Kavita Datla, Assistant Professor of History
May 23, 2009
President Creighton, Members of the Board of Trustees, Distinguished Colleagues, and the Family, Friends, and Students of the Class of 2009,
I am both honored and humbled by your invitation to speak tonight, to think aloud about your time at Mount Holyoke College and about what awaits you in the world outside.
As my own name means poem, I thought I would start tonight with a poem. Like me, the author is a woman from the American midwest who has made her home in Massachussetss. Here is Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Reading this poem recently I was struck by its last few lines. The world, Mary Oliver tells us, is offering itself to our imaginations, and by calling us, like wild geese, the world also announces our place in the family of things. I was struck by this because as we all know our natural world is in peril, and so too inevitably are the natural principles by which we might have understood our place in the family of things. You know this. You also know that the beliefs of our economic leaders have foundered, that the principles declared by a community of nations in the post-World War II era--to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained--have all been violated. And so if anything, the calls of the world are even more harsh and exciting, even as the present and future of the family of things seems to be more uncertain.
All of this would have remained the same whether you had decided to come to Mount Holyoke to commit yourself to academic pursuits, or not. All of us know that the word academic, even in popular speech, has at least two meanings. On the one hand, academic means scholarly, anything having to do with scholarly institutions, colleges and universities in particular. On the other hand, academic means, as the OED puts it “not leading to a decision, unpractical; theoretical, formal, or conventional.” In other words, it can also mean a pure exercise of the mind, something that is not useful in the real world. I suspect that a lot of energy and anxiety has surrounded this second meaning of the word academic during your years in college, and even more so perhaps in the weeks and months that led up to this moment. How, you might have asked yourself, are the courses that you have taken and the papers that you have written going to lead you toward decisions, toward practice? I suspect also that many of you have arrived at creative and compelling answers to that question.
What we are doing today fundamentally is marking a break. But let me be clear about the kind of break that I think this is. For many of you who are leaving the academic world behind, and even for those of you who will continue your studies, we are marking an end to the days when faculty will be paid to sit in offices waiting for you to arrive; an end to the tireless efforts of Mount Holyoke’s staff to cook for you, clean for you, stock your library, and make sure that you have access to all the books that you might possibly need; in short, to produce an environment that is geared solely and very purposefully toward your learning. We are marking an end to the days when people will accept and read your writing whether you spent days producing it, or hours. Away from college, people will not take what you have to say seriously unless you spend the time and energy making sure that your ideas deserve to be taken seriously.
What should not come to an end is your efforts to think long and hard about the problems that confront us in this world. And whether you do so from your homes, communities, or workplaces, we have no doubt that you will pose difficult questions, and demand well-substantiated answers. For over the course of your high school and college careers you have seen the awful consequences of not asking the right questions, of not demanding sound answers. You saw this first and foremost in a war that was launched on a faulty premise.
You also know, from looking at the world around you, that questions that on the surface might seem academic, also have tremendous consequences. In today’s world, to declare violence and killing a genocide seems to morally justify military intervention. Doing so, however, should not absolve us of an obligation to enquire into the specific causes of violence. Seeing conflict in terms of good and evil should not blind us to thinking about the ways that violence is produced. For you as a generation have seen that recourse to military intervention or to quick fixes is never a substitute for the hard work of finding and thinking through solutions that allow people to live together, that allow the diversity of our planet to flourish. In thinking about these issues you recall the work of Mount Holyoke’s early twentieth-century president, Mary Woolley, who in 1932 made headlines around the world when President Hoover appointed her as the only female delegate to the International Disarmament Conference in Geneva. You leave Mount Holyoke knowing that the words used to describe the crises that we face, environmental, economic, social, and political, are not merely academic, that they actually have effects out there in the world. But you should also leave with the faith that understanding, the understanding that is produced through patient, reasoned, and difficult work, can and will allow us to approach and engage the harsh and exciting calls of our world. These, regardless of where you make your homes and how you earn your daily bread, are the projects that you, as MHC’s graduating class of 2009, share in common.
So notice the clear pebbles of rain moving across landscapes and the clean blue air which is home to wild geese; head home and travel far; do not worry about being good, but know that the world, whoever you are, offers itself to your imagination. Allow your imagination to be strong enough and courageous enough to answer its calls. Thank you.