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Senior Class Exercisesrecording...
Transcription by Jennifer Kordell '95 · Paul Farmer's speech.


Thank you very much. I welcome you. [Laughter]

Well, I'm going to keep this short because I'm sure it's about to start snowing. Is it always this cold here?

Greetings Class of 2005. Where are you guys, spread out all over the place? Congratulations. I was very nervous about coming here to speak, and not just because of the weather. And not because I'm a native of North Adams either.

It's a little slow there, we gotta liven things up a bit. Remember the class war, North Adams, Amherst, anyway.

I'm actually, I was nervous because I'm accustomed to speaking to medical students and to physicians. And they're very easy to manage. Medical students and physicians. You basically force them to learn your culture and then you, you know, spit it back up to them. It's really quite easy. And I hope no one is here from Harvard Medical School, and if you are, please don't betray that confidence. This is strictly between me and Amherst. But you're not, as we heard from the three fantastic speakers from the class of 2005, you're not forced to internalize a culture. And so my anxiety increased as the day to leave the relative warmth of the tropics and come back here to the Arctic North returned.

My mother by the way is from Williamstown and my father is from North Adams so I'm homozygous positive for the get out of the Berkshires gene. And don't tell anyone at Williams that please.

My anxiety was beginning to peak and then I was reading – actually, this is online. See for you guys this is standard fare. But I only learned that google is a verb quite recently. And there's this guy in Arkansas who's retired and has a lot of time on his hands. And one of the things he does is send me every article that he can ever find that mentions my name. And that's why I know there's also a sports writer named Paul Farmer - because I'm always relieved when it's the sports writer. But this came to me last Thursday, a week ago Thursday. And I, you know, you can't make this stuff up. This is from the Boston Globe. I told you I was seething with anxiety about having to address people who were not browbeaten into medicine. And this was in the Boston Globe. It was an article about graduation speakers. Now of course I shouldn't have opened it. I shouldn't have - you know it was from my friend Marvin in Arkansas, I shouldn't have opened it. And, I did. And it said the graduates almost always prefer well-known figures particularly from the entertainment world in hopes of a speech that will provide a light-hearted finale to their college years.

Now, this is really unfair. I mean, I'm a physician - I work in Haiti, I work in Rwanda. I mean, I'm not light-hearted. And then the examples that they offered were Ali G and Jon Stewart. [Pause] I heard that Tony. The president of your fine institution just said "We tried." [Laughter] And you know, you think that's the first time I've heard that?

In any case I - to allay my anxiety, I sat down and wrote out my speech. But then you were saved by the bell because I got a message yesterday that it was not supposed to be a formal message but rather a brief 10-15 minute address. That's even worse. You can't read a talk if it's not formal.

And so I was stewing as I came here from Logan Airport last night into the tundra region. Is anybody else here cold? I just want to know. Is it just me? And I was in a very nice car, a black car - by the way someone might have told me that when those black cars arrive at Logan Airport to pick you up they go to someplace no one else goes on the upper level. Just next time you have someone coming from the tropics. So I got to Am-herst [corrects himself] Amherst - I know it's not Am-herst, by the way. I really can't believe I just made ... Last night the driver, by the way, whose name was Tony (he said to me he often drives Tony Marx, he told me that as well, so I'm sure you can confirm this), he said, “Just don't say Am-herst.” That's what - that was his advice he gave me.

So I was thinking as I got to the Commons well, I know what I can - it just hit me. What can I say to the Class of 2005? And I just thought WWJD. What would Lord Jeffery Do?

Now, I was told not to make any Lord Jeffery jokes, but I really can't obey that injuncture. And I'll tell you why. First of all, it's sort of fate, is it not, I mean I'm an infectious disease doctor. [Laughter]. And so no matter what jokes you may have heard already, you're not going to have heard mine. WWJD, that's pretty good.

But anyway I had abandoned this by dawn. I said well, I haven't - I'm not going to be able to finish writing this. I'm not going to be able to finish, you know, my talk. I don't have time. I have to watch TV. Which I did. I mean, there's some strange things on TV for those of you Americans who've been out of the country. You know you mentioned the Comedy Channel. I haven't seen this show that you were referring to but I can only imagine after having seen the Comedy Channel this past couple of days just what it's going to be like. In any case, I said I'm not gonna do that. I'm gonna watch TV I'll work on it tomorrow morning. Again this is something you don't want to do when you're off in graduate school, wherever it is - don't take that advice.

And so I got up early this morning, I really did, and I went and asked for the New York Times. And you know, being a Catholic boy from North Adams I of course am obliged to believe in science. And I opened up the New York Times and there's an article about biological warfare with smallpox. So I said I'm still gonna have to talk about Lord Jeffery.

Another article, by the way, in today's New York Times is a little blurb about Massachusetts having recently repealed a law preventing Native Americans from entering the city of Boston. This was repealed last week. Again, you can't make this stuff up. I mean the New York Times is such a reliable source for everything especially weapons of mass destruction so I'm sure they're right on target about these other two issues.

Anyway. I know that if Ali G had been selected and arrived, by the way he did give a commencement speech at Harvard if I'm not mistaken. And for those of you who are unaware as I was only a year ago, Ali G is not a real person. He's not even real. His name is Sacha Cohen, something like that. These kids are gonna know. And he's a comedian who has this amazing shtick which you really have to see to believe. Actually, don't let your parents see it. But in any case he would at least have an hour. My 15 minutes are really up already.

And I realize that I can only give one message. You know, you learn that if you're a teacher of medicine, a teacher of medical students, first of all you learn that it's better to give half a message. And you know students will come right up to you and say, “Do we have to know this?” And having been, being an alumnus of Harvard Medical School I tried to think, “Did we say that?” And my conclusion is we did say that also. But yes that's the prevailing attitude in medical school is do we have to know this. So those of you who are off to see your physicians soon be aware that there's a certain recalcitrance about some of the materials.

So I have one message and it's very heartfelt. All humor aside. And I think the three addresses that we heard are resonant with the one that I would give you, the message that I would give you. And that is, that it's very important as you leave this island of privilege - because that's what Amherst is, and it seems to me that the student body is aware of this privilege which is an important thing to be aware of, our privilege. I mean, I'm aware, I had this ground into my into my face by working in some of the places I've worked, to understand just how privileged we are. And it's very heartening for me to come back here and hear young students - I say Americans as an American but young students - in an island of privilege regardless of where you were born or what nation you belong to. You're still privileged people. We're all privileged people and to understand that and as we go forward in a world that is increasingly, feels increasingly interconnected.

Of course, Lord Jeffery and the idea that there would be a law against Native Americans coming into the city of Boston - these are reminders that this interconnectedness is not new, as are many epidemic diseases. All levity aside. You know the way that small pox mowed through the inhabitants of this continent and the islands in the Caribbean where I work are a reminder of the intimacy of our links. And we forget that. We forget that, even cocooned away in a city like Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Boston, Massachusetts, to say nothing of an island like this one. And the fact that you have not forgotten this is very heartening for those of us and those of you who will be working in the broad world, a world - as Kate just reminded us - which is riven by violence and inequality and savage inequalities as she said. So it's not that you need to know your world. It is that we all need to know the world.

Coming from Haiti to Harvard, for example, over 20 years, one could fall prey to the idea that these are two different worlds. One of wealth and one of great poverty. But they're the same world. And so too with Rwanda and Geneva and London and all of this is one world, and I'm reassured when I hear people from the Class of 2005 talk about their world as the world. It is the world.

A lot of people have never heard of Lord Jeffery Amherst or the French Indian War. Even World War II, I hear, is considered ancient history by many young Americans. And you know, as someone who works also in Russia I can tell you that that is not a universal forgetting. Young people in Russia - I've met many of them. I work as a physician with colleagues in Russia. Mostly with people who are down on their luck, who have tuberculosis. Many of them are in prison. And I can tell you that this forgetting that happens here in this country, not in this town, is a very significant problem, I think, for our people, the American people. If you look at surveys (but don't worry I won't do that), but were one to look at surveys of American high school students, junior high school students, the surveys suggest that our people cannot find Haiti or Iraq on a map. And again, this might be an insignificant problem if we were not in the position in which we now find ourselves, which is as the head of a new empire. And we are the Romans of the 21st century and young people, the Class of 2005, are going to discover that in addition to discovering the inequalities that Kate mentioned in her remarks, will be discovering also the inordinate power that we have. And I think again there in order to use this power wisely we need to understand history.

Now I've been warned by the Boston Globe that you're after a light-hearted finale. And I'm sorry I'm not Ali G or Jon Stewart, who's very funny by the way. This is my first week of seeing Jon Stewart. You don't have to tape this stuff whoever's taping it. Don't tell my mother I'm watching these shows.

But as you go forth into business and law, medicine, teaching, scholarship, whatever it is you do, please know that the generation preceding you is counting on you to do a better job than we did, or than Lord Jeff did.

Congratulations, good luck, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Thank you.