Commencement 2001 -- President Bloom Lauds Intellectualism at Swarthmore Graduation
Swarthmore College President Alfred H. Bloom today urged the college's graduating seniors to wear their newly earned mantle of "intellectual" confidently in a world that seems increasingly anti-intellectual, saying the intellectual's exacting habits of mind are powerfully relevant to their future careers and efforts to contribute to society.
Dismissing criticisms of intellectualism, Bloom told the college's new graduates, "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."
The college awarded degrees to 332 undergraduates and awarded honorary degrees to noted bioethicist and civil rights advocate Adrienne Asch; longtime public servant, accomplished author, and decorated veteran Ken Hechler; and critically acclaimed author and physician Abraham Verghese. Asch and Hechler are both Swarthmore alumni — Asch from the Class of 1969 and Hechler from the Class of 1935.
The ceremony — Swarthmore's 129th commencement — was held this morning at the Scott Outdoor Auditorium on the Swarthmore campus.
Recounting the seniors' accomplishments over the past four years at Swarthmore, Bloom congratulated them on becoming intellectuals but warned them that America, since its chronicling by Alexis De Tocqueville, seems to distance itself from intellectual activity. Citing President Bush's recent remarks at Yale University's commencement exercises, Bloom noted society's tendency to dismiss the intellectual enterprise as "impractical, self-absorbed, and irrelevant to the real functioning and progress of society." (At Yale on May 21, Bush said, "To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, Well done.' And to the C students, I say, You, too, can be President of the United States.'")
On the contrary, Bloom told the graduates, "your exacting ability to frame difficult and innovative ideas, and to articulate them in precise form, will give you an edge in whatever career 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 organizations; define the market niche for your new high-tech company; or develop an investment strategy best suited to the circumstances and the time."
Their intellectual training, Bloom added, has further equipped the graduates to understand and grapple with issues facing society: "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 that are taken.
"And it is the intellectual's responsibility to draw on that very habit of disciplined conceptual advance, which you have struggled with and developed here, to restructure that framing, when necessary, and thereby restructure consciousness onto a more accurate, productive. and ethically responsible course."
Of the 332 graduates, 314 collected the bachelor of arts degree and 23 the bachelor of science in engineering. Five had double degrees. Highest honors were awarded to 13, with 54 collecting high honors, and 42 receiving honors. The senior class speaker as voted by his classmates was Evan D. Gregory, a double major in music and computer science from Radford, Va.