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Dartmouth Commencement 2007

(Posted 06/10/07)

Valedictory Address by President James Wright
President James Wright
President James Wright
Listen to remarks by President James Wright, in his traditional "Valedictory to the Seniors" (10:21, 11.9mb)

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates of 2007. 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 and ask you to join me 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.

I would like also to extend a special salute to all of you who are receiving graduate and professional degrees. We celebrate your accomplishments and we are enriched by your contributions to this community of learning. We have full confidence in you and all that you will accomplish.

Members of the Class of 2007, at your Convocation I welcomed you to the world of the liberal arts. The liberal arts provide us with a context, with a means of reflecting on who we are and what we value, how we understand our world and relate to our time and place in the human experience. But this journey is not confined to four years. You are now prepared for a lifetime of learning. Knowledge is never static.

Mary Oliver wrote:

Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing.

Acknowledging our limits does not mean accepting them. Take with you an insatiable curiosity, an absence of stubborn certainty, and a capacity to adapt to change. At the opening ceremony of Winter Carnival this year, I reminded you of Alice's discovery in Wonderland: "Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible." Continue to extend the possible and dream big dreams.

You have learned that the world can sometimes be a scary place. You have seen individuals guided by the dark voices within them or led by demagogues of hate from without. You grew up with scenes of Columbine, were stunned by 9/11, and now you reflect on images of Virginia Tech.

But as Dartmouth graduates, you know neither to accept pessimism or fatalism nor to hunker down in fear. There are in this world vastly more people who care than there are those who hate. Love and respect and caring can stand up to evil and hatred. They can do so if those who embrace those values will stand.

One of the problems of our time may be the growth of a culture of fear, where our children grow up afraid of strangers and wary of the strange. Walls and gates of security come with some costs. Liberty, freedom of thought, of speech, of belief, and of association; a culture that welcomes the different and a society that assumes responsibility for the less fortunate; openness, generosity, curiosity—these explain American society at its best. They are not abstract sentiments to be traded for a false sense of security.

You are here today through hard work and discipline and accomplishment. But you are also here by the accident of history, rather than through a history predetermined to entitle you. You are part of a privileged company and with that privilege comes responsibility.

The agenda of your time will surely include fundamental changes in the global economy, in international security, in energy availability, in the earth's temperatures, in the tensions of nationalism, of religion, of race, of difference. Remember that in a world of change there are those who are left behind. But the difference between the social contract of human society and the natural world of selective survival is the existence of a common responsibility for the weak and the vulnerable and for each other. Education is not enough to assure wise or good or responsible citizens. These need draw on their moral and spiritual energy, forces that I hope and trust have been sharpened here.

What are the shared truths and values of your generation? It is okay not to be sure of the answers; but I do hope you have pondered that question. To be uncertain about shared values, faith, conviction, and purpose is not to be cynically indifferent to them.

The Class of 1957 joins us today. Fifty years ago they left here to live lives, to meet goals, to make a difference. Their College welcomes them back with great pride. So many have done so much. But if you were to ask them to reflect on lives well led, I suspect few of them would mention quantifiable markers and even fewer would measure by currency or tangible possessions.

There is of course nothing at all wrong with you seeking to accomplish measurable things and nothing wrong with material success. You will, I expect, do well. But along the way you will recognize that material accomplishments do not alone make a satisfying life.

At the 1957 commencement, President John Dickey said:

"Caring is a precious thing. Its intensity is personal to all creatures....The quality of your caring is what Dartmouth is all about. Remembering this you will fail neither her nor yourself and you will grow in grace."

Your legacy here of service and of generosity attests that you have already grown in grace. Never stop.

Carry with you images of this special place—and take one more with you in your mental album: the Inuit sculpture standing in front of McNutt Hall. It reminds us of Dartmouth's historic ties and ongoing commitment to Native American education. And it whispers "welcome," as you always will be here.

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.

Return to Commencement 2007

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