May 23, 2004
President Frances D. Fergusson
It is deeply moving—indeed, profoundly nostalgic—to see the wonderful Class of 2004 gathered together in these very last moments of your undergraduate years at Vassar. I vividly remember greeting you in the Chapel in the fall of 2000. As I spoke my words of welcome that day, I silently contemplated how each of you would make your mark on Vassar—and, also, how the College would make its mark on you. That was a moment of hope and of promise.
I can now say that our hopes and your promise have been fulfilled. Individually, I’ve come to know many of you—indeed, to forge friendships that will persist and grow in the years ahead. I’ve watched your individual achievements with pleasure and gratitude, as you’ve dazzled us in the classroom, on stage, in community work, on the playing fields and courts, in your creative endeavors and in the amazing fullness of your extracurricular lives. You’ve found your place here—and made Vassar your home. It’s a better home because of all you’ve done. We come together this morning filled with collective pride for the Class of 2004, and deeply grateful for all you’ve achieved and for your ongoing membership in the Vassar family.
There have been so many good times, times both public and quietly private that you will remember for the rest of your lives. You’ve helped the College think through thorny issues and moved us forward on our plans and dreams. We’ve together, at my house, enjoyed pizza dinners, and, at your TAs, gourmet dinners, including a memorable artichoke risotto and fantastic enchiladas – not at the same dinner, I should add. I’ve loved knowing your successes and being so proud when you received that fellowship, that job offer, that admission letter for graduate school. And I’ve admired, 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. The smart, resourceful, creative and spirited class of 2004 is quite rightly being welcomed today to the company of educated women and men. Individually and collectively, you are a force to be reckoned with. When I look at you today, I think of the words about Vassar that were written in 1920, true today as they were then: “From Vassar come the adventurers, the pioneers in curious fields, the radicals.”
Well, perhaps one needs to be adventurous, pioneering, and, yes, radical, to negotiate this new century, this new world. It has been four eventful years. You began at Vassar as our first class entirely of the 21st century. Saying good-bye to the 20th century had not been hard: it was a time of two world wars, of genocides, of the epidemic of AIDs, of harrowing economic and social inequities at home and abroad. The new century dawned with a strong American economy and relative peace in most of the world. We believed that the troubles we still faced just might be effectively addressed through concerted action, through scientific advances, and through young people like you, privileged, as you are, by your education and committed to social change.
September 11th and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have fundamentally changed those suppositions and, indeed, all our ideas about ourselves, our security, our country, and our place in the world. These events invade our minds and shape our thoughts and actions in a world now vastly different from what I would have imagined for you four years ago. It is a significant consolation that Vassar has equipped you with resiliency, with the resolve to act humanely, and with an intellectual and personal devotion to moral inquiry and moral action. More than most generations before you, you need, however, to fill your personal arsenal with a huge reserve of optimism: if we are not to be frozen into inaction, we must believe that our efforts can create a better world.
I have thought so much about what I want to tell you on this occasion, writing very different speeches in my mind about how to live a good and useful life in a quite disastrous world. In some ways, these divergent speeches have coalesced and so I shall subject you to my synthesis of the personal and the political, of advice for good living and advice for worthy action. As we know, lives are a synthesis of many parts, of often-competing longings to do more for yourself, for those you love, and for the world you inhabit. There is, for all of us, both urgency and a profound lack of time.
Let’s begin with the here and now: this magnificent place, this day, this hour. In the passage of time that flies by all of us, this moment will remain with you, because it embodies so much of your personal history: your parents and grandparents are recalling two decades of their dreams of the person you would become and are swelling with pride and happiness to see you at this wonderful moment today. You are thinking of both past and future: families, friendships, the world beyond Vassar, as well as the world that you are leaving, but cannot forget. Memories and dreams are interlaced.
And, at this very same, deeply evocative moment in your personal history, you are also part of larger traditions and of a broader history. History is the story of what happened to and by you and your contemporaries, and to and by others before you, mediated by what we choose to remember or choose to attach importance. It is the mechanism by which we make sense of all that has occurred. Tradition speaks to those habits of behavior to which we give special honor and, which we therefore repeat over time. Taken together, as forces within a broader culture, history and tradition create what we experience as a shape to our common lives, and a meditation on what we most value.
There is, of course, no moment more charged with tradition than a Commencement. In common with commencements around the world, the graduates and the faculty sit in flowing robes and curious caps whose origins are easily traced to late medieval times, altered just a trifle by the Renaissance and by some scarily modern synthetic materials. Common to many American graduations is the music we play, the elegant heritage of more recent centuries. And unique to Vassar is our compelling tradition of the Daisy Chain, honoring our graduates with a lovely ceremonial procession, an honor guard, as it were. Finally, we have the day itself, with its hortatory speeches, its calls to action. You are, as you sit here, steeped in tradition.
Today, we might well wonder if traditions are worthwhile, in a world so vexed, so fraught with strife and hatred. Indeed, we might even worry that tradition can be negative, freezing people into unchanging, ferociously held positions. And yet I would posit that traditions are as much about the present and the future, as they are about the past. They are statements of what counts, of what parts of history we have chosen to perpetuate and raise into particular salience, of what will structure our ability and our imagination to act in the future. Traditions are both the boundaries of our future actions and the firm ground from which we can fly into the new and the unexplored. Traditions help us make sense of our lives.
And how do we, today, make sense of our lives? Most of you are immensely high achievers. Since early childhood, you have been greatly busy—learning things, playing at organized sports, dancing, creating, leading organizations, strenuously enjoying the outdoors, volunteering, traveling—in short, engaging in highly active, often structured activities that define committed lives. There is, in America, an epidemic of activity, of the active life so fully lived that there is rarely room for contemplation, for the blissful moments of peace and thought that aren’t also afflicted by guilt over things left undone. We see it in the demands placed on children to achieve, to put together the perfect resume for college admittance. We see it in adults who assume layers of responsibilities for family, homes, community service, and jobs that grow ever more demanding. We see it, often to the advantage of Vassar, in our students, who create such a vibrant life on our campus that sleep and simple “down-time” seem elusive. Few people, at any stage of their lives, stop, take account, and decide to slow the pace. And yet we know instinctively that life should be more balanced, that peace, solitude, and contemplation are values rightly lauded and rarely practiced.
My contradictory, yet fondest wish for all of you is that you find passion for the work you do, that you be thrilled by the potential and excitement of a true vocation. The irony in my advice is that, for those of us who love what we do, there is never enough time, there is always more to be done. We exist within exciting and interesting lives in which sleep and quiet thought are most typically sacrificed to action. Nevertheless, one piece of advice for you today is to seek those elusive moments of solitude and reflection. Enjoy the fact that you have done so well and come so far and make space in your lives for doing nothing – nothing that is, except for the profoundly nourishing and important task of quiet thought. Keep the balance between action and contemplation as a constant goal.
Why is finding this contemplative space important? So much of what happens to us personally happens without full consideration. We set ourselves along a track and we continue headlong, “staying the course,” as we have heard so frequently in recent months. On the personal level, this means we often stay with people or jobs or ways of thinking that are not to our advantage—and which need to be rethought, worked upon, or jettisoned. In busy lives, personal stasis is a real and ever-present threat to our longer-term happiness.
I would, however, like to bring the need for contemplation and reflective assessment into the larger arena of our national life, where “staying the course” has become a mantra, precluding creative responses to changing conditions, and dismissive of nuance in public discourse. So much has happened since 9/11, much of it below the radar. And yet, the media typically gives less time to the coruscating news of the deaths of our young military in Iraq than to the legal tribulations of pop stars and athletes. Television in particular has presented a narrowed picture of what is happening, rarely reflecting the views, or even the news, of the rest of world, or giving us any comparative base to judge what is transpiring in our own country. We know little of what is occurring in the Sudan, North Korea or even Afghanistan, we are given little information to assess our country’s actions worldwide on issues like AIDS, the reproductive health of women, the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on Biological and Chemical Weapons, or environmental accords. Sadly, we hear just as little about rapidly changing environmental, social and health policies in America itself, even when so many of those current policies reflect radical departures from our past practices and values. The present administration has put into place programs they have called “No Child Left Behind,” “Clear Skies,” and “Healthy Forests,” but I would wager that most of the public has no idea what the implications of those policies are, how they are funded, and how they will affect our lives. We need to take the time to think behind the headlines and slogans to the realities. You and I may differ on what the implications of those realities are, but those realities are too critical to the future of this country to be left unexplored and undebated.
You are entering a perilous world, indeed a world that has come unhinged. Without a doubt, decisions about how America behaves in the coming months and year, and the immediate years thereafter, will define not only our lives, but also the nature of our nationhood, for more than a single generation. Many would add that the survival of humankind on our planet beyond the 21st century is at risk, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world, in unsteady and ideologically-driven hands. The years immediately ahead will be pivotal in world history.
I said earlier that tradition and history are closely intertwined: you are here at this moment, immersed in tradition, because there is immense value in the continuity of the world we know and the characteristics of the past world that we have chosen to perpetuate. We are part of history, past and future. And the worthy traditions of America – free, egalitarian, full of promise for all – are still there, to be made whole and real.
I therefore ask you to recognize that you are entering the broader world at a critical historical moment, one that can and will determine if America can regain its long-held legitimacy as a beacon of hope, of individual possibility, of democracy and of moral authority for the rest of humankind. This will not happen without your attention, without your commitment, without your determination to take the time within your busy days to think behind what is so facilely presented to you. As you move headlong into your new lives, stop and take a seat. Think. Analyze. Recognize the disjuncture that so often occurs today between words and actions. And then, having figured out some part of the world for yourself, take action. Talk, debate, advocate, vote. The world is yours to reclaim and, we hope, remake.
Despite all that is happening today, this is still a world full of possibility. 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 traditional mortar boards on your heads are, I suppose, square halos, connecting you to the past, but also signifying that you are ready to take on the future. You give me hope.
I wish for each of you the happiest and most fascinating of lives, lived with purpose and passion. I wish for each of you lives filled with friends, partners, families, fulfilling work, quiet moments, and meaningful action, as you explore and shape the new century. You have my love and my faith that you can do it all.