Opening Convocation 2008: Lives of Consequence

President Anthony W. Marx
September 1, 2008


Welcome, Class of 2012. At this convocation, the incoming class and the faculty join for the first time in a convention of our own.
It is my honor to address you on behalf of the faculty, who today welcome you to a lifelong engagement with ideas through which to understand and change the world

Although it may be common to speak of life beyond campus as “the real world,” we should not. Amherst is of the world. Four years hence, you will move onward along a variety of essential and worthy paths—commerce, law, medicine, government, the arts, nonprofits, journalism and education. In all these and more, we trust you will be informed and inflamed by your time at Amherst. Rather than train prematurely to careers, we immerse you in the liberal arts and sciences as the best form of training for discernment and for leadership. We aim for you to comprehend the workings of the world enough to reinterpret and to reshape it.

The model of the liberal arts and sciences as an incubator of leaders, though proven over centuries, hasn't necessarily been made more efficient. What the mind requires to expand is not efficient. Rather, through varied disciplines, we call you to grow, not as a self-serving elite but as leaders in an ever more diverse, connected world—questioning assumptions, mindful of differing perspectives, sensitive to the costs and ambiguities of any cause you engage.

Recently the faculty rededicated this ideal in the college’s mission statement—fine words, offered amidst the catalogue’s fine print:

Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.

Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community. …
Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level.

Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the college, to their communities and to the world beyond.

Our job as professors is to prepare you for this mission. It is the metric our work is tested against, met to the degree you make an impact even greater than the investment your families and this college make in you.

In this orientation week, you've already glimpsed our purpose: to start you now thinking about this mission, about how people go beyond their own interests to change life for the better around them, on large and smaller scales. You can be inspired by such great figures as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, about whom we have asked you to read and discuss. While Amherst has also produced great leaders, we’d never predict who among us here may one day be seen that way. Rather, studying such large figures of history, we also see how they too were human, affected by family, school, friends, doubts, weaknesses.

But look around you here now.
Well within my lifetime, not 40 years ago, the faces in this chapel on this occasion were almost all white, the students all male, most wealthy. That we today are a far more diverse gathering is a result of actions taken largely by what Paul Loeb calls the “smaller, real heroes.”

For your orientation reading, alongside Meacham's biography Franklin and Winston, we paired Loeb’s essay “We Don’t Have to Be Saints” [from Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time] to remind us all of this essential fact: much of history is driven from below.

Although past historians may have spoken mostly in “praise of famous men,” truth requires us to see how history is made by what Loeb calls “the deliberate, incremental labors” of many people acting when it is propitious and when it is not, and often in the face of ambiguous choices, conflicting loyalties, with modest results.

From these readings, then, learn both lessons: knowing how flawed great women and men can be, let yourself be even more inspired by their achievements, even as you also let Loeb’s essay blow wide open your understanding of how many people actually do change the world, lead lives of consequence.

History is made by all of us: teachers, innovative business leaders, conscientious professionals, inspiring social entrepreneurs, generous and hopeful parents. All create change although they all know defeat far more than we might see, as they live with ambiguity and listen to others and are uncertain.

So empowered by this week’s readings, by this sense of the impact you can make, you can pursue the Amherst mission.

But as you do, be prepared: this sense of your importance to history comes with a price. When you enter the world and work in it, you find ways it will not bend. Indeed, the more you engage, the more you may find yourself disappointed. You may come to appreciate Turgenyev’s remark that “an honourable man will end by not knowing where to live.” You can sink your soul into a cause and watch it fail. And not only the cause. You may disappoint yourself, or be surprised at compromises you make.

Yet your work to change the world does matter. Persisting beyond our strengths, we come to accept being, as Loeb describes us all, “wounded healers.” Or as the public health missionary Paul Farmer says, especially if you have become “used to being on the victory team, it can seem odd, yet oddly important to make common cause ... [to] fight the long defeat.”

I myself had to recall that truth this year, watching things go wrong in the country where I traveled and worked for some time shortly after college. Forgive this bit of personal history, but it's the clearest way I have to illustrate.

When I graduated, the world was still held captive by the Cold War that Roosevelt and Churchill saw born. At the southern tip of the most troubled continent, South Africa remained an apartheid state. I arrived there as a young man when it was entering a state of emergency, a civil war, the most intense politics I have ever seen. Friends were killed and were willing to die.

Those dark days also fed a romanticism, not just for me but for many there and others watching from afar. We believed that out of the worst, the best would be born. That the terribleness would yet lead to justice.

We forgot the ambiguities inherent in any human struggle for power and identity; we looked beyond the conflicting loyalties, the ambitions, resentments, the vanities such striving always risks. In short, we forgot the lessons we’d been taught by our liberal arts education.

In the decades since, South Africa has progressed. Nelson Mandela emerged from the living martyrdom of an island prison as a rare living symbol of what we aspired for, and a too-rare exception of the liberation leader who does not become the next autocrat. There are better housing and electricity; and progress in education. But there remain soaring unemployment, inequality, blocked opportunity, lack of key services.

If such failings are perhaps inevitable in a country emerging from such an unjust past, the greater sadness for me has lain in the more avoidable political disasters. The country's new leaders arose from a background of internecine, exile politics and armed struggle to push aside or co-opt many others who had organized from below and who had learned the consequent lessons of modesty and participation. The governing African National Congress has shifted from being a school for politics, a debating forum for all, to being a ruling party exerting more central control, undermining any opposition.

Party discipline and attendant disregard ushered in tragedy on a holocaust scale which even apartheid itself hadn’t produced. Denial of facts has left close to 6 million infected with HIV, denied effective treatment, with already 1.5 million dead as a result. Meanwhile, much national wealth was squandered on arms to defend against nonexistent enemies, while a neighboring leader, respected still beyond all reason, has dragged Zimbabwe into a death spiral, with diplomatic cover and acquiescence from South Africa.
Should I have been surprised by such forces gone wrong? Absolutely not. Franz Fanon himself warned of a past in which “everything seemed to be so simple: the bad people were on one side, and the good on the other. The clear ... unreal ... idyllic light of the beginning is followed by a semi-darkness. … In their weary road towards rational knowledge, the people must also give up their too-simple conception of their overlords.”

And I had glimpsed the lesson in terms I personally could grasp, in Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Guest of Honor. Her protagonist, who has lived through intense politics and the violence of liberation, then is disgusted by the degradations of post liberation. He asks: “[Having] lived my whole life with that stink in my nostril, why gag now?” But gag we do, and thank goodness if we never lose our capacity to be disgusted.

If I were to let South Africa break my heart, that would be my own fault. If I were to let that dismay stop my efforts, I would be failing.

For me, the memory of South Africa remains a warning, but more, an inspiration, provocation and reminder of the further lesson I also have to suggest for you today.

As you strive to enact your ideals, the disappointments that come are meant not to stop but to inform you. Do not ignore or deny them. Rather, in accepting the dismay, you may find your commitment deepened, your understanding advanced toward a more enduring energy for action. Others, seeing this in you, will trust your leadership even more. Own the failures as you lead, as you inform and direct self-interest to change history.

During my time in South Africa, I was privileged to know people who gave everything to bring about a new society, though they were “no less life-loving” than anyone else. Once you have seen such commitment, you never forget it.

I remember a charismatic student activist on the run from apartheid police, who, even as he hid, continued to organize—and did so until being killed. I remember educational activists and union organizers, teachers and artists, who persevered despite threats. And I came away with a grasp of the power of education, having seen first-hand how just a year or two of better schooling could undo the damage of years of purposefully inferior apartheid instruction. I saw Khanya College prepare and send a thousand students on to university work, years before democracy came. That experience taught me about “the deliberate, incremental action” that, as Paul Loeb says, may bear modest results. Still, those results add up, even if along the way you’re not sure how.

The lesson of South Africa, finally, is to accept the heartbreak that makes more powerful the good that remains, as we aspire to “lives of consequence.”

Even when an enterprise we most love and give to falters, others rise. And history turns. We can’t predict. But we can point to what would have faltered had we not also acted.

Nearly 200 years ago, this college was founded on that ideal, which the faculty have articulated anew, calling on you to “link learning with leadership—in service to the college, to [your] communities and to the world beyond.”

Today, we rejoice—rejoice—at the chance to begin helping you prepare for this great, larger world of which you are already a vital part. To comprehend, to improve the world in myriad ways. To lead your own lives of principled consequence.

And so let us begin again. Welcome to Amherst College. Godspeed.