Commencement Address 2015

President Biddy Martin

May 24, 2015

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Seniors, you are about to be awarded the 32,849th through the 33,321st degrees ever from Amherst College! Congratulations! Like Aeneas and the Trojans, we have been beset by storms.

Most of you, and also I, started our careers at Amherst in August 2011; we arrived in the midst, or in the immediate aftermath, of Hurricane Irene. You are the first class I have seen all the way through your education at Amherst. You are my class, and it has been a great privilege to spend four years with you.

Because our early orientation events were cancelled by Irene, my first interaction with you was at the DeMott Lecture in Johnson Chapel. (I promise, it will be pleasant to remember later.) I was scheduled to give a few welcoming remarks and then briefly to introduce Sen. Chris Coons ’85. But I received word, once I got on the stage, that Sen. Coons was going to be late—as much as an hour late. I was also advised that we should not let you leave Johnson Chapel, for fear you wouldn’t return! And that left me trying to hold your attention, having already more or less said everything I had to say about Amherst in my first 15 minutes. It quickly devolved, and at one point I remember answering questions from you about my nickname, Biddy, and asking about your nicknames. Mercifully, Sen. Coons arrived and gave a rousing speech, including his conversion narrative from passionate conservative as a student to democratic senator as an adult. It can go either way.

We have now spent four years here together, and you are about to turn a corner. I’ve earned my senior status in a way somewhat different than yours, and I’ll be staying. Many of you already have full-time jobs in areas you consider likely careers; many others will enroll next year in some of the best graduate, law, and medical schools in the country and the world. A stunning number of you have won national fellowships and will be doing fascinating work all over the world. A few will work here at Amherst, presumably so you can continue doing improv with Mr. Gad’s or maybe writing for The Amherst Muck-Rake—a satirical endeavor that, after a brief hiatus of 104 years, made a comeback during our four years here. And, despite all the hits I’ve taken, I have to confess that I love The Amherst Muck-Rake.

So much has happened over these four years, more seriously now, thanks to your advocacy for a better residential experience. The Book & Plow Farm was established, the Pindar [Field] Dinners, and the festivals, all in response to what you told us we needed to do. The Powerhouse, which I hesitate to mention, having heard your quips about how often administrators offer it up as though it solved all your problems. It’s not that we think it is the solution to all the problems. It’s just that having a nightclub on our campus is exciting to people in my age group.

Now, before you leave, let’s recall for a moment what drew you to Amherst and what your degreerepresents when you leave. You were all attracted here by a combination of Amherst’s academic excellence; the faculty’s sterling reputation and their engagement with students; by the talented and interesting other students; by Amherst’s human scale; its natural beauty; and the opportunity to take up passions that go far beyond the classroom: athletics, dance … Frisbee. I was attracted here by all those same things that attracted you. I also came for another reason, as many of you did: I came to Amherst because of a commitment Amherst made, years before I arrived, to bring the most academically gifted students, regardless of their financial circumstances, to this college, and actively to recruit students from a wide range of social and international backgrounds.

Our ongoing efforts have made our student body one of the most socioeconomically, racially, ethnically, and internationally diverse in the country. And as our diversity has increased, the quality of students, by every standard measure, has also risen. This combination of academic quality and student diversity now makes Amherst … Amherst.

Many places emphasize diversity, but few have acknowledged how profoundly it requires rethinking the culture of a place, even the structure of residential liberal arts education. We are trying not only to rethink what we do here, but also to act on what we are learning about what must be done, often from you.

During your time here, we cancelled classes twice to hold Days of Dialogue focused on some of the obstacles to educational equity and to community. Two days at Amherst without classes. That has to be a record at Amherst. This is a place where even power outages, 30-foot-high snow banks, and downed trees don’t cancel classes. Those days (devoted in the first case to sexual assault and in the second case to race and racism) matter, however strong or successful the individual programs might have been. They matter because they allowed us to gather as a community—students, staff, and faculty—to signal our recognition of the issues, and seek effective ways to address them. Amherst has created a unique position for itself, unique opportunities, and unique challenges.

In six years we are going to be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Amherst College. And I want to see every one of you here at that celebration!

I want to go back to the 100th anniversary of Amherst College in 1921. The hundred years are about to end. Then-president Alexander Mieklejohn gave a speech in which he offered prophecies about the country’s next hundred years. He suggested: 1) that the U.S. would develop a culture that was genuinely independent of Britain; 2) that it would, as a result, distinguish itself from Britain’s aristocratic approach to other peoples and races and creeds, creating a level playing field over domination of others; 3) that faith would be restored to American culture. He predicted that Amherst’s next hundred years would follow those national trends.

Unfortunately, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination persist, along with worrisome economic disparities; and a level playing field remains elusive. But Mieklejohn was right to say things would change and that they would improve. Amherst graduates have been important players in the changes that have occurred. I want to talk about a graduate who made an enormous positive difference.

[Senior speaker] Katherine [Ponds ’15] referred to him [Charles Hamilton Houston] in the opening of her speech.* In preparation to say something about Houston today, I tried hard to get my hands on his commencement speech from 1915. Unfortunately, neither our archives nor the Houston collection in the Library of Congress has it. I’m going to keep looking.

Still, I know from one of his biographers that he chose to talk about Paul Laurence Dunbar, a major American poet who was the son of freed slaves, and, according to biographer Genna Rae McNeil (Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights), Houston’s faculty advised him against the topic, because Dunbar was unknown to them. And here’s what Charles Hamilton Houston—a 20-year-old—said to his faculty: “I know it,” Houston is said to have responded, “but you will know him when I’ve finished.” (Groundwork, p. 33)

As Katherine has already told you, Houston is credited with having been “the legal architect of the modern civil rights movement.” (Douglas Wilson, ed. Passages of Time, p. 154). He was, at various times in his life, a teacher, a military officer, a lawyer, a dean at Howard Law School, and counsel to the NAACP. He was the first African-American to be editor of the Harvard Law Review, and he was the first to earn the doctoral law degree at Harvard. He built Howard University School of Law into a powerhouse of civil rights advocacy. He was the teacher and mentor to Thurgood Marshall, and when Marshall spoke at Amherst in 1978, “he cited Houston as ‘the engineer of all of it.’” (Wilson, Passages, p. 154) Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, outlawing racial segregation in the public schools. He also became a Supreme Court justice, and he is better known than Houston. But Marshall himself repeatedly acknowledged his heritage, his debt to Houston.

Houston dedicated his life to ending racial segregation. And he did it by taking the long view and pursuing his goals step-by-step, with incredible persistence, and in brilliantly strategic fashion. He designed and he led the effort; using a series of carefully chosen cases, he built the precedents that led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

Houston believed the fight against segregation should begin with small steps, for example, publicly funded professional education, because he thought an effort to fight segregation in education in the schools all at once was bound to fail. The case had to be built, legally, but also in the minds of the public. Houston exposed the lie of “separate but equal,” by taking it at face value and arguing that states were obligated under that doctrine to provide professional education to African-Americans that was of equal quality to the education available to whites. He knew that no legislators of any political conviction could fund separate AND equal professional educational opportunities. Black students would have to be admitted to white institutions, and, ultimately, they were.

Houston came to Amherst as a 16-year-old. He was the only child of parents who worked hard to secure middle-class jobs so that they could send their son to a prestigious college. Like your parents, they sacrificed.

He was the only African-American in his class. With his mother’s help, he arranged to get an extra room in the residence hall, which he turned into a study. He knew his social life would be limited, and he intended to spend his time studying. Charles Houston majored in English, French, and music, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year.

I hope all our graduates will be relieved to hear that when he graduated in 1915, he did not know what he wanted or intended to do. His indecision is said to have irritated his father (I’m sure there are no parents here in that category!), by then an influential attorney in D.C.

But, according to McNeil, “William Houston grumbled, but he was not going to disown his son if he did not make an irrevocable decision during his first summer after college graduation.” (Groundwork, p. 34) That’s a lesson. Families, take heed!

Houston’s eventual achievements cannot be attributed, of course, to any one quality or factor or to any one experience, any more than anyone’s can, but he would have said that his education was an essential part; he appreciated his Amherst education and he contributed to Amherst long after he graduated. Education mattered enough to him to spend his life creating educational opportunity for others. His biographer, McNeil, says his liberal arts education was one of the foundations of his success. She cites it when she is explaining his effectiveness. Let me quote her:

“Houston’s high level of competence … was indicated by his consistent pattern of defining the problem, setting a goal, analyzing the situation, assessing the available options, developing the appropriate strategy and tactics, and implementing the … strategy [as well as] by collaborative activity, responsive leadership with communication across traditional class and social boundaries, and the use of the media and public forums to raise community consciousness and mobilize community support.” (Groundwork, 219-220)

A strong sense of purpose, the ability to define a problem, carefully to analyze it, collaboration, and reaching across traditional boundaries—these are qualities as urgently needed in 2015 as in 1915 or 1954.

When I was reading McNeil’s effort to explain what made Houston successful, I was reminded of an essay I had recently read by a more recent Amherst alum. [R.] Howard Bloch ’65 is Sterling Professor of French at Yale and will be celebrating his 50th reunion next week. In a wonderful essay about the importance of what we used to call called “the language arts,” he wrote:

“The recognition of a significant question, the making of crucial distinctions, the articulation of its terms, the drawing of consequential conclusions, the assessment of conclusions under human conditions, and the communication of the procedures and results of inquiry—[these] are the sine qua non of the making of right meaning, regardless of field, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.”

“Meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.” And this brings the focus back to you. Your education. Your preparation. And the meaning they have for you as you go forward. I imagine a graduating class a hundred years from now looking back at the things you will have done, small and big, to address the problems we face now.

But some wonder whether change of the kind that Charles Hamilton Houston envisaged, and helped make, is even possible today. There are pessimists who would answer with a resounding “No.” One of those pessimists, George Packer, published a gripping article in The New Yorker this spring. And here’s what he said: “There may still be ordinary Americans as brave and committed to justice as the civil rights movement’s foot soldiers,” but he added that we are missing the necessary ingredients to make change as broad and consequential as we need. His article was entitled “What America Has Lost Since Selma,” and in it he argues that “we no longer have a national government (or a federal bench, a press corps, labor unions, businesses, religious groups, universities) capable of coming together with the imagination, wisdom, and self-restraint necessary to achieve something on the scale of voting rights. … The context for Selma,” he said, “was a country of functioning institutions.”

Well, I am not sure that Charles Hamilton Houston, or even Alexander Mieklejohn, thought they were looking at well-functioning institutions 100 years ago. Remember that Mieklejohn was still urging us to abandon our British past a hundred years ago. But both of them clearly saw the promise in the founding principles of equality and opportunity which, when combined with commitment to the common good, can move mountains. If Houston could keep the faith that our institutions realize their promise, however imperfect, then we can, too.

You are entering a difficult, uncertain world, all the more threatening because of climate change and the human contribution to it. And many agree with Packer that our time is more difficult than any other, that less is possible. But when you hear those alarms sounded, particularly by cynics, of which George Packer is not one, please remember that the most cynical alarmism grabs attention in a way that efforts to build lives and institutions do not. Calls for disruption are more newsworthy today than calls to work together so we can more nearly approximate the ideals on which our institutions were founded.

If we are to make America America, to invoke Langston Hughes, you will have to put your remarkable intelligence to work. You will have to develop well-informed points of view. You will have to acquire breadth not only of knowledge, but of perspective. You will have to find ways to mobilize others. And to all those things you need to add grit, self-awareness, and respect for others, even adversaries. You will have to care about what Charles Houston called the “general welfare,” even as you focus on your specific interests and causes. And you will have to take the long view in a culture addicted to quick fixes. Remember: the Houstons of our world did not leave institutions as they found them; his work helped turn them into institutions more capable of making good on their promise. To restore faith in our institutions, to restore faith in America as Mieklejohn predicted, we need you to get out there and change them, in order to preserve them. And I know you will.

I like the way the Irish writer Seamus Heaney encouraged students to embrace change when he addressed graduates at Penn in the year 2000:

“[the] experience of living in a closely knit, ethnically homogeneous, hermetically sealed culture is everywhere a thing of the past … the Australian bushman may still go walkabout, but he goes connected up to his Walkman; the recluse in the beach hut north of Sausalito may look like a beachcomber, but he is probably an Internet millionaire.

 “Living in the world of the year 2000” he continued, “means that you inhabit several different psychic and cultural levels at the same time. And the marvelous thing about us as human beings is that we have been provided with a whole system of intellectual and imaginative elevators that whisk us from floor to floor, at will and on whim.”

The agility with which you graduating seniors use those intellectual and imaginative elevators is truly remarkable. I hope that agility will always be a source of pride and joy to you. You have the curiosity and attributes to act on right meaning.

Don’t sell intellectual work short. Don’t let a faux populism on the left or the right obscure the importance of what you have learned to do here—think critically, deeply, creatively, with joy in your own intellectual and artistic feats. Don’t let the urgency of our problems, urgent though they are, obscure complexity. When liberal arts education and the gifts it gives become luxuries, then being human will have become one, too.

Take your talents, your energy, and your hearts and do your best to combine right meaning with deeds. And, while you are at it, cherish your families, your friends, and, most of all, yourselves. I want to end, as I always do, with a “salute” to you using a short poem of that title by A.R. Ammons:

May happiness
pursue you, 

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you, 

be waiting
ahead, making 

a clearing
for you.


 *This text has been amended to remove an inadvertent reference which suggested that Ms. Ponds was the first African-American student commencement speaker since Dr. Houston, which is not correct.