latest in a long line of graduates who have gone into every conceivable walk of life and engaged in every form of service.   I wondered what Commencement was like in the beginning, and so our incredible archivists dug up a book by Claude Moore Fuess that includes a description of a Commencement ceremony in the 1830s.

And he tells us that Commencement in the 1830s was regarded as a holiday for the entire region in Western Massachusetts. And, as such, he says, it particularly harmonized with the habits and tastes of the people. And I go on: “They have not the vanity of fairs,” he said, “nor the strictness of a religious service. They attract not merely the religious”—remember that Amherst was a religious college—“but the people at large, and thus extend to the more worldly portions of the community.” 

Now on this holiday in 2012, we actually do have the vanity of a fair right on the edge of the campus, and we do have worldliness. There is no religious rigidity, but there are almost certainly the forms of humility, connectedness and reverence that many associate with religious feeling. Given the activities of the weekend, you surely believe that revelry and reverence are a good combination. 

The 1830s were the heyday of public oratory, and Fuess tells us that every graduate was entitled to speak, to display his rhetorical skill for at least 15 minutes each. The speeches started at 9 a.m., and they ended after 3 p.m. In comparison, we have a very short ceremony. He says, “There was some inconvenience in making so many addresses in a single morning; but, on the whole, it was found to have less evil than would attend any principle of selection.” Some things never change. (Only a few people got that joke.) But, you exercised choice. [Class speaker] Elias [Johansson-Miller] has represented you, and he’s represented you well. If you’d like to hear even more speeches up until 3 p.m., I’m sure that [Senior Assembly speaker] Spencer Russell [’12] would be willing to give … the Commencement speech he gave on Senior Day, and maybe [Senior Assembly speaker] Shanika [Audige ’12] would come forward as well.

By the way: Fuess tells us that one of the townspeople who attended died when eating watermelon in the afternoon. So I urge you to be careful what you eat.

What we see here today is absolutely beautiful, and it is the full measure of a college: a multi-generational, international network of support and community on a gorgeous campus that will have given you a strong sense of place and a sense of embeddedness in a long history. And you will have all of those things for the rest of your lives.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been asking you what you intend to do after graduation. The question arises out of curiosity about you, but also probably out of a weirdly ingrained habit of asking students what you least want to hear. Such questions, I think, are a way of hanging on to you.

But I worry I may have reinforced the notion that you should have a plan, that your education naturally yields a plan, and that you are doomed if you don’t yet have your entire lives mapped out. That would be ironic, given that my own life course has been neither straight nor planned in the way one might expect. I meant as in straight and narrow. Few lives are ordered and planned. What matters is flexibility and perseverance—the ability not only to tolerate but actually to learn from uncertainty, bad luck, loss, rejection—even by one’s own kin—and failure.  In some people, questions about the future elicit anxiety because the way forward is not clear; in others of you, anxiety came because your path was clear. One of you, for example, told me you anticipated criticism because you’re about to say you’re going into investment banking. My response was: We need smart, ethical bankers who understand the big picture and want to serve the collective good. So, be those investment bankers. 

Many of you have expressed unadulterated exuberance about what you’re going to do next—Lila, for example, combining research with travel around the world; pursuing graduate work or professional school for many of you; taking new jobs; teaching through Teach for America and other related programs. One of you told me at Senior Day dinner, down in LeFrak Gym, that you had enlisted in the army and would be leaving us soon after graduation for Fort Bennington in Georgia. Thank you for serving. All of us wish you well.

You’ve been students at Amherst during one of the worst economic periods in the nation’s history, so you don’t need me to tell you that you’re entering what is still a difficult economy. You know difficulty. After all, I hear that you gave up cereal for dinner during the crisis.

The purpose of the education you get at Amherst College, even in good economic times, is not to yield a particular job, but to teach you to think, to accept complexity, to express yourselves well—even beautifully—and to love learning. A residential liberal arts education is not completely, uniquely American, but the way we approach it is unique. And parents have been sending 18- to 22- or 23- or 24-year-olds away to college for a very long time. Those who are convinced that residential college education can be replaced by staying home with a computer forget that college satisfies many more goals than training for the next step. It gives you the distance from your families and from convention that you need in order to become who you are. It gives you talented and thoughtful peers to help you become who you are.

You’ve combined the serious task of gaining autonomy with the business of learning from accomplished and dedicated scholars and talented peers.  This is a winning combination. There is no combination like it: the building of friendship, the building of character with active learning from people all over the world. There is no replacement for it.

If you have learned to read critically, write well, think analytically, do quantitative analysis, question conventional wisdom, challenge your own assumptions, approach problems with relish and understand the value of love and friendship, then you’ll be taking with you a great deal of what you’ll need, no matter what else you do.

In his 2005 Commencement speech at Kenyon College, Amherst graduate and the brilliant author David Foster Wallace [’85] defined the value of the liberal arts in the following terms: “The real, no-bull value of your liberal arts education is how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable lives dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default settings.” For all the tragic irony of Foster Wallace’s point, given his own premature death, his admonition is a good one. A spate of recent books have enjoined us all to distinguish between our natural default settings and our ability to reason on the basis of evidence—between what Daniel Kahneman calls, for example, our “fast” and “slow” thinking, or the automaticity housed in one part of our brain and the ability to reflect in another. A rewarding life, and a useful life, requires that you become familiar with both.

I’m currently part of a national commission charged by Congress with making recommendations about the humanities and social sciences back to Congress, and that commission includes political leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents, entertainers [and] business leaders. At our last meeting, we heard from members of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the National Governors Association. But the most compelling talk I heard was given by Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former ambassador to Afghanistan.

And what we heard from him, we heard from all the others outside of higher ed: We want employees, colleagues, military officers, political leaders and citizens who are broadly and deeply educated; people who can think, who can express themselves, who can work with others, who know other languages and cultures and appreciate them, who can be taught and who have the qualities it takes to lead. All the gnashing of teeth about the fate of higher education notwithstanding, an education of the kind you have is what is needed and wanted.

Eikenberry cited David Petraeus, and I’ll paraphrase Petraeus. You probably know the quote: “The difference between training and education is that training teaches you to solve existing problems. Education puts you in a position to solve the problems to come.”

I don’t mean to suggest it’s going to be easy to get the jobs and leadership positions you want and that these people want you to fill. I’m only suggesting that you have what it takes, not only to seize opportunities but to create opportunities for yourselves and for others. There is no doubt that higher education is changing as the rest of the world is changing rapidly, and every time you come back to Amherst College, it’s going to look different to you, and not just the buildings and grounds. But the core of a liberal arts education has had remarkable staying power over the centuries, not just in the United States, and I believe it will continue.

How you approach the next several years depends, as so much in life does, on attitude and perspective. It matters, for example, whether you buy the alarming or the happy stories about reality. Commencement speeches usually err on one side or the other.

In the alarmist version, which you can read in the media every day, you are entering a world of crisis, a catastrophe even—threatened by climate change, war, terrorism, political gridlock, ideological division, failing schools, national decline and disruptive technologies over which we have no control. The best you can do is be in the know, display your cynicism and shout down anyone who presents evidence to the contrary.

The alternative, happier version is one Fareed Zakaria offered your counterparts at Duke [University] a week ago. He said you are entering one of the most dynamic societies in the world, one of the most dynamic moments in the history of the world, full of opportunity, because the great cultures of the world have never been more interdependent or more interactive; a world in which technology holds out unprecedented hope and promise to provide solutions to our most urgent problems; a world in which an unprecedented number of countries have economic growth at the rate of 3 percent or more. And Zakaria claims that, despite the threat of terrorism and the wars that are being fought all over the world, we are in the most peaceful period, on the whole, of anytime since World War II. Using this narrative, he urged the Duke graduates to take advantage of the benefits that relative peace, growth and technological promise enable.

I’d say there’s truth in both narratives; each is too simplistic. I worry about the alarmist narratives we hear every day, not only because they fail adequately to capture reality but because they fail us and rob us of creativity by putting us under threat. Nothing creative happens when the threat system is activated, and when fast thinking is all we do, and it seems the culture has become addicted to emergency. I worry about the second narrative, Zakaria’s, because it obscures the serious downsides of many of what he portrays as opportunities.

All I want to say is: Your challenge is to embrace reality in all its wonder and all of its horror, without giving in to cynicism or despair, on the one hand, or sheer fantasy, on the other, both of which are forms of narcissism.

You told me you did not want me to tell you how special you are. You even sent me a guide for what I should say at Commencement. I got, from one of you, a piece that’s been circulating on the Internet called “10 Things No Commencement Speaker Will Tell You”— [from]Ben. And he reported that it had resonance among many of you, so I thought I would bring it in just for you.

It was written by Charles Wheelan, who complains that Commencement speeches are not ugly enough. So, for those of you who haven’t read the 10 things that no commencement speaker will say, let me read them for you now.

  1. “Time spent in fraternity basements was time well spent.” This is irrelevant to Amherst, because we have no fraternities and no parties in basements.
  2. “Some of your worst days lie ahead.” Nice. All of us can vouch for that, however.
  3. “Don’t make the world worse.” He adds: Plenty of smart people are already doing that.
  4. “Marry someone smarter than you are.” I have no comment on that one.
  5. “Stop the Little League arms race.” You’ll never read the following obituary: ‘Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.’”
  6. “Read the obituaries.” He says they’re short forms of biographies. Read biographies, I would say, and better still, perhaps, novels.
  7. “Your parents don’t want what’s best for you.” I don’t think I should leave it there, given all the parents and families who are here today. His point is: Your parents don’t want what’s best for you, they want what’s good for you, and the two things are not always the same thing.
  8. “Don’t model your life after a circus animal.” I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I’m sure it’s right.
  9. “It’s all borrowed time.” Don’t forget the watermelon.
  10. “Don’t try to be great.” Being solid is fine. I don’t know about that one either, but anyway….

OK, there’s a lot to like about these admonitions and pieces of advice. They probably display the humor that’s characteristic of the Class of 2012. No one likes to be told what to do, and that’s why I read them out loud. (…Yeah, some people get it.)

I have to end by saying something about you, despite your having told me not to. This was your last year; it was my first year. So getting to know you has had a huge impact on how I will always see Amherst College, and I’m going to give you a few impressions I have of you.

I hadn’t been here long when I got an email from one of you asking whether I would be interested in participating in your thesis performance. I had no idea what that meant. But you had chosen to do thesis work on Nietzsche’s musical compositions. There are not that many people in the world who are familiar with Nietzsche’s musical compositions and fewer still who have ever taken them seriously. The number of undergraduates who’ve taken them seriously is probably .0001 [percent]. So I sat up straight.

The message went on to say [that] one of the pieces Nietzsche put to music was written by Lou Andreas-Salomé, based on a poem of hers. Lou Andreas-Salomé was the subject of my early work, and so you asked me whether I knew anything about it and might want to speak at your thesis performance.

The number of people who know about Lou Andreas-Salomé, who know that she wrote a poem, or that Nietzsche put it to music, is really fewer than one, I think, on average. [Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Mathematics] Greg [Call], I don’t know if that’s possible. So I invited Hilary in to talk about her work, and it was one of the most enjoyable moments I spent in my first few weeks at Amherst College.

In the spring, I attended the thesis performances of other seniors, including Elias Johannson-Miller’s analysis and staging of the problems in public education. I saw the opera that was written by senior Dana Kaufman, based on Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. And when I combine these with the experiences I had listening to the a cappella concerts, the jazz combo concert in the fall, the symphony orchestra concerts, the Mr. Gad’s improv show I saw when Pete Skurman finally convinced me I could stay up past 10 p.m. on a Monday evening, I am tempted to say, despite your wishes, that you are special.

And when I think about the nature of the research in which you’ve been engaged in physics, chemistry and biology labs, the collaborative learning you undertook with the inmates at Hampshire [County] Correctional Facility, I am moved to say that you are special.

The outstanding senior honors theses I read, the prestigious and highly competitive outside scholarships you won—Watsons, Fulbrights, Trumans—[and]your characterization of your favorite professors as the ones who demanded the most of you all make me think you’re a little bit unusual.

When I hear from Dean Call that he has awarded seven of you postbac summer research fellowships to turn your theses into publications, I have to say you’re special. Three Amherst students—Caroline Stedman, Jonathan La Rose and Ben Scheetz—were named national athletes of the year in their sports. That’s special. Congratulations to them. Eight NESCAC titles and a 25-8-1 record against Williams College—that may become ordinary, but at the moment, it’s still special.

Still, I like the fact that you don’t like to hear that you’re special. But I have a challenge to you, and that is that you would embrace what’s special about each of you, that you ignore people’s resentment of it when it arises, that you seek out people who are supportive of what’s special about you, give it substance, keep your humility about it and use it for the good of yourself and others.

And here’s another challenge: Turn what seems extraordinary into what would be ordinary, into what would feel ordinary for more people.

One day in late January, I was walking out of Val when I came upon two young men sitting outside on a wooden bench to the right as you leave Val. I wasn’t sure I had ever met either one of them, but they interrupted their conversation and looked up with a smile.

I asked them what they were doing. “We’re talking about James Joyce,” one of them replied, “and also about David Foster Wallace.” “Oh,” I said, “that’s a wonderful thing to be doing on a warm January day.” One of the young men said that they were reading Portrait of [the] Artist [as a Young Man] in class, and after we talked, each of us, about how much we liked Portrait of [the] Aritst, he said, “I read Portrait of [the] Artist when I’m anxious.” And I thought: What if we all handled our anxiety in that way?

I asked them whether they had read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Inspired by a conversation at dinner with Bill and Marietta Pritchard, I had decided to take it on. And having just finished the chapter written in 1996, anticipating both the beginning and the end of video-calling, I was eager to find interlocutors with whom I could exclaim about his brilliance and hilarity. All I can tell you is that when I left them, I thought to myself: The value of a college education should probably be measured at least in part by the number and quality of such encounters. They had something of the everyday in them and something quite exceptional. I told myself: Biddy Martin, build more of this into your daily life. I suggest it for everyone.

There is nothing more enlivening or more productive, to use the business term, than the use of objects we love to make contact with ourselves and with one another.

I leave you with a short poem by one of my favorite American poets, A.R. Ammons. It’s called “Salute.”

May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you

Congratulations and good luck.