Elizabeth Young, associate professor of English and gender studies
May 26, 2007
Good evening, President Creighton, members of the board of trustees, distinguished colleagues, and the class of 2007 and your families and friends. I am honored to be with you tonight. I am particularly pleased because I was invited to deliver this address before, by the class of 1995; then, I had just arrived at Mount Holyoke, and now I seem to have become "senior faculty." I have to confess that the word "senior" in "senior faculty" makes me nervous; it sounds like "senior citizen." But the word "senior" should make you feel great. Congratulations, class of 2007! You are the most special senior citizens of Mount Holyoke tonight!
Now, my instructions from the senior class as to what to say tonight were minimal, and they were offered to me in the form of a question. I quote: "What can our class do differently from other classes to take a road less traveled?" "BUT," the instructions to me continued, "a ban on quoting Robert Frost." That is, I should figure out the answer to the question of what the graduating class should do next, but I should not, in answering, quote from Robert Frost's endlessly cited poem "The Road Not Taken," with its famous account of two roads diverging in a yellow wood and the speaker's decision to take "the one less traveled by."
But this instruction is not as simple as it sounds. As you can see, to explain this rule against quoting Frost is immediately to break it, as I have just done, by quoting Frost. And I would like to bend, if not break, the rules, in another way tonight: by reversing Frost. My instruction to you tonight is: don't take the road less traveled. Instead, take the road more traveled. I realize this sounds a little cranky, but I mean it--I mean it not so much to be anti-Frost (Robert, that is), but to be anti-freeze--that is, to keep you from freezing up as you contemplate the next stage of your lives. For some roads, I want to underscore, are well traveled for good reasons, and they should be even more well traveled than they are. They should be traveled in new ways, by new people--namely, by you, the Mount Holyoke class of 2007.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
First, the road more traveled of politics. "Politics" means a lot of things, one of which always bears repeating and improving: voting. In the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, for example, only 47 percent of eligible voters aged 18-24 voted--and that was up 11 percent from the previous election. As we approach another election, I implore those of you who will be eligible to vote to do so. If you think your vote won't make a difference, look at how close U.S. election results have been in the last decade. I learned the lesson that every vote counts personally a few years ago, in a local election held down the road in Northampton, where I live. I didn't vote that day, because in the morning, on my way to South Hadley, I forgot, and then in the evening, I was busy, and it seemed like too much trouble to get back before the polls closed. The next day, I learned that with more than 8,000 votes cast, the proposition under discussion had lost--by one vote. I reveal this embarrassing story in the hopes that it will do some good as a cautionary tale. Don't let this happen to you. Vote!
I also encourage you to take another political road traveled by others--still, most frequently, by men: that is, running for office. If you are often dispirited, as I am, by the quality of elected officials, by the mediocrity and hypocrisy and mendacity of much political discussion, and by the extremely narrow range of political opinion claimed to represent a broad spectrum, then why not run for office yourself? One of my favorite political commentators, Stephen Colbert, has declared that we are mired in an era of "truthiness"--an era in which government leaders promote gut feeling and instinct over evidence and logic as criteria for decision making. Why don't you make this the era of truthfulness, even and especially if what you offer are inconvenient truths? In electing women as in so much else, the United States has a lot to learn from the rest of the world; other countries now elect not only more women leaders, but women leaders who are openly feminist, often in nontraditional families, usually multi-lingual, and even intellectual--qualities that are all, to one degree or another, held in suspicion in American public life. Wherever you will be, think about joining these women in elected office. I'd like to see the Mount Holyoke class of 2007 producing the governors, senators, members of parliament, presidents, and prime ministers the world over for the next 50 years.
Voting and running for office are not the only political roads that it is important to travel anew. Here's a quotation from another famous male American poet, one I like more than Frost: "Whoever degrades another degrades me ... I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy, / ... I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms." That's Walt Whitman, in "Song of Myself." For Whitman, "the sign of democracy" means a constant challenge to rethink one's relation to the world, and particularly to questions of equality and justice. The "password primeval" to democracy is not, for him, like an email password, something you enter automatically. The password primeval to democracy is, rather, a rigorous and committed engagement with the world, with the understanding that "whoever degrades another degrades me."
Now, such "degradation" could mean many things. If, for example, it concerns you that some people may not legally marry the people they love while others can, think about that concern not only in the language of legislation but also in the language of degradation, for as Whitman says, "whoever degrades another degrades me." If, to take another example, you think that your government is waging a war that is unfounded and unjust, think about the injuries that war inflicts--on soldiers, on civilians, on civil liberties--in Whitman's terms, for "whoever degrades another degrades me." Now, those are my examples; what concerns you may be different, or on these very issues you may hold different views. But whatever your positions, speak out and act up, remembering Whitman's words: "I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms." Remember that by including your brilliant, Mount Holyoke-educated voices in the public sphere, you can, at minimum, raise the quality of debate. For in an era of "truthiness," where euphemism and cliche often hold sway, public speech is usually the first thing to be degraded. And remember, too, that avoiding the road to political engagement does not mean that the road stays empty. It means that someone else will claim right of way, and might even be planning to drive you off the road.
I realize this road metaphor might, at this point, be driving you crazy, and I'm sure Robert Frost, whom I'm not supposed to mention anyway, would hate this, not least because his poem is about walking, not driving. Nonetheless, I want to make one more lane change before I exit. As a teacher of literature and film, I encourage you to travel fully on the road of what we call art and culture. "[P]oetry is not a luxury," wrote the poet and activist Audre Lorde. "It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams." Poetry is not a luxury, and neither is any other form of artistic expression. It is art and culture that allow us to understand the signs of democracy. To me, for example, it is essential, in a world shattered by war, and a world in which the primary policy makers of war remain men, to know what women have written about war. I am particularly interested in women's novels about war, for I have found that it is often, alas, only in the imagined world of fiction that women, addressing political issues, have been able to be the deciders.
But I do not mean to praise only art and culture that comment overtly on real-world events. What Audre Lorde calls the "quality of the light" afforded by poetry may be a "certain slant of light," or, to quote Mount Holyoke's most famous alumna, Emily Dickinson, more directly, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant - / Success in circuit lies." For me, the slanted and circuitous truths of art come from many sources--for example, from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which look into the rear windows of the psyche with the creepiest of insights and the coolest of style. I know what you're thinking: Alfred Hitchcock and Emily Dickinson, together at last! Maybe not; maybe those are my own eccentric tastes. But if Hitchcock does not leave you spellbound, or you think Dickinson is for the birds, then find your own artistic pleasures and your own cultural necessities, as readers and critics as well as authors and artists. And if you are making art, think of Mount Holyoke's many other distinguished writers, playwrights, and artists--the uncommon women, the topdogs and underdogs--who were educated here.
And as you think of them, finally, take heart from the prospect of roads more traveled by. Don't worry about that road less traveled--whether it is cold or hot, frosty or not. Think about the roads--plural, circuitous, fast, or slow--that have been traveled by others. As you leave Park Street and Morgan Street and 116 and all the other roads that got you here, remember the women who traveled them before you, who have gone on to reimagine and remake the world. Remember them, take inspiration from them, and then travel these roads as only you--the extraordinary women of the class of 2007--can. Good luck, and congratulations.
Colbert, Stephen. "Truthiness."
Dickinson, Emily. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant - "
Frost, Robert. "The Road Not Taken."
Lorde, Audre. "Poetry is Not a Luxury"
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself."