Commencement Address -- Alfred H. Bloom
President of the College
4 June, 2001
Welcome, and congratulations, Class of 2001, and welcome and congratulations as well to your parents, families, friends, and teachers who guided, encouraged, and supported you in your extraordinary undertaking.
In this same year that you assume your new status as alumni of the College, Didi Beebe, and Beatrice Purnell, after more than 25 years of service each, are retiring from our staff, and Tom Bradley, Professor of Russian; Kaori Kitao, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art History; Ann McNamee, Professor of Music; and Doug Weiss, Professor of Physical Education, are retiring from our faculty. Please join me in thanking these very special members of our community for their important part in shaping Swarthmore's excellence.
Let me also take this opportunity to thank you graduates, for providing by dint of your hard and creative work, the basis for this celebration and for your individual contributions to the enduring quality of this College. No contribution has been more critical than your having carried forward the tradition of intellectual engagement, which at is at the heart of Swarthmore, and which constitutes the basis of its leadership in American education.
During your years here each of you has struggled, again and again, to frame a precise concept from an inchoate idea. You have sensed some connection between ideas, some pattern in the data, some weakness or possibility in an argument, some approach to simplifying computer code or circuitry, some perspective on a literary passage, historic event or political circumstance, or some use of color, sound, rhythm or movement, which might add a new layer of understanding to what is known.
And motivated by the fact that a paper was due, a seminar presentation imminent or your art show or opening performance about to take place, and by your own demanding standards, and those of your faculty and peers, you set your mind to bringing precision to that emerging ideaÉYou massaged it; tested it from varying perspectives against the constraints it had to meet; gathered additional information to be sure you were on the right track; sought to articulate the idea in words, numbers or forms to gain better purchase on it; took long walks and contemplative showers; conscripted your best friends as your audience, lost sleep, yielded to distractions; returned to the task to find your several of your best insights problematic or even trite, but also to discover new directions that seemed to hold serious promise. And then, with a little luck, came that flash of insight, that conceptual breakthrough, the thrill of having framed for yourself and others a new, compelling insight on the world.
Whether that specific insight has survived the test of time, or later proved itself in need of major overhaul, your engaging that very struggle to build concepts that provide a more accurate, generalized or useful view, has earned you a seat at today's ceremony. And among the many learning experiences you have had at Swarthmore, none has likely been more formative to who you have become.
And, whether or not when you accepted Swarthmore's offer of admission you could foresee this consequence, and whether you will be delighted or disappointed by it, your engaging that process of disciplined conceptual advance, accepting the responsibility to continue to engage it, and tasting the satisfaction it brings, have made you an intellectual. I hope that you will accept that status with confidence and pride.
However, you face the challenge of being an intellectual in a nation which De Toqueville in the early 19th century had already characterized as inherently anti-intellectual, which Hofstader in the middle of the last Century described as quite persistent in that trait, and which today, despite the remarkable increase in the proportion of Americans who have been exposed to higher education, seems if anything, as a nation, only increasingly disposed to distance itself from intellectual activity and to stereotype intellectual pursuit as impractical, self-absorbed, and irrelevant to the real functioning and progress of society — Witness George W. Bush's recent dismaying disparagement of the intellectual enterprise and of its standards as he accepted an honorary degree from his own alma mater.
Moreover, you are an intellectual in a world which, as it increasingly adopts America's model of modernity, tends to extend that erosive perspective across the globe.
Given this context, it is all the more vital that you be confident and forthright with the power that your training as an intellectual has given you.
As the achievements of Swarthmore alums powerfully demonstrate, in emphatic contrast to being impractical, your exacting ability to frame difficult and innovative ideas, and to articulate them in precise form, will give you the edge in whatever career or careers you choose.
And that will be true whether you seek to build scientific, social scientific or humanistic understanding, create visual or musical forms, interpret and defend legal arguments, set directions for a non-profit organization, define the market niche for your new high-tech company, or develop an investment strategy best suited to the circumstances and the time.
In emphatic contrast to being inherently self-absorbing, your training as an intellectual invests you with the ability, and responsibility, to continue the struggle to frame your own understanding of what is right and true, and to develop amidst others' expectations and assumptions your own —often more demanding and complex — ideals.
And in emphatic contrast to being irrelevant to the real functioning and progress of societies, that intellectual training equips you to see through to the assumptions and implications inherent in the way issues are framed, to keep that framing honest and, when necessary, to build new conceptual frames that open alternative perspectives and empower other strategies and ends.
Whether what is at issue is furthering disciplinary understanding, shaping cultural evolution, setting educational goals, adopting approaches to war and peace, or establishing economic, social or environmental priorities, the way in which the context, choices and goals are framed matters crucially to the directions and actions taken that are taken.
And it is the intellectual's responsibility to draw on that very habit of disciplined conceptual advance, which you have developed here, to restructure that framing, when necessary. and, thereby, restructure consciousness onto a more accurate, productive and ethically responsible course.
We look forward to that steady stream of personal and intellectual accomplishment that lies ahead for you and for which, whether we deserve it or not, we will be pleased to accept partial credit. And we trust that part of that accomplishment will be your own steady contribution to a restructuring of American consciousness with regard to the essential role of the intellectual, and the crucial importance of training students to exercise that role.
Warmest congratulations! I wish you every satisfaction and happiness.
We will now proceed to the granting of honorary degrees!