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>  News Releases >   1998 >   June

James O. Freedman Commencement address June 14, 1998

Posted 06/14/98

Eleven years ago, I stood on this platform on Baker Lawn and was inaugurated as the fifteenth president of Dartmouth College. That ceremony constituted the highest honor and the greatest opportunity of my life. Now I stand here to deliver my final Commencement address.

During the intervening years, Dartmouth has remained true to its fundamental commitment to liberal education. It has achieved some of its aspirations and fallen short of meeting others, but it has always devoted itself to the humane pursuit of understanding the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

In evaluating the achievements of the present, there is a constant temptation to believe that, at some golden moment in the past, a college like Dartmouth reached its zenith and that everything since has been paradise lost. Perhaps nothing challenges the validity of such a view better than an ironic passage from a commencement address delivered at Harvard in 1938 by John Buchan, the Scottish author and statesman. Buchan wryly told his audience:

"The great day of every university on the globe is over. At some date about forty years ago a golden age dawned on the world. . . . In that age, life was more interesting than can ever have been before; men were bolder and more humorous; friendship was a richer and warmer thing; the world was a succulent oyster waiting to be opened. Let some new Gibbon explain how the decline began; the subject is too painful for those who have suffered from it. It is sufficient to say that brightness has fallen from the air and the twilight of the gods descended."

Yet all of us know that there are few golden ages. There is only the timeless continuity, the halting tempo, of challenge and response. I have been ever cognizant that colleges maintain their standing in society only by a persistent effort, decade upon decade, to deepen our understanding of ourselves and to explore the most distant horizons of knowledge.

Colleges remind us more forcefully than other social institutions that civilization and democracy depend upon the intense and often lonely activity of cultivating the life of the mind. Judged by these standards, Dartmouth is, I believe, a ship on the voyage out, the best parts of its passage still ahead.

Just as it is Dartmouth's task to achieve its fullest destiny, so, as you leave this special place, is it yours. When Abraham Lincoln was thirty-one years old, in 1841, he contemplated suicide because he believed that "he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived."

You, too, may in time be afflicted by disquieting doubts as you make your own passage through life. Even now you may harbor a sense of anxiety as you anticipate an uncertain future, wondering how, or if, you will make a mark of your own.

Later, when middle age approaches, you may experience a nostalgia for the triumphant glories of youth, a determination to invest your remaining years with meaning and idealism, a wistful longing for the solace of knowing that your life has been worthwhile. Will it be too late?

My own profound belief is that the surest source of a satisfying life is a liberal education, not one that ends today, but one that occupies you for the rest of your days -- one that enables you to realize your own personal sense of destiny and to develop an independent perspective for reflecting on the nature and texture of your life.

A liberal education that lasts a lifetime will inspire you to strengthen the foundations of your moral identity and to explore the ordeal of being human -- the drama of confronting the darker side of the self; the responsibility of imposing meaning on your life and society; the challenge of transcending the ambiguity-entangled counsel of arrogance and modesty, egotism and altruism, emotion and reason, opportunism and loyalty, individualism and conformity.

My fervent hope is that you will find in your liberal education the basis for a life of idealism and joy -- a life notable for noble ambitions pursued, worthy battles joined, public services rendered, family journeys traveled.

Permit me now a personal word. As I conclude my eleven-year tenure as president of Dartmouth, I cannot help but wonder how my stewardship will be judged. It will fall ultimately to the historians, taking a longer view than we can now, to make that assessment. I can do no more than to adopt the words of my mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall, who hoped that history would remember him as one who "did the best he could with what he had."

My time of responsibility is about to end. This time of parting, as Shakespeare wrote, "is such sweet sorrow." But I shall step down from the presidency of Dartmouth with a deep love for its people, a great respect for its mission, and a high confidence that it will forever remain a beacon of intellectual excellence and a commonwealth of liberal learning.

Congratulations and good luck!

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