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First Collection 2010: Rebecca Chopp

In welcoming the Class of 2014, President Rebecca Chopp invoked the College's "decidedly counter-cultural" Hicksite Quaker founders, including Lucretia Mott. "I am honored to welcome you," she said, "to this long tradition of being counter-cultural intellectuals devoted to setting the world a-new and a-right." Joining President Chopp at the event were Deivid Rojas '11, Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter, and Dean of Students Liz Braun.

President Chopp's full remarks

Class of 2014, welcome to Swarthmore College! We are delighted that you are joining our much beloved community.

Yours is a special class! Of course each of you is special individually but you are also special collectively: the year you graduate will be the 150th anniversary of the College's founding.

You are the Sesquicentennial Class, and so it is fitting to tell you a bit about the history that has so powerfully shaped our community.  

In 1853, the Hicksite Quakers formed a Committee on Education to explore how to provide higher education for their children. The Hicksites were a small but high-impact group of progressive religious activists. They were abolitionists, suffragists and pacifists; and they were most especially radical thinkers. They wanted to make sure their children (and others) were nurtured in the context of Hicksite Quaker values and with the most rigorous possible intellectual and practical training. The 1854 Committee on Education report offered the first vision of Swarthmore College stating "that the best interests of our Society demands an institution where our children can receive an education, in its true sense, by simultaneous cultivation of their intellectual and moral powers. " Today the Quaker values of simplicity, rigorous examination of conscience, generous giving, social responsibility and the peaceful resolution of conflicts are still very much in Swarthmore's educational bedrock and our communal DNA.  And the thirst for intellectual rigor enlivens the spirit of our daily lives.

The Hicksite Quakers, including our very own Lucretia Mott, the founder of women's political advocacy in this country, were decidedly counter-cultural. They were skeptical of the assumed "ways of the world" even as they devoted themselves to improving this world both by ameliorating the social ills but also through professions including commerce, science, law, politics and education. I am honored to welcome you to this long tradition of being counter-cultural intellectuals devoted to setting the world a-new and a-right.

I invite you (and advise you) to celebrate, embrace, experiment, and practice the Swarthmore ethos of counter-culturalism. By counter culturalism I don't mean the '60s version of dropping out, or deciding not to take advantage of your education, or adopting the now very tired slogans of the far left or the far right.  These examples of "being different'" are far too superficial in light of Swarthmore's deep commitments to critical and creative thinking. I mean quite simply "minding the light," seeking and following your inner conscience, thinking for yourself and always questioning authority. Lucretia Mott's mantra was "truth for authority not authority for truth." Not a bad motto in 1864; not a bad life goal in 2010.

I invite you to live this phrase "mind the light" daily. Don't be too sure of what is right:  be a truth seeker, not a truth protector. Truth is not revealed by how you dress, what you earn, what party, religion, or advocacy group you belong to. It is about asking questions about fundamental truths, taken-for-granted assumptions, risking loyalty to what is dear to you in order to seek and follow the truth. Be as suspicious about your own idols of truth as you are of those of the people around you. 

The Swarthmore "way" is to live new questions. Alumni, working in business, government, law, education, nonprofit organizations, the arts, science and medicine, express a bold curiosity, a willingness to ask new questions, a persistent seeking for truth.  Swarthmoreans live their lives of curiosity taking pleasure in thinking and in imagining new worlds. Albert Einstein once observed: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." Einstein received an honorary degree from Swarthmore so he, too, is part of our community of counter-culturalists.

 As you will surely come to realize in short order, this community of individuals takes great pleasure in stretching our minds, trying out different ideas, disciplines, practices, and cultural meanings, and exploring new worlds of inquiry and performance. We all try to be like Alice in Wonderland in "thinking six impossible things before breakfast."

We like to think and think hard; it brings us great satisfaction and, quite frequently, great joy. We also hold in highest regard the Quaker values of community building, consensus decision-making and the civil and peaceful settling of disputes. This enduring set of values has resulted in a distinct and powerful model of community. At Swarthmore "community" is not just another buzzword for groupthink or social conformity but is the manifestation of a substantive community of passionate individuals.
Whether on the soccer field, in the lab, in your dorm, in a theatre group or at Sharples, you will experience a sense of genuine community unlike any you may have felt before. You will know that you belong to a place that values your individuality even as it encourages and inspires your contributions to the greater good.  You will respect one another as you work through disagreements. You will support one another even as you challenge each other's ideas. And you will embrace the idea that real communities are not bound together by sameness but rather, by individual difference linked together for the common good.

For the rest of your life you will bear Swarthmore's tradition and contribute to our legacy. I hope for you three things:

1. That you carry this tradition of thinking and living counter-culturally now and into the future. That you will stretch your minds each new day and try on perspectives quite distinct from your own.

2. That you reach out to those who are truly different from yourself, and try to understand their points of view intimately and comprehensively; that your first instinct is to invite rather than reject, and your second is to understand rather than to rebuff. 

3. That you will join us in the fun, the adventure, and the fulfillment that results from cultivating this community of mindful living and learning as counter-cultural intellectuals dedicated to setting the world anew and aright. 

First Collection 2010: Rebecca Chopp

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