Skip to main content

Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Commencement 2001 - Speech by James Wright

June 10, 2001

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to you, the graduates of the Class of 2001. 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, and I would be pleased 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.

You may wonder if graduation has really come so quickly. We look out at you and ask the same question. Time may be constant by the measurement of the great clock of the universe, but its passage is quite uneven in the timepieces of our hearts. Moments to be savored move far too swiftly. Members of the Class of 1951, whom we honor today, can tell you about the pace of time for I am sure it seems to them but a finger snap ago that they had their own Commencement. On that occasion they watched the Class of '01 -- 1901, that is -- celebrate its fiftieth reunion. That was the Class of Ernest Martin Hopkins. And, indeed, a century earlier still, Daniel Webster graduated, as a member of the Class of 1801. Such overlaps mark every Commencement and remind us of both our history and of our obligations to those who will follow us.

When we are young our lives are much devoted to planning, to concern for what is to be done in the future. When we are older, our lives focus more on things remembered, on what was done in our past. But life is neither a state of becoming nor one of memory. Life is a condition of being, and we must celebrate and cherish what we have. President Hopkins occasionally quoted from Robert Louis Stevenson that "those who miss the joy miss all." The Class of 1951, in their wisdom, will I know wish to shout that to you on this occasion.

At Dartmouth we talk a lot about our special sense of community -- not as a physical neighborhood, although surely it is that, but as a gathering of people with a shared commitment to the life of the mind and to the work of enabling one another to aspire and to achieve.

This is a place that at its best encourages curiosity and a willingness to take intellectual risks, while evoking a sense of friendship and of belonging.

Together we have had times of learning, of laughter, of sharing, of becoming, and -- this year, too often -- times of grieving. In recent months we have lost friends and colleagues. Time moved too quickly and reminded us too late of the need to stretch out our hands and welcome every opportunity to meet and to know those whose lives intersect with our own -- to say the things that should be said to those about whom we care.

We know all too well that no community is apart from the intrusion of tragedy. No peaceable kingdom is immune from violence. But the test of a community is not whether it is protected from bad and evil, but rather how it responds to these things when they come upon us without warning or reason. By this test, we can, in the midst of our pain, take pride. This community has responded well whenever challenged. The worst among us can never prevail so long as the best among us do not allow this to happen. I salute you, graduating seniors, for helping us to affirm this obligation. This Dartmouth tradition has resonated in the lives and deeds of graduates throughout this College's existence.

This day is marked by anticipation, as well as by reflection. Myrlie Evers-Williams once said, "I have reached a point in my life where I understand the pain and the challenges; and my attitude is one of standing up with open arms to meet them all." I hope that you, too, will meet the challenges ahead with open arms and a loving heart. At Dartmouth you have had opportunities to encounter and to reflect upon the best that has been thought and done. This campus resonates with optimism and with challenges to be met. So do and must the lives to which you now turn.

As you move ahead each of you will need to define what constitutes a full and a rewarding life for you. At your Convocation in 1997, President James Freedman suggested that the question "How should I live my life?" is at the center of a liberal arts education. Now, four years later -- four brisk years -- you are ready to put your Dartmouth experience to the test. You are ready to dare yourself.

Learning and knowledge are not, by and of themselves, sufficient elements of a good life. While they may be necessary conditions for human societies to flourish, they are neutral factors in shaping a life well led. Intelligence and learning can coexist -- often too comfortably -- with selfishness, with greed and, even with malice.

The Sabbath morning service includes the invocation "Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom." Learning needs finally to work with a heart that is generous and full of love, as well as one that is wise. When he conferred an honorary degree on Robert Frost, President John Sloan Dickey said, "the hardest part of getting wise is being always just a little otherwise." Some commentators have suggested that your generation is one that values accomplishment over virtue. I would not say this of you whom I have been privileged to know. In any good life achievement and goodness are not disparate, much less mutually exclusive, things. If the former comes at the price of the latter, the cost is far too high. As we now move into your century, remember that virtue and accomplishment sustain each other and that virtue has little to do with what we think about ourselves and has everything to do with how we relate to others.

Now it is time for leave-taking. We know you go forth in good and capable hands -- your own. Near the end of the 19th 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. Good luck and congratulations!

Last Updated: 8/21/08