President's Convocation Address

Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - 10:19
Connection
Joanne V. Creighton
September 6, 2006

It's my pleasure to welcome you all, especially the most venerable class of '07 embarking now on your final year. Congratulations! And a special welcome to the class of 2010 and all other new students, faculty, and staff: we are so pleased to have you with us. I hope you all had a great summer and are refreshed in your connection or reconnection to the College. In fact, I would like to speak today about "connection."

Many factors make up the mystique of this College: its beauty, its history, its curriculum, its academic excellence, its legacy of leadership, the people who are here and have been here.

But, if I had to isolate one thing that gives Mount Holyoke its distinctive edge and sets it apart, I would say it was a powerful and pervasive sense of education as connection. In a world of daunting disconnection, this is a priceless benefit, one that is well worth the high price of tuition.

From where does this idea of education as connection come? From Mary Lyon, of course, from whom all good things flow.

I thought it might be instructive to compare Mary Lyon's ideas of education with that of another (almost as) famous person living during her time, a rather formative thinker himself, over on the eastern side of the state: Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It so happens that the same year Mount Holyoke was founded, 1837, Emerson addressed the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard and there he characterized the student or the "American scholar," as he called him, as "Man Thinking." Through rigorous study, the American scholar becomes a "university of knowledges" honing trust in his own ability. "If there be one lesson more than another which should pierce his ear," says Emerson, "it is the world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature . . . ; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all; it is for you to dare all." In a subsequent essay, "Self Reliance (1841)," he sharpens the point: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men--that is genius." "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string."

Well, stirring as these sentiments are, for me, at least, something about Emerson's assertions do not ring quite true. For one thing, we women feel uncomfortably excluded from this universal man, and indeed at this time, women were not admitted to Harvard, much less eligible for Phi Beta Kappa. But, more than that, Emerson's assertions about the sanctity of the individual are so absolutist and untempered by an awareness of otherness, difference, social complexity, and community: they are so lacking in human connection. Indeed, in "Self-Reliance," Emerson is downright dismissive of social connection. "Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong." Now 165 years later, living, as we do, in a postmodern, technological, multicultural, international, globally interconnected world, we are less certain than Emerson that our individual perspective is universal, that the world is our oyster, or that the fate of others is no concern of ours: indeed, to be fair, Emerson himself later moderated his views and became an active abolitionist.

But compare young Emerson's educational philosophy with that of Mary Lyon. She's equally bold in her educational expectations for her aspiring scholars. "Go forward. Attempt great things. Accomplish great things," she exhorted. She trumps Emerson's "dare all" with her clarion cry: "Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do." She too is a proponent of rigorous study, the university of knowledges. But there the similarities end and the Mary Lyon revolution began.

What is revolutionary about her thought? A number of key things--that women mattered; that they would profit every bit as much as men from rigorous study in all fields, including the sciences; that the end of knowledge was not man thinking, but women and men doing; that education, in other words, was preparation for a life of purposeful engagement connecting the individual to the larger human community. "Great privilege brings great responsibility," she insisted: graduates needed to be about the important work of "renovating the world."

Of course, we mustn't forget that Mary Lyon was part of an evangelical missionary tradition which had its share of naiveté and chauvinism in sending emissaries out to "do good" in the world. Some of her followers ventured foolishly into hostile territory and met a disastrous end. Nonetheless, overall the record of accomplishment of intrepid Mount Holyoke graduates, generation after generation, particularly in founding schools and colleges across the country and around the world and in pioneering work in science and other disciplines, is nothing short of astonishing.

In the evolution of the institution over the years, especially through such visionary leaders as Mary Woolley and Elizabeth Mead, and great scholars such as Emma Carr, Lydia Shattuck, Cornelia Clapp, and others (many of whom, by the way, are now memorialized as campus buildings) Mount Holyoke was shaped by a strong faculty of scholar-teachers and the great tradition of American liberal arts education. Indeed, the vital connection, of these dual strains--excellence in the liberal arts, on the one hand, and purposeful engagement in the world, on the other--gives Mount Holyoke's mission its distinctive resonance and power.

While American culture has profited enormously from the emphasis on individualism and Emersonian self-reliance, this emphasis has not, perhaps, been sufficiently balanced with communal values, and so it has helped to produce a culture of competitiveness, fragmentation, isolation, narrowness, me-ism. That happened, it could be argued, in part, because of the bifurcation along gender lines of leadership in our culture. At any rate, the tradition of women's leadership started by Mary Lyon stresses connection, caring, community, self in relationship, service, social responsibility. Now, more than ever, the world needs Mount Holyoke College.

A sense of connection is what is passed down that laurel chain that you will soon be carrying, oh mighty class of '07. It links Mount Holyoke women generation to generation. That sense of connection has brought us together in this amphitheater today.

Class of 2010, from your very first day here, you will be inducted into the history and tradition and essence of this College. Like all of us, you will be proud to be at a place that is first for women and puts women first, proud to be connected to the powerful women who have come before us and those who will come after us. Many of us are first-generation college students and well aware of how shallow the roots of women's education, how undervalued women still are in the world, what a privilege it is to have the opportunities afforded by a place like Mount Holyoke.

Equally important is the sense of connectedness that comes from being part of the serious learning community that this College is. Through a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, you will be connected to the great intellectual traditions--the best that has been known and thought--and to cutting-edge research and the most up-to-date technological innovation. You will be mentored by a faculty that partners with and challenges you and is committed to making connections between research and teaching, between disciplinary and interdisciplinary work, between your acquisition of knowledge and your development of skills that will help you to negotiate the world with confidence and competence--the skills of speaking, arguing, and writing, critical analysis, aesthetic appreciation, scientific understanding, environmental awareness, ethical discrimination, leadership and public interest advocacy.

For just as Mary Lyon expected her daughters to go out and do something constructive with their lives, so do we today have those same high expectations of you. Great privilege does bring great responsibility. A large measure of idealism pervades this college campus. It is the norm to want to make a difference, to try new things, to give back, to care about justice, to embrace diversity, and to work towards greater mutual understanding and more inclusive community. In impressive numbers our students and our alumnae do all of these things and more. In short, a Mount Holyoke education energizes and engages and above all connects.

But nothing I can say about the power of a Mount Holyoke education can hold a candle to what you yourself are experiencing and will experience in your own unique and highly variegated way. You are extraordinary women who have been given an extraordinary opportunity to connect to a powerful legacy. Take full advantage of it. We have great faith in you and in what you will do once you leave this special place.

But for right now, and in conclusion, let me urge you to accomplish great learning in your courses; build great connections and community right here on campus; and don't forget to have great fun as well, starting at the lunch immediately following this event. My best wishes to you all.