President Michael A. Elliott addresses the class of 2027 at Convocation.

Music filled the room at Convocation—but not quite the way you’d think.

Yes, there was the traditional Baroque processional, with organ and soaring trumpet, as the faculty entered Johnson Chapel in full regalia, plus a poignant performance of “Three Gifts,” by the Glee Club. 

But in his Convocation speech, President Michael A. Elliott riffed off the idea of music itself—for that theme jumped out of the application essays from the class of 2027. He read every one of these “remarkable documents” in marathon sessions this summer, he revealed. The experience felt “like reading a very postmodern, quirky novel.”

The students sitting here this Labor Day night, he went on, had covered many subjects, from fly fishing to entrepreneurship to the Mohegan language. But an impressive number explored the power of making and hearing jazz, opera, hip-hop and symphonies, and mused about “everything from Beethoven to Bad Bunny,” which made the crowd laugh. And there were “a shocking number of references to ’80s rock,” he added. More laughs.

Said Elliott: “So I have been asking myself: Why does music matter so much to this class?” Music connects us, he reasoned, and helps forge identity, generational and otherwise. 

“But music also offers an analogy for thinking about education itself,” he said. “It is at once individual and collective; it requires diligence and rewards mastery; it evolves and changes.” 

In the U.S., Elliott continued, authors have used musical metaphors to explain the promise and peril of democracy, from Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” to describe street opera to W.E.B. Du Bois who, in The Souls of Black Folk, started each chapter with a quotation from spirituals. 

A liberal arts education is something like music, said Elliott: “It should allow you self-expression, and a medium of connection—and it should also unearth difficult truths from the past; it should present to you unfamiliar and unnerving perspectives on the future. It will require you to listen.”   

In a speech that quoted Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, 2023 Commencement speaker Quentin Jeyaretnam ’23, and (without naming them) some students now sitting inside Johnson Chapel, Elliott also talked about imposter syndrome and the perils of perfectionism. 

“During your time at Amherst, I can assure you that you will write subpar essays—I surely did—and your professors, like mine, will let you know,” said Elliott, who graduated from Amherst in 1992. “And on the other side of that experience will not be failure, not be shame, but something else: learning.” 

Elliott also cited the era the students are living in, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court has “weighed in on what factors a college can consider when admitting a student,” he said, and how often a “hot take on college admissions” can be found in the media, too. 

This is also, he said, a moment when books are being banned from library shelves and removed from curricula, and when authors who write about charged topics “are being shunned, because they create discomfort.” 

Then he quoted Toni Morrison: “Fear of unmonitored writing is justified because truth is trouble.” Facing the truth is messy, even dangerous, said Elliott: “Or, to return to the metaphor of music, it means listening carefully to songs, instruments, voices, even when you don’t recognize the tune.” 

After the speech, the class of 2027 would leave Johnson Chapel for the main quad, jeweled with hundreds of luminaria under the night sky. But right before that, the crowd ended Convocation by singing “Hymn to Amherst,” following the lyrics printed in the program. 

The first-year students sang gamely, if a bit stilted. After all, they were new to the melody.

Convocation 2023

September 4, 2023

During Convocation, President Elliott and the faculty welcome the students to Amherst College, and recently promoted professors are awarded honorary Amherst College degrees.