Opening Convocation 2004: “Founding Ideals and Current Threats”

Anthony W. Marx
Hear audio of President Marx's address

Anthony W. Marx
President of Amherst College
Johnson Chapel
Monday, September 6, 2004

We begin again.

This year the college community as a whole will begin formally to deliberate on the future directions and priorities of the college, focusing on a set of connected issues about which discussion has already begun.

Building on our pride in our alumni and current students, and maintaining our academic standards, can we not become even more representative in our admissions, particularly as to economic and global backgrounds? I have argued that we should, for our own education, for broadened opportunity and for the fulfillment of the college’s historic mission.

A second, related question is: How can the college as an institution, the faculty and—our most powerful resource—you, the students, further engage in public service, particularly in public education? In the years to come I will argue that we must–to inform our learning, teaching and scholarship, to fulfill our social responsibilities and to inspire that service for a lifetime.

Third: With analysis, teaching and scholarship that cut across disciplines, how shall we confront the issues of our day, from public education to the environment, from human rights to global tensions? I suggest that, to prepare you for a lifetime of such engagement, we can develop new curricula that address the times we live in and draw from the strengths of our scholarship, the breadth of our service and the experience of our alumni.

We have great work to do. I know that the college’s trustees, staff and alumni look forward to joining the faculty and the students in debating these issues.

Still, at the core of what we do, at the heart of Amherst, remains the gathering of small groups of discerning students with great scholars and teachers. In this ancient format our most pressing work is done: To shape leaders on whom our fate rests. For you, as entering students, our intention is nothing less than to shake you to the core and to pry open your minds.

I remember what I felt like as an 18-year-old. I remember stumbling out of a classroom or faculty office with a headache of new proportions. We teachers aim to give you those headaches. And we get them ourselves, as my old professor Louis Mink used to say. I remember those headaches now all too well, having had myself the classic Amherst summer experience of preparing a new course, preparing to give those headaches. We, your teachers, stretch ourselves, over and over, to provide an ever-broader foundation of understanding for you and for ourselves.

The faculty are ready. For as we prepare anew, we think and re-think. We examine the ancient and the new for insights into our own pasts and into the solutions we need for the present and future. Here we find and share exhilaration. We are ready to mix it up in the classroom with you. We are excited for you to be joining us, for together we can be the antidote, the antibiotic to much of what now threatens our body politic.

Forgive the extension of this metaphor, but allow me to add a warning label on the side of this liberal arts antibiotic: Failure to complete the dosage may leave the illness unchecked and the mind dulled by fevers. And in these threatening times—when maladies of indolence and alienation, of cowardly obsession and false assumption, of denigration and coercion, of pandering to the lowest un-common denominator, threaten the body politic—what we, your community, most need is your best ideas. We need your minds, expanded and engaged.

The liberal arts, what we do here together, is the only possible cure for the speciousness that infects much of our society’s thinking today and threatens us all. I am concerned here not with the threats from outside, real as those are, but with the threat of how we understand ourselves and respond: with those insidious threats from within that are fundamental but, happily, also more responsive to our examination and remedy. Let me attempt an example.

Earlier this year, Samuel Huntington, my distinguished colleague in political science, the Weatherhead University Professor at Harvard and the former president of the American Political Science Association, published his newest book. I have engaged with Professor Huntington’s scholarship for my entire academic career and did so again this summer in preparing to teach, reading his new work, titled Who Are We? I have always believed that powerful ideas should be confronted and challenged, rather than dismissed or eliminated. And in this era of national uncertainty, “faced with unprecedented diversity here at home and challenges abroad,” the question that Huntington asks could not be more timely or compelling. It has always been the central question of politics. And in answering it, Professor Huntington addresses our anxieties: Is our national identity static or dynamic? Are we a nation defined by ideas or by supposedly fixed characteristics? His answers, in my view, could not be more dangerous, for our society and for the liberal arts.

The American creed, our core beliefs, include the dignity and practicality of equal rights and equal opportunity for us all. The result is, or should be, a society that works hard and argues freely. I agree with Professor Huntington that our founding as a country was inspired by this great creed, by the ideal that all “are created equal” and endowed with “inalienable rights.” It does not diminish that creed to acknowledge that even at our founding it was compromised, with some deprived of rights solely based on their groupings as women, Native Americans or blacks. The tension between inclusive ideals and prejudicial exclusion was there at the very start and remained. We have never fully lived up to our grand ideals, but we have been inspired in the attempt, burnishing our creed all the more. To the extent our nation strives, we are pushed by our ideals and by the people excluded; continually we have been broken open, then healed in searing experience.

This nation was not born united by our creed of equal rights and opportunity but fitfully became more united by aspiring to it. Amherst College itself was founded in an early phase of that aspiration. We are a product of the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s, a movement for reform, animated partly by demands for peace, education and abolition of servitude, which today our nation still has not fully satisfied. The college, like the nation, continues to strive for greater achievement of those founding ideals.

Rather than identify a national journey toward understanding and achievement of our great founding ideals, Professor Huntington sees now deterioration. Much as he admires our creed, he concludes that it cannot sufficiently define and unite us. The liberal vision of the Enlightenment, of ideas as central to our identity, is for him not enough. Professor Huntington argues that our best, our founding ideas alone do not unify us, and thus that we must unite around culture, in particular the Anglo-Protestant culture of our founders. Indeed, this culture contributed much, including our founding. But our founders never intended for that culture to define us, much as they eschewed inherited power. They understood that we had to be defined by our ideals and by the rules they labored to establish for refining and enacting those ideals.

Huntington underestimates this idea of a continuous founding. Instead, he concludes that only the emotions of ethnic allegiance can suffice to unify a people. For Huntington, the essential genetics of a nation’s birth remain fixed, with early settlers somehow superior to subsequent immigrants, who must assimilate to that fixed identity. Mexican Americans today, he fears, do not so assimilate. Like all forms of diversity, retaining Spanish or other languages, in his view, is not an addition to our cultural capital but a threat to our national culture. The educational deficits of immigrants are theirs alone, not part of our failings as a society. And although immigrants do so much of our work, they, he argues, do not share the national work ethic. I disagree.

Professor Huntington’s vision is of an America without most of its modern additions, a return to a homogeneous past that is itself fantasy, akin to the bizarre logic of eugenics. He advocates assimilation that whitens dark immigrants and somehow leaves unchanged an Anglo core, as if white genes were superior; as if an unchanging core were preferable, without need for improvement or change. This chauvinism, akin to that of the past, has returned, cloaked in academic respectability.

His attack on Latinos is part and parcel of Huntington’s more general thrust: Since we are defined not by founding ideals but by a culture, we have to defend that culture, united and bound by opposition to others. In a world of fears, it is tempting to turn those fears against targets closer to home. For Professor Huntington, we need such enemies to enhance our cohesion. And indeed, cohesion usually has been so enhanced by antagonism. History teaches us that all too well, though it also teaches us the costs.

For my colleague, then, the ideal is an American unity defined and refined in antagonism to others, those who differ here at home or abroad, be they Latino or Muslim. Preferably, he implies, such a unity is to be achieved with a minimum of sacrifice or service. At this conclusion the argument almost seems unworthy of response. But these are the times we live in. And to respond is our duty and the duty of the liberal arts.

Samuel Huntington has given voice again to a deep and dark strain of fear from America’s past. He advocates order and unity based on a fixed culture rather than on ideals and rules. Indeed, our founding creed inspires the guarantee of rights and the inclusion of those he doubts can be included, and so he falls back instead on the nativist flaw also evident at our founding. Professor Huntington imagines a static national identity that must now take priority over, or even eclipse, our founding ideals and the various rich identities that other Americans have celebrated as part of our history. But history, whether or not so simplified, never provides such immutable identity. Our goal, as participants in history, is not to resist change but rather to shape it; direct the forces we apprehend within it. As Canute the Great proved, he who commands the ocean to stop is a fool, overtaken by the tide.

History and the liberal arts teach us that change comes and that we can and must work within it, in accord with ideals—the ideals of justice, fairness and compassion we inherit. I recognize that political ideas, or ideology, have not always sufficed to hold together other societies, most recently the Soviet Union, but not all such ideas have the same value. I believe that the American idea of equal rights and opportunity, as our continued inspiration and goal, does define us. The United States of America is a great idea, continually unfolding. And we refine America’s ideals as we bring them into play with the rapid and often violent changes we face.

We can debate profitably about how to understand our founding ideas—as original text, as natural laws, or as emerging constructions. But when we cross the line from parsing idealsto prescriptions of cultural superiority, we have moved beyond what the Enlightenment or liberal arts can countenance, into a treacherous reasoning that has wrought horrors upon peoples for ages. There we must draw the line, together. We are and must be defined and united by what we believe in—not by some obsolete reverence for one culture—even as we celebrate our ancestry.

As heirs to the Enlightenment, we of the liberal arts are called now to defend again the power of ideas, inclusive and dynamic, over the crabbed assertions of cultural superiority. As scholars and students, as workers with ideas, we know and wield their power to move us, and must resist the siren call of blood claims.

In doing my homework this summer, preparing for a new class, reading classics and great modern works of history and theory, I have been reminded of this calling, of the one overwhelming truth with which to confront the fearful reaction Huntington represents. Our progress as a species has always rested on a commitment to ideals and on spurts of creativity from unfamiliar sources that refine those ideals.

For me, that was the lesson of reading again in the great works of Homer, Plato, the Scriptures, the Koran, Confucius, Hobbes, the Constitution—all breakthroughs of thought. From these varied quarters are distilled the ideals we come to cherish and apply to new predicaments, even as we also embrace new ideas. The past alone does not fix the future; we are not bound in this way by an essential culture. Ideas are our lifeblood, our salvation. As Jonas Salk reminded us, the evolution and survival of the species rests now upon such intellectual and moral advances rather than on physical mutation.

America has been built by such advances, by refinements upon our founding. We should be proud that we have fought for progress and freedom often. But we have also resisted change when we should not have. When we fear pluralism as the enemy, succumb to the allure of a seeming emotional unity, or seek to enforce a meretricious purity of culture over rationalism and diversity, we turn cruel, whether or not we are conscious of it. Circling against those whom we deem savage, we risk becoming ourselves the barbarians.

Friends, we live in a world afraid, a world on fire. We fear those even at home who seem different; we fear that they are our enemies, and we are tempted to deny their humanity, their interests, their struggles with change as it appears to them. Let us not, in response, ourselves turn defensive, dogmatic, assuming ourselves chosen above others.

I believe, Amherst believes, that our salvation lies here, in the liberal arts, in the questions that we learn to ask as we learn from our past, exchange views and find our way forward. We need never be driven by fear, never. Always we have a choice, always. We can choose to be inspired by the ideals we uphold here, debated and refined: ideals of inclusive civil debate; of rational, informed inquiry; of creative intuition; of reasoned analysis; and of rigorous, compassionate attention to the world. The need is great.

Let us begin again.

Welcome to Amherst College.