Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 made the following remarks during the 186th commencement ceremony on May 27:
Members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees, and the mighty Class of 2018, I am honored to present some brief remarks on the occasion of this commencement.
Do you remember the summer before you began your first year at Wesleyan? Were you working a tough job, attending an interesting program, or volunteering at an engaging not-for-profit? Like many in the summer of 2014, you might have been complaining about inertia in Washington, wondering whether things could get worse. Little did we know. There was cynicism in the air, to be sure, but nothing like the craven disregard for principle and process that we are witnessing today. The invective, insult, and manipulation we see today are antithetical to the inquiry, compromise, and reflection that are crucial for democratic governance—and at the heart of liberal education—one that aims at empowerment through learning.
I have no doubt that over the course of your time at Wesleyan you have felt empowered. That your capacity for inquiry, compromise, and reflection has been enhanced. That you have found satisfaction in the search for better ideas. That you have found meaning in the pursuit of ways of living that are in accord with deeply held values. And that when you found your values to be in conflict with those of others, you turned to inquiry, compromise, and reflection either to resolve those conflicts, or to learn how to live with them in peace.
One doesn’t need to believe in some absolute Truth in order to commit oneself to inquiry, compromise, and reflection, although many of us here today surely do have such beliefs. One does need to consider the possibility that one might be wrong, that one might be blind to other possibilities, other ways of living. If you think you might be wrong, you need other people with ideas different from your own in order to consider a wide range of alternatives. That’s one of the reasons why diversity, including intellectual diversity, is so important. Listening seriously to others, trying to understand why they hold the views they do without immediately judging those views—this is at the core of liberal education.
One of the reasons I love being president of our school is that I learn so much from the enthusiasms, the convictions, and the reasoned arguments of our students. Over the last four years, I have learned much from your analysis of—and struggle against—the racist evil of mass incarceration, and I have been stirred by the hard work you have done to eradicate the persistent poison of sexual violence. Religious students have shown me what it means to integrate faith and inquiry. And conservative students have taught me to be mindful that even well-intentioned policies can undermine individual freedom and group identity. There have been many times when our campus community seems to come together in recognition of unjust situations that need fixing, but it has also been clear that there can be plenty of disagreement about what would constitute real solutions that don’t themselves create even greater injustices. On our best days, we are able to explore our differences without fear, just as we are able to work toward positive change with courage. A campus is the place to explore difference, to have one’s ways of thinking tested—not just protected.
The student culture you have created here at Wesleyan has been generous, even as it has been critical; it has been open to inquiry and compromise, even when it has called for tangible change. You have fostered responsible and brave contributions to making the world around us more equitable, less oppressive—from the plight of refugees around the world to the problems of the under-served right here in Middletown. Your efforts inspire others to do more to create opportunity and to reduce suffering.
At a time when nihilism is cloaked in contemporary fashions of intellectual sophistication, and when many are tempted to retreat from the corruption of the public sphere, your cohort at Wesleyan has made a point to stay engaged—to continue to foster inquiry, compromise, and reflection. Now, we are counting on you to reject the cynical dismissal of the norms for telling the truth and the labeling of anyone one doesn’t like as “fake.” We are counting on you to protect the freedom to think for oneself and to speak one’s mind, especially in situations that are ambiguous or hard to navigate. We are counting on you to continue to listen to those with whom you might disagree so that you can broaden your thinking rather than merely digging in to reinforce preconceptions.
Over these four years, I’ve gotten to know many of you in my classes, in student government, and even in demonstrations. Your thoughtfulness and courage, your questioning and your exuberance have fostered a creative and engaged campus culture. A bold campus culture is one that I admire. In your company, I feel optimistic that we will succeed in rejecting the cynical status quo, in rejecting fear and divisiveness, and build a politics and a culture of hope and community.
Generations of Wesleyan alumni have benefited from this campus culture characterized by courageous, practical idealism. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education for the “good of the world,” lest the future be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you, Class of 2018, to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by the forces of violence, 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 friendship, 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 do not see. We know that you will find ways to make connections across cultural borders—new ways to build community, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and the 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.
It’s been nearly four years since we unloaded cars together right here at the base of Foss Hill, four years since family members shed (or perhaps hid) a tear as they left you “on your own.” It seems like such a short time ago. Now it is you that are leaving us. But do remember that no matter how “on your own” you feel, how dropped from a plane you might feel, you will always be home here at Wesleyan. Wherever your exciting pursuits take you, please come home to Alma Mater, and come home often, to share your news, your memories, and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!