A week ago today, the 21st of May, my Colleges, Hobart and William Smith in Upstate New York, held their annual Commencement. 540 students were graduated and sent into the world. Although feats of vitally important learning stretch before all of them, those of us who work and teach at these small colleges by our long lake always hope that we have helped them complete their basic training in what Plato calls “the things that matter.” Their charge, as it always is for our commencing students, is for them to now go out and live “lives of consequence.”
This was a special commencement. Our principal speaker was the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. It was also the last graduation to be presided over by our President of 18 years, Mark Gearan, who, before his years with us began, played a number of significant roles in the Clinton White House, not the least of which was a five-year term as Director of the Peace Corps. As a result of his decision to commence a new phase in his life, we at HWS are doing the same. It was, in short, a commencement where everyone, in one manner or another, was commencing.
As is usual at such celebrations, each of the just mentioned eminents spoke to the thousands who had assembled, a collective which included not only our departing students but their happy and proud families, our dedicated faculty, wonderful staff, and many, many, guests. President Clinton spoke first, delivering his Commencement Address almost at the beginning of the festivities; President Gearan gave his Valedictory Address at the end.
The adjectives denoting these talks are both fine words. At its Middle French root, “commencement,” which comes down to us by way of “commencier,” means “to enter into the first part of a process,” “to start something of significance,” or (even better I think), “to come into existence.” If you look up “valedictory,” the first definition you usually are offered is “to say goodbye.” But, as is so often the case, if you look a little deeper into the origin of the word (as Mr. Ruskin always said you should with important words–see Post 84: Inspiration–you discover that it has a marvelous Latin double root: the first part derives from “valere,” which means “to be strong,” or “to direct toward strength”; the second comes from “dicere,” “to speak”; so, putting them together, we learn that a valedictory address is, in its essence, a talk designed to impart to its listeners advice which is designed to help them become strong in life. Nice, yes? As I said, fine words.
As their talks proceeded, the heart-felt words both presidents offered our world-ready graduates reminded me of some of Mr. Ruskin’s finest words, a pair of passages which, for some time, it has been in my mind to share.
President Clinton reminded his aspiring, hopeful young audience of a relatively new biological discovery: the finding that, genetically, human beings are 99% the same. The remaining 1% contains our differences, and is the reason for our much-to-be-treasured diversity. This same tiny repository of DNA, however, contains the fodder for most of the disagreements that continue to plague us. His argument was that the 99%, “Us,” was by leagues more important. While we should always celebrate the 1%, it is often the case that this tiny percentage tricks us into thinking that others who are in some way manifestly different from ourselves (perhaps in skin-color) are people to be wary of, sometimes people to pick a fight with. We often call them “Them.” “Your task,” he said to our graduates, “Your task, as a new generation going out to shape a brave new world, is to find ways to decrease the “Them” and increase the “Us.” If you succeed, we’ll find ourselves in a lot less trouble than we presently do, we’ll learn that our life-long obligation in life is to take care of each other. And that’s a wonderful and crucial lesson.” But there is a second task, he said: Each of us has to determine that we will make good use of the talents and abilities housed in our own 1% to help us find out how to make the “Us” stronger; we must commit ourselves to finding ways to give every person a chance to find that helpful part of their own 1% that can be used to strengthen the common good. The argument reminded me of this lovely passage of Ruskin’s from the first volume of Modern Painters (1843):
God appoints to every one of His creatures a separate mission and, if they discharge it honorably…and faithfully follow the light that is in them, withdrawing from it all cold and quenching influence, there will assuredly come of it such burning as, in its appointed mode and measure, shall shine before [all], and be of service constant and holy. Degrees infinite of luster there must always be, but the weakest among us has a gift, however seemingly trivial, which is peculiar to him, and which, worthily used, will be a gift also to his race forever.
President Gearan’s message grew out of the experience he gained during his almost two decades as chief officer of our two small institutions of higher education. It was a position, he said, which afforded him a regular chance to interact not only with the campus community but with hundreds, even thousands, of the people who live in our small city of Geneva. He said that, collectively, these encounters had taught him that good people, despite the naysayers and pessimists, were everywhere, and that the trick was to find them (not very hard, he said), and then, once having made this happy discovery, to surround yourself with them. And then you can go out and find out how to do good things together. A simple idea, he said, with, he had learned, profound consequences: a principle for framing new lives commencing. Which thoughts brought me back to another lovely passage of Mr. Ruskin’s, this one from the second volume of Modern Painters (1846):
There is not any matter, nor any spirit, nor any creature, but is capable of a unity of some kind with other creatures. And in that unity is its perfection and theirs, and a pleasure also for the beholding of all other creatures than can behold.
So the unity of spirits is partly in their sympathy, and partly in their giving and taking, and always in their love–and these are their delight and their strength, for their strength is in their co-working and army fellowship, and their delight is in their giving and receiving of alternate and perpetual good, their inseparable dependency on each other’s being, and their essential and perfect depending on their Creator’s.
And so the unity of earthly creatures is their power and their peace–not like the dead and cold peace of undisturbed stone and solitary mountains, but the living peace of trust, and the living power of support, of hands that hold each other and are still.
President Bill Clinton giving the Commencement Address at Hobart and William Smith Colleges with President Mark Gearan (Geneva, New York, May 21, 2017)
Most wise, I thought, these paired presidential and Victorian advisings. In the end, much more (as much as 99%), rather than less, the same: Good advice. Advice for good. Advice for commencing something of significance. Advice for strengthening, for making well.
Until next time!
P.S. If you would like to read President Clinton’s Commencement Address or President Gearan’s Valedictory Address in their entirety, click on either (or both!) of the links below.