Opening Convocation 2005: “Strengthening the Levees”

Anthony W. Marx 
Hear audio of President Marx's address.

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04

Anthony W. Marx
President of Amherst College
Johnson Chapel
Monday, September 5, 2005

A week ago this morning, Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest storms ever to strike the United States, made landfall in Louisiana. By that Monday evening, the levees that protect New Orleans, a city of half a million souls, began to give way. In the flooding that followed, a thousand people already are estimated to have perished, likely far more than ever have been killed by any other hurricane in this country.

Despite much warning, in the news reports that have reached all Americans and the world in the week since Katrina struck so violently, we have begun, to our grief, to appreciate how utterly unprepared people were. And how slowly so many of us came to understand and respond in the days immediately afterward. The temptations to hold onto the routine are strong, even in a great tempest.

The storm of astounding proportions has now passed, but the terrible images and stories of what has befallen that part of our country continue to reach us. They recall, to a chilling degree, the horrible losses occasioned by the Indian Ocean tsunami. America’s Gulf Coast has been reduced to a third-world disaster: nature’s fury has been unleashed upon those who are most vulnerable and least able to flee—the poor, the aged and the infirm, overwhelmingly black. Before our eyes, our first world becomes the third world. We awaken to how the growing inequalities in these United States leave entire portions of our nation exposed to terrible conditions.

Self-protecting distinctions of distance fade; excuses for not caring fall away. On every scale, we now must expand the circle of our compassion to match the reality of our interconnectedness. Amherst is now responding. Students, faculty and administrators have begun to organize to help our fellow citizens and, in particular, students and faculty from institutions who cannot begin their academic years as we do tonight.

It is premature to draw conclusions about the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, but it is important to speculate when our attention is sharpest, even if our thoughts are not yet refined. We cannot hold ourselves separate from the world, even as we seek an angle of reflection.

Rather, it is a time to be blunt. We live in a society focused on immediate gains, socializing all to look out for themselves and to take privileges for granted. Witness, for example, our energy consumption with little heed to future implications. We consume conspicuously, on many fronts, rather than save—gambling against catastrophe—and are accustomed to investing for quick returns. But, my friends, social investment by its very nature can never be short-term, and it is in that investment that we have failed.

Our insufficient and diminished commitment to the public commons—to our infrastructure, environment, health, educational systems—particularly affects the less fortunate. The public need has not been met. In New Orleans, the levees were not adequate, allowed to weaken over many years, and were breached. Relief efforts faltered. And when the structures that serve to protect our society are weak, it is the weakest among us who suffer most.

Left defenseless are those who did not ignore the warnings, but who lacked any means to escape, remaining to watch as the awful storm fell upon them. The more fortunate took to higher ground. It is perhaps too much or too awful to contemplate about ourselves, but did we invest less in the levees and emergency preparations knowing that the vulnerable had less voice in our communal halls of power? Even to ask the question draws us deeper into this fundamental challenge to our beliefs about our communal identity and purpose.

The flood waters have laid bare a feeble understructure to much of civic life. When American society was more homogeneous, or at least more restricted in its dictates as to who belonged in it, the common protections, the levees, were built strong and maintained, at least for that privileged portion of society. Storms struck then–and even less predictably. But there was less tolerance for that false economy we have lately adopted: letting the protections deteriorate in the delusion that when a crisis occurs all can fend for themselves.

As our society has become more diverse, the bonds of our public commons have frayed. Old prejudice has merged into a modern fashion of disregard, and though there is no legal segregation, still we practice exclusion. Such disregard of the collective need can be presented as a mere even-handedness, as a merely uniform fairness, but it is far from that in effect. Among people who suffer from the disregard or frayed social bonds, who are so abandoned, desperation grows and can be brought to terrible anarchy by crisis.

We at Amherst College must act firmly to help those in need. We have reached out to our affected students and parents, alumni, faculty colleagues and neighbors. We must use any excess space we have, and make efforts beyond what we currently think possible, to ensure that more lives are not lost and that educations are not sacrificed. Conversations are underway that we trust will lead to additional action in coming days.

As you new members of Amherst join the college community, we consider what we can learn and do differently. The terrible aftermath of Katrina challenges us to rebuild and restore New Orleans and other devastated communities, daunting as that is. But even more, the levees of our society must be shored up.

Think about America’s public schools, underfunded and weakened. The fortunate among us, or so we believe, can always find higher ground, can live where better schools are, or use private alternatives. I understand that response to the weakening of the educational levees. But without additional action, as the common school deteriorates, those with no escape are left vulnerable. For generations, public school systems seemed better able to provide higher ground to all, including the more vulnerable among us. When we allow that higher ground to become inaccessible to many, as I believe we have, we acquiesce in certain harm to those who need that advantage most. Then, just as all have lost in this flood, all lose in the decay of the public schools and of our economy and our society.

I know that I am pushing this analogy at a time when we are all still shocked by the literal storm and flooding. But we must try to see the whole picture and, from that, inform our actions. That is what a great college is for, what such a gathering of talent and resources is for.

Amherst College must draw more attention to the needs of our public schools. I believe we must also educate ourselves in the pressing needs of the day, in education, in the environment, in all parts of the collective good that none of us alone, nor the market as a whole, can maintain. I believe that the liberal arts are so directed; that our scholarship, our teaching and our learning from one another must inform our moral bond. But we must seek even more than that.

Amherst College must be an exemplar of how a community cares for itself, and of how we learn from and treat each other fairly.

When we see so many in our society follow the prevailing winds of abandoning the collective, when we see so many swerve from the needs of those unable to escape the storm flood, then Amherst College must set its own course against the wind. The skills you learn here must be tested and applied as every day we act and form our Amherst College community. If we do this well, we hope our values and actions will inform and illuminate the thinking of others in our national and global community. You are leaders, today and tomorrow, on whom multiple communities depend.

My friends, earlier this summer I had prepared for you a speech on the challenges and importance of diversity and community at Amherst College. In that draft, I had drawn upon some of the history of Amherst’s own trials and successes in these matters from several decades ago. Little did I know how apt and yet inadequate that speech would prove to be during this period of a tragic loss with which we and our nation are still coming to terms, as we gather here this evening. However, in that history, I had also examined some of the challenges this college has faced as it built more social and intellectual infrastructure and as it planned how to care for each of its diverse members and meet their needs in a learning community enriched by an ever broader variety of learners.

The single lesson I found myself drawn to in that speech was this: a true community meets the needs of all, appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of all. In Amherst’s not so distant past, it had not, nor has it yet completely, created a community so inclusive that all perspectives are fully appreciated, one in which everyone gives help where needed and has the confidence to seek help where needed.

But one of the great virtues of this college is that we pay conscious, and conscientious, attention to precisely this goal. We aspire to be a community in which every one of our differences serves to increase all our learning, further enriching our already robust sense of solidarity. And, just as we face honestly the ways in which the college strives to both deepen and broaden its communal sense and commitment, so too must we face how our nation and our world must do the same. If we cannot, in this small and privileged college, then who can? If we cannot, in this powerful and privileged country, then who will? We must be a beacon in the storm.

I believe that the great challenge to our age lies in the question of how we are to expand the circle of our compassion, our learning, and our service, both for our own sakes and for the sake of all. That challenge was a founding ideal of this college and so remains our great task. It is why generations have invested in this college. Here, we learn the interconnectedness of what we must understand, what we must repair. We learn what each of us truly has in common with the other. That is what we are all here for: to learn from each other and to learn how to form ever more enlightened, actively compassionate, communities. That is why we are drawn here from our varied backgrounds and interests. It is why we must respect each other, help each other, serve each other.

Floods have always been seen as apocalyptic moments, both literally and metaphorically. We as a community now confront a literal, actual, lethal flood that has revealed great flaws in our construction of civic life. As a community, we are obliged undeniably now to correct those flaws so that all find higher ground.

The terrible events of this last week remind us that only a few ever find safety alone; none can be great if each acts only for himself or those few. In storms that are surely yet to come—natural and man made—we will again be judged by how we prepared, how we resisted serving only ourselves, how we invested for the long term in the levees of our society, so that we might ever care for and save each other.

Class of 2009, colleagues, families, friends, let us start anew here the work of joining a diverse community of learning, and caring even more broadly together. We must demand it of each other. We must live it here. We must build it in the world.

Together, let us arise from the waters, ready for our tasks.

Welcome to Amherst College.

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