President Karen R. Lawrence
On behalf of the Trustees, faculty, and staff of Sarah Lawrence College, I am delighted to welcome you to the Commencement of the Class of 2011. I feel a special connection with your class. Four years ago, our initiations into the Sarah Lawrence community coincided. Despite the fact that you are graduating and I am not, I take great pleasure in having had four years to witness in you the "transformative" effect that Sarah Lawrence alumni identify as the legacy of their educations.
Along with our graduates, today we honor the family members in the audience, particularly the parents, whose love and commitment have supported our graduates. I want to say thank you for entrusting us with your daughters and sons for these past few years. Members of the Class of 2011, would you please stand and recognize the family members and friends who have made this moment possible?
I would also like to recognize those classmates who have passed away, as well as family members who are no longer here to mark this milestone. Please observe with me a moment of silence in their honor.
I have attended commencements at other institutions, but I have never seen anything like the rousing response of the graduates when their teachers and dons process at Sarah Lawrence. With their ovation, the class acknowledges that the heart and soul of the Sarah Lawrence experience is the relationship between each student and his or her faculty mentors. Of course, at any institution, the quality of the faculty in large part determines the quality of the education. But the artisanal nature of both teaching and learning at Sarah Lawrence makes the quality of the student-faculty relationship unparalleled. Handmade and crafted by teacher and student together, the singular education this College offers depends on faculty who understand that people learn in different ways and at different tempos and that there is no one path to becoming an educated person. That understanding translates into an extraordinary commitment of time and care. The financial environment of the past three years has tested our whole community in ways that could not have been predicted four years ago and I would like to thank the faculty publicly for continuing to be the most committed teachers within the landscape of American higher education today.
You may notice that I have used a number of phrases to describe the Sarah Lawrence difference—"singular education," a term that attempts to capture both our focus on the individual and our distinctiveness; "artisanal," which refers to the non-assembly line approach we take to teaching and learning; and "transformative." In the current climate of skepticism about the value of higher education, it is imperative for us to find the right language, stories, images, and examples to convey the way in which the education we offer matters in the lives of our students and the work they go on to do in the world. To capture this transformative power concretely may be a tall order at a commencement, which, by its nature as milestone, can bring out the cliché in us. Though maybe impolite, the gesture of pointing may be the best antidote to generalizing about Sadie Lou's "transformative effect" on its graduates. At this particular moment, I am thrilled to be looking out—and pointing—at 409 lustrous individual examples of the transformative work of a Sarah Lawrence education.
But pointing, of course, is insufficient to the occasion, so let me instead pursue the description of a "transformative" education by examining the words of some eloquent writers who help us think about the way knowledge can transform us. Both examples, the first from the novelist David Foster Wallace, and the second from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, represent knowledge not as an acquisition—something to be securely possessed—but as something that alters our being. Wallace's words actually come from a 2005 Commencement address he delivered to the graduating class of Kenyon College. He emphasizes the way a "real education" adjusts our angle of vision by teaching us how to recognize the unconscious frameworks in which we view the world. He urges the graduates to reset their "default settings," as he puts it, in order to question their own certainties. Wallace makes clear that he does not offer this advice as a moral imperative. He says,
"This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted,' which I suggest to you is not an accidental term."
Wallace is talking about refusing the automatic pilot of the habitual: "Learning how to think really means . . . being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience . . . . The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."
Wallace recuperates the clichéd phrase "well-adjusted" by reinvesting it with a whole new meaning (it turns out, he argues, that some clichés are true); tragically, he did not feel he could achieve this in his own life, could not escape the sense of having lost some "infinite thing." I believe that his definition of a "real education" fits the way you have learned much about yourselves, each other, and the world, through the rigors and focus of an SLC education. You have learned much that may be hard to summarize, to put in a neat container. And in the present environment of higher education, the pressure to label and quantify this knowledge is greater than ever before. Yet the kind of knowledge that Wallace wants to talk about is not something you "possess"—instead, it becomes a part of you and is internalized as it changes your chemistry.
The immersion that comes with this kind of education can be joyful, exhilarating, risky, even shocking. The strenuousness of this knowledge and its pleasures and dangers are envisioned by Elizabeth Bishop in a wonderful poem called "At the Fishhouses," set on a cold evening by the sea in Nova Scotia. In this poem, the poet tells us that the water by the fishhouses is "like what we imagine knowledge to be." Poetry can offer a different and beautiful route to imagining how we might adjust our "default settings," to understand how the taste of knowledge can transform us. Bishop's sea is "cold dark deep and absolutely clear."
"If you should dip your hand in," she says,
"your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
Then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown."
Class of 2011, you have tasted knowledge at Sarah Lawrence that has transformed you. Your knowledge today, as you leave us, is not the same knowledge that you will carry within you when you return to see us—as we hope you will do—since, as Bishop says, "knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." Yet it is no mere abstraction, divorced from the world, but sensuous and palpable. Although you cannot bottle it or hold it in a bucket, your transformative educations will stay with you—I can't resist saying it—for a lifetime.
Class of 2011, we salute you.