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Dartmouth Commencement 2006

(Posted 06/11/06)

Valedictory Address by President James Wright
President James Wright
President James Wright (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates - to the Class of 2006. 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. 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. Let us thank them.

The Class of 1956 gathers with us today to renew their friendships, to share with one another the paths they have taken, and to salute your accomplishments and to send you warmly on to the next phases of your lives. We celebrate them for what they have done and for the continuity they bring to this gathering.

The world that waits to welcome you seems different from the world that greeted them a half century ago. But this would be true in any half century of history. The world does not stand still, nor, indeed, do we. As was true with the Class of 1956, your education will see you through a life filled with change. As they have, you will take on the world's problems and will maximize life's opportunities.

President John Sloan Dickey told the Class of 1956, that the world will be better only if we assume responsibilities for the challenges we face. And our Commencement speaker, Elie Wiesel, has said, "the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference."

The world will be better only if those who are motivated by hatred and cruelty, and a lust for power are challenged by those who are not. The world will be better only if those who are privileged by life and history accept that life and history have not really been constructed simply to privilege them. It will be better only when we recognize those things that are truly important and know they cannot easily be counted or measured.

Last October at a military hospital, I talked to a young soldier who had been seriously wounded in Iraq. He had lost one limb and had other serious injuries, including terrible physical disfigurement, especially of his face. My heart went out to him as he described how an explosion had shattered his Humvee and his body. Confined to a wheelchair, he was eager to get on with his life. He hoped first to return to his unit, and then he would think of returning to school. I turned from the young soldier to speak to his father, who was standing close to him. I asked where they were from and he said the Gulf Coast. This was a month after Hurricane Katrina, so I expressed to them the hope that they had come through the storm okay. The father replied that they had lost everything they had. Everything. But then he put a hand affectionately on his son's shoulder, saying "but that is okay. My boy is alive and I have learned what is important in life."

We all need, instinctively and surely without such harsh lessons, to know what is important in life, and it must be more than what we possess. It is the love and well being of family and friends. It is caring for those who do not share our good fortune. You have cared, members of the Class of 2006, you have reached out often and unselfishly - to Tanzania, and Darfur, and Southeast Asia, and Pakistan, and to the Gulf Coast. And you have extended a hand to our own neighbors here in the North Country. You have affirmed that you assume responsibility both for your world - and for your natural environment - and also for your College.

Four years ago, at your Convocation, I asked you to take on one of the fundamental tasks of our time: learning to navigate those categorizations such as race and ethnicity that can divide us. You took on the challenge and I salute you. We surely have work yet to do, but we here are the better because of your efforts. You now need to embrace the fact that this is a lifetime assignment - for Dartmouth always, but also for you as individuals, as you move on from this place. And how well you handle this challenge will shape your world.

Many of the world's tragedies have come from natural disaster, but those shaped by human cruelty are in so many ways the greater. So many of the tensions of our time flow from suspicion, hatred, or arrogance derived from constructs that are set by race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

These categories need to be embraced as descriptions that enlarge and enrich the human condition, rather than as ones that divide and confine. Our fundamental and shared humanness should never accept fear or hatred as being inevitable parts of our condition.

I have confidence in you, and I have faith in the liberal arts education that you have received. It is an education for a lifetime. But it must be used to be of value. Remember that learning is forever - the capacity to take on the new and the unexpected, for relearning and unlearning, these are essential components of your education. Knowing how you relate to the physical, the natural, the historical, the human world gives you a context for all that you do. Appreciating the richness and the range of human creativity can brighten our darkest times. And knowing your own values, knowing your own values and affirming them, when it is hardest to affirm these things, all of this will stand you well.

So, now, now it is time for leave-taking. We know you go forth in good and capable hands - your own. Near the end of the nineteenth 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.

Godspeed and Good Luck -

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