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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 2002 - Remarks by James Wright

June 6, 2002

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates. 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.Swayne wins Wilson fellowship for

Your hearts, I know, are filled with many things on this day. My custom and my pleasure is 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.

We also recognize today the Class of 1952 who, on the occasion of their fiftieth reunion, return to campus in record-setting numbers and with great enthusiasm. We are delighted to have them once more grace this place and enrich this weekend.

Members of the Class of 2002: We started our assignment together on a soft September day in 1998, your first convocation and my inauguration becoming a singular moment - happily so in my view and as such forevermore in my memory.

On that day I shared with you these few lines from Emily Dickinson:

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.

I affirm here today, with the endorsement of the faculty and in the company of your families and friends, that you are a group that has soared to impressive heights.

Back in the fall of 1998 you each entered into this community with certain understandings about yourself and, most likely, with certain assumptions about what you would do here, as well as how you might lead your lives after June of 2002. It has been the College's purpose over these four years to encourage you to test those things you thought you knew about yourself and to expand the context for this lifetime process.

Because your own understandings of who you are and what you are about are individual ones, profoundly personal and subjective matters, I would not presume to assess your progress in reflecting upon them. I hope, though, that you have found here a place where you were challenged by the faculty and your classmates and where you could test your own assumptions and values.

Lives are not programmed things simply to be lived out according to plan or design. Ability, will, purpose, hard work, discipline - these surely are determinants of the directions of our lives. But so too is luck; and so also are the actions of others and those historical forces that are beyond our control.

The events of the last four years have significantly altered the context for your self-discovery and your articulated ambitions. The world may appear a different place today from the one you looked to four years ago. In these years you have seen times of tragedy, of cruelty, and of war. You have seen our political system embroiled in battles over impeachment and in contests over the outcome of a presidential election. You have seen significant economic fluctuations, from heady highs to disconcerting lows. You have celebrated a new millennium and have seen the unlocking of the genomic code - and you now know that understanding this basic biochemical cornerstone of our lives does not alleviate tensions over race, religion, and boundaries.

We have together been eyewitnesses to horror and hatred: from the Middle East to lower Manhattan, from the Pentagon to the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, from a school in suburban Denver to back roads in Texas and the high plains of Wyoming. And our own peaceable kingdom here has been stunned by inexplicable tragedy and choked in grief.

It is hard to mourn the innocent on the scale that we have had to mourn and also to maintain our own sense of innocence. Nonetheless your lessons here and your lives before you must not be ones of fear, apprehension, suspicion, pessimism, and cynicism. Knowledge of who we are, of our own values and priorities; understanding the ways in which our background, our race and gender, shape us and perhaps privilege us - these are important things. But we also need to know, really know, who others are.

Our self-knowledge is wholly inadequate if others become a focus of our fear or our hatred or our dismissal. Hatred can never win unless we allow it to win. Confronting it is never simply a passive exercise. You must never allow the worst among us to represent you or your time; you simply must not. And I have seen enough of you to know that you will not.

Despite the unexpected and unwanted turns of history, despite the tragedies that have screamed out for our attention and commanded our tears, your four years here have also been marked by a world filled with love and caring, with poetry and music, with curiosity and discovery, with hope and encouragement - with people daily doing the small things to make the world a better and a more humane place.

Our task is to make certain that these things continue to dominate. The most successful among you - defining success in your own personal ways - will be those who continue to learn, to adapt, to deal with those things you have to deal with, those who never confuse independence of thought with selfishness of action. Never forget who you are and what is important to you. Encourage and nurture your best instincts. Olympic hero Jesse Owens said: "The battles that count aren't the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself-the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us-that's where it's at."

So your work, your assignment, is not ended today. This is indeed commencement, not conclusion. Rest assured, you are prepared for the sequel.

Learning about yourself; relating to the human, the cultural, the physical world around you; adapting to the changes that mark history and shape lives; facing tragedy and acknowledging setbacks - at this point you know these are not only assignments of the academy, but are also your responsibilities for a lifetime. Do not ever doubt your capacity to take on these matters. Whatever the challenge, your stature will continue to reach the skies.

Now it is time for leave-taking. We know you go forth in good and capable hands-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