May 22, 2005
by President Frances D. Fergusson
Well, here you are, the great Vassar class of 2005, gathered together in these very last moments before graduation. Most of you have had an exciting four-year journey; for a few of you, it has been a trifle longer; for one of you, Holly Hobart, originally of the Vassar Class of 1962, a lifetime of learning and fine achievement has prefaced this day. Whatever route you have taken, this is the moment when you are welcomed into the special “company of educated men and women,” the traditional salutation upon Commencement.
It surely is a moment of beginnings. When I first met most of you four years ago, you filled the Chapel and you were full of promise and full of hopes. We had to scramble as never before to meet the expectations of Vassar’s largest ever class, the delightful result of so many of you accepting our offers of admission. We’re so glad you did. I cannot remember a class with more verve, more intellectual energy, or more good friendships.
You’ve dazzled me and your faculty and staff colleagues with your achievements in the classroom, on stage, in community work, in your commitment to a just world, in campus leadership, on the playing fields and courts, in your creative endeavors and in the amazing fullness of your lives. You’ve fed me delicious dinners at the TAs and THs and I’ve fed you almost as well, at dinners for speakers at my house, and somewhat less glamorously, but in good spirit, at my pizza parties. I’ve loved knowing your successes and I’ve shared your joy when you received that fellowship, that job offer, that admission letter for graduate school. And I’ve admired, too, the willingness of many of you to step into the world with some questions unanswered about your futures, certain that your Vassar education will give you both options and strength. Individually and collectively, you are a force to be reckoned with. To our great good fortune, you found your place here—and made Vassar your home. We come together this morning filled with collective pride for the Class of 2005.
In 1920, 85 years ago, it was written that “From Vassar come the adventurers, the pioneers in curious fields, the radicals.” That Vassar spirit has persisted over the ages, despite catastrophic historical events, and despite the economic, political, social and technological shifts that have moved us into a quite new world. Those Vassar traits of adventure, of curiosity, and of radically new thought have defined the nature of our graduates.
Indeed, one needs to be adventurous, pioneering, radical, and, yes, optimistic to negotiate this new century that you are about to enter as educated women and men. Although the 21st century was a year old when you arrived, the realities of our new century made their mark just two weeks later, on September 11th. It was a harrowing time for you and for your parents who had so recently moved you from your homes to this new, and, for some, distant, place. On those balmy, surreally benign, sunlit days of early September, we came together in warmth and communal concern for each other and for humankind, comforted by the peace of this beautiful College and of the nature around us. We tried, without easy answer, to understand how our realities had changed. And, during the past four years, we’ve learned to live in a new world, deeply concerned about its growing injustices and instabilities, but more certain than ever that it is a world worthy of—indeed, needing—our engagement.
So, what can I possibly tell you on this significant occasion, my last chance, about how to live a good and useful life in a world rife with problems, but also full of potential, excitement, and even joy? I’m going to talk about the imperative we all share to voice our ideals and to act upon them. I’m going to talk, too, about courage, a missing ingredient in many lives, engaged as we are in the day-to-day struggles and pleasures of jobs and families.
Professor Emeritus of History David Schalk recently wrote an article on Albert Camus and the principles he articulated in accepting the Nobel Prize in 1957. Camus spoke of the duties of a writer, although I believe what he says pertains to the duties of every person. Camus wrote:
“The writer’s function is not without arduous duties. By definition, he cannot serve today those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it…Whatever our personal frailties may be, the nobility of our calling will always be rooted in two commitments difficult to observe: refusal to lie about what we know and resistance to oppression.”
This fascinating manifesto is notable for the stress he places on the human problems of engagement: it is “arduous,” it flies in the face of “personal frailties,” and the commitments are “difficult to observe.” The equally important point is that the writer—or, in my redaction, each person, each of us—must serve those, usually voiceless, who are subject to the effects of “those who make history”. Camus failed his own standard: twice within the half year following the Nobel ceremony, he failed to bear witness to the atrocities and oppressions of war in his Algeria. The voice of a Nobel Prize winner would of course have had special resonance, and one regrets that silence.
Most people have far fewer “bully pulpits,” far less of a chance to be widely heard and thus to effect the course, or even the small acts, of history. Perhaps some of you will someday have a position that allows that special kind of influence. But we all share the responsibility to affirm our principles, to speak our ideals, to promote respectful discourse, and to act with determination to right wrongs.
This may happen in simple acts of daily life. Many of you will choose a local focus, doing important work to cure societal ills in your new communities. Those of you who took the “Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility” will have ample opportunities to make the many working worlds you inhabit more sustainable. All of us can and should speak up when we encounter discrimination or derogatory remarks. We must speak out and join with others when we believe our country has taken a disastrous course in its policies and actions. A powerful, insistent voice that cannot be ignored—the voice of thousands and millions —can emerge.
Small actions can, indeed, ignite large movements. Wangari Maathai, the amazing Kenyan woman who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, began with the simple idea of women planting trees, one by one. Within a decade, 30 million trees took root in Kenya and a Pan African Green Belt Network for the environment has grown and flourished.
You need not be overtly political or of any one political persuasion to be an activist. Take the examples of our past and present Commencement speakers. The politically conservative C. Everett Koop, husband of a Vassar graduate and Surgeon General under President Reagan, mailed information about AIDS prevention and condom use to every American household, a stark contrast to current government practice and policies. Susan Sontag’s work in Sarajevo proved how philosophical engagement, theater, and art can sustain the cultural identity and spirit of a beleaguered people in a time of corrosive civil war. Tony Kushner continues to use his powerful theatrical voice to explore the subtleties of racism and the ironies of America’s involvement with Iraq. And Tom Hanks boldly gave AIDS a human face and a push toward legal protections in his deeply affecting portrayal of an AIDS victim in the film Philadelphia in 1993. We can be both witnesses and agents of change in whatever spheres of life we choose to inhabit.
Camus is right to say that this is not always easy. It can be hard to speak out when the dominant mode in public life is to silence and repress dissidence. I don’t know entirely what creates courage. For a very small few, it is inherent and maybe even inherited; we used to refer to “red diaper babies,” ready to crawl from their cribs and march. For those like them, there has always been a turn of mind that doesn’t allow easy answers and expedient actions to go unchallenged. For young people just forming their values, courage can come from a belief system that grows slowly and then takes deep root. For people of any age, a specific circumstance may galvanize the need for action. Courage can also come with age, when taking big chances for your beliefs is no longer very frightening, when you realize that the worst failure would be the failure to shape what happens next, the failure to shape what happens even beyond one’s own life span.
Courage is daunting to assume, but also fundamentally enlivening, even as it demands a tolerance for personal jeopardy. Cautious lives close in, steady and safe in their predictability, but always vulnerable to the actions and even malevolence of “those who make history.” We all know about the horrors visited upon the lives of those who are subject to “those who make history”: the people of Iraq, the millions slaughtered in the world wars of the last century, the dissidents of Camus’ own Algeria. There is no ultimate safety in caution. Courage, at the very least, allows one directly to confront wrongs, to work to right them, to have the self-affirmation of boldness and bravery in the service of great causes.
I hope that each of you will have that courage. In the words of The New York Women’s Foundation: “Commit, Believe, Advocate, Be Courageous, Be the Change.” Give personal time, passionate advocacy, and financial support to the principles in which you believe. Do what Camus proposes: refuse to lie about what you know and resist oppression wherever it is found. Bear witness. Vassar has taught you to think radically, adventurously, to imagine a newly just world—and to work towards that end.
The life you create after Vassar will have many dimensions, of work for which I trust you will have a passionate love, and of close, sustaining and enduring relationships. Treasure those; they will keep you happy and secure. But don’t allow that happiness or that aura of comfort in the familiar to stifle your instincts to address the larger matters of the world. Find, in short, the courage to engage, even when that engagement turns from inconvenient to risky. Being bold will mean that you have lived your life fully, not content to hunker down into your small particulars. Being bold will stretch you, test you, invigorate your mind and, we dearly hope, create change for the better. Don’t be a cautious bystander.
Wangari Maathai, our Nobel Peace Prize recipient, tells a story she once heard in Japan. There is a huge forest fire and all the animals are fleeing, except for one hummingbird. The hummingbird goes to a stream, takes up water in its bill, flies back to the fire, and drops it on the raging flames. She does this again and again. The other animals notice and shout out, “Hummingbird, why are you doing that? You can’t stop that fire.” Hummingbird responds, “I do what I can.”
We all must do what we can, wherever life takes us. We may succeed in doing more than we thought possible. You are commencing into a troubled world, but also a world of promise and hope, the same promise and hope that you brought with you four years ago to this College. There never has been a golden age, but there always have been people who take on the issues of the day, who, in Camus’ words, see the “arduous duties” to truth and resistance to oppression. You are the new participants in this age-old struggle. I know what you are capable of doing. You will, indeed, “do what you can” —and more—and you will “Be Courageous,” you will “Be the Change.”
I wish for each of you the happiest and most fascinating of lives, lived with purpose and passion. I wish for each of you a life filled with friends, partners, families, meaningful work, quiet moments, and determined action, as you help shape our new century, just as you have helped shape Vassar. You have my love and my faith that you can do it all.