Commencement Address by President Biddy Martin

May 22, 2016

President Biddy Martin addressed the graduating class at Amherst’s 195th Commencement exercises.

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Congratulations to all 436 of you and to each of you individually.

Let me begin by saying a little bit about you: You come from 40 different states and territories, and 24 different countries. You make up 1.3 percent of all Amherst graduates ever.

You are going to earn the 33,321st through the 33,763rd degrees from the College. 39 percent of you have more than one major; and do you know what the top majors are? Economics, mathematics, psychology, English and political science—a great liberal arts spread. 69 percent of you took a language course. 39 percent of you took a poetry class. 11 percent took a music lesson. 45 percent studied abroad.

Your accomplishments are legion, and not all of them visible. Some of the distinctions you have earned includenational fellowships,which you have won at a disproportionate rate. Among them, a Beinicke; 11 Fulbright Fellowships that will take you toTaiwan, Malaysia, Germany, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Argentina to teach, and to Israel, China, Norway and New Zealand to do research. One of you has been awarded a Schwarzmann Scholarship in the first year of this new award, modeled on the Rhodes Scholars Program. Of the 49 awarded to U.S. students, three are from Amherst. Two of you were finalists for the Marshall. Two of you have won the highly coveted Watson Fellowships that will support travel all over the world to explore, in one case, societies that have undergone sweeping transitions and, in the other, communities displaced by climate change.

Athletics: your teams have won 14 NESCAC titles over your four years, andthree NCAA titles.52 have been named All-Americans, nine NCAA individual champions. Congratulations to all of you.

Of the many other forms of competition in which you were engaged, I will mention several that hone your rhetorical skills—debate, model U.N., mock trial.

You have given inspired performances of all kinds—in music, theater, dance and comedy. I am thinking, of course, of Mr. Gads, the DASAC show, the Women of Amherst, a cappella groups, the chorus, the orchestra, our jazz combo groups, and the staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.Theses, thesis performances, sit-ins.

You have led the student government, worked for the student newspaper, written for student blogs, and designed new ways of branching out socially.

What will you do next: If you’re like the alumni across the generations before you, some 85 percent of you will go on to graduate or professional school. Graduate study—some will go directly to graduate and professional schools. Among your destinations: Harvard, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, University of Calgary, Yale, Princeton, University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University, Boston University, University of Cambridge. [You will be working toward graduate degrees] in geology, tectonics, physics, computational biology, philosophy of science, medicine, law, educational psychology, international relations, law, history, film and architecture.

In Washington, D.C.,one of you will serve as a Congressional Fellow on the Hunger Task Force of the U.S. Congress, another as a health care consultant at Booz Allen [Hamilton], still another as a Fellow in the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research program of the NIH.

In Seattle,one of you will work as a brand specialist at Amazon, and another as a software engineer at Microsoft.

In San Francisco, one of you will be working for the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. A significant number will be employed in the tech industry:Yik Yak, Facebook, Google, LiveRamp, LinkedIn, Yelp,

Five women grads who majored in [computer science] will be living together in a five-bedroom house! Four of the five were referred to their jobs by other female Amherst CS graduates.

In Springfield,you will take part in the data analysis rotational program at MassMutual.

In Hull, Mass., you will be teaching and coaching while getting an advanced degree.

A significant number of you will be working in jobs in finance and consulting, at a range of firms in New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Boston and other parts of the world.

And a significant number will also be teaching next year as part of Teach For America [and] in the public schools, charter schools and private boarding schools.

One of you will be teaching and consulting in China. That graduate dropped out of high school to take care of his siblings, served in Iraq, worked his way through night school and community college to get to Amherst, was an intern at Amherst Middle School, served as an Education Professions Fellow at Career Center, majored in English and wrote an honors thesis that compiled his original poetry and narrative. What an example, Craig.

You are graduating at quite a time. It’s a head-shaking time. That’s what you get from lots of people these days. They just shake their heads—confused, surprised, sometimes alarmed. I decided to look back.

A hundred years ago, in 1916, Amherst President Alexander Meiklejohn was worried about the war in Europe. The U.S. had not yet gotten involved in World War I. He was focused on the presidential election that was later won by Woodrow Wilson. What worried him most was what he saw as an increasingly popular and dangerous view of human nature—one that considered our crassest impulses and conflict to be more fundamental than sympathy or reason, one that assumed that “might makes right.” For his speech on commencement weekend, Meiklejohn chose to talk about the Golden Rule—what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Over the past two years,” he said, “we have heard men say, more clearly than they have said before, that the law of life is strife. If there be any good to have, then you must take it for yourself. And if another wish it too, then he must fight, unless the weaker have enough of sense to shun that conflict and look around to find a weaker than himself from whom to take whatever good he has.”

Mieklejohn made the Golden Rule a matter of philosophical reflection for the graduates by asking them to consider Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.

Human beings, or “men,” as Mieklejohn put it in 1916, “are not merely creatures of desire who take what they can get. They try to value [evaluate] their desires,” said Meiklejohn, “to judge what they are worth.”

And for a liberally educated person, or what Meiklejohn called “a college man,” the principle that should guide their choices would be clear—it would be fellowship, not strife.

In his writings, Kant made his father an example of the qualities on which his moral philosophy was based. In his father, he saw moderation, humility, tolerance and restraint. Those qualities are critical to democracy. They are also essential to freedom—not the freedom to indulge our worst impulses, but the freedom to think, to reason and evaluate our desires and impulses, and to value our neighbors as ourselves. These forms of freedom are gifts that are granted by a community of people, each of whom deserves that gift as much as you or I, and to whom, therefore, we have a responsibility, by virtue of our freedom. Freedom without integrity or concern for others is a failure of moral imagination. It is a form of narcissism.

In her essay on “Imagination and Community,” the contemporary American writer Marilynne Robinson reminds us that “the intellectual model for … the older schools in America …was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them.” That was and still is the purpose of the liberal arts and the mission of Amherst College, even if we now put it in secular terms. In the political realm, essential though it is, the soul often comes up short, and sometimes the mind does, too. In the absence of respect for our human innerness and the rewards of sharing our humanity, we are lost. And so the word “soul” does not seem like too great a risk to me at the moment, when we need words that point us to aspects of our personhood that our political categories and political speech do not respect.

If there has ever been a time when we need to recognize the value of our own lives as well as others’—and there have been many such times—this is also the time. I think of the millions of refugees around the world who are fleeing war and death. It is important, in the words of historian William Cronon, to recognize the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares, and it is essential that we work against indifference, fear and objectification.

Taken together, all the intellectual disciplines that fall under the liberal arts help us do just that; they make reason and understanding, freedom and generosity their ground and their purpose. These values have special significance at times when we face the kinds of forces that sometimes intensify and coalesce to bring out the worst in people—forces that drive us away from our principles and drive us away from one another, forces that have repeatedly led to only bad outcomes or outright disasters: intolerance, demonization, xenophobia, simplistic ideas, the cult of personality, the cynical dismissal of all forms of respect and restraint as weakness. The impact of these evils, when they coalesce, lasts for generations, bequeathing to the future tremendous burdens—moral and otherwise.

My scholarly field is German literature, but you do not need to be a student of German culture to understand the toll that Nazi atrocities have taken—first and foremost on those against whom the atrocities were committed, but also on their surviving relatives, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, [and] on the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Germans, too. Chris Bohjalian has written about the Armenian Genocide. There are too many examples. These catastrophes take a toll, too, on our ability to trust in our humanity. And it is true for the impact of slavery in the United States and forced segregation and discrimination with which we have not come to terms. There are many examples of lasting damage that cannot be removed quickly by passing a law or by apologies. They can never be removed by denial.

The liberal arts—with its combination of scientific and mathematical knowledge, humanistic and social scientific inquiry, and the arts—is a form of education that was intended to counter autocratic rule, superstition, intolerance and prejudice—not by exerting partisan political influence or insisting on political correctness, [but] instead by giving us the tools to question what we take for granted and to judge the worthiness of our own passions.

But no form of education can guarantee that we will choose to free ourselves and reap the rewards of new knowledge and personal transformation. It is in the nature of freedom that we can choose not to exercise our intelligence; not to choose ideology over science and demonization. It is in the nature of our freedom that we can choose to worship at the altar of affect and outrage; we can choose to indulge our fears and grab what we can from the weaker. But we cannot make those choices without costs.

“There is a notion with a brutal history,” writes Marilynne Robinson, “that a homogeneous country is more peaceful and stable and, in a very deep sense, more satisfying than one with a complex and mingled population like ours. To an alarming extent,” she adds, “we in the United States have internalized this prejudice against ourselves.”

There is no strength or greatness in the nightmare of prejudice and exclusion. And when it comes down to it, thinking and respect are the qualities that take the greatest strength.

Amherst has a “complex and mingled population,” intentionally so, because we recognize that talent and promise cross all social and economic boundaries, and that high-quality educational opportunities should, too. We also realize, as research shows, that we come to better conclusions, we are smarter, when different life experiences and diverse perspectives are taken into account.

We bring you together from groups that have been divided from, and also against, one another by social and economic forces with a long and difficult history. And therefore, it is not always comfortable to be in this beautiful place. Fellowship is not always easy. Why do people expect it to be? It requires love of the mind and the soul and their refinement. It requires that we acknowledge the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares. And that is why we are here together in person in this place, privileged to be learning together. An intellectual community worthy of the name cannot always be at one with itself or always comfortable. It is by definition a searching, restless and often argumentative community.

And it is natural for us to want relief from what Amherst Professor Adam Sitze calls “this exhausting obligation to think, be wrong, rethink, be wrong, and then rethink again.”

Relief, comfort, and familiarity are critical, but we need to make them the springboard for adventure, risk and crossings, and friendship.

We can make friends with uncertainty and fallibility, and we can make friends with one another, but not through indifference, intolerance or denial.

Amherst has been here for almost 200 years, cheerleading in its own way for reason, understanding, conversation and community that is not one. It will continue to give students an unrivaled opportunity to absorb the ideas and the values essential not only to personal success but also to creating the world we say we want—the opposite of where our most visceral instincts take us when we’re afraid. A great liberal-arts education should be a leading source of resistance to anti-rational forces of manipulated fear and hatred, and I hope you will choose to use your education in that way.

You are entering a world that will make it hard at times for you to value adequately what you can do with your minds. In the face of the anti-intellectualism that gains force at times like this, I hope you will remember what a gift you have, and what a gift you are, by virtue of the athleticism of your minds. Use that athleticism to combine freedom with integrity, critique with devotion, earnestness with irony, protest with cheerleading. These are only apparent opposites that we have to be capable of joining together. Never the one without the other.

You are now joining one of the most significant sources of attachment and community in the United States—college and university alumni bodies. I’ll go back to Robinson, who says that “We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them .... If the graft takes,” she continues, “we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community, and as one consequence, graduates tend to treat the students who come after them as kin and also as heirs.” And if you think about the generosity of our alumni: “They take pride in the successes of people in classes forty years ahead of or behind their own. They have a familial desire to enhance the experience of generations of students who are, in fact, strangers to them….”

In just a moment, you will become one of those people who cares about the successes of people who come behind you, because you know that education and intellectual versatility, or athleticism, matter. Welcome to the beginning of a new position within the community.

I leave you as I leave every graduating class, with a poem by A.R. Ammons, called “Salute”:

May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and, 

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you.