Skip to main content

T. Alexander Aleinikoff '74

President Smith, fellow honorees, parents, friends, faculty — and graduates. Doesn’t that sound nice — I’ll say it again, graduates.

It is with love in my heart for this College that I am grateful for this second Swarthmore degree.

 I attended my first Swarthmore graduation 58 years ago. Now, I know what you’re thinking — he doesn’t look that old! Well, actually it was my older brother’s graduation.

 At that 1964 graduation — the centennial of Swarthmore — the president of the United States was the commencement speaker. These were turbulent days, in the country and on the campus, implicitly recognized in Lyndon Johnson’s comment that day: “We recognize that in the outer simplicity of Quaker life and the inner passion for decency and justice, there is inspiration for every person of good will.”

 There are some parallels between then and now. The demand for racial justice had seized the nation; a major power of the world was waging an unjust, imperialist war; Congress was debating expanding healthcare; income inequality was recognized as a national scourge; an environmental movement was growing. Roe v. Wade was decided during my junior year.

 My generation, naively optimistic, thought we could solve the problems of the day and deliver to you a more just, a more equal, society. To be sure there have been some successes, but we have left an awful lot for you to do.

 At that 1964 graduation, six other honorary degrees were awarded, one to an Anglo-American poet who had taught at Swarthmore for three years two decades before — W.H. Auden. But only the President spoke. Can you imagine? W.H. Auden stood here, silent.

 Let’s let his words speak now. In his great poem September 1, 1939, Auden, wrote of a time when the world stood on a precipice — a world, he believed to be “defenceless under the night.”

 But it was also a world, wrote Auden,

“dotted everywhere” with

“points of light [that]
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages”

 Auden concluded with a personal hope —

“May I, . . .
Beleaguered by  . . .
Negation and despair
 . . .
Show an affirming flame.”

The world needs those affirming flames today — and I see them here today: affirming flames kindled in this place through critical engagement with texts and late-night conversations, quiet walks in the Crum, creativity and performance in Lang, all enriched by both the diversity and solidarity of this community. Swarthmore asks you, enables you, to be among the just who continue to exchange their messages.

Often, at celebratory moments like these, graduates are told to go forth and “change the world.” (A Nobel Prize is within your reach!)  My message would contain a bit more Quaker humility. I would say, make for yourself a life that models the world you would like to see: maybe that’s a world that is more caring, one in which people listen a bit more than they talk, a world that finds nurture in nature, that gives play to the imagination in literature and the arts. Each act of kindness, any flower planted, every joyful dance is an affirming flame.

With a Swarthmore education, a world with challenges becomes a world of opportunities. To the uninitiated, the words engraved on the cornerstone of Parrish may seem like an oxymoron: “use well thy freedom.”  But to those who have passed through these halls, you get the drift.

I am confident that you will indeed use well the education you have received here. And I know that the College will be proud to call you theirs — as proud as you will be, throughout your life, to call the College yours.

Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College