NewsSenior Speaker Address
It’sa pleasure to be speaking in front of you today for the class of 2007. I would like to thank the seniors for allowing me to represent them in my own words and would also like to extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those people who help to maintain this institution; the wonderful faculty of course, but also those that make it possible for us to do the work that we do on a daily basis; the kitchen staff for feeding us so that we might not subsist on pizza alone; the maintenance staff for creating, maintaining, and cultivating the very grounds on which we live, with their good humor and steady hands; and the staff and academic resources that help us to do more efficiently and effectively what we are here to do.
Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938 a prescription for a college institution that would cultivate in its students the ability to resist political and social domination. It would offer them the opportunity and the conditions to think about their lives and their society creatively and would foster in them an appreciation for honest, self-reflective education that was motivated by the utopian vision of a world devoid of war. I will share with you a description of the type of institution she imagined; one which eschews the pomp and circumstance of traditional educational institutions and embraces fluidity, personal empowerment and the motion of the mind and heart. The institution she describes may sound familiar.
She wrote that, “It must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers.”
Woolf most importantly stated that for this new institution to be successful it must nurture those very qualities which make it unique and able to operate in its own way. Of the new school she said, “it is young and poor; and let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded on poverty and youth.” For Woolf, there was no distinction in poverty, no trappings of wealth that would tarnish the fortification of an open and libertarian institution. To come from poverty meant having the opportunity to simultaneously be rejected by and to reject the very tenets of traditional society that the new school wished never to entertain. The youthfulness of the new institution was contingent upon its ability to shift and to change, to hold onto the idealism and flexibility of a younger age while growing older and more able.
Virginia Woolf articulated the conditions under which education could conceivably liberate its participants. Students educated in such a way would be compelled towards the creation of egalitarian relationships with each other and the world. Such relationships would eliminate the desire for dominion and for hurtfulness. War would be a theoretical concept instead of a visceral and bloody reality.
The founding students of Marlboro College knew war well. Established after the WWII, they came to build their own home here in the hills of Vermont away from atrocious violence and the disregard of human life and experience. They came here to get better, to escape what was killing them, to strip themselves of the baggage encumbering their spirits. They were handed a hammer when they got here. “Build your own bed,” they were told. Until they did, they could sleep on the hay in the Dining Hall.
For these veterans, solitude was a natural response to depravity. Solitude meant the opportunity to rebuild, to create a place completely removed from the war machine, a community of peace.
Many years have passed since these first students made their way to Vermont to learn in a new type of school that was literally young and poor. The solitude students of contemporary times experience at Marlboro is not unlike that solitude of their predecessors, however. We too came to Marlboro to strip away what was killing us and the defenses we have developed over time to shield ourselves from the world; defenses that have prevented the creation of authentic and honest relationships.
Many of us here were sick before we came here. Sick because we wished for America to be a better place yet did not know how to enact that change we wished for. Sick because the world we wished for seemed constantly undermined by forces that we had little knowledge and little control over. Historian Jackson Lears has described such a condition as the “paralysis of the will.” The seeming impossibility of enacting a better life. He writes of the condition of American Nervousness, a concept popularized by George Beard in 1880. Beard wrote of this sickness that it was “fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears, fear of contamination, fear of everything, deficient mental control, lack of decision in trifling matters, hopelessness…” This nervous prostration was summed up by another writer as a product of a “generation that is more interested in questions about life than in living.”
Marlboro asks us to negotiate the tension between solitude and immersion, between philosophical ponderings and the living of life.
This is a difficult process. Be not fooled. Envisioning new ways of being and new ways of seeing is painful. Balancing the hopefulness of our studies with the reality of our times is difficult. Our living is directly impacted by our questions about it. Doubt occasionally overwhelms only to be trumped by the invigoration of creativity and the shifting of the soul.
Our solitude is of a different sort. It is a result of a desire to know ourselves better so that we may participate more wholly, so that we may not be jaded and whither.
In a world that is increasingly dependent on connections and interactions that transcend geographical space, we wonder how we can understand our place in the world from this small mountain. How can we be alone when what is required of us is interconnectedness and shifting boundaries?
We come here to heal so that we might join the world again and we come here praying that this will be the place, that Marlboro will be the place that makes that reintroduction into the world possible and positive. May we introduce ourselves to you, now, as the class of 2007.