Skip to main content

Baccalaureate Address: Robert DuPlessis

Robert DuPlessis

Audio Transcript

When Maurice Eldridge asked me, a while ago, to speak at baccalaureate, it seemed wise to find out something about the history and meaning of the event, so as to have some sense of what I'd be signing up for. So I did a little research.

It turns out that the baccalaureate service originated in 1432 or so, probably at Oxford University in England. Each graduate was obliged to deliver an oration or sermon, in Latin, to demonstrate his (this was the Middle Ages, remember, so universities were open only to men), his worthiness to receive the degree of bachelor, signified by crowning with laurel. Sounds good to me; all I'd have to do was notify you seniors and sit back as you declaimed. So is everyone prepared? Shall we start with Classics majors? Quis vult? Any takers?

Just as I feared. No wonder this custom has been abandoned almost everywhere. Outside the U.S., in fact, "baccalaureate" and higher education have parted ways. "Baccalaureate" now usually refers to a high school examination and degree. In the U.S., however, the baccalaureate service has survived by evolving, typically into a religious and secular hybrid, like this one, that almost always involves some sort of lecture or sermon. Sometimes short, but according to one source, baccalaureate sermons can last up to four hours....

So, in the remaining 3 hours and 56 minutes,...

Seriously, why has baccalaureate become what it is now? Why, indeed, does it survive? Once upon a time, the baccalaureate service was in effect what we call commencement. After you had orated and been crowned with laurels, you were a bachelor, you had your degree. But it's not that any more. Commencement is a separate ceremony all its own. Come to think of it then, why do we have the whole shebang of commencement? Once you've written your final papers, passed your final exams, paid your library fines — and as long as the alumni fund has your address — you can leave. You've earned your degree.

So why do we get dressed up in archaic robes, parade in ordered processions, and listen to lectures-and why do we do all this at Swarthmore, where dress is usually informal, where most people march to their own drummer, and where we pride ourselves on the give and take of discussion? And why do we do this not just once, but several times for two days in a row — at Baccalaureate, at Last Collection, at Commencement? What's going on here?

What's going on, though it's rarely said in so many words, is a version of a rite of passage. You're in the process of changing your status, separating from your previous state of being (undergraduate) so you can be incorporated into another state of being (college graduate). This transition involves anticipation and celebration, but also uncertainty and anxiety, for all concerned. The future is there for you to make, but are you prepared to make it? Have you mastered the skills of the status you're exiting so that you can successfully navigate the new status you're entering? Have we taught you what you need to know? Since similar transitions occur in many people's lives, societies (and college is a nothing if not a society) have come up with ways to manage that combination of eager expectation and inevitable apprehension. Those ways are rituals or rites to assist the transition from one status to the other.

Rites of passage embrace a wide range of ceremonies, and they employ an array of media and performance, in a range of settings, to separate you from one social status and integrate you into another. Virtually all, though, seek to facilitate successful passage by reminding those in transition of the society's central values and urging their observance in the future. To do this ritual work, educational societies like Swarthmore rely on what they know best-words-and they try to enhance the influence of these words by embedding them in an environment (academic regalia, ordered processions, inspirational readings, specific music, and so on) that evokes centuries of academic authority.

So in my remaining 3 hours and 45 minutes... I want to speak about some core values that I believe characterize Swarthmore and will serve you well in your new life-stage. These values may have challenged your values, may have complemented, supplemented, or enlarged them, or may have affirmed them. But they were, I believe, sufficiently articulated in a variety of environments that you had to deal with them.

Now, "values talk" may make you, like me, nervous, annoyed, even bored. And for good reason, seeing how the term "values" is so frequently harnessed as part of a glib phrase intended to impose consensus around some or another toxic brew of prejudice and discrimination. The very term "values" has thus been devalued by the repulsively instrumental and frankly cynical uses to which it has been put. No one, it seems, trumpets family values more than serial adulterers. Too often, that is, values have been proclaimed most insistently by those apparently determined to discredit the notion that values should be taken seriously.

But I urge you to go beyond your initial reactions to values talk and actually take values seriously. For values are (to quote a common definition) "principles, standards, or qualities considered worthwhile or desirable." In other words, they are not sound bites but the aspirations, commitments, and convictions that guide your behavior. As we all know, of course, values are not necessarily good per se nor inevitably templates for correct action. On the contrary, some can lead to discrimination, dishonor, destruction. These are not, needless to say, the kinds of core values that I believe the College has helped to nurture.

In speaking of "core values that I hope the College has helped to nurture," I do not mean to suggest that Swarthmore College has provided you all or even most of your core values. You did not arrive at the College as little tabula rasas that were manipulated and molded by insidious intellectuals wielding abstruse theories to impose nefarious agendas. You were already moral beings with value systems of your own.

So what are these Swarthmore core values that I want to celebrate? Some are rooted in Quakerism, such as an emphasis on justice, a kind of quotidian egalitarianism, and a habit of plain speaking. These (and there are others) are important, and in your future years I am confident that you will both see how much they were part of the fabric of daily life at Swarthmore and want to implement them in your new surroundings. Beyond them, however, I want to emphasize three values that I believe both lie at the heart of Swarthmore's educational mission and should be carried into your lives after Swarthmore.

The first is a global outlook. By this I mean not only that knowledge must be sought across and beyond confining borders of race, class, gender, religion, and nationality. I also mean global in the sense of an inclusive appreciation of the multifarious peoples, societies, and cultures, past and present, in this country and across the world, and what you can learn from them. In this wide definition of global lies an insistence that true knowledge necessarily involves engaging with as many perspectives as possible. In this definition, too, lies the realization that only by encountering and attempting to comprehend the origins, assumptions, and logics of perspectives that are different from — even repellent to — our own, can we adequately understand our own convictions. True learning, in short, requires broad exposure along as many parameters as possible. This type of "deep" diversity is not politically correct but educationally mandatory.

Still, exposure to even a wealth of exciting, startling, even frightening perspectives does not by itself guarantee productive learning. It's a necessary but not sufficient condition, and so the second cluster of Swarthmore values is vital. This cluster is the creation of a structure of resolute but civil discussion, questioning, and debate. This is the kind of "respectful argument" (to borrow from the philosopher Martha Nussbaum) that can be combative but not conquering, for it seeks not to "win," but to explore, not to score points but to advance knowledge.

Third and finally, the advancement of knowledge in the ways I've outlined is inextricably linked, in the Swarthmore value system, with a concern for collective welfare, or, as it is often expressed, the "common good." This value does not deny the individual satisfaction, the real aesthetic pleasure, of learning. Rather, it asserts that a chief desired outcome of broad-ranging, rigorous conversations at the College is knowledge and skills that can and should be used for positive ends in the wider world.

To be sure, these values are not always, and perhaps in your view not sufficiently, exemplified in and by the College. Moreover, they are not static. Though they are now central to the College's mission, they have emerged over time, taken on new urgency, required new understandings and means of implementation. And they are not abstract statements, facile to proclaim and requiring only unthinking and effortless consent. Rather, they are values embedded in pedagogic and community practices.

For at the end of the day, of course, it is the practices that values motivate that matter the most. It's not sufficient for you to know what you should do if you don't do it. It's also easier, we know all too well, to trumpet values than to live by them. But here I think that you have an edge. The values that I've emphasized have certainly been articulated at the College. But they have been more than words. They have been manifest in programs, made part of your educational experience. You have, in short, already been living by these values.

I'm too much of a historian, too aware of the play of contingency, to assure you that exemplifying the core values you have experienced at Swarthmore will guarantee you anything in the future. But I will affirm that welcoming difference, engaging in respectful argument, and attending to civic responsibility make more likely a successful passage to a life that I believe you and the larger society will find richly satisfying.

Thank you.

Baccalaureate Address: Robert DuPlessis

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00