Commencement Address 2013

President Biddy Martin

May 26, 2013

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Audio of President Martin’s speech:

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I’m so glad the sun has decided to shine on our graduates. You deserve it.

I want to begin this morning by saying simply to the graduates that one of the great pleasures of my job is the opportunity to interact with you. (Let me pause for a moment while members of our great choir get a chance to be seated.)

We’re here to celebrate you, and I’m going to take some time to do that, primarily by exemplification. I begin by telling you what I think most of you already know, and that is I came to Amherst two years ago for the same reason you came here four years ago, I think: because of the strength of Amherst’s faculty, because of the talent of its students, because of the quality of its educational programs. I came because of its commitment to a student body that reflects the rich diversity of the country—indeed, the world. I came, as you did, hoping to learn and hoping to contribute in some small way to making Amherst even better. I came because I thought there was an opportunity to take better advantage of the diversity you represent. I have learned an enormous amount from you on that score, a lot about the challenges we face and the opportunities we still need to seize.

But first, more about who you are as a class. There are 467 of you. You will earn the 31,912th through the 32,378th degrees ever given by Amherst College. Together, you represent 1.44 percent of all Amherst graduates. Your top majors are economics, history, political science, English and psychology, with biology next. You hail from 43 states and 37 different countries. One of you is a harpsichordist. (He or she must be over here to the right.) The most common last name among you is Kim. The most common first name is John. There are no John Kims. You have taken a total of 14,564 classes, and your collective time spent in classrooms: 63 years, six days, 21 hours and seven minutes.

For those of you who are planning to start work in the fall, 70 percent of you have already accepted a position. The three most common employment ... Yes, that’s a fabulous thing, and there will be more to come. The three [most common] employment sectors into which those of you who accepted jobs are going are financial services and education, in about the same ratio; sciences; and consulting. It did not surprise me to hear that almost 20 percent of your job titles include the word “analyst.” For students who plan to attend graduate school right away, 83 percent have received one or more acceptances at this point, with more to come. Also wonderful. Seventy-seven percent will attend their first-choice institution, and that’s based only on the info we have so far. The most common degrees being pursued in the fall are the doctorate and the law degree. For students pursuing doctorates, the top three fields of study are in the sciences. Institutions at which more than one of you will be enrolled next year in graduate school: Yale, Columbia, Harvard, the London School of Economics and Stanford. Not shabby.

Two of you were awarded what are enormously coveted and prestigious Watson Fellowships, and you will be traveling the world, pursuing extraordinarily creative projects.

Keri Lambert, also, in addition to being an amazing student and soon scholar, is also a track star who won the national championship in steeple chase last year and the bronze medal this year and just got back in time for Commencement ceremonies. Keri will be doing research in Ghana, Tanzania and Malaysia on the repercussions of mass consumerism.

Lindsay Stern, the other Watson winner—Lindsay will travel to Bangladesh, Nepal, South Africa, Panama and Guatemala, and to each of those countries she will bring a creative arts program that she herself developed, to orphanages, where she will study the reparative capacities of language. Good luck to both of you. Good luck to all of the Fulbright winners, of which we have many. Good luck to all of you who will be traveling the world for your research and study.

As I look out at you, at your bright, rested, sober faces—well, that’s my impression—I realize that I’m always going to have vivid memories of you, because I’ve had two years to get to know you. I’ll remember for a very long time your Random Acts of Kindness at the point of my inauguration, a group led by [Senior Class Commencement Speaker] Reilly Horan, from whom we’ve heard. Your thoughtful contributions on our Day of Dialogue this year, when over 70 percent of you showed up for conversation with one another, with staff, with faculty, with administrators, about the imperatives of sexual respect.

There are hundreds of experiences of you that I will long remember. Soon after I arrived, one of you—Hilary Budwey—wrote an email asking for a meeting with me. Why? To discuss Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou Andreas-Salomé. That was not the kind of request for meetings from students to which I had grown accustomed. It was one of my first impressions of you, of Amherst undergraduates, and one of the moments when I knew I had made the right decision to come to Amherst, because it was quite evidently cool to be smart at Amherst, but more than smart, quite evidently cool to be genuinely intellectual and inquisitive.

This past semester I was invited to teach a session of Professor Rogowski’s course on the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke, also a friend of a largely forgotten woman intellectual on whom I did my scholarly work, Lou Andreas-Salomé. Several of you were in that seminar, and Professor Rogowski tells me you have done spectacular final projects, some of which he will be willing to show me. I will long remember my impressions of you in that session I was asked to teach: how carefully you had read Salomé’s work, how precise you were in your use of textual evidence, how respectful of one another’s offerings, how appreciative of my presence, when I clearly benefitted more from my presence than you did. My preparation for the class and my conversations with you made it vivid again why I had taken an interest in these late-19th-century thinkers and artists and what returns me to them over and over again—their intellectual avidity, their breadth, their interest in ideas and their determination to bring those ideas to bear on what one of Amherst’s legendary teachers, Ben DeMott, called “the particulars of our humanness.”

My overriding message to you today is this: That I hope not only you, but we at Amherst College, will begin again to bring the power of our thought to bear on what DeMott called “the particulars of our humanness.” I was inspired by the boldness with which those 19th-century figures drew on emerging scientific discovery and brought that together with their roots in literature, art, religion and psychology, and thought about questions that were, at the time, clearly out of bounds, especially for a woman—questions about sex, about religious belief and about relationships that fell very far outside the norm. Thinking with and against one another was a passion for them; it was a way of life. Thinking with and against one another, and bringing one another along, I hope has become your passion to an even greater extent than it was when you arrived. It is the purpose of college. 

In May, I accepted an invitation from Professor Bishop to attend the biophysics and biochemistry thesis presentations. And I was there long enough to see three of you—Rebecca Alizzi, Will Biche and Alex Pearlman—stand before your faculty and your fellow thesis students to present your research and answer their questions. And while I was unable to follow the intricate explanations of protein folding and when it fails to occur, or of “C-Terminal Strand Exchange in Alpha-Crystallin Oligomerization,” Alex, I had no trouble appreciating the quality of your intelligence or the dedication of your faculty. After all, there they were on a Saturday and a Sunday in a dark lecture room in Merrill, on one of the first sunny days in Amherst in the spring. When I heard you, I wished I knew more. 

And soon thereafter, the Committee of Six discussed the quality of your senior theses—that is, all that were recommended for summa honors. You may not know that 186 of you wrote 189 senior theses, which means three of you wrote two different theses. I don’t know who you are, but congratulations. Eleven of you ... Yes, I think that you deserve applause. Eleven of you wrote what your faculty consider to be publishable work, and a record number of 11 of you will receive postbaccalaureate support, or support from faculty advisers, that will allow you to turn your theses into publications over the next few months. That is remarkable. Congratulations.

Whatever may be said across the country about the failures in higher education to focus on the vital mission of educating undergraduate students, to set high standards, to take intellectual work seriously, Amherst College remains loyal to that mission. The attention you’ve received from faculty members and the quality of their instruction is rare. You have only been college students here for the most part, though there are some wonderful transfer students among us. I can tell you from my career at other institutions that the quality of the attention and instruction you get from these faculty members is rare. I hope they have required you to work hard and that something more has been demanded of you by them and by yourselves than you could have imagined doing when you arrived at Amherst. If that’s the case, I think we’ve succeeded.

I have purposefully focused on your academic achievements and the opportunities to interact with faculty, because that is the most important measure of a college or of an experience at a college. But there are other ways to take the measure of your experience and promise and of a college itself.

Leadership: There are leaders among you. Many leaders. I will cite only a few examples. I will long remember the first time I heard Larissa Davis speak in the Red Room about the Multicultural Resource Center, about the significance of it and about the need to make Amherst a more dynamic community. She is among those who will make change in the world. I have no doubt of it. Tania Dias, your student body president, is another. Her good judgment, her humility, her deftness and her integrity played a significant role in the way we approached some of the most difficult problems we faced over the past year. And though she is not a senior, I am moved to name Brianda Reyes, the editor of The Amherst Student, because I think of this period as the year of the comeback for your student newspaper, and Brianda’s leadership will have a long-lasting effect. 

Some of you have learned the value of leadership and teamwork from your participation in clubs, from your involvement in music, in the arts, in theater and in athletics. Amherst attracts extraordinary musicians, artists and athletes. I feel myself smiling at the Bluestockings’ spring concert, laughing in amazement at the Zumbyes’ performance before Rachel Maddow’s talk, basking in the spring Concert Choir recital and embarrassing myself when brought on stage by Mr. Gad’s at our first Community Hour. 

I recall standing in the cold wind for soccer games and the warmth of the soccer players toward their fans. And because I took so much pleasure in the soccer teams this past year, I also loved learning that Federico Sucre, a marvelous soccer player and twin brother to another marvelous soccer player and wonderful human being—Fede wrote a stunning senior thesis on contemporary Venezuelan poetry, said by one member of the Committee of Six probably to be the definitive account on the subject. Athletics and academics at Amherst ... As for athletics: our teams have a lot to celebrate this year, having won five NESCAC championships—in men’s soccer, in men’s and women’s basketball, in women’s swimming and diving and in baseball. And not only that—our basketball team won a national championship. And I congratulate again Willy Workman, Pete Kaasila and Allen Williamson for their play. 

Now, in addition to things we would all consider great achievements, there is also silliness and mischief that characterizes the class. I like to think of the pleasure on your faces at the Spring and Fall festivals, the face paint on them also, and my amusement, in both cases, that you would stand in line for hours in order to get fried dough and ice cream. And all I want to say to you is that I hope those of you who stood in line for hours for fried dough are not the same ones who complain to me about the healthy options at Val. 

As for mischief: there are many examples. The Amherst Muck-Rake, Adam, claims to have made a comeback after a 100-year hiatus and has satirized everything imaginable, including my dog, Oscar. My favorite Muck-Rake tweet that I can actually use here came during the papal conclave in Rome and read: “Smoke seen coming from Johnson Chapel. Still no Commencement speaker.” My favorite instance of your mischief, though: The students who stole into the library and covered the walls of the men’s and women’s bathrooms on Level B with the contents of letters from Rilke to Salomé and from her to him. Not only do I celebrate that mischief on your part, I also celebrate the library staff, the librarian and his staff, who loved what you did and who are taking steps to preserve it. I never imagined ending up at a place where mischief takes the form of memorializing the love letters of late-19th-century intellectuals and poets on bathroom walls. To be sure, it has been a challenging and often a confusing year, one in which lightheartedness was sometimes hard to come by. 

And when I began thinking about Commencement, for which we still have no speaker, other than me, I thought back to Convocation for new students last fall, when I chose to read a passage from one of my favorite lyric poets, Rainer Maria Rilke. I chose to read a letter that he had written to a young poet. And over the summer I had been worrying about what I learned from you and other students about the challenges of social life at Amherst and about the confusion that surrounds sexual relationships and encounters. And I reached back 100 years to find writing that I thought might be adequate to addressing the issues at what Emily Dickinson might have called a “slant,” because the language of administrative rules and moralism will never have the effect of making you think, in depth, about the serious project of putting a life together, a life with others. And so I turned to a poet. One of the members of the Committee of Six suggested that I read this excerpt from a letter again today, and so I’ve decided to do it, since you were not new students and did not hear the reading of Rilke’s letter. And so I leave you with poetry. Here is Rilke in his letter to a young poet:

“Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work. …

“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. …

“But young people … fling themselves at [one another], when love takes possession of them, scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their untidiness, disorder, confusion …. And then what? Each loses himself [herself] for the sake of the other and loses the other and many others still to come. And loses the expanses and the possibilities, exchanges the approach and flight of gentle, divining things for an unfruitful perplexity….

“Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And [our acceptance of sensual pleasure is not what’s] bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander the experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as a distraction instead of a rallying toward more exalted moments. …

“[In relationships the goal is not to create a] quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries … a good [relationship is one] in which each appoints the other guardian of his [or her] solitude.”

This last sentence is probably the most frequently cited from the letter: “a good [relationship is one] in which each appoints the other guardian of his [/her] solitude.” One of the chief problems, I think, in our efforts to build a life for ourselves and lives with one another is the lack of poetry and the absence of the thought it takes and the language it takes to make of ourselves and our relationships something other than enclosures or distractions.

Given everything that has occurred this year, I wanted to send you off with a poet’s words about what it means to approach one another, what it means to care about one another. I hope you go forward and succeed at everything you wish to do. I hope you take seriously not only what you build in the way of careers, friendships, relationships, homes, but that you also do what Professor Adam Sitze encouraged you to do at Senior Assembly, and that is hold to your desire for what he called a liberal arts education, hold to your desire for thought, hold to your desire for poetry. By the way, when I was asking for statistics about you, I asked what percentage of you took a course in poetry or on a poet while you were here at Amherst. And I asked the Committee of Six what they thought the percent was, and one of them answered, “Probably 10 percent.” But, in fact, a third of you took a course in poetry or on a poet while students at Amherst. I encourage you to continue to be students of poetry.

I leave you the way I leave students at every Commencement, with a poem written by the great American poet 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 to all of you.