James Wright’s Commencement Speech

President Emeritus of Dartmouth College James Wright addressed graduates of Arts & Sciences and the College of Professional Studies during the 2013 commencement ceremony.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) The following is a transcript of Dartmouth President Emeritus James Wright’s address to graduates during the Arts & Sciences and College of Professional Studies 2013 commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 12.        

My thanks to you, President Duncan, as well as to Chairman Lord and the Board of Trustees, for this honor. It is a privilege for me to join you in this annual ceremony of affirmation and of optimism. I will always take pride in having a degree from Rollins College, a remarkable historic institution. Dartmouth and Rollins have had close ties for nearly one and a third centuries, beginning with President Ward and now President Emeritus Seymour and President Duncan. And, of course, Fred Rogers. I am pleased to be a Tar—one who will, up in New Hampshire, watch for news that the Fox is on Mills Lawn next spring.

I am delighted to be here and to celebrate you, the members of the Class of 2013.

This is your special day. It is a day where you are surrounded by people who care deeply about you.

I join with all of them in congratulating you for your accomplishments. We share a sense of confidence in your ability to take on whatever may come next.

It is also my pleasure to join you in thanking your family and friends who have encouraged and supported you.

And I happily join you in thanking the faculty—they who cared personally about you and today are very proud of you. They have defined the quality of your academic experience here. Never forget them or your debt to them.

I have been in the faculty seats at commencement for far more years than I have been on the platform. A few years ago, after delivering presidential valedictories over several commencements, I noted to some faculty friends that it is easier to sit in the faculty section and roll your eyes at the routine of commencement clichés. I challenged them to prepare a commencement address that does not have clichés! There are only so many ways to congratulate graduates and to assure them that, despite the complexity of the world they confront, they will continue to do well.

So today I simply confirm these two things.

Having done that, I would like now to share a few reflections with you. For, as you graduate, I am completing 44 years as a faculty member and administrator, and next month I will retire. I am pleased to be part of your century—and I fully intend to be for some time--but it is your century.

So what does an old Marine and historian and teacher—one who has both studied and lived some of the history of our time—what does he have to share with those whose lives are now opening in front of them? Having framed the question that way, it will not surprise you that I have thought of some answers.

The changes in the world that have marked my lifetime have been truly historic, even revolutionary. I have absolutely no doubt that your lifetimes will be marked by even more breathtaking change.

Students of history here, indeed all of us of a certain age, can reflect with pride about all of the positive changes that have marked our lives. For despite the real and intense problems that we face in your century, the world is a different, more inclusive, and more open place than was the world I met at your age.

Nonetheless, there is so much that remains to be done. My generation should not spend too much time feeling pleased with this handoff.

And I am frustrated with some of them wringing their hands about the future of the Republic. It is in good hands.

On the plane coming down here yesterday I read the cover story in this week’s Time that described your generation as hopelessly narcissistic. Maybe it is. But yours is not the first generation so described. And I still believe the Republic will be in good hands.

It is in good hands as long as you remember that this country depends upon an unselfish sense of civic responsibility. Too often today we insist that our governments meet our needs without asking anything from us in return. And, parenthetically, this is not your generation arguing this. Promoting the General Welfare is one of the organizing principles of the United States.

America’s strength depends upon individuals pursuing their own individual lives and dreams—and also recognizing their shared responsibility for the common good. Each is crucial and their healthy tension defines us. You have a great record, class of 2013. Your generation shares. And serves.

I have been visiting military hospitals for the last eight years, talking to young men and women who are your age, most of them with massive injuries. They represent a fundamental value articulated by people as different as Calvin Coolidge and John Kennedy: ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

You need never be defensive about looking after your own interests and taking advantage of your own opportunities. Pursue your own personal ambitions. But remember that the responsibility that you take on, the rich legacy of the republic that you inherit, presumes that you will also recognize that you have a civic responsibility. Democracy depends upon this.

The social compact assumes that those who are fortunate in life’s turns will reach out to those who are less fortunate.

Your lives will be marked by many accomplishments. I predict one thing: when you reach that point in your life when you reflect on what you have done, the brightest memories will be the ones that involve other people and shared experiences. It will not involve a mirror or an Instagram and will not relate to things that you measure and count.

In the fall of 2005 when I was visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was in the physical therapy fitness center, watching young men and women with prosthetic legs push themselves on treadmills and do weights and other exercises from wheelchairs. It was a terribly moving and terribly inspiring sight. I walked around speaking with many of them, and they all affirmed their commitment to doing better and getting as well as they could. They were all dealing with interrupted lives. I went to talk to a young man in a wheelchair. His head and face were disfigured, and he was missing an arm and had leg injuries. He said his vehicle had hit an explosive device, and it rolled over, first tearing off his arm and then landing on and crushing his skull. I spoke to the man who was holding the wheelchair. He was the young man's father. I asked where their home was. The father said, with a wry chuckle, "New Orleans." This was less than six weeks after Hurricane Katrina. I said that I hoped they got through that disaster well, and he replied that, no, they had lost their Ninth Ward home and everything in it. He then put his hand on his son's shoulder and said, "But that is okay. We will recover, for you see I still have my boy.”

Do not wait for hard lessons to understand that which is important.

At Rollins you have learned about the world of which you are a part—the social, the political, the physical world, and something of the history that has brought us to this moment.

Here you have encountered the rich legacy of human creativity—in music and art and letters, in expressions of individual creativity, and in choruses of shared experience. I hope that you have also developed some confidence in your own creative instincts. These things can sustain you for a lifetime of trials and tests.

Today some insist that education needs to focus solely on useful knowledge. As if anyone truly knows what will be useful over the course of your lives. I urge you always to resist efforts to reduce learning to narrow definitions of utility. It is a deeply rooted purpose of education to introduce each generation to the rich range of the human experience and to encourage each generation to expand upon this.

My regular advice to students, sometimes to the discomfort of parents and others, has been to urge them to remember that lives are to be lived rather than to be planned. Just occasionally, leap before you look. This does not mean that you do not set for yourself ambitions and hopes and that you do not prepare to pursue these. But it does mean that life plans are not a recipe to be followed, for I can assure you that no one can predict the twists and turns that our history and your lives will take. Follow your own instincts. They have taken pretty good care of you so far.

In these years you have also learned something more about yourself. I hope you know now what it is you stand for, what your values are, and what is important to you. All of the learning in the world is secondary to this knowledge. If you are not certain of what it is you stand for, it will be very difficult to get others to stand with you.

There is a corollary to this, a corollary that is essential in a democratic society: a confident belief in your own values does not require you to be impatient or intolerant of those who might see the world and their lives differently. The exemplary strength of American life stems from the cultural richness and the intellectual diversity of our society.

Our world today is marked by ease of communication and instant information. It is easy to select likeminded circles of friends, sources of news, blogs, and talk shows, all of which will salute our unwavering good judgment. These mutually reaffirming and sometimes remarkably self-satisfied collectives do not seek to engage in debate, but merely to reaffirm positions. Too often, they use sarcasm and volume to dismiss those who think differently, rather than engage in true intellectual discourse.

Nodding agreeably in forums that reinforce rather than inform and challenge renders us less tolerant of difference. And it can result in a stalemated political process. As Oliver Cromwell, not always a tolerant man, said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Finally, always maintain your independence and individuality. And remember these qualities do not require you to be alone or lonely. You are part of a society and your accomplishments in life will be the greater if you embrace that. You live in a world of collaboration and teamwork, of knowing how to exercise leadership and remain part of a group, one sharing common goals and enriched by individual strengths.

Friends are people we embrace rather than tally. Friends in a chat room can never substitute for friends in the living room or the dining room. There is no digital symbol that can substitute for a true smile or a warm hug.

It has been my custom over the years to conclude my remarks on these occasions by turning to the remarkable American poet Walt Whitman.

He wrote near the end of the 19th century that the strongest and sweetest songs yet remained to be sung. Now, in your century, we leave them still. They remain, waiting for your voices. I have confidence you will find the notes and write the lyrics.

Good luck.


James Wright
President Emeritus Dartmouth College