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Speeches and Writings / 2005/2006 Archive / Commencement Address: May 20, 2006
 

Commencement Address

May 20, 2006

Welcome. It is a great honor for me to be able to stand before you today and speak to you. It’s by leave of our students, to whom this day belongs. We’re going to toast and applaud them many a time. Let’s do it again.  I think it’s appropriate that we do some other recognizing, of some folks without whom no one would be graduating, indeed, no one would be here. Graduating students of Hampshire, you know well that all of Hampshire takes pride in your accomplishments and rejoices with you today. You know how hard they worked to make it possible for you to study here. Can I turn the tables for a moment and ask you to recognize the faculty and staff, every one of them, who are such dedicated and loyal members of the entire Hampshire Community? Let’s give them an enormous round of applause.

(My script has all these “applause” notations. I feel like Kermit the frog.)

Students, there are some other folks here without whom you’d have had a heck of a time getting to Division III status: your parents. Students, faculty and staff, let’s all give a hearty round of applause for the parents and families of our students who were gracious enough to lend them to us for a few years. My predecessor, Greg Prince, a very wise man, always advised me to remind the parents, in case they were disappointed with the students they were getting back from us, to remember that while we had them for 4, or 5, or sometimes 6 years, they had their students for at least 18, so if you’ve got a problem with what you see, don’t call me.

Yes, this is a day of joy, laughter and applause. Sure, there are many painful “farewells” – for example, to our beloved outgoing Dean of the College, Mike Ford, who’s not only stepping down from his dean’s post but retiring, and Dean of Advising Sue Darlington: let’s have a round of applause for both of them.

As I’ve said, yes, there are farewell, but it’s a time when the phrases of other languages would be even more appropriate: “until we meet again,” for you will come back and visit us here, and you will arrange to see one another at intervals over the years. Indeed, given the ways we “instant message” these days, I strongly suspect that as alumni you will remain in touch with one another even more than did graduating Hampshirites in years gone by.

I feel a lot of joy today, too, and feel that commencement “up” along with you. I have, after all, made it at least standing to the end of my first academic year as Hampshire’s president, a little bruised perhaps, but at least not permanently scarred. I want to thank you for going relatively easy on me. But if you have been kind to a beginner, the world has not. I don’t really believe in “fate,” but whatever cruel forces there sometimes seem to be out there, they conspired to mark this as a year of terrible losses. I would like for us all to remember three recent graduates of Hampshire, indeed, classmates who graduated together in 2004, Meg Sanders, Em Doran, and Emily Richardson, who shockingly died in two separate traffic accidents within ten days of each other in last fall. Other members of the Hampshire community were also involved in automobile accidents, two sustaininng significant injuries when a gentleman from Granby, driving under the influence, smashed into their car at our front entrance on 116. One of them, Stephanie Baril, remains severely injured. Another student, Samantha Sanders, died, tragically, on campus last December. This was not, then, anything like a good year, and I would like us all to take a moment to direct our thoughts to these students and to their families and friends.  They remain close to us in our memory and in our hearts.

One area where I do count my blessings as president is that the task of selecting a commencement speaker is entrusted entirely our students, and that is entirely as it should be. I particularly count myself lucky when I see the mess a college president can get himself in when he has to make the decision, as the president of New School University in New York has with his invitation to Senator John McCain to speak there. This is the second commecnement I’ve witnessed, and the choices you have made are inspired and inspiring, Granny D last year and Jean Moss this year. Thank you.

Now for the funny part. My role, as I understand it, is to offer a few moments of levity and diversion – why, I’m not exactly sure, but I guess the thought is, since Hampshire is paying me so much money, they ought to make me do a little work, and a good stand-up comic would actually cost a lot more. Speaking of money, as you probably realize, it’s all I think about these days. I’ve been delighted all year long to see that there are other like-minded individuals here who believe that Hampshire should become a profitable enterprise. Ka-ching! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we might augment our revenue. I thought I might try out a couple of my ideas on you.

It has come to even my attention that TV reality shows are real money-makers, and I thought that with our expertise in video and communications, we could turn Hampshire itself into one ongoing reality TV show that we would broaedcast and syndicate, adding millions of dollars to our third-stream of revenue. This would involve cameras in every room. I think America, hey, the entire world would be riveted to watch our local version of ‘survivor’, and I have no doubt that sponsors would like up to pay big bucks for the commercial spots: Coca-Cola, Army recruiters, they’ll be at the head of the line.

You should know that for many months, I’ve been pondering the injustice that was done at the beginning of the year when the sauna was declared no longer ‘clothing optional.’ I’ve recently realized that with one bold stroke I could address that and add a lot to the novelty of our programming: the whole campus could become a clothing optional zone. Actually, I’ve come to learn that many people out there think Hampshire’s clothing optional already. I don’t just mean that it’s debatable whether what a lot of students currently wear really counts as clothing anyhow. Tall tales from the early days of the college report clothing-optional dorms, and just this past year my own sister relayed a question the mother of one of the boyfriend of one of our students boyrfiend: did we have a nude dorm? I actually thought at first she said “new dorm,” and I assured her that that was not definitely not the case. “No, not ‘new dorm,’ ‘nude dorm,’ she said.” I wouldn’t be too sure we didn’t, I told her.

I’ve now given the world enough soundbites to satisfy themselves that Hampshire remains unique, even outrageous. Those folks aren’t going to bother to understand that I was joking and that I’m using the license of such events to celebrate a reign of fools.

The ‘reign of fools’ provides the perfect transition point from the silly to the serious part, since reign of fools is what we have not just for a few hours at an academic festivity bu day-in, day-out as we look at a number of large and powerful nations. (I don’t want to be more specific; it might be dangerous.) I’ve been bitterly amused at the idea that our government is looking for intelligence. I wonder if they would recognize it if they found it. What is intelligence anyhow? I’m glad to know that we have a “Central Intelligence Agency.” Comforting that they can define so clearly what it is.

Of course, I’m purposely playing across the boundary between “intelligence” in the sense of data that spies and researchers turn up and analyze in at least a rudimentary way, and the broader sense of “capacity to learn and understand.” Though these are clearly two distinct usages, I wonder, and think we should all wonder, whether it is ever possible for one to exist in the complete absence of the other. A thinking mind, a lively “intelligence” in the broad sense, must have real and reasonable data with which it can form opinions worth listening to and make serious judgments. Nor can there be “intelligence” in the narrower sense, factual knowledge of the type the CIA and various other governmental agencies deal in, without the broader intelligence that is required to make sense of and to contextualize it with any kind of sophistication.

Here is the serious point I would like to make. We have repeatedly heard our politicians, even those who hardly ever admit to error, speak of “failures of intelligence.” I’ll say. Of course, they mean such things as ”we thought Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction” or “we thought the populace would rise up to embrace us with open arms.” Both proved wrong. The real lack of intelligence will not be addressed by a restructuring of the agencies that are supposed to gather and analyze it, or by appointing a new director of the CIA. No. We need not just a new set of minds but an entirely new mindset that understands that intelligence is a complex, subtle, even elusive entity. First of all, there can be no intelligence unless it enjoys free and untrammeled access to all the information it want. Secrecy never aids intelligence. Then, it needs healthy doses of doubt and scepticism. It grows and develops, it learns, it questions, it listens, it does not pontificate. Intelligence needs to emerge from an open-ended and no-holds-barred debate, one that is prepared to question all our pieties and dearly-held assumptions, and I mean all of them. Intelligence needs to be able to make its way in an atmosphere free of any and all special interests, free from political, social and economic agendas, free of self-righteousness. Finally, and quite simply, intelligence and fundamentalism of any kind cannot co-exist.

You know all this, for Hampshire College is the home to intelligence that is worthy of the name. I don’t quite know what to tell you as you venture forth into a world where there is frequently an intelligence vacuum and way too many “intelligence failures,” even “intelligence malfunctions.” I could just leave it at “good luck,” but that risks sounding pessimistic and sarcastic. The best reason for optimism is to think of you out there in the world. You, as Hampshire graduates, know what it is to learn in a free and open space, where you, ultimately, are in sole charge of and responsible for the pursuit of intelligence. Don’t stand for less. Never stand for faulty intelligence, and never assume is right what has emerged from a process and space that is not supportive of true learning and intelligence. Don’t be quiet. Make sure other folks who have not had the great good fortune to be at Hampshire know what real intelligence is, and, equally, what is most definitely not true intelligence. I know you will do that, and that you will be teachers of intelligence even when, indeed, especially as it gets riskier to stand up for intelligence. That is a cause for rejoicing. Non satis scire. To know is not enough. You have to yell what is right from the rooftops, you have to stand up for it. Make it count, make it true.

Congratulations.
 

 
 

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