Commencement Address 2014

President Biddy Martin

May 25, 2014

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And now for your relatively uncontroversial Commencement speaker.

In the poem we just had the pleasure of hearing Dick Wilbur read, the seed leaves are caught between the lure of the embryonic and the wish to be boundless, timeless, unburdened by the necessity of self-definition or “the doom of taking shape.”  I imagine that many of you feel somewhat torn today—that you relish what you’ve achieved and accomplished at Amherst, that you look forward to the next phase, yet also feel some anxiety about the decisions and the surprises and the challenges that await you. Maybe you even wish you could leap across time to your ultimate destination, or that you could stay put. But what the poem calls “the great universe” awaits you, and it needs you.

You came to Amherst still unformed, thrown into an environment of your choosing, but not of your making, your own form yet to be seen. You wanted a new sense of freedom, but you also wanted a sense of rootedness. And you were blessed with the opportunity while also being doomed to the project of taking shape, making choices, recognizing your limits, recognizing the limits and the strengths of others. It can be difficult to find your way in a new place with new people. Some of you initially found it more difficult than others, through no fault of your own. But you leave so different from the people you were when you entered, by virtue of your education and by virtue of your friendships. Each one of you has extended yourself, discovered your intellectual passions, acquired critical skills and become more fully who you are. Your self-definition and self-directedness, as it turns out, are not limitations but openings onto the world, as the poem’s wonderful last line makes clear. I’ll read it:

“And now the plant, resigned to being self-defined before it can commerce with the great universe takes aim at all the sky and starts to ramify.”

In an online reading of this poem that I found, Dick Wilbur explains that the pleasure of being a poet lies in taking language back to its roots. In the particular case of the word ramify, he points out that it’s now used in professional and business settings, where people speak of the ramifications of this or that problem. But, if we take ramify back to its roots, he says, we see an emphasis not so much on outcomes or warnings about consequences; the emphasis is on the process of growth itself. Ramify, at its root, refers to the process of branching out, extending, becoming more complex, taking shape as you take aim. The purpose of your education at a place like Amherst is not to determine the shape you will take—that is, it’s not Amherst’s role to determine what shape you will take—but to provide an environment in which you can ramify. And you have done a remarkable job of using the resources you’ve found at this college.

Let’s pause just for a moment and look at who you are as a class.

There are 480 of you. That’s the equivalent of 1.3 percent of the Town of Amherst, 1.46 percent of all Amherst graduates, .00015 percent of the population of the United States. That’s humbling.

You will earn the 32,375th through the 32,855th degrees from Amherst College. Your positive impact will greatly outstrip the numbers.

You came from 372 different high schools, transferred from 18 different colleges; you hail from 35 different states and 23 different countries.

The most common first name among you is Daniel. The most common last name among you is Lee. There are no Daniel Lees, so don’t get excited.

You took a total of 14,780 courses. 77 percent of you took a language class; 41 percent of you took a poetry class—yes! Good. (That was 41 percent of you clapping.) 14 percent took a music lesson.

Here are the top majors among the Class of 2014: economics, English, psychology, political science and mathematics. That’s a wonderful spread for a liberal arts college. Proud of you.

The total time you spent in Amherst classrooms, as a class: 71 years, five months, two days, 17 hours and 52 minutes. And I hope no one class felt like that amount of time.

Among you are the authors of 188 senior theses. Having been party to the discussions of the summa theses, when the Committee of Six discussed them, hearing know how creative, how sophisticated, how impressive your theses are. I had time to read one thesis this spring, out of interest in the subject, and it was a marvel: a thesis about the philosopher Hannah Arendt, written by Nica Siegel.

Among you there are a number of national fellowship award winners, including a Churchill Scholarship that will allow Christopher Finch, a member of our hockey team, to study plant biotechnology at Cambridge next year—yeah. Nancy Tang was named a Carnegie Junior Fellow for research on Southeast Asia at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C.

The creativity and imagination of our students yields more than one Watson Fellowship virtually every year, and there are two of these prestigious Watson Fellows in your class: Gus Greenstein will study displacement and resettlement effects on communities in dam-affected areas in India, Chile, Paraguay and Thailand. Meghna Sridhar will travel to Southeast Asia, Italy and South Africa to study how and why the Sanskrit epic Ramayana has been adapted by and adopted into so many cultures, how it has achieved such global appeal. We had two finalists for Marshall Scholarships.  Yes—congratulations.

We had 12 Fulbright winners, doing the following sorts of things, which I think all of us would like to do: study Schoenberg in Vienna; teach American history in Beijing; study stained-glass restoration in France; teach English in Vietnam, Turkey, Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, Morocco.

Men’s tennis won its second national championship.

As to the ways that you will branch out when you leave here:

The results of the senior survey you filled out about your plans—which is now a little bit old, the information—suggests that two-thirds of you anticipate working for pay this next year. Don’t laugh; the rest of them are doing some great things: 17 percent will attend graduate or professional school full-time; several of you are starting your own companies or your own organizations. As many of you know, over 80 percent of Amherst graduates go to graduate or professional school within five years of graduation. But for those headed directly to graduate school in the fall, 88 percent, at the time of the survey, had one or more acceptances, and by this morning, it’s no doubt closer to 100 percent. The universities with two or more of our graduates enrolling include Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Boston College—those are four of them, with Harvard having double the number of any other. Harvard gets our best. I don’t know what we should think about that, but it is what it is.

Among your employers for next year, just to give you a sense: Action for Development, Bain & Co., Barclays, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Broad Institute, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Goldman Sachs, Google, J.P. Morgan, LinkedIn, Mass General Hospital, Mississippi Teacher Corps, the NIH, the Norfolk Southern Railway, the Phoenix Charter School, a religious action center for Reform Judaism, Teach For America and the French embassy. These are only a few.

The percentage of you who talked to Amherst alumni about opportunities after graduation: 62 percent. That’s remarkable. I hope it was helpful.

So, I could choose so many of you to show what remarkable paths this particular class has marked out at Amherst. You’ve excelled at a broad curriculum while composing music, including music for an entire show; playing in the Symphony Orchestra, the Jazz Combo, or one of the many other wonderful ensembles at Amherst; you have sung in the Concert Choir or one of our talented a cappella groups; performed improv with Mr. Gad’s; you’ve excelled in debate. You’ve combined your academic success with 16 NESCAC championships in athletics, national prominence in Ultimate Frisbee, a great showing at the Model U.N.—yes, wonderful things. You’ve combined academic work with thousands of hours of community service. You’ve founded and written for blogs. You’ve written for The Amherst Student, The Indicator, and some yet to be revealed wrote for The Muck-Rake. You’ve written your own novels. You’ve written and performed in your own plays. You’ve brought hundreds of speakers to campus. You’ve written love on your arms. You’ve performed random acts of kindness. And some of you have done these things while dealing with bouts of loneliness and depression; some of you have suffered awful losses while at Amherst and have succeeded nonetheless. Some of you have succeeded brilliantly while dealing with physical and emotional challenges that no one else knew about or ever will. Some of you contended with the corrosive effects of other people’s ignorance or insensitivity. Some of you found yourselves less well served by the college than you had a right to expect.

You have persevered. You have flourished.

In response to hardships you faced, you’ve not only done well academically. You have helped inspire a national movement to end sexual assault on campuses. In response to other urgent challenges, you have organized to address the human causes of rapid climate change. You have advocated for immigration reform. You have insisted on greater openness to a wider range of political perspectives. You have promoted the moose as a mascot. Not all of your efforts and achievements made headlines, but the many things you’ve done, against incredible odds at times, are truly remarkable.

Despite all the emphasis these days on measurable outcomes and returns on investment, neither we nor you, and not even Nate Silver, can fully measure the impact that your educational experience has already had or ultimately will have. The benefits of a liberal arts education, which involve the work of taking shape, take time to make themselves felt, to ramify, which is a compounding process. Learning to think broadly and deeply, to enjoy complex pleasures and to be adequate to honest forms of intimacy may not attract notice or awards. It may not draw thousands of “likes” on Facebook; it may not fit into a 140-character tweet or set the record for the number of re-tweets. But these things are essential to a good life, and they are essential to the good of the whole. Learning, giving and deepening take cultivation and they take time, and then, on their own timing, they ramify.

It has been a joyful time at Amherst, during your four years, but also a trying time—a time during which we’ve faced a number of challenges. I am thinking about the disappointments that some of you have expressed with aspects of social life on campus; your experience of how challenging it can be to build community with people from backgrounds so different from your own, especially when the forces that divide us are so much larger than anything we control at Amherst College. I have in mind a charged political atmosphere, at times, that some of you thought inhibited debate and shut things down just when understanding was most urgent. I’m also thinking about conflicts over governance and decision-making and questions about how authority ought to play out in a complex institution that values shared governance but is also hierarchical, and where decisions of principle sometimes get decided at a level that will not have seemed adequately to include you. I am, of course, also thinking about the failures on the part of a few to observe or respect other people’s boundaries and the sexual assaults that some in this class, regrettably, have suffered but have also survived.

Because we care deeply about Amherst College and are sometimes insular in our thinking, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking these problems are unique to Amherst. Amherst students, some people say, are more awkward; Amherst faculty are more demanding; Amherst administrators are more clueless. (The last might be true, I realize!) But in fact, the challenges we have faced at Amherst are the effects of larger forces, and that’s why it matters how we deal with them; that’s why it matters how we talk to one another about them; —that’s why it matters, I think, that I bring them up today. It matters for the college how we deal with them, and it matters, more importantly, for the impact you’re going to have out in the world. Problems do not begin and end at the doors of the college.

Amherst is proudly an elite institution committed to reflecting the realities of our differences in background and outlook; we intentionally bring together people with different, sometimes disparate ideas, values and traditions in the strong belief that we can learn from one another. We can become friends with one another. Amherst College is a crucible in which all the elements of large-scale change in our society are mixed in a relatively small vessel; Amherst is well prepared to deal with some of those changes, less well prepared to deal with others. The only way forward, in the face of imperfections in how we deal with things, is to acknowledge mistakes, realize that we cannot control everything and hold ourselves accountable for doing better. Amherst is not a bubble. It creates wonderful clearings for us all, but it is not a bubble. It is not a thing apart. It is not immune to the problems that plague the rest of the world. The figurative uses of the word crucible include “gauntlet” and “test of faith.” You may, some of you, have sometimes felt that you were running a gauntlet, or that your faith was tested. But I hope everything we’ve experienced—the great, the good, the difficult, even the terrible—will ultimately ramify in ways that serve us all.

Amherst is a community that values thinking, that values informed debate and lively intellectual exchange. It is full, and you are full, of decency, earnestness and respect. The college is committed to helping you develop those qualities. And whatever else may be true, the thing I love best about what I hear from you is your joy in your academic experience and in your friendship with one another and with your faculty. It is always readily apparent, even in surprising moments. Even in the face of bitter disappointment, about 10 days ago, a leader in one of the underground fraternities, in conversation with the board chair, asserted that he could not imagine having had a better academic experience anywhere in the world. The lifelong friendships you have made with one another, the intellectual friendships you have formed with faculty and they with you, the faculty’s high expectations of you and their hopes for your happiness and success—these things are the heart and soul of the Amherst enterprise and the grounds for believing that great education can make a difference.

I hope you will take your decency, your earnestness, your gratitude and your hard work out into a world badly in need of all of those qualities, a world in which it is too easy to be cynical, to express outrage and to rip things apart from the safe and cowardly confines of anonymous blogs or comments section. We better ways of combining individual success with concern for the good of the whole. We need political systems and forms of governance with more collaboration and good will, more informed and carefully argued debate, and less knee-jerk adversarial posturing, less opposition for its own sake and less unwarranted attributions to others of evil motives. I hope you will cultivate a capacious enough intellect and a generous enough heart to want to understand, rather than merely unmask, other people.

Our goal is not to create bubbles that shield us from the world, but, to cite Nietzsche, to pick up the tools where they lie, take risks and work for something better—not expecting perfection, but making good use of the clearings that open up for us. Clearings help us get leverage on the more difficult times. I remember when I was a Ph.D. student in Madison, Wis., feeling overworked, overwrought and convinced I would never be that stressed-out again in my life. One day, I went to one of my dissertation advisors, and I said to her, to Elaine Marx, “Elaine, I can’t wait to get through all of this, into the clearing.”

“Ah,” she said, not given to obfuscation, “there is no clearing. There is no clearing, Biddy—not one in which you can dwell.”

There are clearings, I would say, but they are not extensive in time or space; they are not permanent or static. Like other good things, they require more of us, than passive waiting. They require—again, Richard Wilbur—that we accept the doom of taking shape and that we also extend ourselves as take aim at the sky. Just remember: “there are cracks in everything,” a line from a Leonard Cohen lyric that Professor Sitze sent to me a few weeks ago, and which he rightly characterized as exquisite. Let me quote the lines he sent me in full:

“Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.”

Your education will have taught you how to use the cracks of light to—again, Wilbur—“commerce with the great universe.”

Your education here is a well-earned treasure. Celebrate what you have achieved and ramify.

I close with a short poem by A.R. Ammons. It’s called “Salute”:

“May happiness pursue you,

Find you often,

And should it lose you,

Be waiting ahead

Making a clearing.”

Thank you, and congratulations!