President Robert F. Vagt's Address To the Class of 2007
May 20, 2007
I bid you greeting and welcome to Commencement exercises in this, the one hundred and seventieth year of Davidson College - a celebration of passage, as it were, which has few equals in life. A day with sunny skies and misty eyes - a glorious admixture of emotions, of beginnings and endings, all twisted together.
We offer special greetings on this day to the families - the parents, the grandparents, and friends of the women and men in this grand Class, and to faculty, students, staff, trustees, alumni, and to you, the Class of 2007. This is your family, your extended family, gathered together to take note of your achievement.
I must observe that this day, and those surrounding it, a whole series of yesterdays and several tomorrows, could not take place absent the heroic efforts of the Physical Plant staff who prepare the campus for this occasion – we are so grateful for their extraordinary dedication.
This college is a celebration of people and we use this occasion, not only to focus on the accomplishments of those of you who have been with us for four years, but also to recognize those who have spent many more years with us. Eight of our number have served this institution - and served is the proper word - for anywhere from fifteen to sixty years - 266 years in all - and we honor them for their faithfulness and hard work, but, as importantly, for the spirit in which they offered both. I would ask you to join me in expressing our thanks once I have called out this "list of the saints." And I would ask them, if they are here, to stand and remain standing.
And to you, this great Class of 2007 . . . many have sacrificed that you might reach this point, but no one has given more than you. You have run the gauntlet of high expectations, those of your professors, your parents, you . . . and this ceremony is not the end but a grand beginning.
At Fall Convocation, Gagan graciously offered me membership in this Class, complete with a senior citizen discount, I might add; and so, as I thought about our leaving together, I decided we must pose the fair question: What will we take away from here, and just how important is it? To which Heidi answered, "How do you reduce four years of camaraderie and love into one page without just drawing unicorns and rainbows and gumdrop trees?"
We advertise, of course, that our primary purpose is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service . . . so that is one measure. Sometimes we parents tend to assess what our sons and daughters carry away only in terms of what lies immediately ahead – graduate school, the nature of a job, and these become a proxy for students’ success at Davidson.
What has this quadrennium been about . . . certainly a reasonable question…and as a new member of this class, I put pen to paper (which automatically identifies me as a senior tagalong to this group); but, then, remembering that ours is an academic institution, I decided this called for a little research. And so, without the approval of the Institutional Review Board, I should disclose, I queried a group of students as to the one thing, captured in a phrase or a single sentence, they would be taking away from Davidson. Likewise, I queried several faculty about their hopes for the one thing that graduates would take from Davidson. These respondents being full-fledged members of this Davidson community, all but two sent back paragraph upon paragraph, and I was overwhelmed by a deluge of the richest comments and descriptions . . . and it poured in so heavily that I was soon casting about in a sea of thoughtful emotion, or, perhaps, emotional thought. (In fact, as grateful as I am, it was too much, and too moving, to use it all.)
So while time does not permit a full sharing, what are the things with which you students said you would depart? Well, there were, of course, the wags who listed such essential take-aways as a diploma, twenty extra pounds, the knowledge that you only get one haircut at Raeford’s, a piece of "puke-green" carpet from the library, and an appreciation of good laundry service.
But to get to the more serious, what does this class take with it, with respect to disciplined and creative minds – the faculty who responded will be pleased in knowing that the hopes you described with respect to the life of the mind were fully reflected in the student replies. The faculty hopes for "erudition," a love of questions, "a hunger for an encounter with what they don’t know," the understanding that "asking the right question is infinitely more powerful than having the right answer. It is the difference between opening a door and closing one." One professor said finding the answers is the easy part. "Coming up with questions - questions that matter and make a difference - is the hard part."
Another, "The Class of `07 should take away the capability of shifting perspectives and derailing certainties that don’t deserve the status of certain."
Unaware of your hopes – the students responded in a full chorus.
"I’m going to walk out of here with an intellectual curiosity that will stay with me for the rest of my life, whether it be picking up a new language, reading everything I can find, or learning how to throw a horseshoe - perfectly."
And – "Intellectually I take from here the knowledge that few things are ever as simple, straightforward or unequivocally right as you might want them to be. The world is poorly served by those who think they found the answers and stop looking and listening."
"Davidson has taught me how to be a person who will keep asking questions and keep caring about the answers."
Or again, "I leave being able to enter into authentic dialogue with others, comfortable in the way in which I think - with courage, respect for dissenting opinions, and a willingness to be open to mutual enrichment."
"I’ve gotten to unlearn as much as I’ve gotten to learn, and I feel that the prejudices and the misconceptions and the simplified versions of reality that my peers have helped shatter are just as useful as the classroom lessons and the lectures."
Or perhaps most simply stated, "What I will take away from Davidson is my pride in being a nerd."
The faculty’s hopes also hovered in the air over the concept of "lives of leadership and service."
"This class leaves, having provided evidence that they can bring about meaningful change in the world and the gifts that they’ve been given by the Davidson community demand that they share them with those less fortunate."
The faculty had the temerity to assert that your worth is not measured solely by your grades, that the world is complex but that such complexity does not excuse you from acting. They hope that you are devout humanists, perhaps put most elegantly, and I quote, "I hope you believe that perseverance counts for more than talent, that service counts for more than privilege, and that faith counts for more than cynicism."
And without knowing their hopes, you, the Class of 2007, with equal passion projected this education into your life setting: your dedication to improving conditions for others, this commitment a child of friendships born in this arms-around-you community, a sense of who you are in this very complex world and your confidence in, and your dedication to, changing what you can. You credited this community for getting you through, helping you to survive Davidson and you would do likewise: "Why else would students voluntarily work as hard as they do when they could be working less and getting better grades in another school?"
A sense that people matter most. One student quoted historian Paul Johnson as saying, "Above all we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget – that people matter."
Several snippets echoed Dr. Johnson:
"Every day I have a chance to show somebody – anybody – that they are loved, that he or she is another human being worthy of love and respect."
"I was going to be a doctor, now I have a plan to really make a difference as a doctor."
"The ultimate success is being able to help someone else."
"All that people need to hear is that someone needs them, and they are there to help, no questions asked."
And you talk about leaving with confidence that you can do it, with experience at working hard for what you deem important.
"Davidson has taught me that anything is attainable. Anything."
"Davidson has taught me that there is no such thing as limitation."
"Potential may afford you the roadmap to success. In fact, it may even help you find the door . . . but hard work and perseverance are the only combination to the lock."
"Davidson has challenged me to convert what I learn into what I do, and to do in order that I might continue to learn."
In the midst of all this, I read from the Class of 2007 the following, "What I am carrying away from here is as much a testament to our scholastic education as to our moral maturity. We always play to win but never at the cost of our class or sportsmanship. We always strive to make the grade in the classroom but never at the cost of plagiarism or dishonesty. We always attempt to excel in every arena of life but never at the cost of manipulating others."
To that another added:
"What I will carry away is humility and gratitude. There will always be someone who is smarter, more beautiful, and more talented than me. There will also always be someone who is hungry, homeless, or sick, who needs me. I might never be the smartest, the most beautiful, or the most talented, but Davidson has taught me that I can make a difference, no matter what."
"Thanks to this community, I am taking with me a profound understanding and appreciation of the problems in this world, the continual need for good and innovative ideas to solve them, and the confusion and difficulty that comes with making those ideas a reality. My time at Davidson has prepared me to dive into that confusion and difficulty with a strong hope that a new reality is possible."
Ever so slowly I began to realize that what you are talking about, what you feel you have gotten from Davidson, is this thing called the Davidson Bubble – the bubble that so many of you have told me you’ve enjoyed living in for the past four years and are sorry that you have to leave. That bubble, which consists of living in this community of friends and mentors, abiding by a code which involves personal and ethical value systems. The bubble, which includes no fear of hard work for what is required, curiosity, comfort with new ideas, high expectations of yourself and those around you, unabated compassion for those whose lot in life is worse than your own, unabated passion about situations or practices that are unfair.
And so, perhaps, having listened to you and to your teachers, my answer to the question is that you should take from this place, what you must take from this place . . . is the Davidson Bubble. Don’t leave it behind – take it with you. How else, I ask, is humanity going to march forward, if not with the value system and the commitment and the high expectation and the confidence and the willingness to work on behalf of others, to solve those conundrums which the world has for so long said are insoluble.
And for those adults in this crowd, we who look on such idealistic talk as silliness, we oldsters who have let the blinders of reality, practicality, history and common sense construct a list of what cannot possibly be accomplished, with you I need to have a word about recent, very recent, Davidson graduates, one of whom quit his dream job, with this extraordinary income and financial potential, because he found that what was being expected of him was unethical. Or the graduate who went to Congo for two years and before he left, he had grown a group dedicated to the welfare of the children of that region, with a seven million dollar annual operating budget. Or the one on the fast track who used a significant portion of an outsized annual income to adopt a public school. Or I can tell you about those members of the Class of `07 who sit before you and who have, on behalf of individuals and groups, both near to Davidson and around the world, in the face of common wisdom, which said events and circumstances could not be changed – in fact, have already been engaged for change - changing the world as we know it.
Class of 2007, what do you take from this place? You take possibility – you take the possibility of what could be, of what you could be, because if you ever accept what is as given, as what must be, then we have failed. To use your own words about possibility, I quote, "In the vastness and intricacy of the world, while I may not be able to change the world, I am confident that I can make change in the world."
What do you take from Davidson? You take a lesson that I suspect you already know but took decades for this new member of the Class of `07 to realize . . . that is, that there is nothing that you will have ever done, nor will ever do, that will be of greater consequence than to improve the life of another by the work of your hand, the compassion of your heart. What do you take? You take the bubble, a token of which I have for each of you . . . and because you take that bubble, you will, by definition, take something else . . . our conviction about what it is you will achieve. To use the words of one of your teachers, "We hope you remember that we had confidence in you when you had doubt . . . and that, even today, as you walk across the stage to take your diploma, we have faith in contributions you have not yet made."
To you, the grand Class of 2007, we, gathered here to honor you, wish you Godspeed.
Robert F. Vagt