Anthony W. Marx addressed the
184th commencement at
Amherst College on May 22, 2005.
Photo by Frank Ward
Amherst College Commencement Address
by President Anthony W. Marx
May 22, 2005
Greetings, trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni and, with special gratitude, parents and families. The Class of 2005, we salute you. Today you are our joy, and for years to come, our pride. You began here in the shadow of a national tragedy in September ’01, and have prepared yourselves for a world of problems awaiting your solutions. You are the newest heirs to a challenge laid forth by Nelson Mandela 10 days ago, and to that same challenge imbedded in the historical mission begun here almost two centuries ago.
In 1812, Noah Webster, age 53, moved into a house on the north end of the Amherst Common. He was a remarkable man who had grown up in remarkable times, similar to our own in the cascade of historic events. Imagine the intensity of those times in which he lived. The Declaration of Independence had been signed in the summer between Webster’s sophomore and junior years in college. His junior year was disrupted by revolutionary war and by food shortages. After graduation, he worked with Benjamin Franklin, and in Philadelphia he labored in support of the Constitutional Convention. George Washington asked him to serve as his private secretary and as tutor to his grandchildren.
Noah Webster would not be content to instruct the grandchildren of the country’s first president. He initially did earn his living as a schoolteacher, the most noble profession, but in the words of our own Henry Steele Commager, Webster’s vision was to be “schoolmaster to the nation. Webster became the premier educator during the first half century of its independence for this country that, in turn, became the first to create anything “remotely like universal free education.”
The project for which we most remember Webster was his creation of the American English dictionary. We still reach for the Webster to understand our words. But we underestimate his project and the power of words if we think of his dictionary as merely a list of definitions. He himself began with that more limited vision, completing the A’s and B’s before he realized that he would have to start again, to seek the origins of words. As he wrote, and as will sound familiar to us, he “had to unlearn a great deal that I had spent years in learning.” But he kept up his efforts, for in his view “words or names often have more influence on the mass of men than things.”
Noah Webster sought to direct that influence by codifying a distinctly American language. He understood that, as this American nation developed—politically, socially, emotionally—we should come into our own, with our own pronunciations, our own definitions. He had us begin speaking a language distinct from the British, allowing for our new commonality, for a harmony and a speech that would not “betray class or religion.” Webster began his preface with this vision, writing that the dictionary would “attack deep-rooted prejudice” in an “era of wonders.” Many of his definitions are crafted to impart that moral lesson. For Webster, “language is a democracy,” and the American language he worked out through a lifetime’s effort served as an engine of our democracy.
To complete his dictionary, Webster had moved to Amherst—then 25 houses in total—seeking to avoid the “dissipations and expenditures” of the larger cities. But his project of educating the nation could not be kept apart from educating those he also found at hand. He joined the board of a new secondary school, the Amherst Academy, and served as president of that board in the crucial years of 1820 and 1821. Under his leadership, the trustees concluded to build upon the foundation of the Academy a college, this college. Noah Webster was our founder.
In Webster’s words, “the object of this institution, that of educating for the gospel ministry young men in indigent circumstances, but of hopeful piety and promising talents, is one of the noblest that can occupy the attention and claim contributions.” Our vision of that ministry and of those eligible for it has well expanded, but the basic motivation remains: “raising the human race from ignorance and debasement, to enlighten their minds, to exalt their character and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.” Graduates, you are today the heirs to that vision.
This college was not a distraction from Webster’s dictionary. Just as he was aiming his lexicon toward an inclusive national consciousness, Webster believed that the college “liberalizes men and removes the most inveterate prejudices....(We aim to) harmonize the feelings and the views of all the citizens.” He began our work humbly, but with high ideals.
In his house at the bottom of this hill, the lexicographer labored, constructing his masterwork one word upon another, while outside his window, on this hilltop, the college’s first building was being constructed, one brick upon another. As he built his book of the new nation’s language, he could watch being built an institution of equally high aspirations. As he wrote, “In yonder edifice may the youth of America be richly furnished with the science and erudition which shall qualify them for eminent usefulness... to illuminate the dark places of the earth.” By the time South College was finished, Webster had reached the letter H; both projects would continue.
This history may inspire us. But it is not my intention at Commencement to fill you with images of the past. Webster’s power is such that his vision still can inform our aspirations. As you and your college contemplate the future, we can find guidance in our founder’s wisdom. Let me describe Webster’s lessons for today and for the future of his college.
Webster and his fellow trustees saw the college as a natural outgrowth of their secondary school, for they understood that the years of schooling must be stitched into a web; that education depends on that web. After founding the college, the Amherst Academy directed its remaining resources to create our town’s public schools, creating that system. If we in America’s great colleges and universities now appear to have forgotten this connectedness, Webster reminds us. When a quality primary and secondary education is not provided to all, so that the College can then select among the best students, then we cannot do our work. This debt of our founding, we must repay, returning our efforts to replenish and protect all the wellsprings of the educational system that feeds into us, upon which we and society rely.
Nor must entry to this or any college or university be barred to those unable to pay. Webster knew the tragedy of such hardship firsthand, for his father had mortgaged the family farm and then lost that ancestral home in order to pay for young Noah’s college tuition. The college he founded was dedicated to a new, American vision. As was sermonized here at the completion of South College, to anyone who could not "purchase the privilege, still this institution opens to you its doors. " The college invited in those less fortunate, to “widen the bonds of affection and vastly increase the amount of happiness.” If for all our generosity, we still falter in our efforts to ensure such opportunity, then our founders remind us, beseech us, to go further.
Webster understood too that the liberal arts curriculum here must not be compromised by ephemeral orthodoxy or specialization, but must be open to new areas of understanding, presented on their merits only, without reference to their sponsorship. He himself embodied such inter-disciplinarity and forward thinking: He was a literary scholar, but he was also an historian of the French revolution, a student of 26 languages, a scientist studying epidemics and disease as well as the solar system, a journalist, a philosopher and an actor in the political world. If we fail to attain comparable breadth, Noah Webster reminds us of what we are capable, of the comprehensiveness we must bring to bear on improving our world as he did his.
Webster also embodied service—service to individuals, to the community, to the nation and the world. He founded a college to mold leaders from all the places of our society. In enacting such a vision, Mr. Webster taught us how service must enrich our understanding as we set our goals; it must become part of what we learn and teach, as leaders.
My friends, great women and men do not just happen. They choose to be. And you, members of the Class of ’05, inherit this legacy to become great, to comprehend and serve so that you might lead in the world before you. Who else? Who else but you? You join an extraordinary group of alumni, powerful in many diverse senses of that word, who have shown the many paths you can follow. Those “young men of hopeful piety and promising talents” whom Webster aspired to nourish grew, and chose, to become leaders in their communities and countries. Had they not so chosen, Amherst would not have become the leading institution it is in the world today.
The aim for Webster was always clear: TerrasIrradient; to illuminate the world; not the more constrained Civitatem Irradient, which arguably would have been more “realistic.”
Graduates, how often you will be told in coming years to be “realistic.” I hope you are told this; it will be a sign you are pursuing your ideals. For that warning is spoken when we are most vulnerable to it, when the way seems hardest, when we are least certain that our goals can be realized. But look to Webster: Whoever heard of one person creating the entire dictionary of a new nation? In looking to the dreams he realized, I beseech you: Honor your inner voice, keep listening to your dreams, keep working toward the vision you want to enact. Perhaps, like Noah, you aspire to write your own book that will both capture and advance the American idiom. Or to become someone whose counsel is sought by heads of state. Or you aspire to be a head of state, or to found a college.
As this college was founded to educate future leaders and thus to lead in education and in society, we must inspire service, build for justice and draw harmonies from the false discords of religion, race and class. Our work is to educate women and men who are so informed by this moral vision that they enact it and make it real for others too.
Webster's vision remains vital because that work is not done. The vision must yet enliven us. At our founding, his dictionary was not yet completed—it would only be finished four years later, when this college’s first degrees were granted to those who marched across this quadrangle. When Noah finished the last word, he trembled. But he need not have feared for his own, or his dictionary’s, conclusion. Indeed, as he must have understood even by then, his lexicon would never be perfect. There is no such completion. His dictionary would require new editions. Nor is the building of this nation done; we trust it never will be. Our language and our society expand and transform, as the understanding of our language and the talents of people, foreign- and native-born also transform.
Likewise, your own education has not finished with your commencement today. Nor is this college perfected. If the renewal Amherst now seeks to meet our society’s needs seems hard, Noah Webster urges us to call more comprehensively upon our great quality and resources. He and his co-founders envisioned the college according to that insight later expressed by de Tocqueville, that Americans form associations and institutions to “enable them to serve a cause greater than themselves. At the start, to build South College, all were invited to contribute labor and money according to their ability. And at that dedication, the College’s supporters were called upon “to enlarge their charities and increase their hopes.” As Mr. Webster concluded, such “efforts combined cannot fail to produce the desired effect and realize the hopes of its founders.”
As this college, like so many, continues to build and to inspire, we must do so, not for our own aggrandizement, but to fulfill our mission. We are “the college on the hill,” and with that epithet we evoke an even earlier founding of which Webster was well aware. Governor John Winthrop envisioned his community’s newfound settlement on the edge of America as a “city on a hill,” but not isolated in self-referenced glory. As Winthrop sermonized, “every man has need of other, and from hence they might be knit more nearly together.” He understood that, to meet this fundamental need of a humane community, we must have “more enlargement toward others and less respect toward ourselves.”
Members of the Amherst community, America arose from this vision, one we have sometimes forgotten, that to thrive on all our variety, we must care for each other. Other colleges look to us for inspiration in meeting this ideal. For our own sake as well as theirs, we must honor it.
Mr. Webster expected no less of us. In 1820, standing right here, on the cornerstone of what would soon be South College, he spoke of an “institution as intended to embrace, in its effects, the whole community of man” and to thereby lift up the community from darkness. His dictionary was to enlighten; his college, to illuminate. As Americans who now understand one another in the light of Amherst College, we may not always recall that it was Webster who first lit the lamp. But he and his college will continue to enlighten you, and illuminate your way, graduates, as you go forth to communicate with the larger community that Mr. Webster’s America has also become. As Commager concluded with a special meaning for Amherst alumni, “We no longer see him, but we speak him and hear him.”
From his studies, Noah Webster found that the word for which he could discover the oldest roots was the simple one, “move.” Not as a noun, but as a verb, signifying action. And in writing the first edition of his dictionary, he defined the transitive use of the verb thus; “to impel...to excite into action, to affect, to agitate, to rouse.” Our founder embodied this word. Apprehending the very nature of our nation and its language, he moved both.
And so, envisioning an institution that would both inform and excite action, Mr. Webster founded this college to educate the best students regardless of ability to pay, to move them out from this place, as you all will now do, to move the world. He saw that to fulfill that mission, the college also would have to move, to transform itself, continually.
As Amherst is the college on the hill, we aspire to be the moral leader of education and of society. We expect no less of you graduates, for your fates and ours are now bound forever. Today, as you move from Amherst, we know that from the enlightenment you have gained and shared with one another here, you can in your own ways illuminate the places of the earth you will move to, and through. From the not-so-distant times of Mr. Winthrop and Mr. Webster, and the recent one of Mr. Mandela, revolutionary times when educated women and men pursued the highest ideals of an educated community in territories where the way seemed darkest, I call on you to remember your founders’ vision. Carry forward the new made light of your own understanding, that you might illuminate the even newer worlds you will enter and create. From our own history on this hilltop, Noah Webster calls out still to us all.