May 25, 2003
by President Frances D. Fergusson
The Vassar Class of 2003 holds a very special place in my heart. You’ve been a spirited, smart, interesting, and creative bunch ever since I first welcomed you to Vassar in August of 1999. Looking out at you today, I think about your diversity of interests and character, about the wonderful individuality and freedom of expression and self that Vassar encourages and lauds. Yet there you all are, dressed alike in your graduation robes, making a very different, but not incompatible, statement. You are, and you can continue to be, a common force for good, even as you remain strong individuals. To an unusual degree, Vassar has instilled in you a sense of responsibility for action in the world. From Vassar, do indeed come “the adventurers, the pioneers in curious fields, the radicals,” a characterization as true now as when it was first written in 1920.
On this occasion of commencement, I am welcoming you 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 stage, in the concert hall, on the courts and playing fields, asking the right and nuanced questions of the day, rendering leadership, working in the community, challenging Vassar to become even better and more engaged. I’ve enjoyed our times together, over pizza dinners in my house and gourmet dinners in your homes in the THs and the TAs. I’ve loved seeing and knowing your successes and cheering 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 your futures, certain that your Vassar education will give you both options and strength. You are smart and you are resourceful.
And you’ve had to be. Your four years at Vassar spanned two centuries and two world views. You entered the College at a time of national economic health, relative world peace, and optimism. A typical commencement address in 1999 or 2000 would have urged graduates, as I’m sure I did, to seek out the needs of the world, to see behind the affluence of their lives and to recognize, as Vassar graduates have always done, that there is much to improve. Now, of course, the tasks are truly daunting and the needs are evident and compelling. September 11th and the Iraq War have fundamentally changed our ideas about ourselves, our security, our country, and our place in the world. These events reverberate, horrify, invade our minds and shape our thoughts about the present and the future. They shall continue to do so.
It is some consolation, perhaps, that Vassar people are well equipped with resiliency, with fidelity to truth, and with a commitment to humane inquiry, all values that hark back to Matthew Vassar, a man of surprising originality and determination. It is worth remembering that he founded his college at a time of war, indeed at the very moment when the Civil War began. In April of 1861, Matthew Vassar staked out the ground for his new College on the very day of the fall of Fort Sumter. His was an act of unfettered optimism in a world torn asunder.
I think it can be difficult, in a time of trouble, to understand how people move forward with such spirit and determination, how it is that we do not all become discouraged and inanimate, or just focused on the here and now. You’ve heard me talk several times this year about my opposition to the war and to the rapid and progressive loss of our civil liberties—and you’ve heard me ponder how it is one continues in dissent, how one persists, when wars happen anyway, when civil liberties continue to be curtailed, and when environmental policies shift from protection to exploitation. You’ve listened, whether or not you agreed, and I have appreciated your indulgence. But my even more fundamental point has been that being fully human means taking stands, often bravely but always passionately. We should, if we really want to live life, engage the world in all its messy dimensions. Albert Camus wrote in Summer in Algiers in 1936: “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
Engage, then, with “the implacable grandeur of this life.” That perhaps seems a strange exhortation in a time of fear and conflict: where is that “implacable grandeur,” you might well ask. We find it all around us, and not just in the physical beauty of our natural world, so evident in the site we inhabit today, this magnificent outdoor theater. Just for a moment, let us engage the immediacy of this beautiful landscape, and think about what else is embodied around us. Your parents and grandparents are remembering today the moment when you were born, and all the dreams they had then for the person you would become. Over two decades later, here you are, and their hearts and minds are swelling with happiness. You are here, thinking of your families, but also filled with thoughts of your friends at Vassar, your professors and classes, of all you have learned, of good times, of challenging times, of the future so abruptly ahead and somewhat unknown. This place, this moment puts you within a continuum of history, of memories, of the here and now of this special time of celebration, and of the hopes and dreams you have for the future. The “implacable grandeur of this life” is truly found in this continuity of time and generations, in this simultaneous awareness of history and potential.
Granted, it is possible to live almost exclusively in the here and now, to take no responsibility for sustaining our personal or cultural history or for building, in big or smaller ways, the world of tomorrow. But what a terrible world that would be, the nightmare of the science fiction of anomie. This is, however, tragically, the reality of many minds today, minds that don’t respect the past, that find culture frivolous and unimportant, that reject the diversity of experience and tradition that makes our world so richly intricate.
We have seen so much recent destruction of our histories, and of cultural artifacts loaded with meaning, aspirations, and revelation. The Taliban wantonly destroyed the monumental Buddhas that had invigorated and sustained Afghani culture for hundreds of years. The World Trade Center, created with the intent of being a truly world center, became the symbolic target of those motivated by hatred of divergent world cultures. And, of course, most recently, we have wailed in anguish at America’s refusal to protect the Iraqi National Museum, the National Library and archeological sites from looting and destruction. It was, we know, the destruction not only of the Iraqi heritage, but also of our own, a savage cut into ourselves, a devastation of civilization allowed to happen in this unhappy cradle of civilization. The callousness of this failure and the horrifying inability of Donald Rumsfeld to comprehend the cultural meaning and historical magnitude of the loss speak of a leadership, without moorings, thinking only instrumentally.
I was in Mozambique in the early 1990s, in the midst of its civil war. The countryside was devastated and unsafe; villages, farms, and schools were gone; the capital city, Maputo, was ringed with the encampments of refugees, seeking some safety in a deeply dangerous situation. Food and clothing were scarce. These were people truly uprooted from the land, from the sustenance both of agriculture and of their tribal community cultures. Confronted with overwhelming needs, the Government was coping as best it could, endeavoring to provide the basics of food, shelter and water. But the refugees were sick of soul, as well as of body.
Rather improbably, the Government enlisted the help of the impoverished National Dance Theater of Mozambique, wonderful dancers classically trained in ballet by Alicia Alonso of the Cuban National Ballet. Mozambique, you may remember, was rigorously Communist and found its closest world partners in East Germany and Cuba. The dancers were sent into the refugee camps, where they learned the dances of the individual tribal cultures, rich in historical resonance and meaning. Then, after practicing and interpreting the dances, they brought them back to the camps as soul-lifting performances. Why, in the midst of civil war, did the Minister of Education, Sports, and Culture support this endeavor? Because, he said, when all else in gone, “Culture is the last refuge of the human soul.”
Indeed, culture is “the last refuge of the human soul.” Attachment to cultural roots is deeply nourishing. It instills hope when hope has been stolen. It places each of us profoundly within a continuum of human history, of our own specific history, of the broader lineage of our family, our community, our heritage, our country, our world. It makes us realize, no matter how dispiriting our current moment may be, that it is but a moment. If we were to view our lives as existing without preface or future impact, there would be no point to our human creativity, indeed to our existence. But in fact we live within a magnificent continuity of the hopes, dreams and constructions of each generation, of each person and of her or his ability to engage, act, and transform.
We must value and protect the past, even as we forge the future. Despite all that is happening today, this is a wonderful world you are entering. There is much that is good, much more that is possible. John Dewey once said, “To the being fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present like a halo.” Those mortar boards I see today are, I suppose, square halos. I look at you and I see the promise, the excitement, the commitment to positive change, all that we have so valued in you here at Vassar, now loosed upon the world. And I shall watch your futures with pride and pleasure.
I wish for each and every one of you the happiest and most fascinating of lives, filled with friends, partners, families, fulfilling work, passionate engagement, and meaningful action, as you explore and shape “the implacable grandeur of this life.”