President Roth: Rejection of Conformity Can be a Pursuit of Happiness

Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth delivers the President's Remarks.

Address by Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth ’77 on the 178th Commencement at Wesleyan University, May 23, 2010:

Members of the board of trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees and the mighty class of 2010, I am honored to present some brief remarks on the occasion of this commencement.

It is thrilling for me to stand here before you in such distinguished company. I am joined today by the very honorable Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has an undergraduate and a graduate degree from Wes. This gives me an occasion to remind all of us how lucky we are to have graduate programs on campus to enrich the educational experience for everyone. John’s administration in Denver has demonstrated idealistic passion and practical effectiveness, whether in public education, health care or on environmental issues. His team has attacked intransigent social problems like homelessness and unemployment, while also stimulating the growth of major cultural organizations and the civic pride that goes along with them. At a time when many politicians have retreated from the very idea of the public sphere, John Hickenlooper has reminded the citizens of Denver, and of Colorado more generally, that one of the joys of the modern polity is a robust and creative common life. His demonstration of authentic political engagement on behalf of the common good reminds me of the extraordinary work done by members of this class of 2010 in promoting opportunity through education from Middletown to Kenya.

Promoting opportunity through education has been a significant part of the life of my colleague and honoree Ruth Simmons. As president of Smith College and now of Brown University, Ruth has exemplified innovative and collaborative leadership. Growing up poor in the profoundly segregated South, it was the example of her mother’s work ethic and dignity that inspired Ruth to find her own way and her own voice in the world while attending to others with respect and care. As a student and a scholar, she turned to humanistic study to understand the tortured responses of those around her to the great social changes of the 1960s. Since that time as an educational leader, she has courageously defended and expanded our notion of what counts as the liberal arts. Ruth Simmons has balanced authenticity and civility in her work and life, as she has connected education, social change and politics so as to shape a dynamic space for inclusive excellence wherever she has worked. This is a dynamic space that the class of 2010 has helped create at Wesleyan, too, a space of reflection and of action, of scholarship and engagement.

It is my honor to stand here also with Professor Richard Winslow, a man whom I have been hearing about since my student days in the 1970s. For decades Dick has been introducing students to compelling music that expands how we hear and think. Wesleyan’s longstanding leadership in world music — and its current prominence in clubs on our satellite campus in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — are testimony to the work that Dick and his colleagues began here more than fifty years ago. They conceived of music as an opening to a world of pleasure, of movement, of liberation and of community, a world of meanings both hidden and right there in front of us. I am confident that because of the culture that Dick Winslow helped create here that your experience of the arts and music at Wesleyan will always remind you of the promise of such a world — the promise that happiness is worth its pursuit.

The idea of pursuits of happiness echoes the title of a book by one of our other honorees today, Stanley Cavell. Two of my teachers at Wesleyan, Louis Mink and Henry Abelove, independently presented me with essays by Stanley when I was a senior. Here, each said, you might be ready for this now. I really wasn’t, but that moment began a lifetime of engagement with this philosopher and his movies, his Freud and his Wittgenstein, his Thoreau and his Emerson. As a teacher and now as president I have tried to hold onto my Wesleyan student experience of what Emerson and Cavell call “aversive thinking,” thinking that is estranged from conformity. The beauty of this aversion, its promise, as Stanley Cavell has shown, is that it doesn’t have to lead us into solitude. The rejection of conformity can actually be a pursuit of happiness when it is bound up with conversation, with friendship and even with love. Thoreau knew that in certain places and at certain times we can aspire to another kind of life, another kind of society. Looking out at you all here today for Commencement, I can believe that Wesleyan has been that kind of place for you, and that your sojourn here has opened vistas in which you will continue to aspire to better ways of living together.

The rejection of conformity can mean finding another way to build community and civic education, as Mayor Hickenlooper has done in Denver. The rejection of conformity can mean creating an environment for learning that prizes inclusion, and celebrates achievement while not caving in to narrow professionalism… the kind of environment that President Simmons has built at Brown. The rejection of conformity can mean, as in the work of Richard Winslow, an embrace of the sounds and the silences that have come to be valued by people whose commonality with us must be discovered, not presumed. The rejection of conformity can be, as Stanley Cavell teaches, a refounding of community that has a space for each of us to find our paths to individual genius through conversation and moral intimacy with others.

The rejection of conformity: now there’s an idea that would generate enthusiastic assent from generations of Wesleyan graduates. As I’ve said before, Wes alumni have used their education to change the course of culture themselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of oppression and violence.

You have already begun that shaping with your research and your performances, with your studies and with your contributions to the larger community around us. At the Green Street Art Center or at Traverse Square, at MacDonough School or at hospitals and prisons, you have been making a positive difference. You refuse to accept permanent inequality, just as you take a stand against violence whether subtle or crude. As the active authors of your own education, you have taken a stand against easy conformity, and you do so from a place of solidarity and connection with one another.

Over the coming years, I know you will find new ways to practice aversive thinking, new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join authenticity with civility. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, Thank you and Good luck!