Commencement Address: Andrew Delbanco

Good morning, students, parents, President McCulloch-Lovell, faculty, staff, trustees, friends from near and far.

Let me say right up front that in this commencement season when distinguished speakers around our country—the president of the International Monetary Fund, a former secretary of state, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley—have been disinvited or driven away, I feel a little disappointed that no one has so far objected to my being here today. Perhaps that will change in the course of the next 15 minutes or so.

Seriously, it’s a great honor and pleasure for me to be with you today, and I am truly delighted to congratulate all of you on commencing the next stage of your lives, even—or perhaps especially—if you have no idea what exactly that will be. 

This is your day; you should savor it and save it in your memory. Everyone here is immensely proud of you, and you have every reason to be proud of yourselves.

More particularly, you should be proud of this college. Marlboro is one of the most distinctive institutions in the United States, and that distinctiveness is what I mainly want to talk about this morning.  

To that end, I want to ask you to take a moment to consider what kind of experience other college students in our nation are looking back on during this season of commencements.    

First of all, you’d see very few like yourselves. This is a small college; indeed one of the great things about Marlboro is that it has the courage to be small in an age when so many people assume that big is good, bigger is better, and biggest is best. Yet small as you are, you, the Marlboro class of 2014, represent a significant fraction of all the students in the United States who attend a residential liberal arts college that’s anything like this one. By “like this one” I mean a place where you get to know your classmates, where you not only converge on classes together but share your lives together outside class, where you make lifelong friends, and, most of all, where you get an education—though “get” is the wrong word, because you have learned that you must give as much as you get—that’s not about prepping you for this or that career but is a preparation for life.

In this sense, you are a tiny minority. That word minority is one we tend to use these days to refer to people designated as different or peculiar by other people, for reasons of ethnicity or race or religion or sexual preference—people, that is, who feel outnumbered even if their numbers are growing. But, in fact, you—all of you, as students in a liberal arts college, regardless of your color or gender—are, to my eye at least, America’s most conspicuous minority today. 

Now, one of the virtues of smallness is that a college like yours can be what I like to call a rehearsal space for democracy: a place where students, and faculty, learn to speak with civility, listen with respect, and, most important, discover that you may walk into a classroom, or performance space, or town meeting with one point of view and walk out with another—or at least with productive doubt about what you were sure was true.

Marlboro, with its strong tradition of shared governance, is a powerful instance of how this kind of education works.  It’s a kind of education indispensable not only for you but for our nation. I hardly need to tell you that we live—all of us—with an endless cacophony of pleadings and persuasions all designed to capture our money, or loyalty, or vote. You all know what I mean: corporations, political parties, interest groups of all sorts try 24/7 to persuade us of this or that: “Obamacare” is a rip-off that will bankrupt the country, or it’s an overdue act of justice; abortion is the work of Satan, or to deny a woman an abortion is a form of abuse; charter schools are a violation of the public trust, or they are the salvation of a broken public school system; nuclear energy is our only hope for slowing the degradation of the environment, or it is Armageddon waiting to happen. These are just a few random samples of the kinds of conflicting claims between which we must choose or somehow mediate.  In this ocean of noise, the only chance we have to maintain a functioning democracy is a citizenry that thinks for itself, and can tell the difference between prejudices rooted in passion and arguments based on evidence.

And that is the hope, I think, that animates your teachers and keeps them coming back year after year to work with you and your successors—the hope of sending you into the world ready for both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  With your wonderful faculty in mind, I want to say something about why teaching is not easy work. 

Every true teacher knows that there’s something severely limited about what any one of us can make happen, even in our own classrooms.  Sometimes the sparks will fly and students catch fire; but sometimes no matter what you do, no matter how much passion you pour into your subject, you find that you are pouring it down the proverbial well.  Your voice disappears into the void.  It’s as if a third force in the room has intervened between teacher and student and has blocked every effort at making a connection between the two. 

Here on this beautiful day in Vermont, I find myself thinking of the Puritan founders of New England’s earliest colleges, which were in many ways the model for this college. They believed that this inscrutable and mysterious force touched some people and infused them with knowledge and insight, while it passed over others, leaving them untouched and unchanged. They had a name for it: they called it the holy spirit. And though most of us may not have a name for it today, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.    

Now all this may sound a little cryptic or even weird—so, with your indulgence, I will try to explain what I mean with what might be called an extracurricular example.  Imagine it’s a Friday night, and two roommates, with nothing better to do, decide to go to see a production of Shakespeare’s play King Lear that’s playing over in Brattleboro or down in Northampton.  It’s a play, as I’m sure many of you know, about an old man who’s losing his grip on power and dignity and even his own senses; who is cruelly duped and betrayed by his own children, who ends up wandering alone under the open sky, without shelter or mercy or hope.  He feels abandoned and discarded—a piece of human refuse consumed by fury at the world. 

Now these two roommates go to see a this play—they sit right beside each other in, say, the 4th row of the balcony; they hear the same actors’ voices, watch the same props moving across the stage—they have, in this material sense, the same experience. But when the house lights come back on, one of them says, you know, that guy had it coming to him; he was so full of himself, a real whiner; if I had to listen to him another minute I would have jumped out of my skin. Let’s get out of here and go get a beer.

But the other roommate has had a devastating experience. He doesn’t know why or how, but he finds himself thinking about his own father—about what are the obligations of children to parents and, for that matter, parents to children; about the savage sadness that comes upon so many people in their broken old age; in fact, he finds himself thinking about every aspect of his life in a new way. Does he want to have children of his own? If so, how will he bring them up? Maybe he’s decided to become a doctor specializing in care of the elderly; or maybe he’s just decided to call home and see how his dad is doing with whom he’s had a tough relationship, or maybe he doesn’t know what to do but he feels that his plans and priorities somehow need to be revisited and revised.  He knows for sure that he doesn’t want to end up like King Lear wandering alone on the heath. His world has changed fundamentally.  

Moreover, I think it’s impossible to say why one of these young men has had a transformative experience and the other has not.  It has nothing to do with which one had the higher SAT score, or even with who is better prepared for tomorrow’s exam in the course on Elizabethan drama. It’s a mystery—unfathomable, and inexplicable.

I think Marlboro is a place that recognizes this mystery at the heart of education—which is one sense, to use a phrase by which you describe yourselves, in which this is a “radically traditional” college. You are a national, even international institution; you come from many states as well as from other countries. Many of you have had experiences abroad. Yet you are also, at your core, a New England institution in the sense of being a sort of secular church—a community in which each member is treasured but also tested, respected as a human being of personal promise but also bearing the burden of responsibility for others. 

To be true to this radical tradition means to recognize that education is not a matter of coercion or even persuasion, but always and only a matter of invitation. This is what a true college does: it puts in front of you an array of opportunities—whether in the form of literature or physics or microbiology or music or the arts or anything that can seize the heart and mind—in the hope that something will catch, something will change the orientation of your life, and set you on a path that you may never have imagined for yourself. No one can say what or when it will be, or that it will have happened with any clarity by graduation day (it often doesn’t); yet the true college is based on the faith that there is an incendiary capacity in every teacher and an inflammability in every student.

So these are one outsider’s thoughts about what I might call the faith of a Marlboro education: that learning transforms your life, that it is of priceless value, and that it should never be taken for granted as a done deal.

I’m almost done; but I don’t feel I can end before remarking on one more reason that places like Marlboro matter so much. I suppose you could say it’s a more self-centered reason than what I’ve spoken about up till now. I first heard it articulated a few years ago after I had talked about some of the themes I’ve mentioned today (I had stressed the citizenship and democracy theme) to a group of alumni from my own college.  When I had finished, an elderly alumnus stood up and said something like this: “Professor, what you’ve said is all very nice, you’ve made some good points--but I think you’ve missed the main point.”  (I had fooled myself into thinking that I had gotten away from that kind of New York attitude by going down to Washington to see some sedate alums—but they were just as full of attitude as my students back home … ) So, with some trepidation, I pulled myself together, and said, OK, sir, what, exactly, was this main point that I had missed? That’s when he said something I will always remember. "College,” he said, “taught me to enjoy life.”  

I was knocked over.  What he meant was that his study of literature and art, of science, music, and philosophy, had opened his mind and senses, and enabled him to live more fully, with deepened delight, in both the natural and human worlds. A few years later, I heard my friend and colleague Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, put it this way to a group of students who had just arrived and wanted to know why they were there: “you want,” she said, “the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

I believe—and I hope you believe—that Marlboro has encouraged and enabled you to become more interesting to yourselves. That is not a selfish gift, but a gift of curiosity, and empathy, and openness to the world that, collectively, will make the world a better place for all of us. 

Now I have a certain taste for symmetry, and since I started by noting how rare a place like Marlboro is today, I hope you will forgive me if I conclude with some rather sobering facts about just who in our country gets the chance to have anything like the sort of experience you have had here.

In today’s America, if your family makes more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a college degree by age 24 are roughly 1 in 2; if your family income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly 1 in 4; and if your folks make less than $35,000, your odds are 1 in 17. The only way you can be satisfied with those numbers is if you believe that intelligence and talent are distributed in the population in the same way as money.

As you’ve noticed by now, I have a taste, like my Puritan friends, for preaching—so I’m going to risk a note of preachiness and say one more thing: You want to come back to your 10th, and 25th, and 50th reunions, and be able to say that you’re living in a country with better numbers than that. In this college, founded by and for veterans returning from war—a college where many of you come from families who have never sent a child to college before—I’d be very surprised if those numbers seem acceptable to you. 

I have already spoken longer than I meant to.  So let me wrap up with a very brief comment on what college is—or should be—not another formulation or statistic from me, but some words from John Updike, a great writer very much in touch with New England tradition who was, as it happens, one of my brother’s formative teachers.

In Updike’s last novel (by no means his best), he describes an exchange between a college counselor at a high school in rust-belt New Jersey, and the mother of a boy who doesn’t want to go to college even though he’s got the grades to do so. So the counselor goes to the boy’s home one evening and tries to persuade his mother that her son should be encouraged to give it a try.  But “what would he study at college,” she asks. Here is the counselor’s reply: “What anybody studies—science, art, history. The story of mankind, of civilization. How we got here, what now?”

Your teachers here at Marlboro have done their best to help you with the “how we got here” part. It’s up to you to answer the “what now”?

I am confident you will rise to that challenge. For your sake, and for the sake of future generations, I wish you good luck, or as my Puritan friends would have said, Godspeed.