Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 made the following remarks at the 182nd Commencement Ceremony on May 25:
Members of the board of trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees and the class of 2014, I am honored to present some brief remarks on the occasion of this commencement.
Although American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been winding down ever since you arrived on campus, the scars of those conflicts will continue to be painful for years to come. On this Memorial Day Weekend, I begin by asking us all to take a moment to remember that these wars have cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and scores of thousands of civilians in those countries.
Remembering is something of great importance to a university like Wesleyan. We honor the past; we do so when we sing the fight song at WSA meetings or alumni events, when we commemorate the occupation of Fisk Hall or celebrate a Little Three championships. We honor the past when we pay tribute to great teaching or alumni achievement.
You, the class of 2014, have spent four years exploring new fields, creating work that pushes boundaries, even setting new records. But while you have been creating your own legacy, you’ve also helped to preserve much of what is essential about this university. You are now part of its tradition. (Which means that officially you can start making fun of the class of 2018 and complaining it isn’t as cool and radical as you are.)
Yours is part of a tradition that many consider fragile indeed. This is the tradition of liberal learning that prizes skills of inquiry and criticism while also cultivating the ability to make meaning out of confusing signals all around us. Liberal learning doesn’t only steep us in a tradition that is supposedly our own because of our national, ethnic or racial identity. Liberal learning challenges us to find ways to acknowledge practices that we otherwise would have ignored—cultures that were at first opaque to us, or invisible. This capacity for seeing possibilities, of overcoming our own blindness, as William James put it, is at the core of your education and it is why diversity has been so key to it. Overcoming blindness allows you to detect value, which is fundamental for innovation as well as for empathy. The work of expanding your intellectual and cultural horizons is never done, and we trust that the Wesleyan education you take with you today will help you continue to animate a diverse and expansive world for decades to come.
Enhancing the capacity to acknowledge meanings to which one had previously been blind is one of the great gifts of a Wesleyan education. My own professors when I was a student at Wesleyan (one of whom just received a Binswanger today and another is getting an honorary doctorate today) enriched my life by showing me aspects of the world I didn’t even know existed. I’d been deaf and blind to many things around me, and as a nerdy kid I’d learned how to offer criticisms that would allow me to avoid things and people that were out of my comfort zone. My teachers and fellow students helped me to overcome some of this blindness, and this has allowed me to have a much greater variety and depth of experience than I’d ever anticipated—and it has made me more grateful to alma mater beyond measure. Your Wesleyan teachers have been your guides, engaging you in the exploration of objects, patterns, and values. You will find, if you haven’t already, that through this engagement, you have greatly enhanced your capacity to share with others what’s important about the objects, patterns, and values bearing upon your lives and theirs.
You have developed the ability not merely to criticize values but to add value to the organizations in which you will participate. You will often reject roads that others have taken, and you will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by your education you will seek out ways of living that have meaning and direction. This is why your Wesleyan education, a liberal education, matters far beyond the borders of this campus.
Not far beyond the borders of this campus, education of the most basic kind is still denied to our citizens. In our country, education is less and less a vehicle for social mobility and more and more a vehicle for cementing social privilege. That’s why I agree so much with you in your desire to see this university return to an admissions policy that doesn’t need to look at how much money people have. The founders of this country and many of its most important thinkers have seen education as the great weapon in the struggle against economic injustice and political tyranny. You should beware of those pundits today who disparage creating greater access to a college education. They argue that most folks won’t be required to have learned much beyond their technical training for their jobs—so why should they have access to a high quality education? Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.
But the most dramatic example of denying education is, of course, the girls of Chibok, kidnapped because they were in school. Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combatting poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a full right to equal education is not a parochial Western value—it is a fundamental human right. The rights of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education is worth struggling for wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege.
Diversity, equality, and education…these are the ideals shared by generations of Wesleyan alumni. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education to mold the course of culture ourselves 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, class of 2014, to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, patriarchy, conformity and elitism.
We are counting on you because we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendships, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. We know that in the years ahead you will explore unfamiliar realms and see possibilities that others have not seen. We know that you will find new ways to overcome blindness in yourselves and others—new ways to build community, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. 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, four years ago we met while unloading cars here on Andrus field. Later that day, many of your family members sat teary-eyed in the chapel as we spoke about how they would be leaving you “on your own” at Wesleyan. It seems like a very short time ago. Now it’s you who are leaving, but do remember that no matter how “on your own” you feel yourselves to be, you will always be members of the Wesleyan community. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please, please, come home to alma mater, share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!