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Rebecca Chopp

Let's now take a few moments to recognize - with deep gratitude - three retiring faculty who have served Swarthmore with great skill and loyalty for many years: John Boccio, professor of physics in the department of physics and astronomy; Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, professor of Spanish in the department of modern languages and literatures; and Carole Netter, language lecturer in French in the department of modern languages and literatures.

We recognize, as well, the following retiring staff members who have served the College for 20 years or longer: Joanne Barracliff, financial aid; Astrid Devaney, development and alumni relations; Theresa Handley, human resources; Lee Robinson, human resources; Paula Rosen, counseling and psychological services; Wayne Trent, maintenance; Julia Welbon, psychology; and Myrt Westphal, dean's office.

Our warmest thanks to all our retirees.

As we all know, four years at Swarthmore is a journey that few - if any - can navigate successfully alone. Class of 2013, let's express our thanks to the faculty who taught you, who introduced you to new sources of information as well as mind-expanding ideas, and who, in many cases, became your mentors and friends. Thank you to our faculty.

And to the staff, who have served - each in his or her own way - by keeping our campus clean and beautiful, preparing and serving meals, supporting student initiatives, and, coaching our sports teams. Sometimes offering a much-needed hug or a listening ear. Thank you to our wonderful staff.

We remember also the friends who have accompanied you on this journey. Perhaps you've seen the Swarthmore T-shirt that reads, "Academics, friends, and sleep. Pick two." Far more often than not, friends make the cut.

Finally, we thank the families of those graduating today: mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, extended and blended families of all shapes and sizes. This is your day, too. You have sacrificed in many different ways in anticipation of this day, and you deserve to be proud, not just of those sitting up front but of yourselves. Thank you. Graduates, please stand and acknowledge your families.

Class of 2013 you are about to leave the Swarthmore bubble (while I, the faculty, and staff get to stay!). Four years ago, when each of you-and I-arrived and first heard others speak about the Swarthmore bubble, I imagine we may have envisioned a Walt Disney movie, where the bubble floats above all reality, a lovely little garden land of smiling, happy young people, frolicking on Parrish Beach as they take brief breaks from drinking deeply from the fountain of our wise faculty's knowledge. But over these four years, we have learned quite a bit about the essence of the Swarthmore bubble, and now are able to describe it quite differently. Our bubble is more like an intense hothouse, where light, pruning, stress, occasional thunderstorms or even powerful winds, and abundant nutrients combine to make growth both possible and strong. The Swarthmore bubble is the definition of intense: it is about strength, passion, and force. It's not a protective bubble but, rather, a bubble defined by rigor, creativity, and engagement, a hothouse bubble to prepare us for the world outside this garden.

Swarthmore alumni take great pride in the intensity of their time on campus. They describe the experiences of preparing for honors, of being student athletes, of combining majors such as economics and art history, and of the endless, 24/7 conversations and serious debates, as the essence of the Swarthmore experience. What I have learned from our alumni in the last four years is that the experience is a type of mental, emotional, and physical training for the real world, a world in which living with freedom and responsibility is constantly on demand within their families, their communities, and their professions.

The word "intense" comes from the Latin intensus, which means "stretched tightly and strained." And though each class's sense of its bubble is distinct, I suspect your time here would be ranked as one of the most strained four-year periods in Swarthmore's history. During that time, a Great Recession rocked the world and, at Swarthmore, our endowment plummeted more than $400 million. External forces such as the earthquake in Haiti, Superstorm Sandy, and tragedies in Newtown, Boston, and most recently Oklahoma have rocked us, as well, and we have responded, sometimes by grieving as a community. We faced internal stresses, associated with the important work of developing a strategic plan to guide decisions about future directions. We experienced numerous changes in the dean's area, in the faculty, and on the staff.

During your time with us, and most intensely this last semester, students have lobbied hard for change on a variety of issues including divestment from fossil fuel companies, racism, homophobia, and classism, and our policies and practices related to sexual assault and harassment. As you leave today, you should know that this drive for change, brought about by your commitments and your efforts, will continue as we build upon your work, and now our work together, to improve the College.

So, yes, intense describes quite well Swarthmore and, most certainly, your four years here.

But I hope that, as with the experience of our alumni, it is in and through this intensity that you have learned what it takes to live freely and responsibly, both in your individual lives and in community. How do I describe this? How do I best explain what it means?

I think the best metaphor for how this works, how in our intensity we learn about freedom and responsibility, might be the seminar experience. I mean that in two ways: literally, in terms of classes and laboratories where you mastered thinking critically not alone but in the community of a classroom that welcomed many different ideas and perspectives. And I also mean it metaphorically, since the 24/7 intellectual life at Swarthmore doesn't end at the classroom doors.

Many of you have heard the acronym MOOCs, the term for free online courses now being offered by some universities. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the Year of the MOOC. Well, a friend of mine, Dan Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall, recently declared 2013 the "Year of the Seminar." He suggests that the Year of the MOOC ought to be followed by a year that celebrates a phenomenon that makes a real difference for students' growth-the seminar. He notes that seminars develop-and I quote-"higher-order intellectual capacities that literally rewire the brain."

Years ago, I taught a seminar in American religious history at Emory. Two men in the class could not connect. Neither listened to the other. There were subtle signs of tension, what we might call "microaggressions." One was a Vietnam vet, older than other students, returning to college. The younger student, whom I will call Li, came from mainland China. The vet, whom I will call Joe, did not like my syllabus, which included thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., and Adrienne Rich. Li, on the other hand, liked my syllabus of what he called "freedom thinkers" that included not only those I just mentioned but also others such as George Whitefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry Emerson Fosdick.

I found trying to orchestrate a good, rigorous debate and exploration of ideas in this class really challenging, though by that time in my teaching career I had led lots of good seminars at Emory and the University of Chicago. It was as if class members could not connect enough to each other to have any discussion in which ideas were exchanged or even honestly expressed. A good seminar doesn't require everyone to like each other, but it does require people to engage each other, to be open to what each other has to say. But then one day we turned to the essay "Of the Passing of the First Born" in which DuBois discusses the death of his young son. Joe had lost his son, and Li had lost a younger brother-both at about the same age. Joe and Li connected through this shared human experience. Slowly, not perfectly, their worlds opened up, at least a bit, to each other and to the rest of us. They began to engage with each other, and that fragile bridge offered them and the entire class the possibility of exploring different ideas, competing values, new realities. People didn't come to complete agreement. The class did not break out into choruses of kumbaya. But they listened, learned, argued, and had the courage to explore every opinion, idea, and experience.

In the western academy we describe what we learn in seminars in terms of intellectual habits and virtues. I wonder if to your generation these terms sound gentle and passive, perhaps too courteous. I think the phrases of habits and virtues learned - love of truth, honesty, humility, courage, fairness, wisdom - may require a greater heft than the term "intellectual virtues" signifies in today. Professors Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe have done a great deal to retrieve the language of virtues, and I want to build upon their work to make clear that these virtues are really the muscles, the force, the power behind freedom and responsibility.

The seminar experience shapes our minds and hearts to find enough courage to question ourselves as well as others, to have the strength to be humble when assessing the correctness of our own opinions and ideas, and to learn to listen to those with whom we disagree. A successful seminar does not give you the muscle to impose your idea of what the world should be like. Indeed, in a seminar you learn that you must sometimes have the guts to hold your tongue and listen as well as sometimes to have the courage to speak. A good seminar creates in its participants the power to create, as philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer would say, a new horizon, fused out of multiple views.

Swarthmore has long taken pride in being a place that fosters the rigorous seminar in and outside of class. And that rigorous seminar means simply and completely this one thing: the power to listen, to be heard, to critique, and to create.

Back in the early 1960s some people weren't happy that a student group here at Swarthmore had invited Gus Hall, general secretary of the U.S. Communist Party, to campus to speak. In backing these students, Swarthmore President Courtney Smith proclaimed, "If America is scared even to listen to competing ideas, we are finished."

The strongest force-the ability to listen and to create a new synthesis out of competing ideas-is the heart and soul of democracy. It is the greatest strength you can attain.

Here is how President Woodrow Wilson described the strength you came here to develop in an address he gave at Swarthmore 100 years ago:

"You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."

Congratulations, Class of 2013, and thank you for sharing your four-year intellectual adventure with me - and with all of us.