President's Address

President Nannerl O. Keohane's Charge to the Class of 1993

Across the past twelve years, in my charge to the senior class, I have talked about many different things -- the challenges of diversity, the wonders of intellectual life, the tensions of community, the importance of service, the meaning of America the Beautiful. I have quoted from other Commencement speeches, including Gloria Steinem's, and from Susan Sontag's ringing exhortation to the Class of 1983 (adapted from Spenser's Faery Queen): "Be bold, Be bold, Be bold!", and from Professor Marcellus Andrews' stirring admonition at Baccalaureate in 1988: "Be brilliant to the point of scandal, and fierce beyond belief."

For the Class of 1993, I want to distill as much as I can from all that accumulated wisdom by using the image of the five senses - but instead of the ordinary five (sight, sound, smell, touch and taste), five moral senses. I do hope, by the way, that your use and understanding of the powers of the five physical senses has also been honed by the beauty and richness of this place -- but my point today is analogical.

I am pretty sure that when you came to Wellesley, you brought with you both a sense of humor and a sense of fairness. These two traits tend to be developed early in life, and to stand out in admissions applications. I trust that because of your experiences at Wellesley, both your sense of humor and your sense of fairness have been honed and clarified.

Your sense of humor must sometimes have been sorely tested by the seriousness and stress which we bemoan, yet in which we sometimes almost seem to revel; however, I hope that it has emerged not only intact but enhanced, with new and more ironic dimensions. Your sense of fairness, the almost instinctual reaction when some human action seems unfair or out of balance, is the root sentiment of the virtue of justice. I hope that at Wellesley you have come to understand more of its complexities, without losing that primitive healthy gut reaction of anger or distress when someone is treated with blatant unfairness.

I hope that during your time at Wellesley you have also developed three other moral senses that will be important to you in later life: a sense of judgment, a sense of honor, and a sense of compassion.

The sense of judgment is as much an intellectual as a moral sense: it means being able to sort out true and worthwhile things from those that are shoddy or valueless. It encompasses the critical facility that you have, we hope, developed in all those Wellesley classrooms: the ability to tell a good argument from a bad one, to distinguish a persuasive body of evidence from one that is deficient in significant respects.

One of the main points in our intense and sustained discussion this year of academic freedom and academic responsibility had to do with developing this sense of judgment. One of the main goals of a Wellesley education is to develop that sense to the point where you are finally not dependent even on the authority of your professors or the authors of the books you are assigned to read, but on the authority of your own well-honed critical judgment, to decide what intellectual material is worthy and what is flawed.

Yet this is not just an academic virtue: the ability to discern worth and substance (or their opposites) in the character of the people around you, and the ability to decide where you will put your efforts and build your professional career -- all these crucial aspects of the life ahead of you are founded in the careful exercise of a sense of judgment that we hope you have acquired at Wellesley.

At Wellesley, the term "honor" is almost always attached to another word, "code." We all learn that we are not supposed to cheat on exams or steal someone's packages from the Bell Desk or pilfer the laundry room. We all know that Wellesley's Honor Code is not perfectly adhered to, but we can assume that certain principles will be accepted at least as a basis for discussion.

In the associations in which you will now be living, that will not necessarily be true. The rest of the world does not live by honor codes. Even the term itself will rarely be heard except in old-fashioned contexts like stories about dueling in the Old South or the protection of the virtue of women in 19th century novels. But I assure you that the absence of an honor code is going to make a big difference in your lives, and provide the occasion for some very unpleasant surprises.

It is probable that many of the people among whom you will now live and work will operate by principles of ruthless egocentric selfishness, which they may hide behind statements about altruism and responsibility, or which they may even profess outright. Looking out for number one; doing whatever needs to be done to get to the top; seeing all those around you as potential competitors for money and status, people who can be treated as instruments when they are useful and readily discarded when they are not -- it's a rough world out there, and the notion of honor is not going to be prominent in the discourse.

But fortunately, not everyone will behave like that -- for if they did, society would soon fall apart. No one could count on anyone else, suspicion and mistrust would make collaborative endeavors impossible, and all the engines of social, economic and political life would grind to a halt. Fortunately, there are also people out there who believe in keeping their promises, and who have built their sense of self on the notion of personal integrity and trustworthiness. People who have the courage to act on their convictions and pursue worthwhile goals in life even at some high degree of personal risk. This is what it means, fundamentally, to have a sense of honor; and I hope that each of you will be counted among those who define themselves, in the end, honorably.

Finally, I hope that at Wellesley each of you will have developed a sense of compassion -- in some ways the purest and simplest, in others the most demanding and complex, of all the moral senses. Compassion is a word that basically defines itself: feeling with others, com/passion. It means being able to put yourself in someone else's place, to understand as fully as you can what it feels like to be impoverished or sick or anxious or alone, even when you yourself are fortunate enough to be healthy, beloved, and successful.

If you can truly put yourself in someone else's place, take up the burdens of their mind and spirit, then you will almost automatically be moved to want to do something about their plight -- to help relieve their suffering, because it becomes a suffering with which you personally identify, a suffering that is, in some sense, your own, because you have taken it into yourself rather than observing it from outside.

This will be a powerful motivator for service to others, for helping make the world a better place by taking immediate steps to help those who are close enough to you to excite your compassion. The danger you will face is that there is so much distress and poverty and sickness and anguish that your sense of compassion will be blunted, that you will have to guard yourself against too much openness, develop a thicker skin, because nobody can possibly feel deeply with so many people.

This is where your other four moral senses will come to your aid: your sense of humor, fairness, judgment and honor will help you make sense of the many stimuli that you will experience because of your compassion, and help you decide where best to put your efforts to make a difference in the world. But without the sense of compassion -- -without what we used to call charity or love -- all the other moral senses are finally hollow and sterile.

Women of the Class of 1993, as you go forth into what the step-singing song calls "the wide, wide world," I charge you to maintain, with sturdiness and grace, your sense of humor, fairness, judgment, honor and compassion, so that you can do the work you are called upon to do. Know that our best thoughts and wishes go with you, that we are proud of you, have faith in you. Know that you will be remembered here, and keep in your hearts the best of what you have learned at Wellesley.

Related

1993 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

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