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A Brave New World - Commencement 2013 Address

(minus humorous ad libs, thunderous applause, and well-timed audience laughter, of course)

Thank you, President Arnold, for that generous introduction; greetings, families, friends, and special guests; and congratulations, Class of 2013!  I had hoped to be able to salute you today as a fellow graduate.

When I was first asked to deliver the commencement address, back in the fall, it was with the expectation that I was retiring at the end of the academic year, and so my swan song as Provost would have served also as a valediction for the Class of 2013. Having apparently flunked retirement, however, I have been held back, and so I’m not able to claim membership in your class after all. While I’m happy enough to continue in my present role for another year, I do regret forfeiting my association with you because yours is a class of particular distinction, and I’d have been honored to be included in your number and enjoy the opportunity to bask in your reflected glory.  

At 329 graduates, you are the second largest class in the College’s history. You came to Hendrix from near and far, and your achievements in the classroom and outside it have set a high bar for those classes that follow. Thirty-two of you were recently initiated into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious national honor society, and 87 of you are graduating with Latin honors. You include in your number a Fulbright Fellow, a Watson Fellow, a Goldwater Scholar, the winner of a National Science Foundation Fellowship, and 10 who have been accepted into Teach for America, Peace Corps, or Americorps, all winners in intensely competitive national contests against the best undergraduates in the country. You have won awards for presentations of undergraduate research, for Model UN and Student Congress, and have excelled in any number of other ventures. You have completed well over 1000 Odyssey projects; at least four of you are graduating with projects in all six Odyssey categories, and two of you have a total of 20 Odyssey experiences to your credit. When did you find time to go to class?

You have distinguished yourself in other ways as well. On the playing field, through your work in student organizations, and in your social activities, you have created a uniquely close-knit community, one that has made its own contribution to the ever-evolving but always distinctive personality that we call “Hendrix.” In addition to the milestones that President Arnold enumerated, you have participated in any number of less official events, many of them, maybe more than you want, recorded for posterity on Utube and available for your parents to view at their leisure. Yours is indeed a remarkable class. We are proud of all of you and what you have accomplished, we are grateful for the contributions you have made to making Hendrix the special place it is, and we look forward to following your trajectories as you launch into your post-Hendrix lives.

But enough about you. I’m mindful of the wisdom that no soul was ever saved in the second twenty minutes of a sermon, and so I promise to be brief. But since no commencement address can be considered official without at least one cliché, let me get that requirement out of the way now. When I sat where you are sitting, at my college commencement, my classmates and I were looking forward to a very uncertain future. The country was involved in military conflict abroad with no end in sight, we had just passed through a bitterly divisive Presidential campaign, there was violence in the cities and on campuses, the effort to extend full rights to marginalized groups was being met with powerful resistance, alarm bells were sounding over damage to the environment, there were protests against the institutions that form the foundations of the free enterprise system, the government was widely distrusted, and the economy was on shaky ground.  Thank goodness those days are behind us. On behalf of my generation, I am happy to say that we are turning over to you the keys to a world in which all those problems have been solved. Everything is fine now; just try not to screw it up

Okay, I’m kidding. In fact, the world I faced as a fresh college graduate looks very similar to the one you are facing. If anything, the problems are more numerous, more complex, more apparently intractable now than they were then. Then as now, the times are tempestuous, but the fact is, despite an occasional lull, the times are almost always tempestuous, and when they aren’t there’s the certainty that they will be soon again, though the nature and ferocity of the storm may not always be predicable. If Dylan in the early ‘60s was forecasting “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” by the ‘70s he was seeking “Shelter from the Storm,” and his most recent release is entitled “Tempest.

Perhaps that’s why, in contemplating what I might say to you this morning, I kept returning to the final scene in Shakespeare’s last complete play The Tempest. In case you haven’t read or seen the play recently, let me briefly summarize the plot. Marooned on an island with his infant daughter Miranda, the cranky and ill-tempered scholar Prospero uses his knowledge of the occult arts to exercise absolute power over his domain. Prospero, in other words, is a kind of provost. When his former enemies are shipwrecked on the island during a tempest of his conjuring, Prospero forces them to acknowledge their treachery against him and to seek his forgiveness, which he ultimately extends. The reconciliation is symbolized in the prospective marriage of Miranda, now at the ripe old age of 14, to the son of his former enemy.  In the last scene, Miranda emerges to find all the play’s characters assembled, and in her innocence exclaims, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world /That has such people in’t.” Prospero, fully aware of the sorry assortment of miscreants and fools surrounding them, observes drily, “’Tis new to thee.” As they prepare to return to their native Milan, Prospero abandons his magic, and the play invests the hope for the future in Miranda and her fiancé Ferdinand. Yet questions linger: what does Miranda take with her to Milan that will allow her to cope with the challenges of the complex society she and Ferdinand must rule?  How will they deal with the political intrigues, the conspiratorial tempests, that appear to be a constant in the world to which they are returning

Like you, Miranda is facing what the anthropologists call a liminal moment, poised on the threshold between a comfortable, nurturing world and one in which she will be obliged to make her own way. The Hendrix Bubble, of course, is your island, and from this vantage point you have observed, and doubtless registered the effects of, some of the storms that have raged around us over the last four or five years, political, social, economic, or even literal, without having to feel their full force. Like Miranda, you will soon be entering a world more complex and certainly less supportive than the one in which you’ve learned to make your way, and this may be cause for some anxiety on your part.  Now you probably aren’t aware of it, but a part of the ritual that precedes graduation is a vote taken by the faculty and confirmed by a vote of the Board of Trustees, to award you a degree. That’s right. You’ve been voted off the island. We’ve done so, however, not because we are eager for you to move on. Commencement is always a poignant moment for us, and it carries a real sense of loss as well as pride and vicarious accomplishment. Our vote rather represents our conviction that you are ready to leave the nurturing environs of Hendrix for the larger world. But the questions that Shakespeare invites us to raise about Miranda are the ones you may be asking yourself.  What is the basis for our conviction of your readiness? What are you taking from this island that can possibly help you navigate the storms and realize the possibilities that the world you are about to enter affords?

Certainly your best compass and truest guide is your liberal arts education. One of the storms that we in higher education periodically face is the questioning of the relevance and practicality of the liberal arts. There’s certainly nothing wrong with raising the question; in fact, it is in the very nature of the liberal arts to interrogate fundamental assumptions, and we should welcome the opportunity to justify our belief in liberal education and to demonstrate its value and relevance. This is not the occasion, and I don’t have the time this morning, to offer a thorough and systematic response, but I think Miranda can serve as at least a partial illustration. Prospero has “home schooled” Miranda in the liberal arts, and while Shakespeare doesn’t give her much of an opportunity to display the fruits of her education, I’d like to think, first of all, that she has acquired like you the knowledge, the analytical skills, the creative thinking, that are the hallmarks of a liberal education.  And as long as I’m speculating about Miranda’s intellectual development, I may as well push things a little further. As we witness Miranda’s enthusiastic response to the Europeans gathered in the last scene, it’s customary to smile at her naivete, and if its source is merely ignorance, then we have reason both to be charmed by her innocence and concerned for her future well-being. But for present purposes, at least, I’d like to imagine that it has its basis in the idealism and set of values that a liberal education engenders. Without the conviction that things should, and can, be better, that the storms themselves may be a necessary step, as Prospero’s tempest is, toward a more inclusive and just society, we might be tempted never to venture out of the harbor.

But if Miranda’s education resembles yours in some important respects, I’d like to suggest that your Hendrix experience has given you some advantages that Miranda can’t claim. While she has been sequestered on an island, her direct knowledge of the greater world virtually nonexistent, your Hendrix Bubble has been remarkably porous. Through the Odyssey Program and in other ways you have acquired at least some of the practical experience that Miranda lacks. If you haven’t yourself traveled widely, you have been able to learn about other cultures from the international students who are your classmates or from other students who have been able to describe their experiences abroad to you.  In your research projects you have tested and applied the theories you have learned in the classroom; you have not just studied art but made it; you have through internships and service projects been able to experience directly the actual professional and social circumstances in which people work and live.  

You have, in other words, had the advantage of enriching the virtues of a traditional liberal education with opportunities to test those ideas and put them into practice. Both in the classroom and in other contexts, you have already met challenges, overcome obstacles, risen to levels of achievement that four years ago you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable of.

But your Hendrix experience is broader, more expansive even than this. As you leave here, know that you will also carry with you a part of those of us who have advised you, taught you, mentored and nurtured you in your time here. As you have assimilated the qualities of the Hendrix education, your character has also been shaped, perhaps even more profoundly, by the relationships that you have developed here.  Most of you have begun friendships that will last a lifetime; some of you have found your life partners here. Indeed, in a scene worthy of Shakespeare, one of you proposed at this year’s Miss Hendrix Pageant; even more remarkably, the proposal was accepted. Can anything be more “Hendrix” than that?  I hope further that a part of what you carry from this island are the small kindnesses that give a local habitation and a face to the generosity of spirit that abides so fully in this place:  the help you got when you fell seriously ill half a world away; the new faculty member you’d never met who nonetheless went out of his way to give you invaluable assistance on your senior thesis; the cafeteria worker who carried your tray when you were on crutches; the groundskeeper who never failed to brighten your day with a cheerful greeting. There’s no app for that.

But while you have the advantage of Miranda in many respects, and while you may feel some regret at what you are leaving behind, I hope that your knowledge, your experience, your affection for this place and these people, will not prevent you from embracing the sense of hopeful opportunity with which Miranda faces her brave new world.

As I have been making these remarks, focused loosely on Shakespeare, I have sensed a rising hope among my faculty colleagues that they would be spared any reference to Milton. I hate to disappoint them, but I am going to conclude with a brief quotation from one of Milton’s early poems.  Milton was a great poet, accomplished in many things, but one of the things he did best was end poems. In fact, he was so good at it that generations of students have looked forward to the end with great eagerness. Like the final scene of The Tempest, the endings of many of Milton’s poems contain powerful liminal moments, but the one that concludes Lycidas is particularly apt. As the speaker of the poem finishes his elegy, he commits himself  “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”

You leave here with the unique blend of knowledge and intellectual skills,  idealism and practicality, friendship and generosity that the Hendrix education provides, equipping you not just to weather the tempestuous times that you will surely face, but to navigate through them toward a better future for yourself as well as for your community and your world.  If you carry all this from the island, there’s no storm that you can’t weather, and you can face the future with Miranda’s optimism, recognizing that it will be a brave new world to the extent that you make it so.

Congratulations, graduates, and Godspeed!

Robert Entzminger
11 May 2013