Commencement Address

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this morning in this very beautiful place. I offer my warmest congratulations to my sister and brother honorees, and to those seniors who have survived all of the torments and trials of their undergraduate years to be here today to receive well-earned diplomas. Cheers for the Mount Holyoke faculty who have survived their own torments and trials but are here today wondering how they will manage next year without the class of 2000. And finally, prolonged cheers for all families and friends of the senior class, those who have bred and nourished, supported and befriended them. We pay tribute today to your understanding, fortitude, and I hope, good humor.

Commencements are as tribal rites go, peculiarly paradoxical occasions. Speakers chosen presumably because they might have something to say spend an overly long period of time proving that they do not, and in the course of their remarks on the stormy voyage of experience, the hard hill of ambition, the steep summit of achievement, and the goal posts of integrity, they are bound to point out to those who are quite properly taking pride in accomplishment a task successfully completed that this is not an ending but rather only a beginning; that the graduates will soon learn the extent to which they do not know what they now think they know, and for those going in the professions that there will be almost as many more years of education ahead of them as there are now behind them. Most puzzling though, is the invariable suggestion that, whereas other generations have failed to offer solutions to the world's problems and in fact continue to contribute aggressively to them, this generation soon to take over the scene will somehow find the much-needed solutions and has an unusual opportunity to do so. But the very nature of the paradox of course is that though the statement is seemingly self contradictory or absurd, in reality it expresses a possible truth.

Now I could take a leaf from Art Buchwald's book of life and say simply (as he did at a Holy Cross commencement), "We have given you a perfect world; now don't go out there and louse it up." Or I could deliver a wise message from the philosopher Yogi Berra who recommends only that when in life you come to a fork in the road, take it.

But if I were this brief, though many among you would be pleased, there would be mutterings amongst the powerful that I had perhaps failed in my duty as your speaker. “I do want to take senior Joy Hopkins' words seriously too. When asked to comment on me as a speaker for today she quite properly said "I hope she is real and doesn't dish us that old "open your wings and fly" routine. I hasten to assure you Joy that that particular 'routine' never actually crossed my mind. Nor, I should add, did I even toy with, as it's an election year, and I spend my days in New York, maundering on about the latest example of family values.

So encouraged by these helpful comments from members of the class, let me get on with it, assuring you at the start, as Henry the VIII did each of his wives "never fear I shall not keep you long."

In preparing for this day I read through various reports of happenings at Mount Holyoke during your senior year and enjoyed particularly the account of the opening on March 31st of the time capsule, a small wooden box that the Mount Holyoke class of 1900 had left to the College to be opened by the class of 2000.

The box, it is reported, was lined with newspaper, and stories of President McKinley's wife's illness and the birth of the Czarina of Russia's fourth daughter helped set the scene. In the box, I gather, were college memorabilia: a Mount Holyoke beret, college theatre bills, a course catalog, an accounts book, and class photos, etc., even a blue book which the class of 1900 felt they had to explain. We should all have stock in the blue book company, as blue books are the one sure connecting link between generations of college. Blue books will still be found here even after the College is returned to the primordial ooze.

The most touching artifact in the box was, I thought, the letter written by Margaret Ball of the class of 1900, which ended with her entreaty, "Tell us that you love your our college. This is the great bond between us; and the love and loyalty that we pledge as we leave our alma mater shall never fail to live in our hearts, while we are sure that your love and loyalty will be as strong, and nobler as you have greater opportunities."

It was the phrase 'as you have greater opportunities' that caught my attention. It could be read in several ways but I choose to think that Miss Ball was seeing into the future and imagining a new and richer role for women in the world. And I wondered how the class of 2000 might signal the future changes their college years have foreshadowed for the class of 2100?

But back to 1900, the changes in women's lives in this country over this past century is surely one of its most dramatic stories. There is a telling passage in a speech written by M. Carey Thomas, the great president of Bryn Mawr College at about the time that Miss Ball wrote her letter to the class of 2000, which reads: "The passionate desire of women of my generation for higher education was accompanied throughout its course by the awful doubt, felt by women themselves as well as by men, as to whether women as a sex were physically and mentally fit for it. I cannot remember the time when I was not sure that studying and going to college were the things above all others which I wished to do. I was always wondering whether it could be really true, as everyone thought, that boys were cleverer than girls. I remember often praying about it, and begging God that if it were true that because I was a girl I could not successfully master Greek and go to college and understand things, to kill me at once, as I could not bear to live in such an unjust world."

My own education fifty years later in this same valley, at a college which today shall be nameless, was a typical preparation at that time for the role that it was imagined I and my classmates might play in the wider world beyond the college. But the world was not fully ready for educated women to play the roles that might really have interested them and Adlai Stevenson, thought by many to be the most enlightened man in public life at the time, speaking to a graduating class at "my college" in those years, actually pointed out that our education was the just right preparation for our important future roles as the wives and mothers of men who would make a difference.

This is not a sentiment any commencement speaker, no matter how unenlightened, would share with you today.

And though no one here has promised you that your lives will be uncomplicated or simple, watching your own mothers balance all the commitments in their lives has provided a most useful lesson, it is true as Margaret Ball wrote a hundred years ago that you have greater opportunities, greater than any generation that has preceded you, and your experiences here, in this richly diverse community of able women have prepared you well to fully actualize your talents. In addition you have also been prepared to think of the world and your place in it differently from prior generations. For you, global economic and cultural integration is already a given part of your lives.

This country that all of you have been educated in, regardless of your country of origin, has had throughout its history a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the wider world of which it is a part. There is a strong strain of isolationism often paired with anti-intellectualism in the country which allows half the members of Congress to proudly proclaim that they do not have passports, even as many countries are looking to the United States with envy, aspiring to our democratic form of government with its rule of law, our economic strength, technological and scientific mastery, our institutions of higher education, and the protected freedom of our citizens.

Our leaders often seem to block, rather than give leadership to international agreements on the environment, the punishment of war crimes and test ban treaties and even argue whether or not to pay our dues to international organizations we helped to found.

During my last year in college the country's isolationist tendencies were exposed in a rather bad novel that gained a surprisingly large readership, entitled The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Both authors had worked in Southeast Asia and had many opportunities to observe how poorly prepared American foreign service and military officers often were for their posts compared to those same officials for most other countries, especially communist countries.

Americans were often perceived then as ignorant and easily taken advantage of, insensitive to cultural differences they could not even perceive, extremely chauvinistic, loud, crude, boorish, in short, as Lederer and Burdick said, "ugly."

We often saw ourselves then as naive and ignorant. Diversity was not a word that meant much to us in the very homogenous white world of the selective colleges and universities. There were very few international students in American institutions in the 1950s, and though American students did study abroad in their junior year of college, many fewer did so then do now, and money was for many of us an object.

Foreign study, language, history, literature, philosophy, music, and art courses tended to have a decidedly European focus and few of us emerged from college with any real grasp of the world as we would have come to know it.

Students graduating from Mount Holyoke today have witnessed in their four years a developing opportunity for this country to be a force for good in the world, and you have studied, played, and lived with women from all over this country and the world. Twenty-five percent of you have studied in another country and programs available in the Five Colleges offer language and cultural studies across the world.

You have some sense from your own experience that we tend often to export to countries the worst aspects and excesses of our own culture and cuisine and you understand better than earlier generations why we are not always welcomed abroad as the open, generous, idealistic people we still think ourselves to be.

Your Mount Holyoke education has taught you, among other things, about the responsibilities and the obligations that accompany the privileges of education and the support of an enlightened community.

It is the hope of many of us here that this class of 2000, standing as you do on the cusp of both a new century and a new millennium, and prepared to be more at home in the world, can bring fresh thinking and a stronger resolve to the country's need to move beyond isolationism, provincialism, self-centeredness, in short, beyond ugliness to be welcomed as real partners in the global arena.

The philosopher/baseball sage Dan Quisenberry gives us pause though when he notes, "I have seen the future and it looks much like the present, only longer." Yogi Berra warned that it is hard to make predictions, especially about the future, and for students who have witnessed in their four years of college the dawn of both the information and the biotech revolutions it may be doubly difficult.

The class of 2000 will, I think, not find it as easy as did Margaret Ball to signal the future developments for the class of 2100.

I will leave you with the challenge of reminding you with Miss Ball, of the very special nature of this community which has provided each of you with many opportunities over the past four years to define who you are, and which will always be here for you for better or worse.

This campus, this small and lovely world, is yours to return to and enjoy as it both evolves and remains reassuringly the same. Mount Holyoke will always be among your most ardent admirers and it is a place to which you can come in fact or in your thoughts, over the years to be strengthened and nourished. New faces will fill the campus year after year, but you as alumnae will remain by far the largest part of the college, embodying the institution and the country's highest ideals.

In 1900, they took the time to send you something, something that was as full of meaning as they could make it. They knew that they wouldn't be here to see the expressions on your faces when you received it, and while maybe they would have been surprised to see how your faces were different from theirs, I don't think they would have been at all displeased. But the time capsule reminds us that while sending communications and receiving communications can often be casual: send an email, check your voice mail, crank out a term paper in one night, they can also be truly profound, desperately full of significance, and ambitious to transcend time. Hopefully you have learned to deal with both modes here, both the fleeting and eminently practical and also the ponderous and the essential, because you will need both styles in your inevitably rich and challenging lives. As you take those forks in the road, remember to listen to those who are ahead of you (and take what they say for what it's worth), remember not to open email attachments if you don't know the sender, and remember to take a moment every once in a while to call over your shoulder to those who will be coming behind you.