Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, Marlboro President
Thank you, Chairman Goodwin. Marlboro College blooms under your leadership and the caring stewardship of our trustees.
Welcome all, to this wet, apple-blossom, wet Vermont spring day. Welcome to a Marlboro ceremony of completion and transition.
Our joy today is tempered with the sudden sadness that descended on us Wednesday morning when we knew that freshman Ryan Larsen died in a car accident on South Road. All week we have comforted each other and Ryan’s family. At the same time we kept our traditions: orals went on and this community cared for each other. So we arrive, full of appreciation, at this hour.
We must make music today and so give praise for our musicians. We must take a deep breath, turn to each other, and acknowledge all the love and support that are alive in this room right now.
Families of these graduates, you deserve to feel proud. Happy Mother’s Day! Soon-to-be graduates, now is the time to thank those who have brought you to this day. You have to thank yourselves for respecting your ideas, for your sheer tenacity, your ability to get through Vermont winters, and to go without sleep.
Every one of you will be called by name in tribute to what you have accomplished. One of you was expecting to cross this stage today and instead spent this semester concentrating on healing - demonstrating enormous courage – and therefore teaching us all. Talia Jackson, we welcome you home to Marlboro.
Some of you came from very far away to call Marlboro home. I want to thank Rohan’s parents for coming from India to see him graduate, and Saurav’s aunt and uncle for being present. Saurav, we wish your parents could have come from Nepal, but I think you know we are all your family today.
To our Fulbright Fellow Tabassum Zaman: thank you for your lovely presence among us; you will see us in Bangladesh.
Today is a day to be grateful. Our gratitude embraces these serious people in robes who sit behind me in witness to your accomplishments. I want to thank the members of the faculty for their dedication to teaching. Whatever questions you graduates came to Marlboro wanting to ask, the faculty with whom you worked provoked you to ask, and to test, better questions.
I also want to thank the staff of Marlboro College. You uphold the institution daily showing with your work that it is possible to live up to our ideals.
To ask a better question – that is my theme today. At Marlboro we prize the questions, the discoveries we observe in each of your Plans of Concentration. But we all know that we function in a world that values the answers, the outcomes, the assessment of what you learned here.
US Secretary of Education’s Commission on Higher Education is even discussing a national test for all colleges and universities to assess what students have learned in exchange for their tuition dollars.
I think about the ways Marlboro has tested you – the ways that can be measured and the ways that cannot. You’ve been tested by grades and by finals. You passed Clear Writing; you wrote a sophomore review and probably at least two plan applications.
And you’ve tested Marlboro. One-hundred and eighty students signed a petition for an academic appeals process this semester, citing - to quote you – “the right to question as a pillar of this college.”
Some of you tested our appreciation of the art of party-barging.
Recently, you’ve been tested in oral examinations by an outside evaluator and your plan sponsors.
This week, one outside evaluator said to a senior that her “plan was beautifully written… it was broad and yet really cohered.” Her subjects were difficult and complex. The student’s reply? “It was fun.”
Another evaluator said: “Her prose is excellent: lucid, jargon-free, even elegant at times. She has a powerful voice and is capable of original insight.”
That describes a Marlboro education.
Indeed, you passed the tests; you are getting your degree. But no one has devised a test for the most important questions of life. There is no test for the Good Life.
What is the Good Life? Aristotle thought it was the rational life, the development of human capacities. Kant told us it is the moral life. Rousseau made us see that the good life has to assert individual rights within the social contract. In Jeremy Benthem’s rule, the “the good society is the one where everyone’s happiness matters equally.”
The existentialists drove us within ourselves to question the meaning of life; while religion offers belief beyond ourselves. John Dewey and the pragmatists suggest we will find it by how we reflect on what we do in life.
Even activists must ask the question to understand the goals for which they strive: Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day told us the Good Life is the Just Life. King said, “Every man (and woman) must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s persistent and most urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
We have thousands of years of human seeking and wisdom to consult, yet each one of us has to consider this question on our own.
There is no test for the Good Life, but scholars have studied how individuals think about the Good Life over time. Cheryl Armon and Theo Dawson report that when you listen to accounts of good work, good relationships and what it means to be a good person, most people’s concepts are not different from psychologists and philosophers.
The notion of the Good life as the pleasurable life matures into a value of cultivating one’s own talents. But what is good for one person is good for others as well, and mutuality emerges. In another stage of thinking, the individual chooses what to value, even outside of social norms, yet looks for the balance between the self and society. People begin asking “why” questions. Why be ethical? To quote Armon’s subjects, “Good work allows a person to participate in something greater than the person.” “The self is social,” says another. “Since you are a part of the whole, to actualize yourself is to actualize the world…”
What is the greatest determinant of whether a person thinks about “values and ideals that provide…meaning in life?” Education. The college years. The reading, writing, talking and discovering that you are about to leave. I see from your work that you already understand that happiness is less about pleasure and your own needs and more about constructing a life of meaning. You’ve studied form and function in art; oppression, empire and social change; the Constitution; fairy tales, opera, psycho-neuro-immunology; peace, power, and even the search for meaning itself.
Just as you leave us, I ask you to take on the life’s “persistent question.” And in exchange, Marlboro will keep doing what it does best: keep on teaching. We offer you exemplars: The trustees who have defined the good life as service to an ideal; the dean, the faculty and former president who bear witness to the disciplined life of the mind; your elected speaker who accepted the responsibility to speak for more than himself; the alumni who represent continuous community;
Nan Aron, who exemplifies the love of humanity and love of justice; we offer you Stephan Morse, who devotes his life and a foundation’s resources to the well-being of Vermont communities.
You have been tested. You are found worthy. I hope you are happy today! For you will be tested; that is the nature of life and the soul’s progress. And we will know of this progress because you are now a part of an ever-extending community called Marlboro. As to accountability? To use the test-devisers’ own language: you are our outcomes. You were our questions. You became our answers.
What is the Good Life? Your whole life will be the answer.