Commencement Address by President Anthony W. Marx

May 22, 2011

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Congratulations to the Class of 2011. I join in your ranks, for today we graduate together. You are my class. Yes, I had the best dorm on campus, and yes, it took me eight years to graduate. But I could not have had better company.

Today, Amherst sends us out into the world. I know we will find that our years here will resonate for a lifetime, through friendships and patterns of thought. For on this hill, we have aimed to discipline you to learn and then to think within and across disciplines. We have done it the old-fashioned way, with an inspiring faculty and a wide array of students intensely trained on each other. By bringing the very best together, we stretch ever further to understand and shape the world. You now prove that effort invaluable.

It has been expensive, I know. The college would run in the red every year were it not for an endowment built on generations of generosity. So why do we do what makes no economic sense?

Our mission statement tells the answer, on the front page of the catalog, the part you doubtless skipped over. We prepare you “to seek, value and advance knowledge, engage the world around you, and lead principled lives of consequence.”  

Some of that is fairly straightforward. Knowledge must be built, criticized and applied to create civil society. A vision of a democratic society is implied in the mission’s further mandate to educate people “from all backgrounds ... regardless of financial need ... to promote diversity of experience and ideas.” And through our families, communities and occupations, as citizens and activists, we all engage the world.

But the term “principled lives of consequence” is trickier. What principle?  The word “principled” indicates an integrity to one’s conduct that does not adhere to any one ideology or party. You’ve learned enough about moral action to choose certain essentials, for yourself and for your relation to others.

But what “consequence” should your life have?  Here we are on controversial ground, judging by the vigorous debates within the Amherst community. Some have thought the college presumes to judge the lives of its alumni, or that we refer here only to public achievement and belittle the creation of families, or that we ignore disappointments inevitable in life, or risks that fail because we, in fact, do take risks. No such narrowing is intended. But to those who say this statement means we believe in the idea of an elite, to which Amherst contributes, I plead guilty.

This is an elite institution; we teach a select few, at great cost, who will bring the advantages of this intense schooling into society.

That doesn’t mean everyone must become a head of state, of which Amherst currently boasts only two. Creating families, enlivening friendships and communities, are consequential. But you do now join a privileged few.

As John F. Kennedy said here: With privilege comes responsibility. There’s no escaping it. The words reverberate across this quad, spoken by an eloquent young president weeks before his martyrdom and echoing still: I hope forever.

Your having attained an Amherst degree ties you to at least one enduring consequence to which the college does aspire for you: Whatever life you lead must reflect your understanding that, just as we are each born into this world entirely dependent on others, we remain so until we draw our last breath.

Some of us may show a blind spot to that truth. Privilege creates that risk. I think that must be what stirs the anxiety of so many commencement speakers to call upon graduates to “Make a difference for others, not just yourselves.” Beyond the homilies, can a graduating president, who shares your love of this place and shares this place’s love and hope for you, offer some hints? I will try, one last time.

Don’t be fooled by images or claims to normality. Don’t hold back, play it safe, but start big, not small. We are all a bit strange, so be strangely ambitious. Daily take some step toward your aspiration. For, as playwright Lee Blessing said, “Idealism is no longer a choice for mankind. It’s a necessity.” And you can’t wait. “Don't loaf and invite inspiration,” Jack London warned: “Light after it with a club.”

From among the ideal pursuits you’ve imagined, take a moment here now to consider what excites you most, especially if it seems daunting, and light after it.

Such thinking is less dangerous than it might sound. If you can picture yourself doing the activities that serve your ambition—facing the next blank page or canvas, or another long day at the lab or in front of a classroom—then that is your calling. Get going with any institution or idea connected to the heart of it.

By choosing to so live by leaning through your fear into your ideal, you always bring more to life, and get more from it. Robert Frost aptly summarized this commitment: “My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight. / Only where love and need are one, / And the work is play for mortal stakes / Is the deed ever really done / For heaven and the future’s sakes.”

It is for that future’s sake that the college makes its multigenerational investment in you, to perpetuate the multiplying effect of your labor toward your ideal.

When you use your knowledge, understanding and imagination to inform and improve the lives of others, then you create such consequences to which we all aspire.

In my first address to my first first-year class in Johnson Chapel, I recalled the work of Hannah Arendt, who posed “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” the title of an article I was given as a first-year college student. Arendt taught how thinking arouses us and challenges our prejudgments, interrupting ordinary activities to enable us to do the extraordinary.

When we learn to think, we learn to imagine other arguments, ways other people would consider, and to take into our consideration and thereby become moral beings. That is what arrests our attention, keeps us fixated on determining the right thing to do, rather than heeding that thoughtless narcissism that so pervades our culture.

The need for such discerning arises at any time. We always come to moral dilemmas, and these coalesce into one big decision: How to use my life?

Please think about the issues individuals around the world have confronted recently: The mayor of a small town in Japan who, confronting the impending tsunami, had to choose whether to stay at work to evacuate people or rush home to save his family. The human rights activist or the soldier worried that assisting Libyan rebels might result in their suffering even more if the regime holds. The overworked school teacher forced to choose between focusing on those students who can more easily move up or on those who need extra help. The mother deciding how forgiving or strict to be toward a child having trouble.

I can judge none of these in the abstract. I know only that I would want for the person deciding to be possessed of that mindful and moral baggage which a liberal arts education provides. Since, for each, there is no simple rule to apply; we are not saved by knowledge or understanding. Instead, one must be able to think, to engage in that dialogue with others and that silent dialogue with oneself, as Arendt said, where conscience and consciousness are found. It’s not a guarantee of getting it right, but it is our best hope.

I believe the quality of our society is only as good as the breadth of its citizens’ minds. Here at Amherst we know that the more thoughtful we all are, the better our world will be. And the more thoughtful we become, the deeper the joy we take in people unlike ourselves.  

We must prevent divides of opportunity, or of access to ideas, from widening further; rather, we must further liberate the flow of talent, ideas and debate that undergird a civil and progressing society. That is what Amherst stands for, what a great library stands for, and it is what America stands for. I want you, as well as my own children, to live in a world based on that value. That is the only kind of world I want to live in.

If America seems less sure of that ideal, we should become surer. Amherst has long stood for and embraced liberal thought—“of openness, self-criticism, toleration”—and thus of the broadened diversity of students and ideas such thinking requires.

I am proud of our explicit commitment to an elite based not on inheritance but on merit, guided to use knowledge to improve the world on the smallest to the biggest scales.

For eight years I have admired a college that dedicates its treasure—its endowment and faculty—to its students. Not to compete in rankings or brand name but to prove the values of access, of curricular innovation, of learning how to change the world.  

You are the consequence of those hopes and efforts. We know that everything you do henceforth will be enlivened by the question: What was that hope and effort for? As throughout your lives you ask yourselves what to do next, you’ll refer continually to the tough standards you formed at Amherst.

That reliance works because the college keeps faith, as described by the legendary Amherst professor Henry Steele Commager, with its duty “to search for and transmit truth regardless of all … demands … for immediate usefulness, for social approval, pressures to serve the special interests of government, a class, a professional group, a race, of faith, even a nation.”

Commager, of course, did not say “the” truth, since understanding evolves, and, mindful as he was of how the messiness of life after college can cloud any vision, we have these past four years sought to inoculate you with a maximum of zeal for truth. Let me give one last example, and then my deed is done:

Thoreau said that to convince others what is right, we ourselves must do right and “let them see.” One of Amherst College’s now-retired faculty, a math professor, was involved in designing the building over there for his department. They gave him his pick of offices, assuming he would go for the majestic view of the Holyoke range. Instead he chose an office overlooking the quad, so that students could see that his light was on and know that he was there for them.

That story captures what I most love about this college. May you have Godspeed as you go out in the land. The college’s light will always be on for you. We rejoice that, at every step of your journey, you also will continue to light up our world, and all will see and be inspired.

Terras Irradient.