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Dartmouth Commencement 2008

Posted 06/08/08

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," June 8, 2008 (9:49, 9.0mb)

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates-to the Class of 2008. 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. Thank you all. 

I also would like to extend a special salute to all of you who are receiving the 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.

As one who has been at Dartmouth for many Commencements over many years, I still admit to the bittersweet ambivalence of this occasion. We say farewell this morning, too soon, to those who have inspired and energized us, as well as one another, and who leave a good place the better. But if we have done our job well here, this is not necessarily and inevitably the final step. It is the next step. It is not too soon, but it is just right. So it is with pride that today we witness your ceremonial transition from student to graduate, and we salute you as you now go on to make the world the better. Leave your doubts behind because you are more than ready for this challenge.

For all of your shared experiences and memories, each and every one of you harbors your own hopes and your own expectations. It is critical for you to have ambitions and dreams. However, it is also essential to know that lives are to be lived-and that the most interesting ones resist planning. As Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, "Live not for the end-of-the-song. Live in the along."

Some will tell you-and somewhat condescendingly they will tell you-that you are now joining the "real world." But I will not allow this assertion to go unchallenged. Places such as Dartmouth, which are fundamentally concerned with ideas and ideals-places that explore the unknown; that value independence, creativity, and a sense of true community where all are welcome and all are included-such places are very much part of the real world.

Dartmouth is a place where individuals can make a difference, where learning is a lifetime commitment, where those of us who have been privileged by the randomness of fate now assume a responsibility for those who have not shared in our good fortune, and where our real world is a true world, a global place, where the parochial and the narrow have ever-decreasing consequence. 

The worlds of commerce and health care, of law and diplomacy, of public service and military service, of teaching and research, and of artistic creativity, these are each rooted in Dartmouth's real world-the world of learning, of grappling with the fundamental questions about the human condition, of breathtaking moments of human creativity. They are rooted in this place that encourages teamwork, responsibility, and leadership. They are rooted in a world here that encourages students and faculty to engage always in discovery. Those who will lead in the world beyond stand here in this world today-you. And they are ready, you are ready-ready intellectually, morally, and personally-to lead.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has spoken to us today, used her education to challenge the powerful military and political authorities in her homeland of Liberia, and she used her knowledge to transform her country.  Some of you may lead nations-perhaps this nation. Most of you will not. But each of you can make a difference, a difference as leaders in your lives and your communities.

Speak to members of the 50-year Class who join us here today. Their memories of half a century have been both complicated and enriched by twists of history that none of them could possibly have predicted back in 1958 when they stood in front of Baker Library to celebrate their singular moment. They went on to make a difference, and we are proud of their embrace of John Sloan Dickey's challenge to them that "the world's problems are your problems."

Most immediately you of the Class of 2008 can make a difference by participating in the forthcoming national election. Four years ago, in September of 2004, I greeted you at Convocation as we were entering then the last six weeks of a presidential election campaign. I told you then that it was your future that was being debated. I acknowledged that it was not being debated very well-that the wellbeing of our political system is dependent upon the engagement of the young -upon you-and that you should not allow the process to be distorted by anything that was less than real debate over real issues. Personal attacks, cynical manipulation, and game-board strategy about red and blue states are not debates and they do not engage the issues. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel described it well over 40 years ago:

People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share.

The problems of our time are serious and the possible solutions are likely to be complicated. You have learned here the value of debate and the importance of testing ideas, and the importance of standing for values that you believe in, even as you listen to and learn from those who differ with you.  The wider world needs you now and we are confident that you are ready to take on this your next assignment.

So now, now it is time for leave-taking. We know that 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. The Inuit sculpture standing in front of McNutt Hall reminds us of Dartmouth's historic ties and ongoing commitment to Native American education. But this is more than a reminder of our history. It also whispers to each of us "welcome," as you always will be here.  You are ever a part of Dartmouth undying, as Dartmouth is forever a part of you.

Thank you, congratulations and Godspeed.

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