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Graduation Speech -- Adrienne Asch '69

Honorary Degree Recipient
4 June, 2001

Good morning to you all!

Congratulations to all you students for achieving this day, and to all your families and friends who supported you through the process and now celebrate your accomplishments. To the faculty, the staff, the Board of Managers, and the president of this remarkable institution, I thank you for the honor you give me today. I am awed by the task, the more so because of the wonderful talks I heard yesterday, by Kaori Kitao and Tom Bradley. They reflect so much that I treasure about Swarthmore: how Swarthmore is "unabashedly excited about ideas", how it reveres reflection, the silences Professor Kitao spoke of; how it also honors action and involvement in the world, as Tom Bradley exemplifies in all that he has done.

But ten or fifteen years! I reflect on the path from my Swarthmore experience as a student to this moment today. I arrived at Swarthmore in 1964, and the second day afterward, I wrote to my best friend from high school: "This is a school of non-smalltalkers!" I was thrilled to be here, and the talk only got better. There are people still on this faculty who will not be surprised to know that this talk was not completed until this morning. In fact, they will know that the only reason it was completed at all is that you can't get an extension on a speech. At some moment you are expected to open your mouth and have words come out that you hope someone will want to hear.

One day in 1995, during my first year teaching at Wellesley College, I was thinking about attending a chamber music concert on campus; then I realized that I would likely run into students whose papers had not yet been returned and decided not to go. I was struck by the ironies of life: Back at Swarthmore, I had stayed away from concerts so that I wouldn't see professors whose papers I hadn't written. Some things hadn't changed in my life. There's another part of that story worth noting: I had Swarthmore friends to call who remembered me, who had shared life with me then and since. As you leave today, be assured that many friendships will endure. And what is more, when you come back for reunions, you will discover how delighted you are to see people you didn't know well; you will get into fascinating conversations about ideas, about what you experienced here, about your lives now, and you will have a great deal to share. In this very setting, as part of a recent reunion, our class held a Sunday morning Meeting, and one thing that came out of that Meeting was our commitment to turn the best of the old SAID, Students for a Democratic Society, into a new SDS, Seniors for a Democratic Society. So expect great things from that Swarthmore class of 'fi in ten or fifteen years!

But what can I say to you today, who have learned so much, who are anticipating the next adventures? You may not really be eager to listen to a set of speeches right now. I can't say that I clearly remember who spoke when I was sitting where you are, although — having looked at the list of honorary degree recipients for the past forty-five years in preparation for this talk, the names and some of their words did come back to me. I will also say that it was an amazing list of people we can greatly admire, and it makes me all the more awed and embarrassed to be joining such a list. Let me talk about some hard choices most of you will face in your lives, and what it is like to make those choices if your views are not shared by the people around you, the people you respect, like, and admire, or even perhaps the people you love. You may have heard of some classic social psychology experiments performed by a Swarthmore professor fifty years ago, Solomon Asch, (no not a relative, and not even someone I studied with or ever met), but someone of whom Swarthmore and social psychology are proud. The technique generally followed a simple plan. The subjects, usually college students, were asked to give their opinions or preferences concerning various matters; some time later they were again asked to state their choices, but now they were also informed of the opinions held by authorities or large groups of their peers on the same matters. Most of these studies had substantially the same result: confronted with opinions contrary to their own, many subjects apparently shifted their judgments in the direction of the views of the majorities or the experts.

Here are some choices, and keep them in mind, because in addition to being things you may face in the future, they are handy for those conversational moments with your parents when you need something to talk about that is less charged than your professional future or your romantic life. Watergate was always handy.

You are planning to become a parent, straight, bi, or gay, single or with a partner. Will you create a new child, or will you adopt an existing child? You decide that you will reduce your working hours during the first years of your child's life because you want to spend time that isn't only quality time. Your coworkers are disappointed; your parents feel that you are not making the most of your potential.

Your partner and you disagree about how much childcare each of you should do. You think he's doing more than his father did, but it's still not as much as you wanted, or you think is good for you, or him, or your child. A few years go by and you want another child and find that you and your partner differ on how much medical treatment you should have to manage getting pregnant or during the pregnancy. Will you use high-tech medicine to get pregnant with a child? Will you use eggs, or sperm, or embryos from others if that will help? Will you adopt an existing child? If pregnancy occurs, will you test the fetus to see what its sex is, or to find out whether it has some diagnosable disabilities? If some disabilities are reported, will you maintain the pregnancy or will you decide to end it because you don't know what it would mean to have a child who might have a disability?

Go to the other end of life. Your parents or others you love must decide how much medical treatment to have. You and your siblings disagree about when is enough. They want to continue or you want to continue and they want to stop. Your parent is unable to tell you what he would want.

These are examples of some of the real-life issues bioethics considers, and it is a field that I have loved because it is complex, important, and a field in which reasonable people can and do disagree. How to manage those disagreements? Get support if you can. Asch found that people could disagree with even a large majority if they felt supported by one other person. Keep listening. Find the evidence, read the evidence, evaluate lt. Try to sort out the conflicting evidence — about daycare, about the effects of parental employment on children, about how hard it is or isn't to raise a child with a disability, or to be a person with a disability. It is not easy to disagree with the people you love; I have done so privately and in print. I have to keep thinking, keep reading, keep listening to others, keep hearing conflicting opinions. Someday I may get evidence that changes my beliefs about equality in parenting, about the commitments we should make to children, about the worthwhileness of life with disability, about caution in deciding to end life-sustaining treatment, about the difficulty in crafting wise legislation for physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps someday I will change my beliefs. Perhaps I will change either my evaluation of existing evidence, my understanding of new evidence, or the values I bring to the debate. That is what life is about. Meanwhile, I must keep paying attention and keep speaking out, despite the tensions it causes with people I care about.