Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. '12
August 27, 2018
This afternoon, our distinguished speakers shared the rewards of taking calculated risks, learning through failure and experiencing the freedom and responsibility of finding your own voice. And as you may have deduced, this wisdom is the product of much doubt, uncertainty and discomfort. Learning is not smooth sailing; the process of education entails regularly taking stock of what we’ve previously assumed or taken as a given, holding it up to the light and asking if it’s still sound.
My college years at St. Peter’s in New Jersey were during the thick of the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. This was an age when every time you turned on the TV, you were met with leaders like John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King who appealed to the higher values of love and service to others. And yet a 1963 Gallup poll that found “78 percent of white people would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in.”
Regarding Dr. King’s march on Washington, 60 percent of respondents “had an unfavorable view of the march, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything.”
In 1964, a plurality of Americans thought communists were infiltrating civil rights organizations. Even though there were protests and sit-ins, and draft card burnings began that year, a poll from 1965, when I graduated from college, found that 61 percent of Americans believed sending troops into Vietnam was not a mistake.
When I was 20, I myself marched in a pro-Vietnam parade. It was 1964 −a day not unlike today− and as we marched, looking around at the people lined up on the sidewalks cheering, I saw several of my classmates, people I knew well, holding anti-war placards. The march culminated in a rally where speakers voiced support for United States military involvement in Vietnam. The war had been going on for quite some time at this point, but the U.S. had yet to send in combat troops.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and China were supporting the North Vietnamese both ideologically and financially, and there was a lot of fear, including right there at the rally in Jersey City, that if the North Vietnamese won, communism would spread through Asia and soon the rest of the world.
Listening to the speakers, to that fearful logic, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing there in that crowd. I knew that wasn’t me. Thinking about my friends with the anti-war banners and the violence and destruction they were standing up against, I realized I didn’t know what I thought I knew. I knew that what I thought I knew wasn’t actually what I believed.
Thanks to running dialogue I had with my classmates and my professors, and in my own mind with the thinkers I was reading over the next few years, I graduated with a more articulated sense of my own values and, just as importantly, my blind spots.
Just a few months after my graduation, Dr. King delivered a speech at St. Peter’s where, as the university’s student paper noted at the time, he “declared [that] the American Dream of all men being created equal has, as yet, been unfulfilled. He denounced segregation as sinful and bitterly condemned those who profess principals [sic] of democracy but in truth practice the antithesis of these principles.”
King said that “unless we live as brothers, we shall perish as fools.”
“The time,” he said, “is always now.”
That was the last pro-war march that I ever supported. It took a while but I felt more comfortable with Dr. King’s words.
As we begin this academic year, I urge you to keep that idea in mind: the time is always now.
The time to take risks is always now.
The time to find your voice is always now.
The time to question what you’re hearing and seeing and thinking and doing is always now.
The time to seek out new people and new ideas, to examine your own blind spots and preconceptions, to inform ignorance and to be open to the truth of another’s lived experience — the time is always now.
None of us is perfect, nor will we ever be. The project of education is built on coming up short. When we fail, we try again. The time is always now.
Your time is now as you begin your career at HWS, a place to challenge your doubts and believe in your commitments…a time to question and a time for answers.
Welcome to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. We will assist you on your journey to know who you really are.