May 23, 2010
by President Catharine Bond Hill
Welcome to the 146th Commencement of Vassar College.
Today is primarily a celebration of the Class of 2010, of course, but it is also a celebration of the support the graduates have received from the families and friends who have assembled today on this magnificent hill, as well as in places throughout the world watching on the web. Welcome to you as well. So too, it is a celebration of the faculty who have taught and learned with the graduates, as well as all the members of our community who have worked with this wonderful class and who are gathered here to honor them today.
Today is also a celebration of the College itself. Today’s speakers all will participate in this celebration from different perspectives of time and role, and each represents an aspect of the life of the College that extends far beyond the particulars of this one day. The student speakers will speak most directly to celebration of the class and its accomplishments, with the class gift co-chairs proudly announcing the final results of what we already know marks this class as one of extraordinary vision and generosity, and the class president will have the privilege of expressing a sense of the common experience of the past four years. The Dean of the Faculty will speak for those who have provided academic guidance for the graduates, and quite specifically he will speak of those retiring faculty who could also be called graduates today, although after considerably more than four years at Vassar - some, remarkably many more. Three members of the Board of Trustees will speak, all alums: the president of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College representing the community graduates will be joining today; the chair of the Board of Trustees, having the official role of his office, as well as the proud role as a graduate’s parent; and a third trustee, our speaker - what can I say? - a true “friend” of the College in so many ways.
Most of today’s speakers have Vassar degrees, or will very shortly. I probably have a few more academic degrees than is really necessary, but I am unable to boast a Vassar degree among them, but I hope you will allow me to share in the celebration of the class’s accomplishments anyway. I’ve shared the past four years with you and I will always remember them as the first four years I have had the honor of being Vassar’s president. Some of you have already discovered, as I have, that these four years have made Vassar a permanent and treasured part of your life and identity. Some of you might need some time to reflect on just what it is that these years represent in your lives, particularly after the rush of responsibilities and deadlines that you have just faced. Take that time - Vassar has been here for almost 150 years and will continue to be here for that many, and many more.
Vassar’s history of academic innovation and excellence is very much on our minds these days as we prepare for next year’s celebration of the College’s Sesquicentennial. Everywhere I turn, there is some new reminder of Vassar’s traditions and its legacy of educational leadership. Three weeks ago, a fat envelope arrived in my office with a copy of a New York City newspaper, The World, dated June 10, 1907. It had been found under the floorboards in a New York City building undergoing renovation and the owner of the construction company thought I should have it. It has a picture of the 205 Vassar graduates of that year (a record at the time) and a brief article about the occasion titled “Joy at Vassar; Daisies Abound”. The article reports that President Taylor had delivered a sermon. I’m not sure if sermons were expected of a Vassar president at that time, or if this was simply a consequence of President Taylor also having been an ordained Baptist minister, but you will be relieved to hear (or at least you should be) that I have no intention of delivering a sermon today, although I am going to talk a little bit about President Taylor’s sermon. He was reported to have called for greater self-reliance, the absence of which he claimed “... caused the downfall of Rome ... [and] makes so much railroad litigation necessary...” I’m not sure what was happening with the railroads in 1907 that compared with the downfall of Rome, but I suspect it was dominating the news in the same way that, say, financial market regulation and offshore drilling are today.
The article goes on to say that there was an abundance of daisies on campus despite concern about a late growing season - enough anyway for the class to pick and fashion the daisy chain that was carried by twenty four members of the sophomore class.
I will take this opportunity to welcome and thank the Daisies, African Violets, and Ushers who grace today’s ceremony every bit as much as the Daisy Chain did in 1907. In addition to their role today, they have had many responsibilities in the preparation for Commencement, and for the other celebratory events of the past week. Thankfully those responsibilities no longer include their picking the daisies. Thank you all of you!
As we approach our sesquicentennial, another bit of Vassar history was brought to my attention by an alumna who gave me a copy of the proceedings of an international conference on world education problems. It was held at Vassar in 1961 in connection with the centennial celebration of the college, and was quite an affair. There were 43 participants representing 20 countries including Mexico, Argentina, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Korea, Nigeria, South Africa, and a number of European countries. The participants were government officials, authors, artists, educators, scientists, economists, and several college presidents in addition to Vassar’s Sarah Gibson Blanding. Some names that stood out for me include philosophers Hanna Arendt and Susanne K. Langer, and author Eudora Welty. Ralph Bunche, the Nobel peace prize winning United Nations diplomat, educator and civil rights leader delivered an address at the start of the conference, and set a very pessimistic tone influenced in part by the then ongoing crisis in the Congo. “... we seem close,” he said, and I quote, “to reaching a state of anarchy in the world through a complete breakdown of international morality. ... It has all been so intense and so incredible as to make one question, if only fleetingly, whether mankind can be saved - or really is even entitled to be saved.”
Thankfully, that pessimism did not dominate the conference.. The most positive tone and a primary source of optimism arose from the interaction of the participants themselves and their common belief that the greatest tool available to address the problems of the world was education - or at least without education, there was very little chance of addressing them. But because this was such an international conference, the question of just what was meant by education was itself subject to different interpretations - or at least different emphases depending on the economic and political environments of the participants’ home countries. To understand why, one needs to remember the geopolitical climate of the early 60s - the Cold War dominated almost every area, and terms like “non-aligned nations”, “containment” “developing countries and underdeveloped countries” were all part of the vocabulary.
Despite the differing perspectives represented at the conference, some principles that emerged would receive wide acceptance today - for example, the importance of supporting education as a path to progress, and the need to understand and respect different regional cultures and traditions, and there was a consensus that those more fortunate had a responsibility to help those with fewer resources.
Looking back over the last 50 years we see successes and failures. The end of the Cold War stands out, of course, and advances in medicine, science and technology have transformed our lives, in many ways for the better - but there is certainly some sense that even these have not made us fundamentally better off. As global nuclear war has become less of a threat, the world seems to have been made safer for regional wars, some based on ethnic and religious divisions; technological advances have in many ways increased the separation of the haves from the have-nots, and have also enabled the interconnectedness that has been a factor in the current economic crisis. The term “containment” caries whole new meanings.
Over the past 50 years, there have also been real success stories with respect to education. Many countries have increased their primary and secondary-school graduation rates and are sending significantly more of their populations on to college. During much of the 20th century, the educational system in the U.S. was second-to-none, and we took the lead in extending opportunities for higher education. Just in the last several decades, the college-going rate of recent high school graduates in the U.S. has improved by almost half to over 60%. We should not lose sight of our significant accomplishments, but as we have moved into the 21st century, the U.S. educational system faces significant challenges.
But I do not want to conclude by echoing anything like the pessimism of Ralph Bunche, rather to stand with the participants in the 1961 conference in the conviction that the well being of individuals and societies is dependent on the power of education. Perhaps more than anything, this 50-year-old account reminds me that we are all products of our times in the things that concern us the most, the way we think about those concerns, and the language we use to express those thoughts. Education provides the means to fulfill whatever promise there is in those concerns, education provides the tools to meet the challenges posed by those concerns, and education provides the perspective to understand those concerns as fully as possible, both in the current terms and in the historical context.
All of us, by our presence here today, reaffirm our faith in the power of education. So today, in addition to being a celebration of the graduates, their families and friends, the faculty, our community and the College itself, it is also a celebration of education’s transformative power and its potential to provide fulfilling and productive lives. Vassar graduates have demonstrated that in profound ways for almost 150 years. You as the Class of 2010 join them, and I have every confidence that you will reflect and advance that tradition in impressive and amazing ways.