President Marx
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“In Support of the Commons”

Address by President Anthony W. Marx
May 28, 2006

Graduates: Today your families, your friends and your college are immensely proud of you. You have stretched mind, body and spirit, inside and outside the classroom. You have extended yourselves toward classmates, roommates and teammates; and toward people who have sought refuge here from the tempests of nature and politics; toward communities beyond this campus. Today is a day for us all to feel a lump in our throats. Congratulations.

Members of the Amherst Class of 2006: You have lived during a time of historic transition. You were born just as the Cold War was nearing its end. Now, as tensions born of that conflict have eased, so has the competitive pressure to demonstrate the superiority of our system. New challenges have surfaced, brought on by a neglect of the public good. That neglect does affect American life as insidiously as the Cold War did. But you have already shown us all the many ways one can steer clear of such neglect and restore good balance.

Last fall, Hurricane Katrina brought refugees to Amherst, and its aftermath later took many of you to the Gulf Coast to lend a hand. We saw then how private interest alone cannot shore up the levees that protect a people; nor can it provide security when the levees break. Private interest alone can’t shield us from global climate change, or from the onslaught of disease, or from depleted energy sources. Private interest alone can create neither an educated citizenry nor a competitive workforce for a global economy.

Yet today we are witnessing a desertion of the public commons, that arena where we provide for the environment, for our public health, for our education, and for other social needs that depend more on collaboration than on competition. All of us benefit from the victory of free enterprise, but we must beware of pushing that victory too far. We have to nurture civic enterprise, too, the kind of enterprise that operates beyond self-interest.

Graduates: In this age of instant communication, you have already beheld immense suffering, from terrorism, tsunami and flood. It is well that you have faced these cataclysms fully for, as it has been wisely said, “It is no virtue to bear calamities if we do not feel them.”

Moved by these events, you honor their memory. Such memories insist on significance, demand to be understood. As educated women and men, you know how to bring the experience of suffering into the light of analysis and of art, and thereby to illuminate meaning. This enables you to discern, rather than to cower or flinch. It enables you to act, to innovate, to inspire, to nurture.

When we discern the significance of our experience and then act upon it, we are creating our own history. After all, history is the record not only of losses of great magnitude. It is the record of cause and effect, of the actions that a people take deliberately in response to such loss. The significance of these cataclysms—their ultimate meaning to us all—will become clear only through time, as revealed by the changes that we work to bring about in response. Through such labor, we take evolution into our own hands, bending ourselves to new ways of thinking, mindful that our survival now requires mental adaptation, not physical mutation.

Today, therefore, as we confront the challenges of our era, there is one quality of intellect that calls out for urgent attention, calls for us to purposefully evolve. It is the quality that perhaps most clearly distinguishes our species. It is our social conscience.

Conscience, as Harper Lee observed, is “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule.”  Much as we might hope for agreement, conscience transcends the nostrums of politics. It scoffs at boundaries. It disregards narrow horizons of time.

In this new century, you have seen human motivations and needs that trouble the conscience and cry out for response. The mere self-interested pursuit of market profit could neither calculate nor address these events. The men who piloted the planes into the World Trade Center acted from terrifying motives we struggle to grasp, though instinctively we recognize they acted not from mere cold, economic calculus. If we say the tsunami and Katrina were more predictable, that excuses the resulting suffering even less.

In forcing us to think big, such catastrophes also force our progress, our evolution, as a nation. They challenge us to outgrow a quality in ourselves that Winston Churchill once wryly exposed: that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

Graduates, the pace of change has accelerated since Churchill’s time. No longer can we afford to keep trying everything else first. If we fail to cast our minds toward the public good, then tempests natural and man-made will wear down our civilization.

Today civic decay is rotting out one of the most fundamental of all our public goods: our system of education. Though relentless, the process is not always visible. Pilots do not fly into our classrooms, floods do not sweep across this nation’s playgrounds. But to a sensitized conscience, the dangers of this decay are clear. Those dangers—the costs to human life and society—are far greater than the threat of any one disaster.

Haphazardly, America designed a system of public education in which each community serves itself. There is some strength in that. But as a result, advantages solidify around particular schools and school systems, funded locally and thus unequally. Students who don’t attend the better schools lose out.

This dynamic now also extends to higher education. Today, a college education is often seen as a private commodity to be bought, with the investment recouped in later earnings. Regarded as just another private good, it is permitted to make less of a claim on public investment. As a consequence, federal money that once covered most of the cost of college for those most in need now covers less than half. Funding has been cut for public universities, meaning higher tuitions and diminishing access.

This cycle grinds down on our society. And these denials cost us the talent and perspective we need now more than ever.

They also hurt education itself. As higher education mutates into a private commodity, students come to be seen as canny consumers, rather than as aspiring adults on a quest for learning and moral insight.

My friends, your investment in college does of course serve your individual interests—as well it should. But you are meant to pursue more than just those interests. Your conscience, and I hope Amherst, have told you that. When private pursuits become detached from public needs, everyone suffers. The loss of a sense of “the commons” has accompanied a decline in civilization before, and it can again. As Edward Gibbon observed, looking back at antiquity: “When the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” 

I am not here decrying our system of free enterprise. To the contrary, I am saying that we shortchange this system when we neglect its social context. Capitalism thrives on individual talent— including the talent of social conscience, which is as much a resource as an obligation and a resource that our economy requires. As scholars recently have shown, Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics, saw that within all sectors of society, citizens’ confidence in the future is a condition to lasting economic growth. Free enterprise requires and rewards long-term vision.

Amherst College was established in the pursuit of long-term vision. The college’s founders aspired to the intensity of a small college, where students, briefly insulated from larger social forces, might refine their minds and their hearts. But the founders also, in our very charter, averted insularity: they declared that the college must be open to the “indigent” and that it was morally bound to enlighten the world beyond. For this college they sought, as we seek, that grace which captured St. Augustine, the grace that makes us strive to be inwardly perfected and outwardly directed. Amherst’s dedication to that ideal is the secret of our influence. It will be the secret of yours.

Amherst College hews to that foundation, however much market forces may appear to push in other directions. Our alumni generously contribute effort and funds to the college. They give not just from affection, much as we honor that affection; they give from a certainty that Amherst, and specifically you, the college’s newest alumni, will serve the world, as those before you have endeavored to serve.

Rightly, you have expected the college to show moral leadership. In turn, the founders, the alumni and the faculty of Amherst College expect each of you to be moral leaders. As a private trust for the public good, the college does serve the educational commons; acting as a moral leader, we inspire and teach you to be such leaders.

But how exactly will you lead others in your exercise of conscience?

As you grow to lead, you may encounter a tension, where selfless concern does not sit easily with the self-confidence one needs to bring others along. Showing consideration for the views of others can appear at odds with the thick-skinned determination it sometimes takes to pursue one’s own vision.

When you sense that tension, you have learned a fundamental lesson of the enlightenment: we must pursue truth without ever expecting to attain it entirely. And always—always—we must act without surrendering to the temptation to make an idol of our mission. Graduates, beware the righteous feeling that can tempt you to categorize your own cause as wholly good or your opponent’s as wholly worthless.

Rather, it is only by training ourselves to embrace ambiguity—attuning ourselves to perceive why others may see us as wrong—that we can make effective moral judgments. Acting decisively on such judgments is moral leadership.

To see the prospect of our success but also of our fallibility, to respect contrary approaches:  cultivating such habits of mind by no means implies a relative ethic. Rather, we adopt such open-mindedness from an enlightened engagement with both scientific and moral inquiry. The spirit of free enterprise also arose with the enlightenment. Capitalism’s emphasis on expanding renewable resources, including human talent and conscience, has always relied in turn on the enlightenment’s utter celebration of individual human ability precisely because that ability requires diverse perspectives to flourish. Such initiative and values must never be pitted against each other by partisanship, or we risk losing those linked inheritances.

Guided by such ideals, the college has undertaken an intensive self-examination during your four years here. We have embraced our traditions. We have committed ourselves to continuing to raise our standards, by reaching out to the best students abroad and here at home. We have committed ourselves to learning from an even greater breadth of talent and ideas; to being a grand crucible for critical thinking, diverse experience and moral vision. 

Graduates, we cannot predict your dilemmas or your careers, but we are shaping a consensus about what we hope to see you become: women and men who foster individuality in diversity; who move with empathy among divergent views; who, experienced in theory and practice, always test each against the other; who, inspired by the ancient example of Socrates and Plato’s academy, relish the most difficult discussions; who thus approach new knowledge with enthusiasm; and, I pray, who exemplify the critical, creative citizen, one whose conscience makes her so alive to her ideal of civilization that anyone around her wants to work toward it, too—a citizen who strives for that inward perfection and outward direction.

We look to you to become such citizens.

If ever you waver, let Amherst remind, provoke and inspire you. In each of you, we see an investment of generations come to life. And so we trust that, from this small, high corner of the Commonwealth, you will go forth to enlighten the world.

Our expectations of you could not be higher.

We look for you to change the world.

Terras Irradient.  Begin, and Godspeed.