President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell's Remarks
Thank you, Dean, for your warm welcome and your leadership as Marlboro’s first alumnus Chairman. I welcome the podium party as well. We are proud to have our Governor of Vermont and Julie Johnson Kidd, who’s done so much to uphold the liberal arts. I welcome former President Tom Ragle and his wife Nancy.
It was a long, long winter and we need to celebrate! The lilacs and apple blossoms have popped, along with a few champagne corks. And here you are, the graduating class of 2013, at this our last ceremony. We call it commencement; it is also farewell.
Let’s take a moment for gratitude: for the gift of our own musicians; for the families and friends who supported these graduates through the years; for the board of trustees – their gifts of time, talent and treasure, and love for this college; for your faculty, those mentors who guided and chided you to this honor, who treated you with respect as colleagues. Your achievements are also their achievements. They are the Marlboro you will never forget.
I want to recognize two who are retiring this year after decades of teaching: Jerry Levy, sociology and educator for 37 years, who contributes in so many ways as an author, actor, and annual political candidate; Paul Nelsen, who taught and created theater at Marlboro for 35 years, known internationally as a Shakespeare scholar, who upholds our high standards in the literature of theater and in production.
For visiting professors Brian Mooney and Helen Lewis, and four fellows who became part of our community: Jean-Martin Albert, mathematics; Renee Byrd, social sciences; Evelyn Richardson, classics fellow for Latin and Greek: and Catharine Siller, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in Digital Arts. For the college staff who coached and encouraged and even employed you.
Now, orals are over, the party barge has set sail, and soon you’ll be clearing out, rolling down the hill to Brattleboro, or leaving us for graduate school, jobs, or a future still to be imagined.
What to say about you as a class? Really, you are kind of elusive. Some of you are graduating after being at Marlboro two years – some for six years. You span ages 21 to 65. Two of you are veterans, part of our Marlboro tradition. I heard some of you speak up at Town Meeting, part of the ardent debates – from smoking to the pet policy. Maybe you are the policy debate class!
Surviving the storm Irene along with Vermont, some of you witnessed Governor Shumlin land by helicopter on our soccer field. You trudged through long winters on Potash Hill.
More than a third of you studied abroad in 21 countries. One of you is a World Studies Program graduate.
All of you started your Marlboro experience with a Bridges trip -- part of the Ken Scheck era. Four of you earned certificates in TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages - or Nonprofit Management from our graduate programs.
You studied at Marlboro during the era of the Great Recession. If you read or watch the news, you were deluged by the national debate -- doubts about the job market, about student debt, even about the value of a college degree.
Between the lines, I hope you learned that you can expect to be better employed at higher wages than Americans without this degree. But is that the only reason you went to college and worked this hard?
You’ve been living in Vermont, which I like to call the last sane place, in the Shumlin era: our education Governor, the product of a liberal arts education. You went to college in the Obama era – two historic elections in which you got to vote.
Now, most of you know I’m a partisan, but I have an argument with President Obama and his Department of Education. There’s something called the White House Scorecard that purports to measure the “value and performance” of colleges. Here’s what it measures: net price; graduation rate; loan default rate; the median amount borrowed; and the type of job and salary earned after graduation.
See the trend? It’s all about money. We need to redefine “ROI - return on investment.” What about the other returns -- the return on the individual? The return on the community? Research reveals that the person with a college degree not only earns more, but is more likely to vote, to give to her favorite causes, and to volunteer.
You are graduating with the degree most connected to that exercise of choice—a degree in the “liberal arts.” Why do we use that term? Our Classics Fellow could tell us the derivation from the Greek and Latin; “liberal” comes from the word for “free.” From medieval times until recent history, universities taught prescribed courses thought to constitute the “knowledge worthy of a free man” – and until not long ago, such an education was for men.
But our sense of “liberal” is “liberation” – that we might be “liberated by an education…in the service of human freedom.” So says William Cronon in his 1998 article in The American Scholar. What makes a liberally educated person? It’s not a transfusion of facts or content, but rather a set of skills and qualities. To paraphrase Cronon, they are:
“To listen and to hear”: knowing “how to pay attention… to follow an argument.”=
“To read and to understand.”
“To write clearly and persuasively.”
“To solve a variety of…problems.”
“To respect rigor…as a way of seeking truth; to love learning….”
“To practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism…opening yourself to different perspectives.”
“To understand how things get done in the world.”
“To nurture and empower the people around you… recognizing that ‘no one acts alone.’”
“To ‘only connect’—Cronon uses E.M. Forster’s phrase—“the ability to see the connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act creatively within it.”
Is this sounding familiar? It should. I think I just described the qualities of your Marlboro education. I’ve lavished some of our last moments together on these to make Cronon’s final point: “Education for human freedom is also education for human community.” In other words, for the “social good,” the culture of connection.
Now that we’ve lived in this Marlboro community together for a while, I’ve learned from you. Recently you told me that:
“Our point of view is that we have a strong point of view.”
“We need more community spirit. Don’t lose traditions like Apple Days, Work Days, Broomball, Midnight Breakfast and the Community Photo.”
“I stayed because of my professors – they really care!”
And you said: “Marlboro presumes tremendous individual capacity and responsibility.”
That’s what education for liberation teaches. Why don’t we have a Scorecard for becoming an educated citizen? And yes, we also want you to find a satisfying job or get into a good graduate school—including our own.
Take all those skills you gained researching, organizing, and writing your Plan; know how you solved problems every day; how you followed creative possibilities – and with confidence and joy, believe in yourself and your powers as a liberated and liberating citizen.
This is your era.
Know this too; you will always have a home here at the beautiful village on the hill.