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Remarks by President Carol Quillen at Davidson College Commencement 2013

Welcome to this commencement celebration at Davidson College. We are privileged to have you and grateful that you are here. I want especially to acknowledge President Emeritus John Kuykendall and Missy Kuykendall and members of the board of trustees who are present.

I know I speak for the class of 2013 when I thank our amazing staff, who have made this event so effortless for the rest of us. Nearly everyone who works at Davidson has had a hand in planning for this weekend. They have cared for our campus, built this stage, prepared and served our food, ordered our regalia, managed our parking, and so much else. Please join me in acknowledging and in thanking these dedicated, talented people whose work has made this ceremony possible.

The Faculty are the heart of any institution of learning, and I am privileged to work side by side with these brilliant and dedicated people every day.

It is our custom on this occasion to celebrate the service of members of the college's faculty and staff who are retiring this year. Let me ask that those named who are present please stand and remain standing so that we can express our thanks to the whole group when I have read all the names.

Jerry Archer 35 years
Larry Davis 23 years
Sarah Enders 22 years
John Harper 11 years
Lori Hayes 27 years
Deb Hogg 26 years
Ralph Levering 26 years
June Quick 23 years
Lisa Risk 20 years
Ed Rutkowski 12 years
Pam Tesh 22 years

Please join me in thanking these extraordinary people.

This the 176th commencement of Davidson College. For you, the Class of 2013, it is the one that really matters. We put a lot of pressure on this moment. This day is supposed to represent a fulfillment of the hopes FOR YOU held by of all us-faculty; staff; parents; grandparents, family, siblings and friends. All the people who helped bring you to this stage, on this day are happy of course, but you know, mostly we are really really RELIEVED.

For you, our graduating class, this day feels both deeply satisfying AND full of promise. It is meant to mark a culmination-the heights you have achieved- and a new beginning. Most commencement speeches are all about the new beginning, and I will get to that. But I want to acknowledge, with abiding and deep gratitude, the extraordinary things that you, the class of 2013, have done:

You have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer detection, HIV/AIDS research, and The Davidson Trust. You have re-invigorated Guys and Dolls, made THE PRIDE real, published scientific papers, and performed your own compositions. You have spoken out against bigotry and stood strong in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.

You have broken records, beaten High Point, earned Fulbrights and gotten into graduate schools. You have created leadership programs and shown at-risk children the joys of math. You swam and ran and wrestled and danced at the NCAA tournament.

You have started companies and published poems. You have worked for sustainable food production, educational equity, and cleaner air. YOU GOT JOBS! And you have done these things WHILE GOING to COLLEGE.

Thank you for what you have done. We at Davidson are all so grateful.

Yet today is ALSO about the future and what you will do next. It is about how to take what you have done here and build on it out there.

Now would be the time to offer you advice. And believe me, I would if I could. But here is the thing. The longer I am alive, the less I feel I know. And all the things that OTHER PEOPLE SAY at times like this seem, well, not quite right.

"Reach beyond your grasp." "Write your own story." "Seek a better truth." "Do what you love." "Live in the moment." "Follow your heart." "Never give up." "Be who you are."

Not that this is BAD advice. It just feels like a cop out. It's too simple, too easy, too generic, and too SAFE. It does not speak to what we do here at Davidson, and it won't help you out there either.

Out there, the past weighs heavily, our dreams are distant, the future is a murky haze and our hopes are elusive. Decisions feel scary, yet playing it safe can mean bitter disappointment. Out there, like in here, just being a person can be really hard.

So, since I have no useful advice, what I want to do, if it is okay with you, is to share one experience I had in college that I think, resonates with yours. It is about what we do here and why it matters.

In college, my favorite course was Western Civ with a professor named Karl Weintraub. This was before web tree-so to get in this class we "slept out"-- stood in line overnight outside the registration building.

On the first day, Mr. Weintraub walked in carrying only a small tattered book and a student roster. He had no notes, no lecture, nothing. He picked up a piece of chalk and wrote "Weintraub" on the board and turned to face us. "Ms. O'Brien," he said, glancing at the roll list, "what can you tell me about the importance of Homer for the ideals of the Athenian polis?" Ms. O'Brien, her first name, I learned much later, was Ruth, Ms. Ruth O'Brien was understandably taken aback. This was the first day of class. She hadn't even seen the syllabus and Homer wasn't on it anyway. Before she could figure out how to respond (and she had gone to Boston Latin, so she, unlike the rest of us, knew what to say) before Ms. Ruth O'Brien could respond, Mr. Weintraub sighed loudly, mumbled something about Kurt Vonnegut, and shook his head. "General education," he announced, "has sunk to its lowest level ever."

This was just the first of many questions, questions to which we rarely provided satisfactory answers. "How does Thucydides account for the decline of the Greek city-state world? What is the most significant characteristic of St. Bonaventure's writing? What, to a nineteenth century English man, was the greatest thing about the railroad?" "Call me Ishmael! What's that from, Ms. Quillen?" He once even asked us, penny-pinching drinkers of bad beer, how Bordeaux bottles differed from burgundy bottles. He did not tolerate sloppy, impressionistic answers. "Where," he would ask, "does it say that in the text? Or are you making it up?"

Mr. Weintraub could be intimidating. He was big, he knew a lot, and he sounded German no matter what language he was speaking. He did not mince words. Being in his class was never easy and occasionally terrifying. But in three short quarters he taught me how to think clearly and how to speak precisely. More than this, he showed me that to read means to become vulnerable to the text, that, with humility and honesty, you have to lay bare not just your ideas but also your deepest convictions, your longings, and your fears. He taught this by his brave example, by letting us see him open himself to the voices and frankly to the pain of the dead. He made it look easy. It wasn't.

Years later, He wrote to me about this: "Teaching seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: 'Oh, god, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at-or are supposed to be looking at!' I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of STUDENTS to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.

I KNOW that there is no power in this world for the historian to make those shades live again, to bring us really close to the dead, and that frightening intellectual crimes can be committed in forcing this "contact" too far. But if I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for that city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one's bones the problem of worrying about God's acceptance? How can one even read this jubilant confessio laudis of an Augustine without fathoming what comfort he finds in accepting the creature's dependence on the Creator?

Sometimes, when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know. Much of the time I feel dreadfully alone with it-and don't even know whether I am alone with it."

For Mr. Weintraub, as for ALL GREAT TEACHERS, every class was a terrifying leap of faith, because to teach is to risk failure. You never know in advance what is going to happen. All you know is that to awaken in students the desire, the drive, the passion, for learning, you have to lay yourself bare. You have to show them why you care.

And when we as students see this, we open ourselves to knowing, we open ourselves to being changed by what we encounter-in the book, in the lab, among our friends, and in the world. Sure, we master history or philosophy or whatever the subject at hand is. But we learn much more than this.

We learn that vulnerability is our primary human attribute and that risking failure is an inherent aspect of an authentically human intellectual and moral life. We learn that arrogance is the enemy of genuine curiosity, that simple answers almost never do justice to the complexity of the facts, that seeking real knowledge takes real resilience and real, heart in your hand courage. We learn that all knowledge begins with a hunch, an experiment, a leap of faith. We learn that truths we have inherited and always believed can be so, so wrong, that new knowledge can transform us, and that being a responsible heir sometimes means being a rebellious one.

These insights, which you and I have gained from our face to face relationships with truly great teachers, give us a foundation to build for ourselves a truly meaningful life, each in our own way. This is Davidson's precious gift to you. Use it well.

I end with a Franciscan prayer:

  • May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
  • May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
  • May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you may reach out your hand.
  • May God bless you with the foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you leave here and do what others claim cannot be done.