Marlboro College

NewsRichard Lewontin's address

Recipient of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honorary richard lewontin

I promised Ellen that I would speak for a minute and a half; or was it an hour and a half? One minute.

So what I wanted to say is to the graduates. Everyone is searching around, and you will all search around in life, for a meaning: for some why are we here, what meaning do we have? For me, my chief source of meaning is my family, my wife, and the political struggles that she and I engaged in over all these years, and our children.

But there’s another source of meaning that I want to talk about briefly. First of all, I always thought that my life had a meaning because I was a great teacher. And it’s certainly true that I can get up in front of a lot of students and lecture them about the truth about the world, and I’m pretty good at that—but it wasn’t until I came to Marlboro that I discovered what a bad teacher I was.

I came here in the early sixties, at Tom Ragle’s invitation to give a talk—and after the talk, by the way, I should tell you, Tom and I went around the various buildings in the evening and turned off the lights, which was one of the jobs of the president at that time.

In my association with Marlboro over the years I’ve discovered that I’m not a very good teacher, because I cannot do what the wonderful teachers at Marlboro can do. Which is not to stand up in front of a lot of people and give them the right line, even logically, but to sit down with six or eight students—and together, work out, in an interaction, what the truth of the matter is, both by drawing the students out, by putting a little input in, the real interaction; that’s what teaching is, as opposed to lecturing, and you are extremely fortunate in having been an institution where you’ve had real teaching, and not just lecturing.

The other thing that I want to say about meaning is what Ellen referred to, quite aside from political work and family life, and that is serving the community of people where you life. And I want to say that I mean serving, not leading. There’s an important difference, hat I hope the undergraduates are one day discover.

You’re all gonna be leaders of one kind or another, in one thing or another, but there’s really a difference. I mean, leaders do serve—but there’s real service, which, when you give it to your fellow community members, it really gives an immense meaning to your life.

Certainly in my case, I got more meaning out of the half-hour I spent crawling on my belly in a smoke-filled room in Frank Stout’s house, pouring water on the fire that was about to consume the house, than I’ve had in eighteen years as president of the Marlboro fire company. I mean, there’s just a difference. And I want to remind all of you, that that’s the kind of meaning—real service and participation in the community in which you live—that will be an important source of meaning for you.

So in your leadership, don’t forget that after your official duties are over, you should go around and turn off the lights in the buildings. Thank you.

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