2017 Commencement Address by President Biddy Martin

May 21, 2017

In a world full of “serial monologues, talking heads endlessly repeating themselves, and hate-filled rants,” “practice forms of friendship that match the complexity of the world and can address its complex problems,” President Martin urged the class of 2017.

Want audio only?

Loading the player...


Transcript of 2017 Commencement Address by Biddy Martin

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Class of 2017, congratulations! In just a few minutes each one of you will walk across this stage to receive your diploma. I have enjoyed signing all 482 of them. Yes, it takes a while and sometimes my hand forgets how to link the two “Ds” in Biddy; those have to be done over. But I have come to love this part of the ritual. I like to read each of your names. I like to say your names silently to myself. I am taken by the beauty of the many languages, the many places, and many cultures from which you arrived here, and by who you are as people. Going through your diplomas, one at a time, gives me a chance to think about you. 

Your achievements and distinctions are far too numerous to list. Among your greatest achievements, I am sure, is the learning and growing you have done with one another—the kind that Amir [Hall] has spoken of so beautifully this morning. There are a significant number of national scholarship winners among you. Of the 16 Fulbrights won by Amherst students this year, 12 of you are walking today. You will be teaching and doing research in countries all over the world. Amherst was the only college or university in the United States to have three winners of the coveted Watson Fellowships, and the three of you who received those fellowships will travel widely and study: the musical cultures of Muslim majority communities—Tomal [Hossain]; women’s experience of motherhood in situations of dislocation and statelessness—JinJin [Xi]; and masquerade performance in West Africa—Sheila [Chudwulozie].

Among the qualities I most admire about you is the way you support one another. After Senior Assembly, a number of faculty members and administrators and staff commented on how loud your applause and shout-outs were as the Senior Assembly prizes were announced. You have a done a great deal to build community and institutions here at Amherst. Again, far too much for me to mention everything. Two of you, to give an example, established an organization for first generation students and you did it four years ago when you were first-year students—Sophie Delfeus and Micah Stewart. Thank you. Kim Greenberg and Elizabeth White created the Association of Women in Science mentoring program. Sam Chen worked to ensure there was programming and space on campus for our military veterans. Thank you, Sam. La Causa’s programming across the campus and the Five College area has been greatly enhanced by the creativity of Irma Zamora. Jamie Sandel has created what Paul Gallegos calls one of the “wonder pockets of talent” across the campus. Another of those pockets, of course, is in dance. I am thinking, in particular, of DASAC, Amherst’s Dance and Step group, and their spectacular performances; they have just celebrated their 15th year at Amherst College. 

You have carried forward Amherst’s longstanding commitment to writing, the freedom to express yourselves in writing, and to take issue—not just with the administration, but also with one another. Two of you started your own radio show on WAMH—Christine [Croasdaile] and Christin [Washington]. The list could go on and on; you will have to forgive me for choosing only a few examples. 

Ultimate Frisbee, I am proud to say, is ranked fourth in the nation heading into this weekend’s nationals. Last year’s women’s Ultimate team made it to nationals. During your four years and because of your play, our athletics teams won 12 NESCAC titles and three national championships—in men’s soccer, men’s tennis and women’s basketball. 

So many of you have worked hard to change what needs to be changed at the College and you have shown that it can ultimately bring people together, rather than driving them apart. That work is not yet done, but you have contributed a great deal to it.

The world has changed in very significant ways since you arrived at Amherst. Those changes in the world you enter are economic, technological, social, political, cultural and they are only going to accelerate, with automation driving the speed of change. Automation will increase efficiency and bring other gains, no doubt; it will also continue to displace human beings and change the nature of work. You, who have been schooled in the liberal arts and in the arts of human friendship, will be the ones to help create not only new jobs but new job sectors, and a new relationship to work itself. You have talked often during your time here about your desire for changes in your own relationship to work—the importance, for instance, of finding moments of stillness, making time to reflect on what matters, setting the right priorities. 

What is the use of your liberal arts education in a world of such uncertainty and change? You know that people have wondered off and on for well over a hundred year, whether the liberal arts will survive and whether they are useful or not. Now they are going to ask whether the liberal arts can survive automation. And the answer is a clear “yes.” 

Liberal arts education is the form of education best suited to uncertainty and change. Why? Because it fosters intellectual versatility and teaches a range of approaches to solving problems. Its purpose has never been to prepare people for a specific job that may well disappear, or for a given career. Its purpose is to promote freedom of thought and the disciplined and dogged pursuit of truth. Truth matters.

No less visible a businessman than Mark Cuban has added his name to the list of leaders who have embraced the liberal arts. Just two or three days ago, when asked about finance and programming, he said: “I personally think there's going to be a greater demand over the next 10 years for liberal arts majors.” He added that automation will produce plenty of data, but can’t in itself provide a different view of the data, different perspectives on it. Automation may empty out the human at one level, but it is going to require us on another. It will be important, says Mr. Cuban, to have “freer thinkers” rather than those trained for specific jobs. Among the majors he cites as being desirable in the next 10 years: English and philosophy. Of course, he would also include the sciences, the social sciences, the computer sciences and the arts. As an English major, I felt compelled to emphasize the humanities. 

Listen, the creativity he has in mind, that he thinks the world of work needs and that the world needs more generally, is not based in particular majors or disciplines. It is in liberal arts values taken as a whole and in the learning that occurs when human beings from different backgrounds, with different perspectives come together, face-to-face, and learn from each other. As it happens, this is an experience of a set of skills—listening, coming together, being face-to-face with one another—that is sorely lacking in our democracy right now. The kinds of exchanges to which you aspire with one another and with your faculty, to which we all aspire here, and try to practice—knowing we do not always practice with perfect success--can be a model for public discourse. And so, residential liberal arts education has not only economic, or even primarily economic benefits, it has political and ethical ones.   

The seniors who have spoken on your behalf—Amir [Hall] today, Tess [Frenzel] and Seanna [McCall] at senior assembly—have all given moving testimony to the importance of our presence to one another and to friendship. Friendship seems to be a dominant theme for your class. In your wonderfully humorous ways you have reminded us of the faculty’s high expectations and even of their “scolding,” but also of their intense engagement with you and their devotion to your welfare. Their friendship. You have celebrated your relationships with one another for having gotten you through, not just your academic work, but also some of the most difficult personal experiences that any one of us can have in our lives. It is not possible to automate those relationships, or the values you exemplify and describe. Friendship flows from the kinds of humanity that education is meant to foster, and its value is incalculable, completely inefficient, and absolutely essential to individual flourishing and the health of communities. 

But in order for friendship to operate fully and fruitfully in the public sphere and not just in the private sphere, we have to broaden what we mean by that term. It can’t only be about seeking comfort, or gravitating toward those who are familiar to us or with whom we already agree. It has to encompass relationships of respect, understanding, and even affection between people who differ; it means working together in good faith across those differences toward solutions to the complex problems we face together. This is what we must all redouble our efforts to do. This is a harder form of friendship; it can also be the most rewarding. It is certainly necessary right now. 

The philosopher Hannah Arendt urges us to understand the political importance of friendship. The public world we have in common, unlike private friendships, she says, “remains inhuman in a very literal sense unless it is constantly talked about by human beings.” She continues: “The world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse,” and I would add, of honest disagreement. 

The significance of her point is apparent today in a world of serial monologues, talking heads repeating themselves over and over, and hate-filled rants, a world that is short on talk of partnership for the public good. Our studies in history and philosophy, in literature and politics, in every discipline, have shown that there can be no true civic life, there can be no true public life, and no democracy without friendship in this sense.

Many of you have worked hard to ensure that Amherst lives up to the value we place upon friendship as an ideal. The uprising has had many positive and lasting effects, among them a lesson in the importance of listening. It showed, among other things, how dependent we are on each other to help see what we otherwise cannot see, to understand what we do not yet understand, to appreciate what we have not yet learned to appreciate. 

Real friendship allows us to correct one another without giving offense. Friends give one another the benefit of the doubt and we can all learn to be more forgiving of one another. Friendship also observes limits. It does not allow us to do or say anything we want. We know what might be helpful and what would cause pain to our friends. That knowledge and the use of discretion make it possible for us to help one another grow, improve and love. Discretion is not so highly valued these days, but it is a key to living humanely and also to democracy. Friendship requires listening, taking genuine interest, making time and sometimes just being with one another. Being with one another—even when it is hard. It means being open to disagreement, being eager to repair rifts when they occur. We do this together every day, everywhere on this campus in conversation. Genuine learning is structured, to a very great degree, in face-to-face conversation. It is important that we make our conversation a laboratory in democratic give-and-take. 

I believe in the promise of residential education because I know that, on a private level, friendship makes our lives worth living. But also because we see the forms of deterioration when friendship as a public good is absent, when the full engagement of human beings with one another in the public sphere, in all our diversity, goes missing. We see that this absence threatens the principles that support democracy.

A community that does not know to practice the arts of friendship, that believes it has nothing in common but division, and nothing to gain from conversation is not community, and it probably cannot be a country either. Rigid divisions and the license to demean and dehumanize people on the so-called other side can eradicate our grounding principles, our sense of shared purpose, our hope of collaboration and our faith. 

We need to practice forms of friendship that match the complexity of the world and can address its complex problems. And so, it matters that each of you use your head and your hearts to try to find a basis for genuine connection, for shared meaningnot only with those with whom you are familiar and with whom you agree, but with those with and from whom you differ. 

One of today’s honorees, William Cronon, has argued that “liberal education aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.” And, in an essay entitled “Only Connect…The Goals of Liberal Education,” he gives substance to that definition by listing the 10 qualities he most admires in the people who exemplify the values of liberal arts education. I’ll give you the first three of those 10qualities. The first: they listen and they hear. It’s as simple and, as it turns out, as complicated, as that. The second: they read and they understand. The third: they can talk with anyone. It has never been more important that we be able to talk with anyone. “I think it’s worth declaring,” he says, “that educated people know how to pay attention—to others and to the world around them. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.” All these capacities are indispensable for informed and engaged citizenship. They are far too little in evidence today. 

The 10th of the 10 qualities Cronon most admires is the power and wisdom to connect.  He argues that freedom serves the purposes of connection as much as connection serves the purpose of freedom. 

Finally, in an argument that may seem controversial now in a way it did not in 1998 when he published his essay, Cronon concludes by suggesting “that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves.” Liberal education is the foundation that allows us to grow beyond ourselves and to do this good work.

We celebrate you today, your love of learning, your cultivation of friendship and all that you have contributed to Amherst College. I hope you will continue to make your voices heard, that you will elevate the kinds conversations you have with one another onto a more public stage, and that the friendships you made here will sustain you after you leave. I beg of you that you not yield to cynicism and despair. You cannot take for granted the things that we would all probably like to be able to assume.  We are seeing the fragility of human bonds, of democratic processes and of the earth itself.  That things cannot be taken for granted, but instead have to be made the object of inquiry, discourse and action is one of the lessons I hope you have learned here, so you see the fragility of things as an opportunity and a call to keep working toward change. 

I end as I always do, with a really short poem by the American poet, A.R. Ammons. It is called:

 “Salute.”

May happiness 
pursue you,

Catch you
often, and,

should it 
lose you,

be waiting 
ahead, making

a clearing
for you. 

Congratulations and thank you very much.