Commencement Address by President Anthony W. Marx

May 24, 2009

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Transcript of the Address

Members of the Class of 2009, Congratulations.

We send you out into the world amid what the sages would call “interesting times.”

You have grown during an age of great achievements. At the start of your lifetime, the Cold War, which for half a century dominated world affairs, came to an end. Racial fears have diminished. Communications and trade have expanded. Now, we aspire to improve our nation’s schools, our health care, and our energy use, and to reverse our environmental degradation.

But we are entering a new era. Over the past year, we have seen the economy plummet, have seen our credit collapse, have seen jobs lost, and this has reminded us how deeply we depend on one another.

Resistant to change, we human beings usually try to deny that historic forces shape our lives. We’d prefer they not affect our private agendas. We talk about the lessons of history. Few actually want to live in history.

But as Lincoln said: “You cannot escape history.”

Class of 2009, clearly you are living it now.

And, you are prepared to live in history.

Starting with your arrival here, and guided since then by this community of faculty, staff, colleagues, and each other, you have consciously chosen, over and over, to step forward into unfamiliar territories. As a result, you now know how each such step you take enriches your life and the lives of those around you.

You know there is no learning without loss, yet you love learning.

In short, you are practiced at change. In devoting yourself to a major course of study, becoming agile in its discipline, you know how to dash old assumptions, how to surrender any partial understanding in order to embrace a greater one.

Likewise, having struggled with, voiced and answered the cries of social conscience, you know that surrendering yourself to help others always ends up helping you, too.

Leading from such deep awareness, you will create much of great value out of this changed world we are entering.

Of the causes that led us into this new economic landscape, a prominent one is this: Our nation and many others reverted to a false, even destructive assumption about the nature of enterprise in society.

Individual ingenuity came to be worshiped in the view that individual gain all by itself would lead inevitably to benefits for everyone.

As extraordinary wealth grew and was consumed we continued to pin our collective success on individual initiative. We forgot that, left unchecked, individual enterprise is as likely to lead to a contagion of sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps as it is to penicillin or the microchip.

Without a collective respect for principles that underlie regulation, investment soon devolved into speculation. The resulting bubble burst, and our own stock market lost nearly half its value. Catastrophe spread quickly.

It is a measure of our society’s speed and complexity that we barely had time to notice our own neglect of the principles that support sound markets—that we barely noticed the bubble before it burst.

The ancient Greek dramatists would have captured this moment well. The tale is epic, the cast of characters tragic.

Viewing these recent losses through the lens of history also restores a sense of perspective. As Liaquat Ahamed observes in his book, The Lords of Finance “the first documented bank panic dated to A.D. 33 when the Emperor Tiberius had to inject one million gold pieces of public money into the Roman financial system to keep it from collapsing.” Ahamed concludes, as have others before him, that while each such crisis shows different origins, all exhibit “a common pattern: [a] ...similar cycle from greed to fear.” It is a cycle that can bring great accomplishments, but also plants poisoned seeds that can bring down empires.

This is not the first time that America has successfully faced an economic challenge of such magnitude. Nor is it the first time for Amherst College. Since our founding in 1821 we have recovered from frequent recessions and from three great depressions. In each instance, the college maintained or even increased financial support for its students who had come to need it more. And, in each instance, the college reinforced a faculty who could teach us how to create a better world.

We have come to this same place today.

This year, alumni, parents, students, staff, faculty and trustees of Amherst College have joined together to understand, and to counter, the threat that this economic crisis poses to the very idea of a liberal arts college, and to our ideals here.

While those ideals are captured in our mission statement, let me also describe them another way here.

We sustain an inspiring curriculum, a respected staff, a faculty who both teach us to achieve a better world and who nourish that world with scholarship, and the most talented of students, who are brought here regardless of ability to pay, but from the widest array of experiences, so that they will lead principled lives of consequence.

As a community, we have organized ourselves to deliberate further our responses to this crisis. Because the values and mission of this College unite us, we are prepared to share in the sacrifices in order to protect them.

Class of 2009, already you have made your own strong statement when it comes to a choice between what’s in it for me and what’s in it for us.

You voted overwhelmingly to plow money from student activity funds back into the college, to support programs that might otherwise be cut, to support financial aid for future students, and to support our lowest paid and most vulnerable staff members.

You enacted the Amherst mission. Keep living this way, and you will contradict all of those who claim that hard times only bring out the selfish side of people.

But, let us also not be naive. The values that guide us to act unselfishly in society are not always as clear in the larger world as they are here on campus–and they are not always so clear even on campus. In our society, each person claims a multitude of needs, some of these, we argue, rightly, coincide with the greater good. And some of them do not.

One way we channel this pursuit of individual needs is through competition among special interest groups. Pragmatists sensibly advocate that we can only start to restore a generative, constructive society by first recognizing the existing claims of all the competing groups, and then by weighing among those to negotiate compromises.

Even so, such an approach doesn’t take us far enough. Pursuit of special interest politics by itself stirs up new injustices. It also defaults in favor of those groups that possess the resources to make themselves heard loudest. And it tempts us all to rob from the future to pay for present pursuits we would otherwise recognize we can not afford.

At Amherst, we try to move beyond that model to one based on common values. Our social contract is embodied in that memorable phrase from our mission—the charge to lead “principled lives of consequence.”

Consequential, not just for ourselves, but for a wider circle.

It is a circle that spreads across space and across time. We serve not just people alive now but people to come. We know we wouldn’t be here now had not others before us acted from that same vision.

We know, as the Romans forgot to their peril, that institutions and even societies perish when individuals seek personal, immediate ends at the expense of the wider circle.

And thank goodness we find plenty of people in the world beyond our campus acting with just such mindfulness. Recently, when Fargo, N.D., was threatened by flood, the entire population bent to the task of protecting each other. Students joined in filling and hoisting the sandbags. The contrast with government failures in the face of Hurricane Katrina could not be more stark.

It reminds us that, Ahamed’s astute history of a financial disaster notwithstanding, people do also often learn, care, and act, and in time.

So, on leaving here, how do you take the Amherst vision with you? What must you remember, in order to lead effectively and to protect us from those special interests that try to disguise themselves as the guardians of the common good?

My predecessor Alexander Meiklejohn knew the answer. He said we “can succeed only if.... men and women will engage in careful, enthusiastic, and guided study of common values, common dangers and common opportunities.”

In short, he calls you to keep a constant vigilance. Of course, President Meiklejohn was fired for suggesting this.

In this time of constraints, constant vigilance against selfishness, may seem just too hard to do.

E. O. Wilson suggests that altruism is in both individual and evolutionary interest, as indicated by his study of ants. But for humans, even when we aspire to empathy, we fall back on sympathy, which can turn to patronizing disinterest. How do we avoid that failure, especially now?

Our human consciousness saves us. It shows us what is right. Our own Richard Wilbur, in a stanza detailing the search for a thing treasured and missed, describes the experience of being guided through a “wood...of tangled thickets... through which you grope...[until] you come ...upon half-healed blazes leading / To where, around the turning of a fear, the lost thing [has] shone.”

Such great losses as many people face today can so frighten us as to disturb our vision, make us doubt our strength, pull back into ourselves, making the problem worse.

But, our great poets remind us how to draw again toward what is valuable, “around the turning of a fear.” As evolving human beings, we step into that unknown place, neither fleeing nor denying those terrors we suspect in the thickets ahead. Guided by the lessons of our failures, we strive for those treasures we know yet lie within.

It is the old story. One our poets have called us to time and again. It is the old story where we have lost our way and are afraid, only then to be found. It is the old story where we are brought low, only to discover our strength.

In this story, we find ourselves prone to reach out, to rise up, to take hold of a heavy, wet sandbag, knowing at once that we can hoist that burden on behalf of the stranger standing beside us. Then the stranger ceases to be a stranger, becomes a friend, and our circle has widened. That is the American story.

Amherst has always invested in and informed this American story. As we are not a for-profit enterprise, we rely on endowment and gifts to pay for our work. What we do is invest in you, in your possibilities. You are worth the risks we embrace, beyond all measure or logic. In return, we simply call you to step into the forest ahead, toward rewards you had not even known you would seek.

Although the college’s financial endowment is today reduced, our most significant endowment lies in you, as it lies in the generations of alumni you now join.

You are the real return on our endowment. It exists in the lives you will lead, in the careers you will pursue. The multiplier effect of an Amherst education will ripple through you and countless others who will be inspired by you.

It is an investment that yields an even greater return in difficult times, as the world stands needing of the gifts of principled determination for the lives of great consequence that you have to offer.

With joy, confidence, and pride, we watch and support you as you proceed before us.