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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015
Email: james.wright@dartmouth.edu

Commencement 2000 - Valedictory to the Graduating Class by President James Wright

June 11, 2000

James Wright

Speech by James Wright

Go to video of speech

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to you, the graduates of the Class of 2000. This is your day. Your memories will forever cherish this occasion, and there will surely be few times in your lives when you will be surrounded by so many who care so much about you.

Your hearts, I know, are filled with many things on this day, and I would be pleased to participate with you in acknowledging one of them: a sense of gratitude. I join you in thanking the faculty who taught you, as well as learned with you, the families who sacrificed for you, and the friends who have sustained you.

The year 2000 has finally arrived. You have named your class the "Zeros," "double zeros," "oughts," and even "ought nots." But if these terms identify you, they surely do not describe you. Ahead of you now is a new century â€" and the rest of your lives.

If you think that this moment has come too soon, I urge you not to worry. Our ceremony today attests that you are ready. I have great confidence in your ability to dream big dreams, to challenge your limits, to make those dreams come true, and to continue to ask much of yourselves.

Many of you now expect fame and fortune, and there is little doubt that if you pursue such goals, you will likely attain both things. You graduate into a world in which the concept of fortune has taken on additional digits â€" and has done this just in your lifetimes. Remember, though, that success is finally a personal thing, defined against your own aspirations and expectations.

The Class of 1950 joins you in celebration here today â€" a fiftieth anniversary moment that has undoubtedly come upon them sooner than they ever imagined it could. If you were to ask them about success, few if any of them would, I am sure, describe their satisfactions merely in terms of how many digits were associated with the money they have earned or accumulated.

They would talk to you about family and friends, about personal challenges met, about sharing with others, about music and art and letters, about stunning examples of human creativity. Some would talk about faith, about quiet times on the side of a mountain or on a shore. All would agree with Wordsworth that the best portion of a good life was marked by: "the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." The fifty-year class would tell you, as do I, that these little things are the better appreciated the sooner they are recognized.

The women and men who have stood before us today and received honorary degrees from the College provide us with models of full and rich lives. Each of these individuals has been measurably successful. All have excelled in the face of challenges, some of which we may not even know about. They have redefined the markers and the measurements of success. And, they have also made the lives of others better, fuller, and happier. And so can you.

Few people have enjoyed the privileges of the sort of education you have had. Accordingly, we urge you now to assume a special and lifetime obligation to assist and to enable others. We know you well enough to understand that at this time you fully intend to do these things. You have already demonstrated in so many ways your generosity of spirit. But as you become absorbed in the mechanics of the rest of your lives, remember that defining who you are is a lifetime task and one that it is far more complicated than is determining what it is you will do. Georgia O'Keefe said: "Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest."

For many, the task of defining who they are is complicated even more by categories imposed and stereotypes presumed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, W. E. B. DuBois confidently predicted that the "problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." From the vantage of this century, we need to acknowledge the accuracy of that prediction.

The twentieth century was marked by many problems, but certainly color and race ran through the history of the last hundred years, and not always showing the human condition at its best. Now, we start a new century, and rather than prophesize, let us resolve: It is time for race â€" and, more broadly, for difference â€" to cease being a problem and to be, instead, a source of celebration.

In a world that values diversity there should be no dominant majority; there should be only a recognition of mutual interdependence. The richness and vitality of American life stems from this and not from our homogeneous sameness. Our strength depends upon our capacity to transcend our differences â€" of race, surely and most obviously, but also of gender, of intellect, of religion, of background, of sexual orientation â€" to transcend them and to share a commitment to core values such as equality and freedom. Remember the importance of this task â€" and your personal responsibility for it. As Dr. Seuss has said: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

There is an immediate way in which you can move out from the self-absorption that getting on with your lives necessarily will require. The year 2000 is, of course, a national election year in this republic. Some of you may have participated in various campaigns this past winter. Our democracy depends upon participation, and I urge you to continue joining in its processes, revitalizing it by your idealism and by the questions you can bring to the process.

American democracy must be more than a process for aggregating individual interests into a working majority. It also needs to promote a sense of civic responsibility that transcends the self and that recognizes our shared obligation to promote the common good. Barbara Jordan once said: "A spirit of harmony can only survive if each of us remembers, when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny." Such recognition is consistent with the best of our history, the strongest of our values, and the highest of our aspirations.

Now it is time for leave taking: we know you go forth in good and capable hands â€" your own. Near the end of the 19th century Walt Whitman wrote, "the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung." We leave them still for your voices. But know too as you leave today that the door here is always open for you. You are ever a part of Dartmouth undying, as Dartmouth is forever a part of you.

Last Updated: 8/21/08