Commencement 2012: Transition and Transformation
Good morning. On this absolutely perfect day, let me add my own heartfelt greetings to parents, Trustees, family members, honored guests, and everyone in attendance at this celebratory event: Skidmore College’s 101st Commencement. Above all, to the members of the Class of 2012, both undergraduates and those receiving master’s degrees today, congratulations!
The 20 national flags arrayed on the stage represent the homelands of those graduating seniors who have traveled far to learn with us and who, in turn, have enriched the Skidmore community with their presence and their perspectives.
For you graduates, today marks an important way station in your personal journey from adolescence to adulthood. We human beings have learned that such significant moments of transition come deeply invested with meaning born, in part, of their inherent ambiguity: Inevitably there is a sense of loss, as you leave behind the now familiar campus, your friends, professors, coaches, and others who have shaped this community as you have experienced it. This day is also fraught with uncertainty about an unknown future. And yet these feelings are counterbalanced by an awareness of the horizon of limitless possibility that opens up now before you.
Perhaps as a way of exorcising this ambivalence, we cloak our transitions in symbolism: The bagpipers who led the majority of you into the Opening Convocation in September of your Freshman year today reappear to lead you through your final moments as Skidmore students and then, at the end of this ceremony, out toward your new life as Skidmore alumni. Four years ago at that Opening Convocation, you wore your purple class T-shirt, representing the bonds you would establish with your classmates. Today you have made friendships that will remain with you for the rest of your lives, and your bachelor’s gown and accompanying regalia serve as outward signs of your hard-won academic accomplishments.
We don these ornate trappings of academia to remind us all that we participate in an activity that has a richly sedimented and abiding history. This form of dress hearkens back to the medieval university, reminding us that for many centuries, human beings have honored the process of education. They also remind us that yours is one of many generations of young people who have come to the academy seeking both wisdom and preparation for a productive and meaningful life. Those of us on stage wear our own academic regalia to remind you that we too have traveled this path. This is your moment of transition, but you can take a measure of comfort in the fact that we and many others have gone this way before you. And so we celebrate this day with you, and in so doing we honor both your achievements and your promise.
We send you forth with a set of specific expectations about what you have learned during your time with us. As we say in Skidmore’s statement of “Goals for Student Learning and Development,” we expect
- that you have acquired knowledge about human cultures and the physical world through study in the arts, humanities, languages, mathematics, the physical and life sciences, and social sciences;
- that you have gained understanding about social and cultural diversity in national and global contexts;
- that you are able to demonstrate—whether to a potential employer or to a graduate or professional school—a capacity for advanced learning and synthesis in both general and specialized studies;
- that you have improved your capacity to think critically, creatively and independently—and that you value those abilities in yourself and others; and
- that you can gather, analyze, integrate, and apply varied forms of information; understand and use evidence, and communicate what you have learned effectively.
We expect that you now are better able
- to interrogate your own values in relation to those of others, across social and cultural differences and apply those values in your own life as criteria in thought and action.
We sincerely hope you have
- developed practical competencies for managing a personal, professional, and community life; and
- and that you can apply what you have learned to find solutions for social, civic, and scientific problems.
Finally, we expect that you have developed an enduring passion for learning and that, for the rest of your life, you will
- continue to engage in and take responsibility for your own learning;
- integrate and apply knowledge and creative thought from multiple disciplines in new contexts;
- embrace intellectual integrity, humility, and courage; and
- continue to foster habits of mind and body that enable a person to live deliberately and well.
This admittedly daunting list of expectations represents the Skidmore faculty’s expression of the transformative power of liberal education, and we continue to affirm the intrinsic social, cultural, and personal value of such a course of study.
At the same time, it would be a profound mistake to believe the raucous chorus of contemporary cultural critics who portray liberal education as hopelessly detached from the requirements of practical life. The twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked about his esoteric work the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that “our problems are not abstract, but perhaps the most concrete that there are.” At Skidmore, we make an analogous claim about liberal education: It is not disengaged from nor disinterested in human life as we live it, but rather it represents the best guide to life that one could possibly seek. Said in another way, the intellectual and ethical tool kit you have acquired through your Skidmore education provides you the best possible platform for success in a world marked above all by rapid, persistent, and unpredictable change.
Do we expect you to have mastered all these skills, abilities, and forms of knowing at this stage of your life? Not at all. What we expect is that you now have laid a foundation for a project of personal development that will engage you for the rest of your days. And it will no longer be your professors who examine you to measure your progress but rather the world.
It won’t be easy, but we believe you are ready to take on the challenges that lie before you. Now go forth and create the future!