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

Remarks by President James Wright at Convocation 2006

Greetings! Even at an institution that operates around the year and around the world, there needs be a time and a place for us to gather, symbolically, to mark a new beginning. Today we assemble here in the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that celebrates the beginning of another academic year and that formally welcomes into this community our newest members. I am pleased this morning to greet my colleagues from the faculty and administration, upper-class students, new and returning graduate students, and other members of the community. I am also very pleased that Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro could join us today, and I warmly salute Tim Andreadis, the President of the Student Body.

Our shared welcome today focuses particularly on the Class of 2010. We have been waiting eagerly for your arrival since last spring, and your presence here affirms the high expectations we have for you. You will make a good place the better, and that is perhaps the most that we can ask of any class. Whatever we ask of you, however, must necessarily be far less than you ask of yourselves. If you have not yet sharpened your own hopes for what Dartmouth can enable you to accomplish, please do so. 

You come here from many places, and each of you has had your own distinctive experiences that have shaped your memories - as well as your hopes. Collectively, you come here with 1,081 sets of dreams. Pursue them resolutely, but also reflect on them carefully.

At Dartmouth the liberal arts curriculum, the faculty and administrators, your classmates and other students, and the very culture of this place will allow you to think about what you wish to do and what you seek to be - and they will encourage you to pursue these goals. How you will lead your lives is not ours to chart, but since we care about you and we care about the world in which you will pursue your dreams, we are more than disinterested observers.

Your dreams will surely include your own personal ambitions for success. Go after them with enthusiasm and enjoy reaching them with tremendous satisfaction. But as you already know, of course, a good and full life entails more than self-accomplishment. It also means a life shaped by conviction and by purpose. What it is you will do with your life is an important question. And what it is you will stand for in your life, the values that you will embrace, is an even more fundamental one.

Values are more than abstract concepts of good; they are principles that shape the way we conduct our lives. They must come from within each of us, because imposed values are not values, they are prescriptions. Now, you were not a blank slate upon which values and beliefs have somehow grown spontaneously. Influenced by society and culture, by history and religion, by teachers, family, and friends, your values are nonetheless deeply personal and intensely held. They are yours - and they define you. 

The question here is less about what you believe, although we do care about that, than it is about how you negotiate the complicated relationship between your personal values and the community - indeed, the world - of which you are a part. Unless you choose a life of full isolation, you will need to relate to and live within a world of differences. This is eased to a degree because while values and belief systems are deeply personal, they are rarely unique. Often, in fact, many are widely shared and reinforced as parts of a broader community of philosophy, belief, purpose, or culture.

These, in turn, provide an important voluntary element of cohesion within a society or group. Sharing values without accepting a stifling shared conformity and arrogant exclusivity is a tenuous -and sometimes tense - balancing act.

In this country we are the beneficiaries of historical success - most of the time - in negotiating this balance between personal beliefs and common values. The historic success of American society has been its openness to the new and the different - sometimes reluctantly open, to be sure, sometimes inconsistently so in relating practice to principles.

The first lesson of history is really quite simple: Learn from the worst and aspire to the best. It is the history of this country's best instincts and best values that should provide the legacy that is our inspiration. 

In this republic, democracy and equality, freedom of speech and religion, as well as of the press and of assembly, economic freedom, valuing the individual and his or her independence, embracing a culturally rich heritage of immigration, and a generous approach to the world - these are the best hopes of our heritage, the building blocks for a strong and enduring nation. Embedded in our constitution and our culture, they are fundamental and essential parts of who we are.

Freedom of speech is at the core of our value system - and yet unless accompanied by independence of mind, it is but a shadow of what the founders of this nation dreamed. Freedom of speech is less meaningful if the speakers are unwilling or unable to think and speak freely. Your generation needs to confront a real problem, which is - as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, two of the poets of my generation, put it - people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening. 

Through fear or politeness or apathy, too often we yield the floor to positions shaped by self-righteousness, intellectual inflexibility, and intolerance - a mindset held by those whom philosopher Eric Hoffer described as the "true believers." Hoffer and his generation were concerned about the specter of Hitler and of Stalin, about what he called fanaticism, secular as well as religious. Today, unfortunately, we have other examples wherein absolutism and intolerance lead to repression, murder, terror, and genocide - where preachers and demagogues attempt to justify the unjustifiable. 

Hoffer wrote that -

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation.

Wonder and hesitation, curiosity and uncertainty, these are exactly the qualities that a liberal arts institution exists to foster: The confidence to admit to not quite knowing, coupled with the capacity to search in order to know - and the perspective to realize that any answer may at best be an approximation of the final answer - these are the values of the university.

College campuses should resonate with mutual respect and difference, with free speech and free thought, with the sense of "wonder and hesitation" that Hoffer worried about. As Mahatma Gandhi once cautioned, "It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err."

One of the criticisms of the academic world is  that we too readily accede to a satisfying like-mindedness. Political correctness is a label these critics use to describe our world. The academy is far more intellectually and philosophically diverse than this suggests. To be sure, we need to resist those qualities of certainty and intolerance that our critics point to and, sometimes accurately, caricature. If we are not monolithic, neither should we be monophonic. We need to be open to all ideas, and we need to resist all stereotypes. The sharpest critics of academic culture are often far more confident in their world views and answers than are members of the academy. One might even say they are in that sense more "politically correct."  Nevertheless let us deal with ourselves first. 

We need steer clear of any easy path through life that would enable us to avoid being challenged intellectually. And by challenged intellectually, I do not mean the incremental process of learning that which we had never known; rather, I refer to the dialectic of rethinking that which we think we know, and of challenging our deepest beliefs. Dartmouth needs to facilitate that challenge, but you yourselves, as students, must undertake it.

Our world today is marked by ease of communication and instant information. It is easy to select circles of friends, sources of news, blogs and talk shows, all of which will salute one's unwavering good judgment. These mutually reaffirming and sometimes remarkably self-satisfied collectives frequently do not seek to engage in debate, but merely to reaffirm positions. Too often, they use sarcasm and volume to dismiss those who are not likeminded, rather than engage in true intellectual discourse. Nodding agreeably to such exercises of freedom as these may, ironically, make us less free. They surely render us less tolerant of difference. Eleanor Roosevelt advised -

A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, ... [is one] who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all-knowing.

Skepticism, reason, and logic are values that can inform and enable us to grow. They have no relationship to cynicism, emotion, and dogmatism.

Even in our free society, we need to acknowledge the decline of a tolerance for difference. Our political system is increasingly marked by polarities, rather than by a sense of accommodation, respect, and compromise. Those whom a former generation might have considered statesmen are dismissed by the absolutists of our time as sellouts. We engage infrequently in true debate, and compromise is a pejorative concept to those whose lives are marked by ideology and rigid intellectual conformity. Slogans are often more important than ideas. And hard evidence sometimes has no role in shaping harsh generalizations. 

Beware the easy and soothing hatred of the demagogue who can make your problems someone else's fault and their solutions appear simple and painless - to you. Beware those who can always articulate fundamental principles and values in ways that obscure and advance their own self-interest. And beware those who mobilize the legions at Armageddon for every debate of policy or priority - those for whom every difference becomes a moral imperative - for they cheapen the very concept of morality. 

Here in the United States, we have a long and rich tradition of supporting freedom of religion. For many, religious values are more than matters that shape and enrich private lives, they are also central to informing public life. Some belief systems include a spiritual mandate to convert, and in a free society of free choices, the right to do this is protected. But proselytizers must recognize the reciprocal rights of those who decline to be converted. 

Religious spokespersons who do not acknowledge the marvel and complexity of science and the essential nature of individual freedom may think as they will. Ours is indeed a free country. But when they insist that private beliefs should substitute for empirical knowledge in the schools, both scientific progress and the freedom to learn is imperiled. As we protect for religious assemblies and religious schools the right to teach and to believe, so need we protect for public schools and public forums the right not to believe. Intellectual, political, cultural, and religious freedoms are the sources of the energy and independence of our society today. They must not become the selective rights of some, which when fully exercised, restrict the rights of others

So we return to your task, members of the Class of 2010, and to our purpose. It is no accident that the liberal arts are central to a free society, just as only a free society enables the liberty essential to the liberal arts.

At our best, Dartmouth will challenge you over the next four years to understand yourselves as actors in rather than observers of a rich historical and cultural tradition, as members of a world of interdependence,  of a physical and natural world of which we know much even as wonderful mysteries remain, as beneficiaries of a tremendous and diverse heritage in the arts that you can augment and expand, and as individuals with independence of mind and a willingness to accept responsibility.

Curiosity and discovery, a questioning attitude toward answers - these should mark your education here and your lives of learning hereafter. Lord Byron reflected that, "If I am a fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom." As you properly doubt others, remember to doubt yourself - especially when you feel most confident.

All we can assure you here is that your century and your lives will be filled with challenges. Those of you who will excel, and who will make your own lives the richer and your world the stronger, will be those who know - tempered by a healthy sense of humility - those who know what they stand for and learn how to affirm, while respecting and learning from those whose beliefs differ.

So, members of the Class of 2010, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning.

As has been my yearly custom, I would close this ceremony by reminding you, and myself, that now we turn enthusiastically to our task. We have work to do, you and I - and it is time to begin! Welcome to Dartmouth.

Last Updated: 8/21/08