Submitted by Caroline J. Hanna

May 25, 2008
Caroline J. Hanna
Director of Media Relations

AMHERST, Mass. — In his traditional address to the Class of 2008 during Amherst College’s 187th Commencement ceremonies today, President Anthony W. Marx charged graduates to “create lasting changes” and help fix what he sees as a flawed American education system by either working in the nation’s public schools or working to improve them as members of the community. His thought-provoking remarks and the exercises themselves capped a weekend of activities celebrating the Class of 2008; the events also included the awarding of seven honorary doctorates to distinguished guests and 445 bachelor of arts degrees to the college’s new graduates.

Marx began his address by describing Amherst’s birth in the 1800s as a secondary school, its subsequent transformation into a college and its role in the establishment of a common school in the town of Amherst. “At our founding, we understood we could not be a great college without great schools for all,” he explained, adding that Amherst’s commitment since that time has not just been to provide “the finest education” but also to ensure access to it.

He went on to discuss the problems he sees with modern K-12 education in the United States. “Our nation’s school system today has reduced itself … to Darwinian principles: Make it if you can, those already advantaged stand first in line, and we will accept widespread failure of basic opportunities as collateral damage.”  The country’s schools are not adequately funded, he said, nor are they held to any kind of national minimum requirement for a curriculum and for a way to measure progress—effectively cheating U.S. children out of adequate instruction. “The result is that America today is seeing a drop in educational quality. Graduation from high schools is down. Our schools have re-segregated by race, class and outcomes.”

But there is hope, said Marx; plenty of scholars and activists offer innovative new ideas and practices every day. He called on Amherst and America’s other “great colleges” to act: “We must reach out. We must help create those better schools.” Members of the Class of 2008 can likewise do their part by upholding their alma mater’s founding principles of freedom, justice, fair play and democracy, he said. “Graduates, carry forward [Amherst’s] vision of expanded opportunity, of a deep appreciation of which you have obtained here, of all those quarters of life from which our leaders must arise.”
“We expect you to create lasting changes,” he told the group. “As you grow in accomplishment, you will exert influence. As you become experts in your fields, you will inspire and guide companies, schools, teachers, students, the communities in which you prosper.”

“So take a deep breath,” he concluded. “Get ready. Go forth. You are all teachers now.”

Prior to Marx’s remarks, the graduates heard from Daniel J. Cluchey ’08, who was chosen by his fellow graduates to speak at the ceremonies. Cluchey discussed his one simple wish for his classmates: perspective. “Please never forget to recognize and appreciate everything that Amherst has surrounded you with; whether you know it or not, it’s what’s been keeping you afloat this whole time,” he said. “I hope that when you’re out [in the real world], you think back on these years often; while your perspective will change, the memories will be blessedly fixed in time.”

In addition to the remarks of Marx and Cluchey, the exercises featured the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the graduates and honorary degrees to seven distinguished guests. The honorands and their degrees include Robert H. Brown Jr. ’69, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Day Neuromuscular Research Laboratory and Muscular Dystrophy Association clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, doctor of science; Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, doctor of humane letters; Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, doctor of laws; Henry A. Freedman ’62, executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, doctor of laws; Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton University, doctor of humane letters; Sir Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary-general of the United Nations, doctor of humane letters; and Saraswathi Vedam ’78 professor and director of the University of British Columbia’s division of midwifery, doctor of science.

Amherst also awarded Polly Ormsby Longsworth, member of the board of governors of Amherst College’s Emily Dickinson Museum and prolific Emily Dickinson scholar, the school’s Medal for Eminent Service, which recognizes exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. Bruce ’74 and Carol Angiolillo, parents of John (Jack) Angiolillo ’08, served as Honorary Marshals for the ceremonies.

Three secondary school teachers were recognized by the college as well; Amherst presented the trio with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards on behalf of graduating seniors. The 2008 recipients include Sister Marlene Mucha from Holyoke Catholic High School in Granby, Mass., nominated by Pawel Z. Binczyk of South Hadley, Mass.; Woody Aunan from Sandpoint High School in Sandpoint, Idaho, nominated by Ben Lockwood, also of Sandpoint; and Jorge Camacho from Felix Varela Senior High School in Miami, nominated by Jaime Botero, of Miami as well. 

The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given by the trustees of the college to members of the senior class who have shown by their own determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, was awarded to Oscar A. Baez of Boston and Katherine A. Roza of Hagerstown, Md.

Finally, the Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods of Enfield and Charles B. Travis of the Class of 1864, is awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Elena Naomi Jessop of Castle Rock, Colo.

Visit the commencement pages for photos, audio, video and text of speeches.