Commencement 2011

Professor Jack Harris
Faculty Speech – Senior Dinner for the Class of 2011
May 12, 2011

Jack Harris

As you rise to Main Street from St. Clair Street, past the Presidents House, and the lake comes into view, have you ever wondered what Bishop John Henry Hobart saw that inspired him to choose this location for his college?

Writing in 1818, just a few short weeks before Bishop Hobart viewed these shores, William Darby remarked: "The site of the village is truly delightful, standing upon a waving ridge lying parallel to and rising 50-60 feet above the water of the lake, the view of which is extensive and romantic. The opposite shore in Seneca County rising gently from the water to considerable elevation, clothed with timber or chequered with farms...I have never visited a place which seems to combine in so small a compass so much to please the softer features of rural landscape."

It is reported that Bishop Hobart declared Geneva Hall's location to be the place of his new college "just as the first rays of the sun were glancing over the waters of our beautiful lake" on September 24, 1818. And, in 1906, William Smith, inspired to create a college in his name, a fitting match for Hobart, signed a deed of gift establishing William Smith College, a "Coordinate School for Women." And this will be the 186th graduation for Hobart College, and the centennial, 100th graduation for William Smith College!

I am sure that you have found this spot of lakeside to be one of inspiration, of peace, and of orange and purple, and green and white, sunrises and sunsets. This is a special place to me, and it surely has become a special place to you too. Perhaps it was part of what attracted you to us five years ago!

Our Colleges are located in a region rich in of enigmatic geographic forces, of mythic and dramatic histories, and lore and tradition -- it was the home of the Seneca nation, the greatest tribe of the Iroquois league, which established 350 years of peace in this region; it is the home of Hiawatha and Red Jacket, two brave and great Statesmen, it is part of a region of crucial social movements in our nation's history, including participation in the abolition of slavery through service as a depot on the underground railroad, through the political movement for women's rights, and of course, as the institution which produced the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.

This coming weekend you are again leaving "home," for certainly that is what HWS has been to you these last four years. You have engaged the world of ideas with a dedicated faculty, with courses designed to prepare you for the complexities and vicissitudes of twenty-first century life. In this way we hope that you have become strong minded, rather than hard-headed.

I feel certain that you have learned to answer these three questions:
Who are you?
What do you know?
What can you do?

I am going to start with what you know, and what you can do. What have you learned and done here?

First, academically, and humanely, you have learned to READ. If Bishop Hobart and Mr. Smith were alive today, they would recognize that the heart of our liberal arts education is to learn how to read, whether it be a sculpture, a musical composition, a strand of DNA, social patterns, or people. You have developed all sorts of skills and abilities that will make a difference in your work and in your play.

In the process we call education, we have regularly create turbulence by asking you to think against your self. We asked you to take multiple perspectives on self and other, on past and future. We asked you to read, write, talk, and listen, to interpret with each other and in conversation with the authors of your texts. Active reading is very hard work, as you come into dialog with the author. Active listening is very hard work as you seek to understand points of view different from your own. Active communicating is difficult as we demand that you describe, analyze, and explain -- in short, account for your own ideas.

So many of you have enacted "what you know" in the various modes of doing – in the lab, in field work, in sociological consulting, in creative writing, and in internships around the globe. You have proven what you know, and what you can now do.

Second, you have been a bricoleur, you have created, and completed, your very own jigsaw puzzle, the unique configuration of your majors and minors. I dare say that none of you have identical educations to anyone else.

Third, you have made community, here and abroad. It is said that half the trick is showing up, and you have shown up in your participation in so many spheres here at HWS, in Geneva, around the nation, and abroad.

  • So where are you senior athletes of Hobart and of William Smith?
  • Who are members of the Women's Collective?
  • Who has done community service here in Geneva, or New Orleans, or North Carolina, or Nicaragua, or Ireland, or Vietnam?
  • Where are you, leaders of student government?
  • Where are the seniors of 3 Miles Lost, the Hobartones, Cantori and Chorale?
  • Where are the writers and editors of the Herald and Martini?
  • Where are the senior EMTs (who we hope you won't need this weekend)?
  • Who amongst you completed an internship?
  • Who has studied abroad?
  • Who has completed the senior seminar as consultants in Sociology?

You have made a lasting impact, through your activities and leadership at Hobart and William Smith, through your engagement with the City of Geneva, the public schools, and places like the Boys and Girls Clubs, and internationally through your work in places like Galway and Hanoi. Don't stop now – what is stated over Demarest Hall is true: "You ARE the hope of the world."

Fourth, you have developed character and integrity. This matter of identity is the hardest learning, and it does not stop with college. Knowing who you are, demonstrating your "FEELING INTELLECT," accounting for yourself in your own authentic voice, is the biggest challenge.

I am confident that in your future discoveries you will follow your "True North," guided by what you have learned here. Follow your CHARACTER, resist taking the easy path. You will hear certain conventional wisdoms that ask you to commit "little murders," everyday excuses for unethical behavior, but they are lies:

  1. It is not true that "If you don't do it that someone else will," and if it is true, it does not have to be you – move on;
  2. It is not true that "it's not personal, its business," it is personal and it does harm to the lives of others, and to your own soul;
  3. It is not true that "Business is war." The best businesses follow a code of ethics.
  4. It is not true that "If you don't win, you lose," and that "it is a dog-eat-dog world." You are more resilient than that.
  5. It is not true that "everyone cheats." You know it, so don't tolerate it.

And I would be remiss if I did not say that one of the lasting legacies of Hobart AND William Smith, as a coordinate system, is that it teaches about social justice, that equity and fairness in matters of gender, race, and class, and other forms of difference, is an ethical way of life that benefits ALL of us.

So what does this mean? Do not just make a living, make a life worth living. Be yourself – do that and you can never go wrong. I try to live by the following three commandments:

  1. At least do no harm. This is the creed of the Good Samaritan.
  2. Never resist a generous impulse, your own or someone else's. Be a force that is generative, and generous. Seek maximum JOY, for you and for others.
  3. You only live once, if then. Now is the time to make a difference.

I celebrate your human skills of courage, empathy and imagination. Make a life filled with vitality, meaning, and enchantment. To enchant is to sing, to find melodies and harmonies, to be moved deeply, to know what awe (and awesome) really means. Have a lifelong passion for learning, have a vocation (a calling) not merely jobs, make your lives consequential, and act on your convictions in community with others. Explore the nature of the world and be a participant in its history. Finally, develop the maturity, when things go wrong, to have patience and forbearance.

The rewards of being at HWS are many, and the joy for me, of course, is that we have done it together. At this place, where we faculty are called to be virtuoso students, teaching and learning with you has been a precious gift and for that I say THANK YOU. You are off in a few days to seek your future and your good fortune. Here I remain, growing old with my colleagues, and staying young with my students.

In graduating, you commence a new chapter of your life, and become alumni and alumnae. You are a critical asset, as mentors to successor students, as supporters of the Colleges' initiatives, and perhaps even as parents to future students. Tell your children and your nieces and nephews about HWS. Tell your neighbors, your co-workers, and your co-workers children about HWS. Remind yourself about the life you made here, and every once in a while come visit, come home.

Congratulations on your achievements. Bon Voyage!

And thank you.