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Office of the President Emeritus
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Hanover, NH 03755
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Convocation 2001 - Remarks by James Wright

September 24, 2001

Welcome. Even an institution that operates around the year and around the globe needs a symbolic time and place to gather and formally mark the start of another academic year. We are drawn here today from across this nation, and, indeed, from many nations, for the single purpose of learning. This annual ceremony of reunion and renewal brings together our colleagues in the faculty and administration, our returning upper-class students, our new and returning graduate and professional school students, and members of the community. I am pleased to welcome you all.

On behalf of the College, I am especially delighted to greet here the members of the Class of 2005. Having already shaken your hands at matriculation, I recognize you as old friends. And I'm honored to salute you as the largest class in the history of Dartmouth College--a distinction that we had not expected you to achieve and one that we intend to allow you to retain for quite some time.

As one who himself can think of no place he would rather be, it is a privilege for me to welcome so many others who simply wanted to be here. What a great foundation for all of us to build upon.

As members of the Class of 2005, you have by now stored in your own mental scrapbooks your first Dartmouth memories as students -- outing club trips, athletic events, class orientation activities, social gatherings, meeting roommates, making friends. I hope that each of you is already enriched by a treasure trove of happy experiences. But throughout your long lifetimes of remembering these, you will also never be able to dismiss some uninvited companions of your thoughts: searing images of horrendous tragedy and stories of courage, of suffering, and of unspeakable loss. September 2001, the month that you matriculated at Dartmouth, is destined to be more than merely a calendar notation in your personal diary.

The inhuman acts of terrorism in New York City, Washington D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside will forever cry out from the recollections of this time. History is now encumbered by this memory; understanding its significance will be far more complicated. While you have come to a place where we try to make sense of things, there is no act of intellectual legerdemain by which we can transform the irrational, suddenly, into the rational.

On September 11 our most common reactions were ones marked by shock, alarm, grief, and anger. For some, these feelings may have evolved into emotions of fear and of hatred. But it is critical that we not surrender to either fear or hatred. This nation may necessarily feel a lessened sense of security, indeed of innocence, as a result of this terror, but our ideals -- national and human -- must not be eclipsed by a pervasive sense of insecurity. We are right to be cautious -- but not afraid. One cannot live a good life if it is imprisoned by fear and guarded by suspicion.

Robert Frost cautioned us that

Before I build a wall I'd like to know
What I was walling in or walling out

We all recognize that evil individuals exist in the world -- individuals who have no respect for the dignity, the lives, the basic humanity, of others -- or, finally, of themselves. It is, however, a complicated matter to move from knowing this to understanding and addressing it. As we cry out for justice, we must recognize that true justice requires both process and result and that the two sustain one another. Hatred does not promote these things. Never forget that those who sought to help far, far outnumbered those who sought to hurt.

The last two weeks have revealed stories of breathtaking selflessness and heroism, stories of those in airplanes and smoky stairwells, those amidst mountains of ash and rubble, stories of police and fire fighters and emergency crews, and of others who put their lives at risk -- who, all too often, sacrificed their lives -- to save others. Members of our broader Dartmouth community, from among our graduates and friends, were lost in this tragedy. Others from our community stepped up to help in the horrific aftermath.

It is perhaps human nature for us to wonder how we would respond if personally confronted by these things. Would we, too, display such resolute and unselfish courage? My wish and prayer for you is that you never have to discover the answer to this inquiry. Remember though there are many different types of heroism. Our society at this important juncture also needs individuals who will step forward to insist that we not extrapolate from the psychoses of a handful and harbor stereotypes based on race, nationality, or religion. Such actions will only compound the tragedy we have experienced and advance the very goals of its perpetrators.

The spirit of patriotism that is currently abroad in this land helps to unify us when we feel isolated and alone. It is a good and proper sentiment. We have reason for a sense of common pride and we have clear need for a sense of common purpose. But as we celebrate and salute America let us remember that our strength and our durability rest upon cornerstone values. Among these are democracy and freedom, openness and inclusion, due process and civil liberties, individual rights and individual accountability. That these values have been unevenly available and inequitably shared over the course of our history does not diminish them.

The Three-fifths clause of the Constitution, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Trail of Tears, Dred Scott, Heart Mountain, My Lai, these stand as reminders of when we have forgotten these basic values, of those times when we have allowed expedience, selfishness, fear or hatred, to define us.

The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation, Normandy and the liberation of Auschwitz, Brown v. Board of Education, and a history defined by waves of immigration and by the development of a pluralist and rich society and culture -- these things bear fuller witness to who we are and surely they should set our aspirations. If we have not today fully met the promise of our founding as a nation, we are insistently moving toward it. Continuing progress requires us to remember well that principles and values are not shouted slogans but must be matters that whisper in our hearts and inform our conduct.

There are those who suggest that the world of higher education is an ivory tower set apart from some "real" world. Let me say that this world -- this so-called ivory tower, this world of ideas, of possibility, of wonder and of discovery, of embracing difference and of celebrating accomplishment -- this world is indeed more real than are worlds marked by hatred, violence, and cruelty. Do not permit the cynics and the fearful to insist otherwise. Your task is to make the realities that are the everyday stuff of Dartmouth more common in the world at large. And, so, here we come to your assignment -- not simply your first assignment at Dartmouth, but your assignment for a lifetime. Mary Oliver hoped for this lifetime that:

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms,

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

From what I know of you, you have little intention of just being visitors -- to the world of Dartmouth or to the world for which your generation will shortly assume responsibility. As you think about the lifetime that lies ahead of you, inevitably you will be thinking about your career choices, your professional interests, about what it is you will do with your life. But, the academic fellowship you join here is about more than that. Thinking about the sort of person you will be is a far more complicated task than just thinking about your choices for employment or for subsequent graduate or professional education, as important as these matters are.

At Dartmouth, you have joined a vibrant, intellectually engaged, exciting community of thinkers. This College is not a place that you simply pass through, as part of a group of young women and men who are to be filled with canonical and fixed knowledge, and then, following a four-year aging process, officially certified as learned. Today you embark on a journey more demanding and energizing than that. Dartmouth is a place of learning that requires your full and active participation.

Here, where the liberal arts occupy a central position, you yourself will share a responsibility for shaping your learning. Moreover, you will quickly discover that you have set forth upon a lifetime of learning, growing and changing. Finite courses of study can never keep up with the infinitely expanding knowledge that will mark your lives. Nor can static learning prepare you for the unimagined challenges that your generation may face.

Your lifetimes will be shaped--as they already have been--by unfolding discoveries and by technological marvels, as we understand better the universe around us and the genetic code within us. You will need to be prepared for continually expanding your knowledge--and for unlearning things as well. Here at Dartmouth we urge you to follow a course of study that takes you along intellectual trails you never thought to follow.

Here you will come to appreciate better your place in a physical and natural world, in a social and political world, in a world of natural and human history, in a world of arts and letters, of belief systems, and of human creativity. As scientific discoveries and technological advances enlarge our sense of the possible, as stunning acts of cruelty and malice constrict our hopes, we gain equilibrium more readily when we are grounded in reflections on what it is to be a human being. Our guides for this may be works of observation, reflection, and artistic representation that are as old as human records or as contemporary as the creative and insightful thinkers who provoke and enliven our lives today. John Adams assured his son that "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket."

Just as learning to learn is a lifetime goal of the liberal arts, so is learning how to learn with and from those who are different from you. Our Alma Mater has lines urging the sons and daughters of Dartmouth not to let its "old traditions" fail. I urge you to assume this obligation, and to remember that the oldest and truest tradition of this College is to provide a community that is welcoming, sustaining, and empowering -- one that celebrates, rather than shies away from, difference. If this was but an implicit part of our founding charter 232 years ago, it has been our explicit goal for the last century.

Learning is more than a formal academic process. It is also a social and cultural journey of discovery, as you learn to cross boundaries defined by race, gender, religion, place of origin, sexual orientation or identification, and political philosophy. Dartmouth is a community, and as a community we are strengthened immeasurably by our historical commitment to being more than a transient residential neighborhood.

Here community means welcoming and belonging, it means including and supporting, it means friendship, rather than mere acquaintance. You will likely never again live and work in such a close residential community with so many people who are different from you and who have so much to offer you -- just as you have so much to offer them.

I call on you to cross boundaries, to learn about classmates and friends who are not like you, and to learn about yourself in the process. This surely is what education is about. And this is more than a singular experience limited to undergraduates.

Those of you who best learn to handle these transactions will be enriched for the rest of your lives. You will be the stronger as a result, as will be the society in which you live. The recent census confirms what we can all observe: that this country is a bright tapestry of differences. Recent events attest to the urgency of crossing boundaries, of embracing differences, as we find and celebrate our common humanity. In a world that increasingly is global economically, culturally, and politically, this truth, this urgency, becomes ever more compelling.

September 2001 needs be marked by more than a memory of violence and suffering. We need to grieve and remember those who have been lost, commend those who were our heroes, and comfort those who mourn and suffer. How better to do this than by dedicating ourselves to confronting hatred and rejecting stereotypes, by seeking justice and by its corollary of confronting injustice. This task is one that we must individually assume as a living memorial to the victims of these tragic events.

Members of the Class of 2005, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But, you should know that by your very presence here, Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. And also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning. As we now grieve and heal together, from this must follow the recognition that we have work to do, you and I--and it is time to begin!

Welcome to Dartmouth.

Last Updated: 8/21/08