One of the observations I have of our entering class is that you not only chose kindness as the most emphatic thing you took out of a speech I gave a week ago, but also that in your responses to people, you have been so thoroughly kind. That's a balm at the moment, that kindness. Over this past weekend, we saw yet more opinion pieces published in major newspapers, bemoaning the problems at colleges and universities. At least two of them were inspired by a new book written by a Yale law professor who claims that colleges have become an echo chamber in which excellence has been replaced by the value we put on diversity.
Some have asked, over the past couple of days, whether I might write something in response or whether I might talk about these articles in my remarks tonight. I don't want to begin the academic year in reactive mode or descend into the mean-spirited assaults that pass for discourse these days. I don't want to respond in particular to what I think are concerted efforts on the part of some, a loud minority, to criticize liberal arts education in particular, rather than learning more about it, or giving us a set of observations and analysis that are fair-minded and informed. It is not that we don't have problems. It is not that political correctness isn't one. It always is in every era. It's not something new to be blamed on this generation of students or this generation of faculty. And it's not the problem that our critics would have people believe it is. In front of you, our new students, you have in this faculty and in their teaching and their courses, a veritable feast. And I can assure you whatever you've read or heard, that the last thing they want from you is to have you spit back what you think they believe or what you think you've heard them say. Their task, which they take deeply seriously, is to help you learn how to think for yourselves, how to think independently,
Let the vocal critics keep trying to provoke us and let them attempt to bury the liberal arts. It won't work. Every president of Amherst College over the past few hundred years has talked about attacks on liberal arts education in their inauguration speeches, in their commencement speeches. And we're still here. Some could try to bury us, but I prefer to praise and celebrate the liberal arts and the faculty you're about to learn from. Last week, I used William Cronin's essay on the goals of liberal education to talk with you about the qualities he sees in people who've been liberally educated. And I won't list them all again here. My favorites are they listen and they hear, they read widely and they understand, they know how to get things done in the world. They're humble.
He links liberal arts education with freedom and says the purpose of education is the nurturing of human growth in the service of freedom. And he ends his essay by asking what we mean by freedom and saying that if freedom is a right and a value for every individual in the community, then we can only think of our freedom as a responsibility we have to other people's freedom. And so, freedom and community, freedom and respect for other persons are bound together, and they cannot be unbound without being irresponsible. Cronin ultimately links the liberal arts and the quest for freedom with love, love of learning and love of other human beings. I am a lucky beneficiary of liberal arts education and of faculty members who care about students. And to illustrate the point, I'll give just a short little illustration using a tried and true essay form, “What I Did this Summer.” I spent two weeks this summer in Europe with my partner—and, for as long as our rights are preserved, my spouse—Gabi, and with close friends we have known since graduate school. The group of us from grad school vacations together every summer for at least a week. And these vacations include the things I love. The extraordinary beauty of the natural world, intellectual stimulation, and conversation. We always choose a spot that gives us such a world.We're all in different fields. And we all like to talk.
This year in the Salzburg Cathedral, we heard a brilliant choir and soloist perform Mozart's “Ave Verum Corpus.” (For the Latinists in the faculty, if I've mispronounced that, I apologize.) One of my friends said it makes you believe, this music. In a bar in Switzerland, we were introduced to an extraordinary jazz musician and vocalist, Raul Midón. And in Salzburg, we saw a production of the play Jedermann, about the death of a wealthy man, an early 20th-century version of medieval Christian morality plays about the bankruptcy of materialism and the worship of money. It’s about the mendacity and the ultimate isolation that is caused by extreme forms of narcissism and what it means for all of us to confront our mortality. And, while driving through the Swiss Alps, we also visited Sils in Switzerland, where we saw the Nietzsche House in Sils Maria. And there we saw an exhibit featuring the Nietzsche scholar Oscar Levy, who wrote an open letter to Hitler contesting the claims of Nietzsche's sister that Hitler was the realization of Nietzsche's philosophy. It's an extraordinary letter— and it's available online.
At all the places we visited, the best part, ultimately, were the conversations we had about the performances, the exhibits, and actually about our graduate work and the conversations that one can only have with people who've known you for a long time and who accept your foibles. Now, my point is that without college and graduate school, I would never have taken the trip I just took. I would not have discovered my love of classical music or jazz, of literature or art. I certainly would not have found Gabi or been able to realize that relationship or made the friends who have accompanied me throughout my life. Getting to college and graduate school was not easy. And I know it hasn't been for many of you. In my family, showing love required geographical proximity and loyalty to Southern values. And Southern values, at that time, did not include having girls go to college.
Had it not been for my high school math teacher, I would not have gone to William and Mary. Had it not been for my sophomore English professor, I would not have traveled abroad. No one in my immediate family had ever been abroad except my father who fought in World War II, from North Africa all the way to Dachau and who never recovered. The mention of travel, even within the state of Virginia, would lead him to wonder why anyone would ever leave home. And he had not wanted me to leave, but an English professor saw promise in me, despite my shyness and the fact that I never attended a faculty office hour in my entire time at William and Mary. And she encouraged me to apply to a study abroad program. And I got selected. I had a moment of joy and then a moment of fear because I knew it would be a hard sell to my family that I would go abroad. My mother's response when I called her on the phone to tell her I'd been selected and was going to go study in England—which for many people I realize is not that abroad—I hear people all the time saying, I wish students wouldn't study abroad in English-speaking countries. But when you grow up as I did, England is a foreign country and it's very far away. So, I called my mother. I said, I've been selected. I'm going to study in England next year. And she said, what makes you think you can do that? And I actually wondered what did make me think I could do that. I had hardly been out of the state of Virginia at the time, except several trips to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to visit my father's family and a senior class bus trip to New York city where we heard Billy Graham at Madison Square Garden. I didn't enjoy it. I'm just saying.
So, what makes any of us think we can do things we've never done or thought possible or that our family doesn't want us to do? I guess it's curiosity and imagination and aspiration. And, for me, it was the hope that I could find a way out of the insular and hate-filled world of the environment where I grew up. But what really made the difference were the college professors who made me think I could do it, and who told me I could do it and who chose me to do it. And you will have that experience at Amherst. You will have professors who see promise in you and who encourage you to do things that you have not thought possible, or maybe even ever imagined. And you might even do things that your parents don't want you to do. Good luck with that.
In short, my path to the Amherst presidency is not really very probable if you start from my birth. But many of you also have histories that make it improbable that you would be at Amherst as students—and many faculty, too. The numbers of faculty we have who are first generation college graduates is very impressive. The world around us makes things quite difficult at the moment, but it has the benefit of showing us or highlighting for us what we think matters. And at Amherst, what matters is teaching and learning, faculty and students pushing each other and one another and themselves and helping bring one another along in the process. Ultimately, I think we're here to build and take advantage of the freedom that Bill Cronin talks about, and also the forms of community on which democratic values and institutions depend. And we're here to do our part to preserve them.
We're here, whatever our differences and conflicts, I hope, in friendship. Friendship, says Hannah Arendt, the philosopher, is not only a private good, but a civic virtue and a public necessity. And it manifests itself in a readiness to share the world with other human beings. Friendship manifests itself in a readiness to share the world with other human beings. So, we're here together to ready ourselves, to share the world with other human beings. Friendship takes practice. It takes discourse. It takes exchange. Our motto suggests as much. Have you all learned our motto yet? Yes. What is it? Terras Irradient. Let's say it together.
Let them illuminate the lands or let them enlighten the lands. You know, my predecessor, President Tony Marks whose portrait hangs right here to my right and your left, had a beautiful voice; it could be a booming voice and really quite beautiful. And he said, Terras Irradient at the end of virtually every speech he gave. I have never done that. And I'll tell you why, because I haven't thought hard enough about its possible meanings and have seen it instead as potentially a little bit patronizing or arrogant. Let them bring light to the world. Well, really? What about the world bringing light to us? But I've been thinking some more about the motto and thinking I have some responsibility maybe to push a little harder on it, just because of my job.
The college seal with the motto was planned by the second president of Amherst, President Humphrey, with the faculty at the time. So, I want the faculty to know that the seal and the motto came from faculty members and not just from an administration, which is always important to know. It highlights the religious imperative at that time, in 1825, to spread Christianity and Christian moral instruction to all corners of the world. In a secular time, perhaps we could say it highlights the responsibility or the imperative of spreading knowledge and truth. Truth understood as something to be discovered and created together rather than a form of proselytizing or conversion. Now, some critics of colleges and universities would say that we seek to convert you all to some particular kind of thinking—an opinion that I don't think anyone on our faculty could be said to share. That is, what's great about faculty members and scholars is that they are, as the historian called Becker once said, otherwise thinking people, each thinking otherwise and his, her, or their own way. (And that's what makes faculty governance so much fun.)
Let's just think for a few minutes about some of the aspects of the verb, irradient. Did you all take Latin in high school? You could have helped me with this talk. If we think about irradient, we could say that it's not a matter of spreading or bringing light, but perhaps having students, graduates, and faculty be one of its sources, and people who can see the light in others. The motto uses the subjunctive form of the verb, the mood of hypothetical or ideal action, let them bring light to the world, let them illuminate the earth, may it be that they will do so. It is a wishful call that highlights your agency, our agency. It's not a done deal. We're called on to make it so. And, finally, it's a plural form of the verb, which means we can only do it together. Not only those of us here at Amherst, but a much larger community.
My favorite passage that I've ever read about the light in human beings and human beings as sources of light comes from Marilynne Robinson and her novel Gilead. When a fictive minister is writing to his son, the minister is older and will die. He wants his son to understand the ministry from the father's point of view. And this is what he says about the ministry.
A great part of my work has been listening to people in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me….as if you had no interest in it, except seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By “life,” [the minister says,] I mean something like “energy”… or “vitality,” and also something very different.
And here's the part that I love:
When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life, [he says,] is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.
That's the end of the passage. "The loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else."
This, I think, is a privilege of being a teacher and not just a minister. And, actually, it's a privilege of being a human being in conversation with other people. If we can slow down or make time enough actually to listen and hear in that way, to see the incandescence in people and not just what they have wrong or what they disagree with us about. This is why we're here. This is why faculty and students are here. Students here are quick, avid, and resourceful, and that's why faculty love to teach you. Faculty are learned, creative and accomplished, which is why students come here to learn.
The country has reached an inflection point, I think, and higher education has to some extent, too. I think the question for us at Amherst at this moment of division, polarization, information apocalypse, is whether we can be an example of a community that we don't see much around us. One characterized by openness and respect, freedom with responsibility, politics, inflected by poetry. Can we acknowledge and reckon honestly with problems, whether they're on our campus or in the world? Can we enter into conversation with one another in an earnest effort to find ways of thinking and solutions? Can we avoid quickly assigning blame? Can we avoid operating as though there is only one way to see things. Our differences need not be divisions. They could be the way to a deeper sense of appreciation for the life that includes, but also exceeds politics in the narrow sense.
Tomorrow, you begin your classes. And I think you're really lucky to be beginning classes here. I often wish I could teach a course and—I think I said this to you all last week—even more frequently, I wish I were a student here or that I had been. You are entering classrooms with faculty members who are not just experts in their fields, but dedicated and devoted teachers. And I want to end with one of my favorite passages about teaching, which comes from Benjamin DeMott. You'll remember from yesterday, the professor of 40 years here, in whose name Min Jin Lee gave her lecture. He wrote an essay that I think I mentioned yesterday, that is one of my favorites about teaching and it's called "English and the Promise of Happiness." In it, he says the following.
The English class is the place wherein the chief matters of concern are particulars of humanness, individual human feeling, human response, and human time, as these can be animated with the help of writing by people, living and dead, and as they can be invented and discovered by student writers, seeking through words to name and compose and grasp their experience.
He goes on to say that “the function of conversation in the classroom [but also outside, I think] is searching for terms, pretending to exactitude--I love that: pretending to exactitude--criticizing and celebrating each other's offerings, all of that in order to resituate a deeply private enterprise on a public stage."
If the purpose of conversation is to "resituate a deeply human and private enterprise on a more public stage" then perhaps we can take the beauty of what goes on in a classroom, and not just the English class, but classes all over the campus, and raise it up to a much more public stage, not just the public of Amherst, but the public much farther and wider. Thank you very much for being here and doing what you do.