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.”