Thomas Laqueur '67

You have disabled JavaScript or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Download the latest version of Flash Player.
Video: [7 min 6 sec] | Download

It has been almost 50 years - 47 to be exact - since I was sitting where you are. In all that time I have not been back; not once. Until today. I am happy and humbled by the honor that Swarthmore has given me; smitten again by the beauty of the campus; privileged to be sharing with you and your loved ones this joyous and triumphant occasion. I ask myself why I have not been back for so long.

For the past 20 or 30 years the answer might be the fear of ghosts: mine and those of others. I moved into Ashton where I am staying tonight as a freshman 51 years ago. My parents were German Jews who fled to Istanbul in 1938 where I was born in 1945. In 1950 we moved to West Virginia where my father worked as a pathologist. I was thrilled and terrified when I arrived here in September 1963; I had had my heart set on Swarthmore ever since reading an article in Harpers Magazine that said that it was the best college in America.

There were faculty here who were much like my parent's friends. The College had an exceptional record of welcoming refugees from fascism. The founder of gestalt theory, Wolfgang Köhler, had retired by the time I got here but his student Hans Wallach taught me introductory psychology; I audited German seminars with Hilda Kohn and Franz Mautner; I went to my first sedar at the home of the classicist Martin Ostwald.

I also found stunningly brilliant and engaging fellow students and a deeply engaged, demanding faculty. My class is scattered around the world and on the brink of retirement. Only a few of the faculty I knew are still alive.

I did not make it explicit to myself but maybe the reason I haven't returned since graduation is that I was afraid that all I would find were specters of lost time: my parent's lost world, my own. It would be too sad. But this melancholy and unnecessary anxiety does not explain why I felt no need to come back for the first 20 or 30 years after I graduated when that world was not yet lost.

I do not recommend that you follow my example, and the Alumni Association is positively hostile to it but in my defense let me say that my reason for not coming back was not entirely neurotic. There was no real need. I carried my time at Swarthmore with me, inside me and in the world I inhabited.

I met my lifelong best friend Alexander Nehamas in my sophomore year when I directed him in a play about superman written by one of our classmates. I remain close to others with whom I was here. And even with those many Swarthmore graduates I have met since graduating I share a bond. I think this will be true for you.

Swarthmore nourished in me the core conviction that ideas and the life of the mind matter - desperately - no matter what work we are called to in our lives. Serious people think. Not at Princeton or at Oxford, where I later studied, or in life after that did I ever again get so passionately, so existentially, caught up with philosophy and history and ideas more generally. Getting Descartes' argument about the distinction between mind and body - mental and physical substance - right in Charles Raff's seminar - they never went for less than five hours and many ran on much longer - seemed of ultimate importance.

I will not tell you that you can not thrive without figuring out the Fifth Meditation but I can tell you that the energy and seriousness and thrill with which you engaged ideas in whatever you studied during your four years here will remain with you and will be the emotional and intellectual infrastructure of a good life.

Swarthmore is scary, or at least it was for me. I don't know what it was like for you but I felt that everyone in my class was smarter than I was and that I was admitted by mistake; I don't think I was alone in this view. One reason I was so inordinately pleased when President Chopp wrote to me to say that Swarthmore would offer me an honorary degree was at least the College was willing, with open eyes, to make the same mistake twice.

Scary though it might be, it is also a place that gave me, and that I hope will give you, courage and trust in yourself: trust in your abilities. You got through here; if need to you can produce 10 coherent pages over night; the experiment will get done; the data will get cleaned up. But more importantly, Swarthmore gave me and will give you trust in your self, in your moral and intellectual compass. The Quaker tradition speaks of the inner light; that is another name for the conviction that because you have thought and felt deeply about something you can rely on what emerges. Your heart and your mind are pointing you in the same direction.

My hope for you today is that you savor the joy of the moment - the fruits of your hard work, the beauty that surrounds us, the love of your family and friends. But also I hope that you will take what is precious about your four years here with you into your future, that these years will continue to live in you. Let me say finally, that I was wrong these past five decades: there is not a tradeoff between the inner and outer Swarthmore. I am sorry it took me so long to come home. And now, really finally, CONGRATULATIONS. WELL DONE.