Martin to 2016 Graduates: These Times Require the Best of Your Liberal Arts Education

Commencement 2016
Photo by Shana Sureck

In her annual Commencement address this morning, Amherst President Biddy Martin told the College’s graduates that “a great liberal arts education should be a leading source of resistance to anti-rational forces of manipulated fear and hatred" and urged them to use their education as antidotes to prejudice and exclusion in this “head-shaking” time.

“The broad range of liberal arts disciplines makes reason and understanding, freedom and generosity their ground and their purpose. This form of education,” she said, “offers an unrivaled opportunity to absorb the ideas and the values essential not only to personal success but also to creating the world we say we want—the opposite of where our most visceral instincts take us when we’re afraid.”

Martin’s remarks followed an address by senior Darienne Masishi Madlala, of Bethesda, Md., who was chosen by her classmates to deliver the traditional student speech during the College’s 195th Commencement this morning.

An estimated 5,000 family members and friends gathered to hear Martin and Madlala speak and see the students receive their bachelor’s degrees. The ceremony also featured the awarding of honorary doctorates to six distinguished guests, and capped a weekend of lectures, concerts and other festivities. (Audio of talks given by the honorees, videos and photos from the weekend are posted on the Commencement website. More photos will be posted this week.) 

“The liberal arts counters forces of autocratic rule, superstition, intolerance and prejudice”

President Biddy Martin enjoying a moment during Commencement
President Biddy Martin enjoying a moment during Commencement. Photo by Shana Sureck

After describing some characteristics, achievements and post-graduation plans of the members of the class of 2016, Martin compared the day’s ceremony to the one a century ago, which was presided over by Amherst President Alexander Meiklejohn.

It was the year before the United States got involved in World War I, and Meiklejohn expressed concern about the conflict in Europe and a growing tendency to assume that strife was more fundamental a “law of life” than sympathy and fellowship, Martin recounted. Meiklejohn began his address with the Golden Rule, and used philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative—which stresses the importance of moderation, humility, tolerance and restraint—to explain it.

Today, Martin said, “those qualities are critical to democracy and to freedom—not the freedom to indulge our crassest desires, but the freedom to think, to assess our desires and passions, and to value our neighbors as ourselves.”

“The liberal arts—with its combination of scientific and mathematical knowledge, humanistic and social scientific inquiry and the arts—is a form of education that was intended to counter the forces of autocratic rule, of superstition, of intolerance and prejudice.”

When these forces grow and coalesce, the impact is potentially disastrous and long-lasting, she continued.  

She cautioned, however, that no form of education or amount of liberty allowed by democracy prevents humans from ignoring their own intelligence and empathy. “It is in the nature of our freedom that we can choose to worship at the altar of affect and outrage,” she said. “We can choose to indulge our fears and grab what we can from the weaker. But we cannot make those choices without a cost.”

Quoting novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, Martin also took issue with the notion that assembling a homogenous population results in stability and peace. She added that the College, with its intentionally “complex and mingled population,” “it is not always comfortable …. fellowship is not always easy.”

“But if there has ever been a time when we need to recognize the value of our own lives and the lives of others as of our own—and there have been many such times—this is also the time,” she said, citing the millions of refugees in the world now. “It is essential that we work against indifference, fear and objectification.”

At Amherst, “we recognize that talent and promise cross all social and economic boundaries and that high-quality educational opportunities should, too. We also realize, as research shows, that we come to better conclusions, that we are smarter, when different life experiences and points of view are taken into account.”

“Amherst has been here for almost 200 years, cheerleading in its own way for reason, understanding, conversation and community that is not one,” she concluded, before reading the poem “Salute,” by A.R. Ammons, to the class of 2016. “It will continue to give students an unrivaled opportunity to absorb the ideas and the values essential not only to personal success but also to creating the world we say we want—the opposite of where our most visceral instincts take us when we’re afraid.”

Student speaker Darienne Masishi Madlala addresses her classmates during the ceremonies
Student speaker Darienne Masishi Madlala addresses her classmates during the ceremonies. Photo by Shana Sureck

“Question everything”

Prior to Martin’s remarks, Madlala spoke to her classmates in a frequently humorous speech.

She remembered asking various members of the community for tips on her address, for example. The general theme of that advice was that her speech would inevitably be clichéd, and no one would listen to it anyway.  “I realized that I am just an additional 10-minute barrier between you and your diplomas,” she told the graduates.

On a more serious note, she recognized that many of the graduates played a critical role in transforming Amherst over the past four years. “It is obvious that the College was not initially built for someone like me, in any way,” she said. “But I believe that the older Amherst gets the better it gets, because like any class that has come before us, we have definitely left Amherst better than we found it.”

She recalled a quote she had heard at a conference: “The person who always asks ‘how’ will always have a job. But the person who always asks ‘why’ will always be their boss.”

“After hearing that, I always try now to ask the ‘Big Questions,’” she said, adding that the College instilled in her that same compulsion: “Question everything.”  

Honorary awards and other prizes

In addition to the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the assembled graduates, honorary doctorates were presented to six special guests:

  • Best-selling author Chris Bohjalian ’82  
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace President William Burns
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola Response Manager Inger Damon ’84  
  • Astronomer and astrophysicist Sandra Faber
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Director Kirk Johnson ’82  
  • Sociologist and educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Other honorees included Kelly L. Close ’90, who was awarded the 2016 Medal for Eminent Service for exceptional and distinguished service to the College for a great period of time. Teachers Dawn Gafa, a physics and mathematics teacher from Hazel Park, Mich.; Robert Gerver, a mathematics and statistics teacher from Glen Head, N.Y.; and William Kahn, a history teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., were honored with Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards after being nominated by graduating seniors whom they had taught in high school. Brooke Kamin Rapaport ’84 served as the honorary marshal for the ceremonies.

In addition, Martin read a tribute and gave a cane to Commencement mainstay and retiring Sheriff of Hampshire County Robert J. Garvey, who has opened and closed Amherst graduations for decades. 

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 Milton Felipe Rico Becerra of Philadelphia.

The Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods and Charles B. Travis of the class of 1864, was awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Alexander Corey Vega of Malvern, Pa.

For more photos, videos, audio and text of speeches, go to our Commencement web pages.