May 26, 2002
Frances D. Fergusson
The Vassar Class of 2002 holds a very special place in my heart and mind. You've been a wonderful, interesting, creative bunch ever since I first welcomed you to Vassar in August of 1998. You're the class that equally spanned parts of two centuries and you are now also the class that spans two world views, pre- and post-September 11th. You have lived through a year of great historical consequence, a year when ideas about ourselves, our country and our place in the world have fundamentally changed.
On this occasion of commencement, and thanks to your good work and that of the faculty, I am welcoming you today to the company of educated women and men. Your professors sing your praises and tell me that you can be dazzling in the classroom. I've seen you dazzle in many settings: on the stage, on the courts and playing fields, in concerts, speaking in formal settings, rendering leadership, raising probing questions, working in the community, challenging Vassar to become ever better and more engaged. I've enjoyed your fellowship, over pizza dinners at my house and gourmet dinners at your homes in the THs and the TAs. I've loved seeing and knowing your successes and cheering with you when you received that fellowship, that job offer, that admission letter for graduate school. And I've loved, too, your willingness to step out in the world with a lot of questions unanswered about the future, certain that your Vassar education will give you both options and strength. You are smart, resourceful, and resilient.
This morning, before you leave, I want to talk with you about memory. Memory is the selective edition of your life. It is all you know, all that you have truly learned, all that you value, and also all that you curse and rue. Memory can help us make sense of a life well-lived or it can encase us in a hard carapace of hatred and vengeance. It can be the source of happy excursions of mind, or of painful reliving of past hurts that continue to choke our futures. Memory can keep us focused on the true north of our values and thus build our sense of an ethical self or it can make that ethical self almost impossible to achieve.
Memory establishes our histories, who we are and what we value. This morning, as you listen to me with one part of your mind, you are undoubtedly also distracted by a flood of memories of your time here. You are looking beyond me, across Sunset Lake, remembering daffodils in Spring, fireworks on Founder's Day, a quiet walk, a moment of silent introspection. In your mind's eye, there are images of your favorite places on this campus: the Library, the Shakespeare Garden, a bench, Skinner Hall, even a classroom or lab. Looking at your friends, alphabetically estranged from you at this crucial moment, you remember when you first met, perhaps as freshmen roommates, perhaps in a drama production, perhaps in a class or at a party. You remember, too, those incandescent moments of laughter, of intellectual discovery, of just good, warm fellowship, as well as those times of dealing with the tougher parts of growing older in a newly precarious world. I suspect that none of us shall forget our sense of community and mutual support in the days following September 11th. Memories inhabit us at times like this.
Our individual selective memories make it possible for us to make sense of a world that is otherwise chaotic and brimming with incident and history. Some historical moments never leave us. My college generation lived through the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My graduate school years were deeply affected by our nation's growing involvement in Vietnam; I was in Paris during the student protests of 1968 and in Prague that same year until two days before the Soviets re-entered and brutally ended the freedom and intellectual excitement of that joyous Spring. Fear, deep sorrow, the crushing of potential, the jeopardy and injustice of war: all of these are part of what I experienced when I was a student, and, sadly, what you, too, have experienced. You will always remember September 11th and an aftermath that is still veering from horror to horror, with no clear end in sight.
In the face of such trouble, what is one to do? I mentioned earlier Matthew Vassar's unfettered optimism in using his shovel to break ground for this nation's first college for women, at a time when shovels were more typically being used to dig trenches or to bury the dead of the civil war that sundered our country. I hearken back, with hope, to the determination of those of us coming of age in the 1960s to shape our country along different lines, to be vocal in our protest, to imagine ourselves in a new and better place. And I remind you of the hopes I expressed at Convocation, that we shall not mutely lose our civil liberties in the face of terrorism, that we shall not become a repressive nation that mimics the very totalitarianism we oppose.
How does this relate to memory? Milan Kundera has written that "like blows from an axe, important dates cut deep gashes into Europe's twentienth century." Although I don't agree with Kundera that that "century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person's life," the principle is correct: we define ourselves, personally and societally, by memories of certain key events and, ultimately, by our ability to be shaped by them or to reshape a future away from them.
We saw in Kosovo how ethnic hatreds, attached to historical wrongs six centuries old, perpetuated violence. We see today the futility and randomness of slaughter and the unending cycles of vengeance between Palestinians and Israelis, between Islamic fundamentalism and hegemonic capitalism. World views are shaped not just by the current moment, but by histories that will not go away, that make it impossible for one person to look at another as an equal human being, unfreighted by what an ancestor once did, or thought. It is too easy for countries, alliances, or individuals to think that we inhabit a world, forever determined by what has already happened, one that cannot change. We thus act on the basis of our memories, rather than envisioning a future with a quite different purpose, a quite different character than that to which we seemed doomed by our history.
We all know individuals to whom some great hurt has occurred. Indeed, in virtually every life, there will be a monumental unfairness, a bitter divorce or separation from a long-loved partner, an unimaginable loss within a deeply held cause. We all know people who allow the memory of those hurts fully to inhabit their minds, who allow those hurts to become the single motivation for their actions. In short, they have allowed bitter memories to invade them so completely that the present becomes nothing but the replay of the past, parallel to the warring factions of Kosovo, or to the ongoing hatreds of the Palestinians and Israelis. The need to prove the rightness of one's position overcomes even the instinct for self-preservation, and people descend into an absence of hope, the belief that hurts are perpetual.
Some historians here at Vassar as elsewhere talk about the importance of a "usable past," one that enlightens, not one that determines. Personally and societally, that is the proper use of memory, as a means of understanding and constructing a better course of action. We need constantly to recollect those values and experiences that sustain us, even as we come to grips with the horrors visited upon our personal and national lives.
I hope that your years at Vassar will encourage you to construct active and positive lives. You and we have worked hard to create a society here at Vassar that might well be a model, however imperfect, for our larger world. We value and engage our differences in all their dimensions, not abstractly, but concretely, because we know that diversity is a precondition for excellence. We revere our history, but we most revere the boldness of vision that brought this college into being. We enjoy our traditions, because they place us in the wonderful continuum of history, but we use our moments of tradition to reflect upon the present and plan the future. We find the compelling beauty of our campus an apt metaphor for the immense beauty we find in history, in literature, in the arts, in the workings of nature, and in the minds and actions of people and societies. We know that the educated mind is knowledgeable of history but not mired in it is the very best hope we have of finding our way successfully into the future. A line from Pericles' characterization of the Athenians is inscribed in the outdoor classroom near Ely Hall: "For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting too."
I hope you will all take from Vassar a zest for radical experimentation and a determination to think creatively before you act and to act decisively, too. I urge you to accept the responsibilities of the educated mind, along with its benefits. We can construct our futures and we can help others to construct theirs. In this task, you will know that memory plays a critical part but it should never be the single determinative part of both what is and what can be. Memory is there to direct our understanding and to reassure us of our connection to the flow of time and to our personal touchstones: our families and friends, this college, and the civil societies of our nation and our world. We can then move out from these touchstones with determination and great effect.
I wish for each and every one of you the happiest and most fascinating of lives, filled with friends, partners, families, fulfilling work, passionate commitments and meaningful action.