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Dartmouth Commencement 2009

Posted 06/14/09

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Commencement address by Valedictorian Geoffrey R. Kirsch

Geoffrey R. Kirsch
Geoffrey R. Kirsch
Listen to Commencement remarks by Geoffrey R. Kirsch (10:00, 9.2mb)

Mr. President, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honored Guests, Families and Friends:

To my fellow graduates of the Class of 2009 – I cannot begin to express my honor and gratitude – not only to be standing here before you today, but to be counted among you. Your intellect and resolve, your diverse talents and your basic decency, fill me both with pride and with great expectations for our future.
To my parents and grandparents – thank you for being with me not only on this great day, but for 23 years. I hope that my presence at this podium is in some small part a testament to your love and devotion, and to a debt which I can never really hope to repay.

To the Office of Admissions – thank you for giving me a chance three years ago, when I made the best decision of my life and applied to Dartmouth as a transfer student.
To my professors – thank you for keeping alive amidst the mind-numbing glare of the twenty-first century the brighter flame of the liberal arts tradition, and for passing it on.

And to President and Mrs. Wright – thank you for a combined 71 years of service, dedication and exemplary leadership.

Mr. President, on a September morning four years ago you welcomed this class to Dartmouth with a simple announcement: We have work to do. At their own convocation fifty years earlier, the class of 1959 would have heard from another great Dartmouth president, John Sloan Dickey, that their business here was learning. Today it would be simple enough to declare that work complete. Because after all, we recognize today as the end of our studies at Dartmouth, even if we persist in calling it a beginning or a Commencement. Today is the day the so-called Dartmouth bubble bursts, the day our four years of knowledge finally lose us this Paradise, the day we must bid goodbye to professors and peers alike.

I refuse to accept this. In the words of President Dickey once again, “in the Dartmouth fellowship, there is no parting.” The business of learning remains unfinished for all of us. We do not become Dartmouth graduates when we put on these caps and gowns, nor even when we come up to this stage. We became Dartmouth graduates with the long evenings of study and stress; the arduous treks across this snow-covered Green in the face of howling winds; and the final exams at eight in the morning. But we are also still becoming graduates. I hope we have learned something here more valuable than any number of embalmed facts and ideas. I hope we have learned how to learn, that education never really ends, and that our work has only begun. Today we may leave Hanover, but we now possess a Dartmouth within each of us that is greater still – a Dartmouth that, as we shall soon sing in the Alma Mater, is made part of us till death.

This new Dartmouth, born again with each of us, is at the same time a very old Dartmouth. It is the Dartmouth that 240 years ago drove a 59-year-old minister from Connecticut north into an unbroken forest and an uncertain future. It is the Dartmouth that lay buried beneath four feet of snow and shaded by the towering pines in the hard first winter of 1771. It is the Dartmouth which celebrated its first Commencement in that same year, when the Governor of New Hampshire and his retinue traveled for days through the woods to honor the four graduates of the new college on the frontier. And it is the Dartmouth expressed in those Latin words beneath our college seal: Vox Clamantis in Deserto, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Today we seem to have inherited little more than that motto. What shall we cry, and in what wilderness will our voices clamor? The land was long ago cleared, the Lone Pine long ago cut. Our guests and families have arrived from every corner of the globe in less time than it took Governor Wentworth to travel a hundred miles in 1771. My words are at this very moment being streamed to an even wider online audience. The invisible dynamo of wireless Internet pulsates even across this very Green as we mark our graduation on Web sites and emails sent “‘round the girdled earth.” Things seem simulated, deferred, mediated.

And so it is easy enough to lament that such comfort and convenience have come at a price; that the wilderness is gone and with it the adventurous spirit of “old Dartmouth”; that the College is already built on the Hill, the voice in the desert already heard, the books already read; that we stand here today, “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life,” crying out for nothing more than a job in this miserable economy.

I do not believe this. As long as economy and environment alike are ruined by myopia and greed, as long as hunger and disease plague the world, we languish in a winter as dark and iron and oppressive as the early months of 1771. Wherever we set our learning against ignorance and ideology, we as Dartmouth graduates stand on the edge of a wilderness every bit as tangled and trackless as that which Eleazar Wheelock traveled in 1770.

And so wherever we go, let us, in the words of that greatest of “American Scholars,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “walk on our own feet, work with our own hands, and speak our own minds.” Whether we walk through cities or forests, whether we work in classrooms or cubicles, whether or not we speak in English, we are all voices crying in the wilderness. Let it be our burden and our privilege to clamor not only for jobs, but to build a highway for culture and intellect, to make straight the crookedness of politics and power, and to make plain the roughness of hardship and injustice. It is a hard task, but it is also one for which I expect we are well-prepared. It is the same work we have already begun.

There is more work to be done. The wilderness stands all before us. And so, class of 2009: thank you, congratulations, and – onward.

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