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>  News Releases >   2007 >   June

Dartmouth Commencement 2007

(Posted 06/10/07)

Address to the College by Valedictorian Nikolas Abraham Primack
Nikolas Abraham Primack
Nikolas Abraham Primack
Listen to the Valedictory address by Nikolas A. Primack ’07 (12:43, 14.6mb)

Good morning,

Mr. President, Members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, family and friends, fellow members of the Class of 2007—Dear ole Dartmouth,

What a great honor it is to stand before you this morning as a representative of the graduating Class of 2007, as one voice crying out in the wilderness to unite the eloquent voices of my friends, colleagues, and classmates. I represent you, my fellow graduates, not as the most athletic, the most creative, or even the most intelligent of your ranks. You—WE—are a remarkably talented group of individuals, and it is with great pride and gratitude that I confess here and now that the honor of speaking on this Commencement day pales in comparison to the honor it has been to serve beside you all for four years as members of the Dartmouth community.

To be sure, I think it is safe to say that matriculating into this community has been a great honor for us all. We belong, after all, to one of the oldest and most prestigious academic institutions anywhere in the country, if not the world. I also believe, however, that with this great honor has come tremendous pressure. I speak not of academic pressure; for most of us, balancing work and play has come quite easily... perhaps too easily for some. No, I refer primarily to the daunting task of guarding and preserving the legacy of Dartmouth generations before us, a pressure that we have faced countless times, and in countless venues, during our short tenure in Hanover. For four years we've been asked, implored even, to set our watch—lest we become the "worst class ever," lest we slide down the Newsweek rankings, and, as we're reminded each day at 6 PM, lest we "let the old traditions fail." These, my fellow graduates, have been difficult pressures indeed! I want to reflect this morning on this last pressure—on tradition—for it is a word that carries untold meanings and that has inspired an important and contentious dialogue on campus in recent months. It is a word that we've seen repeatedly evoked in Dartmouth op-eds and in articles across various campus publications, in poignant speeches and demonstrations, all of which have moved me to join this dialogue myself. Tradition is also a word that as alumni of the College we're unlikely to escape any time soon.

Tradition, at the risk of sounding too much the anthropologist I am, is invoked regularly by students, faculty, and administrators alike to link us with the Dartmouth of time immemorial—to legitimate our actions, some of them questionable at best, by establishing ties with an ideal, archaic past. The funny thing about "traditions," however, is that they're only really as old as our collective memory. The "way things have always been done" may, I suppose, have been in practice since 1769, but there is as likely a possibility that this "way" has only been extant since 2002, the year before we arrived in Hanover. How would we know? Traditions are terribly difficult to define, especially as we recognize their fluid and performed nature. Still, I speak of traditions today not to discount their value or importance. I believe wholeheartedly that so-called "traditions," no matter their age, by fostering a sense of communitas and pride, by establishing a forum that allows for shared experiences, and by breeding a culture unique to this time and place, are critical, and indeed, they are why many of us chose a school like Dartmouth in the first place. What I propose today, however, is that we draw a distinction between these traditions with a lowercase "t" and the as-frequently invoked Tradition with a capital "T," which, as reflected in our campus's current political climate, carries with it many dangerous implications. This Tradition, a singular, abstract ideal to which all Dartmouth students are ostensibly expected to aspire is, in my mind, inaccessible, if not non-existent. The students of today's Dartmouth deserve better than to be told what their Dartmouth must look like, what meanings it must carry. We deserve better than to be told to serve Tradition blindly, just because "that's how it's always been," rather than to serve purposes that we find individually meaningful and gratifying. But, just as important, we must also take great care not to perpetuate this message ourselves. Today, then, I suggest that we break from this rigid conception of Tradition altogether, and with it, from the notion of a single Dartmouth that we should all struggle to claim for ourselves. On this, our Commencement Day, let us each learn to speak of our own individual Dartmouths.

President Wright, you inspired this community on November 29, 2006 by sharing with us the principles that underlie YOUR Dartmouth. Following your lead, sir, I'd like to share with this campus the Dartmouth of my experience.

Hanover is cold, but as a native Southern Californian, My Dartmouth has seemed exceptionally cold. As a native suburban dweller, moreover, My Dartmouth has at times triggered within me a real sense of claustrophobia. Over the course of my D-Plan, however, and especially with the introduction of a good winter coat into my wardrobe, My Dartmouth has become less the in-the-middle-of-nowhere frozen tundra it once was, and more a pristine wilderness playground and an oasis of fresh air. This despite the 15 hours it takes to get here from home.

My Dartmouth has become home, though. It has grown familiar and welcoming, but it has always remained exciting and stimulating. It is a home not bound by the Hanover city limits, or even the borders of the United States. It can be found, for example, on the beaches of Auckland and in the marae of Waitangi. It is present in the Homework Club at the Upper Valley Haven. And, My Dartmouth will surely follow me next year when I return to Los Angeles.

My Dartmouth is not defined by a social network that constructs and reinforces an oppressive gender hierarchy. There are no "good ole boys" or misogynist "Men of Dartmouth." It has no place for prejudice or exclusivity, and it is not a Dartmouth that is divided along lines of race, sexual orientation, age, class, creed, or physical ability. It is, moreover, not a place that tolerates difference, but celebrates it! You can bet in addition that My Dartmouth is a place that celebrates its citizens not based on GPA, winning records, or on accolades and honors, but on kindness, character, and integrity.

My Dartmouth is a place that empowers its students by listening to them—by actively soliciting their opinions and concerns—and by acknowledging their worth as equal contributors to the academic discourse. It is an environment that fosters collaborations between students and faculty, and in so doing, truly embodies the spirit of a liberal arts institution.

My Dartmouth has no set paths for its students, but rather, encourages them to expect the unexpected. At My Dartmouth, unforeseen intellectual curiosities are free to grow out of any project, any conversation, and they are fueled by a compelling passion for knowledge rivaled only by each student's bold willingness to continue taking risks.

My Dartmouth doesn't purport to have every answer, but it never shies away from tough questions. It is a place that strives to teach its citizens valuable lessons outside of the classroom with the same vigor and zeal that it brings to its lecture halls. A lesson I've been fortunate enough to learn during my time in Hanover, and which I must remind myself daily, is that sometimes, it's what we do not do, rather than our actions themselves, that can affect us, and our communities, most profoundly. In some cases, a lack of action can be detrimental to ourselves and to our communities, and in these situations, we should never be content to stand idly by. It is just as important, however, that we learn to reexamine the things we are already doing. The moment any one of our actions or commitments ceases to be meaningful, ceases to be fulfilling, we must find the courage to realize that saying no does not imply failure. Despite anything else that might be at stake, it is our own happiness that is ultimately on the line.

My Dartmouth is, therefore, a place where students should be free from the pressure of Tradition. At My Dartmouth, people are passionate about the things they do, and they do them not to get a pat on the back or to learn a secret handshake, but because they want to.

You can see that My Dartmouth is a place of boundless potential and unbelievable vitality, but I fear that My Dartmouth is also in a state of great danger. It is in peril of being appropriated by people for whom My Dartmouth seems not to resemble the Dartmouth of their own, or worse yet, the Dartmouth of "Tradition." I say to those individuals today that My Dartmouth is nonnegotiable, and try as you may, it is not yours to claim.

I'd like to conclude this morning by noting regretfully that My Dartmouth is also a place where individuals do not say "thank you" enough. I hope to remedy that today by thanking my parents, without whose love and support I might never have had the courage to stand up for the things I believe. I'd also like to extend my profound gratitude to Professor Susan Ackerman, whose intellectual guidance has instilled in me a voracious hunger to learn by challenging tacit assumptions, and whose friendship has rescued me in times of great need. Finally, I'd like to thank you, the great Class of 2007, for shaping and enriching my experience over the last four years. To my fellow graduates—My Dartmouth is a place that will never disallow the existence of your limitless other Dartmouths. Though we can certainly take great pride in our collective traditions—in OUR Dartmouth—let us remember that today, 1,000 new Dartmouths will forever be inscribed in the granite of New Hampshire.

Thank you.

Return to Commencement 2007

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