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President Nannerl O. Keohane's Charge to the Class of 1992
At Senior Breakfast on Wednesday, the Class of 1992 began what may become a new tradition: you used your own voices eloquently to reflect on your Wellesley experience. In my charge to you today, I want to pick up on that image of your voices, both literally and metaphorically.
Throughout your Wellesley years, your voices have been heard on campus. This spring, in the aftermath of the hate crimes on campus and the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, your voices have been especially urgent on the political and moral front. But I must not generalize so freely. Some of you have used your voices exuberantly over your Wellesley years, in debate, in song, in jokes, in class; others have found it harder to speak out. And similarly, in the events of the past year some of you spoke out forcefully, some spoke out more hesitantly, and others were silent.
Given what we know about society and history, the moral and political crises you have lived through in the past year are going to be repeated in some form or other throughout your life. There will be many occasions when you are challenged to take a stand, to speak up against injustice or to work for useful change. In such situations, we need people, who are ready to speak out and put themselves on the line: history makes very clear that this is the only way in which we can ever expect any significant improvement in the human condition. So when big moral and political issues are raised on your horizon, your first response ought to be to get involved, to use your voice, to work for good.
But unfortunately, for most people most of the time, the first response is usually silence. Silence is surely appropriate in some human situations: before an awesomely beautiful or moving scene in nature, as a companionable way to spend time with a friend when there is nothing for the moment to be said, as a way of enjoying your own company in solitude. Such chosen and positive silences differ from the absence of speech in situations of moral and political crisis.
In crisis situations, people have a variety of reasons for not speaking out. You may remain silent because you are confused, conflicted; or because you feel that you have nothing eloquent to say. You may have other priorities in your life just at that moment that you judge are more important than speaking out in the crisis. You may feel that you have done your best and not been heard, and remain silent from, bitterness or disappointment, or simply to let new voices enter the debate. You may be afraid that what you say will be unpopular or misunderstood. or you may simply be too lazy, too apathetic, to take the time to be involved.
All those reasons have some validity, except the last one. As Wellesley women, I hope that you will seldom take refuge in laziness or apathy; there's far too much that needs doing in the world for women with a Wellesley education and Wellesley empowerment to sit back and let things drift.
The other reasons for remaining silent will have some force for even the most activist among us, given that no one can speak out on everything without becoming cacophonous or vacuous. But if you find yourself remaining silent all the time, you need to find your voice.
If you are confused or conflicted, find out more, to get a better grip on the situation so that you can decide what you want to say. If you are afraid that you won't sound persuasive or eloquent, remember that your voice does not have to be raised in a large public setting in order to be effective. Look for situations in which you feel relatively comfortable, such as a small group of close friends; it may be more important to affect their thinking deeply than to make a public statement.
one reason not to speak out that must have some force for all of us at some point in our lives is that we have other priorities. This spring, it was hard for many of you to know how to divide your time between the crucial issues that were before us, and your studies, especially at the end of an academic year. It will be rare in your lives to have time for sustained intellectual reflection, and you and your families have worked hard to create this opportunity. Each of you has to make her own decision on such occasions, and it is never easy.
In different ways, the same tough choices will always face you. Family and job priorities create real conflicts of interest for those who want to engage in social action. Only saints and fanatics never let their personal priorities interfere with their political commitments, and few of us are either one of those.
But beware of letting personal priorities become an excuse for apathy. If you always choose personal priorities, and never sacrifice anything of your own time or energy for a cause larger than yourself, you are failing to do your part for the common good, and impoverishing yourself, as well. At some point, for some cause, you must raise your voice in support of what you care about.
What if you worry that your ideas will be unpopular and excite derision or disdain? If you have not yet spoken out, you should not let this fear deter you, for you may find that more people agree with you than you expect, and you may, by giving voice to sentiments that have not been heard before, liberate others who have been similarly afraid. If you have spoken out, and been shouted down or scoffed at because your views are at odds with those that are at that time in the ascendancy, this is much harder to deal with.
At Wellesley we often say that we educate women who will make a difference in the world for good. We speak of empowering women, of helping you to find your own voices. That's both a statement of intention and a statement of faith.
We have not done as well as we should in creating a climate on campus where everyone feels free to speak out, and this constraint operates differently for different people and in different settings. Let me be quite direct about what this means, within the most pressing and relevant context, multicultural ism. For those of you who feel that Wellesley has not moved far enough or fast enough in making our community truly multicultural, you find it hard to let a professor know that an example used in class struck you as racist or homophobic. There are others who think that Wellesley welcomes only those voices that cry out for urgency and want us to move faster, and silences those who question our policies or our assumptions about what a multicultural community requires. As a result, our discourse is dichotomized, with most of the voices we hear in large public forums arguing for fuller and more rapid movement towards an inclusive and diverse community, and other sentiments being expressed privately in the classrooms and the dormitories.
For those of us who remain at Wellesley, it is of the first priority to address this dichotomy and have people with different viewpoints speaking and actually listening to each other in the same places at the same time. Genuine listening and careful speaking are at the heart of a good education, and we must make sure that we realize these conditions on our campus.
For you in the Class of 1992, it will be important for you in your workplaces and families and friendships outside Wellesley to work for the same goals. In such settings, you will find it even harder than you do at Wellesley to speak up, and the temptations to silence will be great. Make sure that you speak out yourself on crucial issues, and equally important, that you help create safe spaces for people with different voices to be heard, and that you listen, as well as speak.
Several of those who spoke at the Town meeting a few weeks ago expressed deep disappointment with Wellesley because things are not as good here as they ought to be. In part you are frustrated because there are still so many problems here, and in part you are saying that we promised more than we have delivered. This means both that we need to work harder to deliver on what we promise, and also that we must be more careful about how we describe ourselves. Nobody thinks Wellesley is perfect, not even the most loyal among US. I do believe that as an institution are trying hard to be truly inclusive of every member of this community and to take each person here, as far as is consistent with a human collectivity and with our academic purposes, on your own terms rather than on terms somebody else imposes on you.
Much of your -- much of our frustration and disappointment this spring came from the realization that politics and society and the economic system in this country have their own severe deficiencies, deficiencies that were radically laid bare by what happened in Los Angeles. This was not news to most of us; but such events bring these truths forcibly and visibly to mind.
For some of you who feel this way, singing AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL at stepsinging was impossible because the words seemed so much at odds with what you see going on around you. So before we sing it as we traditionally do at the close of our Commencement, I want to say a word or two about it.
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL is an enduring anthem because it voices a powerful ideal. At Wellesley, we interpret this ideal freely in at least one way, by singing about sisterhood as well as brotherhood in the refrain, confident that Katherine Lee Bates would have understood. We can use similar poetic license in thinking about the meaning of the remainder of the hymn, especially about its social and political messages, remembering that Katherine Lee Bates herself in her Wellesley years was part of an indomitable sisterhood of social reformers including Katherin Coman and Emily Greene Balch.
Let's look at that first familiar verse, and remember that when Katherine Lee Bates climbed Pikes Peak a century ago the view she saw, the literal physical view, was closer to the ideal she celebrates than the one you would see from the same vantage point today. The skies were not more spacious then; but they were freer of the smog that today hovers over Denver, and obscures some of the majesty of the purple mountains. Much of the "fruited plain" is now occupied by condominiums and shopping malls.
Nonetheless, all of us can respond to the ideal of the amazing, awe-inspiring beauty of this continent even as we recognize how much it has been altered, and vow to do what we can to preserve the beauty that remains.
The final verse of the hymn offers a much harder challenge. How can we sing of alabaster cities undimmed by human tears? We know all too well that our cities are deteriorating in a most alarming fashion. The social structure and the urban economy are threatened in every city that we know; the schools and parks and public buildings are rapidly decaying. The human tears flow all too frequently from the families of those who are killed by drug dealers or caught in the crossfire from gang-wars, from parents who cannot find jobs or explain racism to their children when they encounter it even in official places.
But remember that Katherine Lee Bates was offering us an ideal: in the verse about the cities, she asks us to sing of the patriot's dream, not of any reality we have yet known in this world, neither in her time nor in ours. And the dream of more livable and human cities, like Martin Luther King's powerful dream of a more inclusive and less segregated world, is worth singing about and fighting for.
That final verse should be a battle hymn, not a celebration.
And so, women of the Class of 1992, I charge you all to use your voices in working ardently for the political and civic purposes that will wipe away some of those tears that dim so many lives, and allow some of that gleaming actually to occur. Use your Wellesley education wisely; there is much work to be done. And keep the best parts of your years here vivid in your hearts, as you work with us to change for the better both this institution and the world.