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Press Release


Mark Primoff
Bard Commencement 2005 Leon Botstein President, Bard College
Time, its passage and perception, makes its presence felt acutely at institutional rituals—notably this Bard Commencement. The calendar of college life is strikingly at odds with our individual sense of how time passes. Each of us gets to graduate only once from college. Yet each year, with uncanny regularity, Commencement returns. This is Bard's 145th. Like a public monument, or a work of art, or a book, a college defies the process of aging; there is a circular regularity and a sense of renewal that define our institutions of learning. The students always stay the same age; they never get older, although we do. What is unique for every graduate and becomes a memory for each of them recurs each year here under this tent. The institutional gift of permanence—its appeal from mortality—is justified by the commitment to inspire and teach young adults to think, to imagine silently, and to speak.
The dichotomy between how time is experienced by a single individual over the course of life and the illusion of temporal stability within institutions—the tension between the dynamic and the static sense of time—deserves particular attention this year. It is with awe and humility that we recall the quiet cataclysm of thought that took place one hundred years ago in the spring of 1905 that revolutionized the modern world, particularly our sense of time. Between March and September 1905, a young official working in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland—Albert Einstein—published five papers that transformed our understanding of the world. In rapid succession, in the heat of intense, pure thought and concentration, with unparalleled elegance of prose, this obscure physicist first successfully exploded an accepted truth, that light was a wave. Rather, he showed that it consisted of "a finite number of quanta localized in points in space." That was in March. In April and May, much to the consternation of a hero of his, the physicist Ernst Mach, by measuring molecular dimensions and analyzing Brownian motion Einstein proved the real, not imaginary, existence of atoms. By June, when someone here at Bard had just graduated from college, Einstein published his most famous and perfect paper supplanting Newton's notion of absolute space and time by positing the special theory of relativity. Simultaneity of events together with absolute space vanished as realities.
Einstein's stunning moment of intense thinking was a burst of creativity by a young man of whom little had been expected, by someone who could not get an academic position. His achievement has become synonymous with genius, originality, the beauty of thought, and the calm, modest clarity of expression. At the same time, his discoveries remain uncomfortable, for they seem to defy common sense and seem hard to fathom. We celebrate the radical originality of his discoveries but actually resist their meaning. To the consternation of many, it has turned out that what he argued was not only beautiful, but also brilliant and simple, and to the best of our knowledge, true. He pierced the veil of contradiction and mystery in the universe, making logical such anomalies as the constancy of the speed of light.
The so-called miraculous year of 1905 was, however, no miracle. It was rather a dramatic affirmation of the rewards of being a real student, of an intense engagement with thinking and the traditions of thought. Einstein was forced to question common sense and convention because he wanted to understand the universe and resolve the most elusive paradoxes. At the core of Einstein's breakthrough was a fundamental faith in causality and order within the universe and, above all, the power of humans to understand the universe through the use of reason. It is ironic that the theory of relativity has been abused and misunderstood, applied indiscriminately beyond the world of science. Einstein did not replace truth with subjectivity, but rather supplanted an inadequate formulation of time and space. By rejecting the priority of a single frame of reference, he recast the universe, just as Copernicus and Newton had before him. There was not a hint of relativism in Einstein about truth, morality, and beauty—of the sort decried by the new Pope, Benedict XVI—only a verifiable challenge to received wisdom, to what was once thought to be the last word and the final authority.
We recall Einstein's triumph of a century ago on this glorious day of celebration because it his example, his pursuit of the traditions of questioning and thinking, that the degrees you, members of the Class of 2005, will receive today challenge you to emulate. These acts of the mind are dangerous. They confront complacency and routine. They demand freedom. They cherish the idea of the individual. They embrace dissent. They welcome counterintuitive changes in how we understand the world.
Although questioning and thinking are at the core of the experience of teaching and learning here at Bard, these traditions are in grave danger in contemporary America, if not in the world at large. At risk is not the courage and ambition of the young. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that this graduating class is leaving here to pursue work or further study at a moment when rigorous free and challenging inquiry are being voluntarily abandoned and overtly discouraged.
The success and fate of democracy have always been linked to freedom, just as the preservation of freedom has been tied to education. The essential premise of a free and democratic society is persuasion by argument, evidence, and reason as opposed to persuasion generated at the point of a gun or as a result of extreme deprivation—that is, power, violence, and poverty. Whether it is fairness, justice, or a supposed fact of nature, the results of open debate, evidence, argument, reason, and a faith in causality and the process of inching closer to the truth—the notion of human progress—have helped determine not only what we know to be true in science but in our laws as well. Our notions of justice, of right and wrong, are not the products of revelation and divine authority but the consequence of human deliberation, debate, and decision. At the core of a commitment to democracy is the belief in language and reason that Einstein possessed all his life, a faith in the human ability to imagine and justify the truth and distinguish right from wrong. Education is needed, as it was in Einstein's case, to marshal the means to challenge convention and wrong-headed common sense. Education is needed to help us defend conclusions and even retreat from them when we, through the very same process of argument and reflection, discover that we have been wrong.
This faith in human reason and its inherent link to freedom and morality is an 18th-century conceit shared by the founders of this nation. It is an optimistic one. It assumed that the citizens of the future would search for knowledge and truth, legislate laws, abide by them voluntarily, and often tolerate the necessary compromises that daily life, not science, require. The instrument of political debate would be "candor," as Jefferson used that word in the Declaration of Independence, a candor that calls for clear argument and evidence. Democratic politics borrowed its tools from science. A belief in the distinctions between fact and fiction, between lies and truth, and the ability of citizens to distinguish and locate each through education and language became the hallmark of the politics of freedom.
But the most radical 18th-century premise was that truth and knowledge were human propositions, constantly advancing from rational principles and human capacities, always subject to scrutiny through the use of human reason. They were not divine. Religion and doctrine were set to the side in the form of deism, agnosticism, or even atheism. For Einstein, the divine was defined in a manner reminiscent of that Jewish heretic Spinoza, as the belief in the comprehensive rationality of the universe that humans might ultimately grasp.
We cite John Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government as the classic 17th-century philosophical inspiration for our form of democratic government. Yet when we teach it in college we too often overlook the very first chapter. It is imperative that we recall it today. In a discreet but explicit manner Locke sets the Bible to the side. He dismisses its credibility from the very start, its story of creation, and its account of the place of the human, Adam and Eve. He elegantly makes the point that each of us is born free and in equilibrium in our possession of reason. Government and laws are not dimensions of an inherited dominion from God but the work and province of humans. Locke strips the Bible of its authority in the establishment of government and in politics just as Galileo and Copernicus had stripped it of its authority in science.
You, however, are graduating at a quite different philosophical moment. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, radical faith and rigid, intolerant doctrine are on the rise and with their ascendancy a desire to deny humans, particularly the young, their capacity to discover and reformulate the truth. They ask us to reject the dynamic possibilities of progress and leaps in individual insight and understanding. We now wish to reject reason and evidence and derive truth from the revealed; making the real world conform to doctrine and tradition, making government and law coherent with the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran. Religion and doctrine, understood literally in terms of divine revelation, are gathering momentum as a basis for our understanding of the world, as a guide for society and politics. Our federal government, with the apparent assent of the majority of our fellow citizens, seeks to tear down the essential wall erected by the founders between state and church and hand over education, our social services, and the administration of justice to the authority of organized religion.
The degrees you will receive today, however, represent an achievement in cultivating your reason consistent with the traditions of Locke, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, against concessions to doctrine or to the leap of faith on behalf of revelation. All that we cherish here at Bard, from science to art, is the product of religious skepticism, a secular public culture in which faith remains a private matter. We here cherish the most important dimension of religious freedom, the freedom to have none at all, even less than Einstein's rudimentary faith in the comprehensibility of a complex and chaotic world.
By accepting these degrees today, exactly one hundred years after Einstein demonstrated single-handedly the courage of the young and the power of the human imagination, I charge each of you to lead lives, in religious terms, in any manner you wish, as individuals. But as fellow citizens, however, I ask you to fight to preserve the vision of the founders of this republic on behalf of a world of learning and scholarship and political practice based on human reason and the necessity of freedom. The human reason each of you has displayed with such impressive and delightful style has cured disease and unraveled the secrets of the universe. True, it has led us down false and blind alleys, but it has led us out of them as well. Ultimately, we have shown creationism to be as plainly false as the notion of the sun revolving around the earth.
On this campus your capacity to think and speak has been challenged to demand argument and proof so that lies, half-truths, and superstitions do not prevail. You have learned, as Einstein did, the beauty and exhilaration of insight and understanding. May you use the skills honed here at Bard for the rest of your lives on behalf of the pursuit of knowledge, the search for truth, and its elegant expression on behalf of a free and open society, as citizens eager to respect the great 18th-century secular celebration of the rule of freedom and reason, the very tradition that gave birth to this great and free nation and its institutions of higher learning, Bard among them.
The motto on Bard's seal promises "And I will give you the crown of life." May this class of 2005 go forth with that gift, that crown: optimism and engagement, candid confidence in humanity and reason and in the beauty of the universe that inspired Einstein to rethink space and time a century ago. Bard Commencement Speech Honorary Degree Recipient Helen Vendler
Congratulations to all of you who are graduating today. President Botstein, in inviting me to be the Commencement speaker, said I should give an eight-minute sermon, so like any preacher, I'll rely today on a few texts that speak to the two great endeavors that lie before you: the attempt to make an authentic life of your own, and the attempt to endure the trials that are sure to come during that life. You feel called to make a modern habitation of the spirit, but how? Your family, your schooling, your reading, your culture have already had years to form your mind and values: what can you do to make something new of both yourself and your world?
Wallace Stevens, our Connecticut poet, intimidated by the sheer spiritual and architectural power of the European past, wondered what a 20th-century American artist could offer that would not be petty by comparison. He was rescued from discouragement by remembering Matisse's small chapel at Vence, an unassuming building which, though it kept faith with tradition, was wholly new in its materials and gestures. Matisse's chapel walls are of modern white porcelain tile rather than marble; his stained-glass windows display abstract leaf shapes rather than saints or sacred events; and the presiding image of St. Dominic is merely a tall line-drawing, in black on one white wall. Matisse, Stevens saw, had not fled tradition, but used it; had not forgone stained glass but had given it the shapes of nature rather than of dogma; had not forsaken the imposing nave of traditional church architecture, but had reconceived it on a modest human scale.
And so Stevens writes a poem called “St. Amorer's Church from the Outside.” Although the old church was once “an immense success,” it is now a ruin, its vital fire reduced to cinders. From the shrouded earth of the European past, Terre Ensevelie, surrounding the ruined church, there rises the poet's little American chapel, created for the contemporary democratic and commercial world, turning the sacked into the sacred. Stevens says of the work of the 20th-century artist,
His chapel rises from Terre Ensevelie, An ember yes among its cindery noes ....
It is like a new account of everything old, Matisse at Vence and a great deal more than that. ...
The chapel rises, his own, his period, A civilization formed from the outward blank, A sacred syllable rising from sacked speech.
“Time's given perfections,” such as St. Armorer's, beautiful as they were, are now “made to seem like less / Than the need of each generation to be itself./The need to be actual and as it is.” If your generation is to be itself, to be actual and as it is, it will have to look beyond Time's given perfections and begin to plan a chapel of its own. This chapel of becoming exists, says Stevens,
In the air of newness ... In an air of freshness, clearness, greenness, blueness, That which is always beginning because it is part Of that which is always beginning, over and over.
If the natural world is always beginning its diurnal and seasonal cycles, over and over, it needs, on the human plane, the freshness, clearness, greenness, blueness that each new generation, and only it, can bring.
Stevens's poem ends with its chapel finished and its creator free and content within it:
The chapel underneath St. Armorer's walls, Stands in a light, its natural light and day, The origin and keep of its health and his own. And there he walks and does as he lives and likes. (CP, 529-530)
What will you construct where your adult self will be at home and happy? Will you find the courage to refuse to imitate the beautiful, if ruined, past? Can you construct instead a parallel and confident newness of your own?
It is only when you come across it that you recognize the freshness, clearness, greenness, blueness that suits you. It may come in the form of the partner with whom you will make a joint life; it may come as an author who seems to speak to you and for you; it may come as a project so compelling that you will spend day and night, night and day, on it. It may or may not pay; it may· or may not win approval from others; but you will know it when you see it. For me, it came when I was fifteen, reading sonnets, and found in Shakespeare what I had been looking for: someone who spoke the truth about life in the most intense, concise, and expressive language of all, the language of poetry. Like most young people, I read to find out about life—what love was, what the darker emotions of anger and frustration were caused by, how self-deception came about, where hope might lie. It was reading poetry that made me able to leave behind the Terre Ensevelie of a life at home where I was not happy, and to seek happiness elsewhere. At the time, that elsewhere—Harvard Graduate School—was not on the whole very friendly toward women, but there were nonetheless kind teachers to be found there. They helped me build the chapel of my first book, made me feel that I could at last be unashamedly myself. Later, when I found the freshness, clearness, greenness, blueness of motherhood, the joy of free exercise of the mind was joined by the newness of affection. I wish for each of you a chapel of your own where you can walk and do as you live and like—a source of delight to you no matter how unassuming it may look to others.
And that brings me to my next text, which tells you—in seriocomic fashion—what you can expect in the way of upheavals as you live that life you have devised. This passage comes from John Ashbery, one of our most original poets (and a faculty member at Bard). Ashbery is the great reteller of the ups and downs of the tragicomic history of the self, which is always recovering from the latest catastrophe and always falling in love yet again. Ashbery recalls, in Three Poems, the initial exultation we all felt at growing up, leaving home, passing beyond adolescence, and coming to understand, or so we thought, life and love. “We have all, or most of us, had unhappy childhoods,” he says, but things improved: “later on we tried to patch things up and as we entered the years of adulthood it was a relief, for a while, that everything was succeeding: we had finally left that long suffocating tunnel and emerged into an open place. . . . We embarked on a series of adult relationships from which the sting and malignancy of childhood were absent, or so it seemed: no more hiding behind bushes to get a secret glimpse of the others; no more unspeakable rages of jealousy or the suffocation of unrequited and unrealizable love” (TP, 108). You too have now entered that phase in which everything seems to come clear—early perplexities in family relations and the vexations of love begin to be ordered with self-understanding, and you believe you have your life in hand. But catastrophes replace that initial order: in Ashbery's “Haunted Landscape,” a couple resembling Adam and Eve think they can go on placidly farming, but suddenly their terrain exhibits changes at an alarming rate:
They were thinking, too, that this was the right way to begin A farm that would later have to be uprooted to make way For the new plains and mountains that would follow after To be extinguished in turn as the ocean takes over Where the glacier leaves off and in the thundering of surf And rock, something, some note or other, gets lost. (SP 262)
This is the unstable terrain on which you have to build your chapel—a terrain not the deathly Terre Ensevelie of Stevens's poem, but rather a dangerous and almost comically unreliable Ashberyian ground. Holding on is hard, and unforeseen disruptions are, in Ashbery's lines, the only certainty. After the joy and mastery and energy of your initial chapel-building, then, that rewarding moment of walking and doing as you live and like, you begin to freeze on the glacier, or sink in an ocean, or be pummeled against rocks. As these surprises pile up, the complacent mastery of your young adulthood is shattered, and life once again begins to seem to you as murky as it did in adolescence.
There are compensations for undergoing catastrophe—the intelligence and sympathy implicit in a widening of experience. Oddly enough, the more the difficulties of life accumulate, the more precious mere existence becomes. As you age, grief and bravery will coexist in you, creating that tangle of mixed feelings that is the beginning of wisdom. “How strange,” says Wordsworth in The Prelude,
How strange that all The terrors, pains, and early miseries, Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, interfused Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part, And that a needful part, in making up The calm existence that is mine when I Am worthy of myself! [1850 Prelude, I, 344-350]
The calm being that you become when you are worthy of yourself is the being that can build your chapel, can help to construct the 21st-century. Although it is a century dominated by the extraordinary discoveries of science and technology, striking wonder in us all, this epoch needs developed human understanding as much as any previous one. Human understanding can come from many personal sources—in my own case from a generous grandmother in whose house my life began, from a gentle grandfather who brought soft words into a harsh atmosphere, from a dear aunt whom I always left feeling better than when I came, from the mother of my closest friend, who called me her third daughter.
But human understanding also comes from impersonal sources, especially from the authors who have felt deeply and have written truthfully and well about human experience. I didn't realize how important those authors were to me until I became a mother, and discovered there were no great books to reflect my new experience back to me. I had books to tell me about love and loss, about rising and falling in the world, about war and death—but there were no sonnet sequences about motherhood to equal Shakespeare's on love, no meditations on the interactions of mother and child to stand beside Herbert's meditations on the soul's relation to God. I felt desolate at this absence. I am still waiting for the great literature of motherhood—of true extended motherhood, from the birth of the child to the death of the mother.
Perhaps that particular chapel of newness and clearness will be built in the coming century, by your generation. Life calls out to see itself in novels and poems and films and video, in pictures and statues, in architecture and music—and the more the contexts of living change, so much the more is new representation needed. But the individual construction of life precedes representation, and exceeds it. I remember reflecting, after my beloved grandfather had died, how pitifully little was left of him—his watch, his passport, his violin. And yet any life—however ephemeral—that has been constructed with authenticity and love is itself a chapel of its period, inviting others within its precincts. Building a daily life of your own invention is a form of originality open to all of us, nonartists and artists alike. I hope you will—in spite of, and with the help of, difficulties—find your own terrain, see your chapel rise before you, and be glad of its newness, its naturalness, its modernity. About the 2005 Commencement
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— Bard College will hold its one hundred forty-fifth commencement on Saturday, May 21, 2005. At the commencement ceremony, Bard President Leon Botstein will confer 333 undergraduate degrees to the Class of 2005 and 89 graduate degrees: 40 masters of fine arts; 18 masters of arts in the history of the decorative arts, design, and culture; 15 masters of arts in curatorial studies; 14 masters of science in environmental policy; and two masters of science in environmental studies. The program, which begins at 2:30 p.m. in the commencement tent on the Seth Goldfine Memorial Field, will include the presentation of honorary doctoral degrees.
The commencement address will be given by distinguished poetry critic and Harvard University Professor Helen Vendler, who will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree. Honorary degrees will also be awarded to economist William J. Baumol, Nobel Prize–winning scientist and Rockefeller University President Paul Nurse, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and editor of The New Yorker David Remnick, and Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons.
Other events taking place during commencement weekend include class reunions; a concert by Bard student soloists and composers with the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, conductor; and the granting of Bard College awards for 2005. The Bard Medal will be presented to Bard Music Festival Trustee Felicitas S. Thorne; the John and Samuel Bard Award in Medicine and Science to Amalia C. Kelly ’75; the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters to Jane Evelyn Atwood ’70; the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service to Richard G. Frank ’74; the Mary McCarthy Award to Annie Proulx; and the Bardian Award to Hilton M. Weiss.
ABOUT THE COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. One of the nation’s most distinguished poetry critics, Vendler was selected to deliver the 2004 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The award is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Vendler holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston’s Emmanuel College and a Ph.D. from Harvard in English and American literature. Before joining the Harvard faculty, she taught previously at Swarthmore, Haverford, and Smith Colleges, and Cornell and Boston Universities. She has held many fellowships, including three NEH fellowships and a Fulbright fellowship, and has frequently been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She holds 23 honorary degrees from universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.
Her views on contemporary poetry can be read regularly in the pages of The New Republic, The London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other journals. Her recent books include Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats; Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath; Seamus Heaney; The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham; The Given and the Made: Lowell, Berryman, Dove, Graham; and Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. She has two books in progress: “Our Secret Discipline”: Yeats’s Styles and Forms and Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill, Ammons.


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This event was last updated on 08-09-2005