University of Vermont

December Grad Address

December Graduates Recognition Celebration
December 18, 2004
Ira Allen Chapel


Daniel Mark Fogel
Professor of English
President of the University of Vermont

Faculty Senate President Michael Gurdon, Trustees Martha Heath and Frank Cioffi, Senior Vice President and Provost Andrew John Bramley, Professor Emerita Jean Richardson, members of the faculty, administration, and staff, families and friends of our students who have completed their degree requirements this past summer and fall, and above all those students themselves whose accomplishments we are celebrating here today, welcome—and congratulations! We are thrilled that you have finished your degree requirements, and while you are enthusiastically invited to join us in May when your degrees will be formally conferred, we hope that you find this morning’s celebration to be a memorable and satisfying way of marking this milestone of accomplishment in your lives.

This is, for all of us, a joyous occasion–the moment when we recognize our graduates and welcome them to the company of educated men and women. It is also a moment when we can reflect on the countless hours of study, concentration, toil and inspiration, elation perhaps not unmixed at times with gloom, that have brought you to this memorable moment of triumph and transition!

It is a moment of transition. The world lies all before you, with all of its alluring promises and baffling challenges, all of its potential for happiness and achievement, and all of its terrible burdens of heartbreak, suffering, and loss. The earnest hope that I know that I share with my faculty and staff colleagues is that we have prepared you for effective leadership in the many spheres, in the brave new worlds, into which you are moving—that you will be effective, inventive, creative, and compassionate actors in the world and that you will make a difference for the better in the communities in which you live and in the work places where you will pursue your vocations, whatever they may be.

You are graduates of an extraordinary institution. Your University of the Green Mountains is steeped in the traditions and values of Vermont: practicality, environmental stewardship, civic duty, fairness, social justice, and respect for individuality. It is deep within our ethos to make a difference on the things that matter—from monitoring the impact of acid rain to battling drug addiction, from developing sustainable farming practices to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

Graduating from a University with such a strong and progressive commitment to our social mission, you follow in the footsteps of alumni in whom we take great pride—in the footsteps of Lida Mason and Ellen Hamilton, our first women graduates and the first women anywhere in the nation to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, right here at UVM, in 1875; in the footsteps of George Washington Henderson, who graduated first in the class of 1877, and who also blazed a trail here at UVM as the first black inductee into Phi Beta Kappa; in the footsteps of John Dewey, class of 1879, one of our nation’s greatest political and educational philosophers, whose earthly remains lie on campus just on the north side of us here in Ira Allen Chapel; and, in more recent times, in the footsteps of Jody Williams, University of Vermont class of 1972, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for leading the International Campaign to Ban Landmines; and in the footsteps of John McGill, a 1978 UVM medical graduate, who was president of Doctors Without Borders when that organization received the Nobel Peace Prize two years later, in 1999.

The UVM tradition thus provides you with great examples that we hope will guide you on the way, just as we hope that the teaching and inspiration of our distinguished faculty will guide you. You are in truth among the luckiest individuals on our planet. As our Aiken Lecturer, Fareed Zakaria, observed this fall, you belong to the most privileged generation in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history, and a vital and precious part of what has been given to you is your education here at UVM. But for the vast majority of our fellow humans the world in which you will pursue your lives from this point forward, in the words of Matthew Arnold,

Has really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . .

Most human beings do not live graced by our blessings of abundance and liberty and stable institutions. To the contrary, billions—not millions but billions—live without adequate nourishment and medical care, without educational opportunity, and without belief that the political systems in which they are trapped and the leaders with whom they are saddled have any hope of remedying the multiple impasses that block the full development of their individual human potential and that also block any plausible path leading to better lives for them and their children.

It is the season of giving; and of you, to whom much has been given, much will be asked. It is time to give back—or to continue your preparation for doing so in graduate and professional school. At a time when none of us should doubt that our own safety and well-being are linked inextricably to the safety and well-being of the poorest of the poor, of the most deeply dispossessed in the most far-flung lands, what can we do but dedicate ourselves to renovation, renewal, and healing as this season enjoins us in so many of the faiths of humankind to celebrate that which is best, most giving, and most forgiving within us?

We hope that your education at UVM has sharpened your critical thinking so that you will be prepared for leadership and so that, in exercising that leadership, you will not fall prey to easy answers to the challenges of this thrilling, challenging, difficult age. Easy answers, and especially totalizing answers and systems, are almost certain to betray those who promote and follow them, and to turn their intended beneficiaries into victims. And yet modern times—by which I mean the last two centuries or so—have been disappointed, betrayed, despoiled, and ravaged by the pursuit of simple, totalizing answers to the dilemmas of humanity.

We live, it is said, in an age of revolutions, political, global, agricultural, economic, technological. Our sense that everything can be overturned, radically making new the arrangements and understandings by which we live, is relatively novel in human history; it has its origins just two centuries ago in the Age of Revolution, and more so in the radical French Revolution of 1789 than in the more conservative American Revolution of 1776.

The sweeping away of the French ancien regime was greeted with wild enthusiasm by thinkers throughout Europe. It seemed to promise a renovation of the world, a new order in which democracy and the “rights of man” would flourish, inequalities of property would be swept away, and government itself would in due course disappear—or as Marx and Engels had it some decades later, would “wither away.” William Hazlitt, in his book The Spirit of the Age, wrote of how the French Revolution had seemed “the dawn of a new era,” and William Wordsworth summed up the sheer elation of the historical moment in his autobiographical poem The Prelude, where he exclaims,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!

But as Wordsworth goes on to recount, the turn that the French Revolution took, from the promise of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to the Reign of Terror, followed by the despotism of Napoleon and the violence of the Emperor’s wars of conquest, led Wordsworth himself to have a nervous breakdown. Recognizing that, having become “Oppressors in their turn,/Frenchman had changed a war of self-defence/For one of Conquest,” the poet went through an agonized effort to make sense of the great disappointment, until, finally,

I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.

It was, he wrote, “the soul’s last and lowest ebb,” and the rest of The Prelude is the story of how he recovered.

It was not until the Russian Revolution of 1917, the crucible in which the Soviet state was born, that the world would see another political movement as bent on a transformation of human society globally as had been the original fierce impetus of the French Revolution. The first thrust of the Napoleonic Wars sought to export the revolution and its ideals, just as Lenin and his successors sought to export Marxism as a transformative idea throughout human societies everywhere. Such “globalizing” efforts to renovate the world appear to have given birth to almost incalculably vast quantities of heartbreak, suffering, and loss. No such project has succeeded, neither international Communism nor fascist totalitarianism, though both strove mightily in the last century to do so.
There is an old American adage that all politics are local, and you have now completed a critical phase in your education in a state that exemplifies that old saw above all others—in Vermont, with our 246 cities and towns, and our long and admirable tradition of citizen participation in governance through the institution of the town meeting. But the problems of the world today—our economic, social, political, and environmental challenges—tend not to be local but systemic and global, and the disposition we may have to seek local solutions—to rely for instance on small largely self-sufficient communities like the eco-village that some of my colleagues would like to establish here at UVM—such local solutions while interesting and probably worthwhile at least experimentally in and of themselves—do not free us from a dilemma. I will try to sum that dilemma up in a nutshell. The globalizing movements seem to lead to disaster, like the revolutions of 1789 in France, of 1917 in Russia, and of 1933 in Germany. The American empire will only come to grief if we repeatedly seek to impose our political, economic, and social gospels on populations deeply rooted in opposed values and beliefs. We found that out in Vietnam, and it is not implausible, though I hope that this is not the case, that we are finding it out again right now in Iraq. But if we remain indifferent to the fate of humanity around the world, whether through callousness or through immersion in small-scale utopian experiments that may be deeply rewarding for individuals and small groups but that will surely not be remediable for the whole wide world, we will be at the mercy of violent tides of hatred and resentment repeatedly welling up out of the vast deeps of dispossession. There must be a way to strike a balance someplace beyond the salvation of individuals and of small groups but short of violently totalizing enterprises—that is the balance we must seek first to envision and then to achieve as we work for peace, justice, and healing in a renovated world.

And so you have completed a major phase in your educational and personal development here at the University of Vermont at a remarkable moment in history, one that makes us both hopeful and anxious that we have prepared you for leadership that will be, in your generation, far more effective and wise, and at once far more far-reaching and restrained, than what has been produced by our own generation.

This university is blessed with an exceptional faculty and talented, dedicated staff—staff who are caring professionals and dedicated advisers and mentors to our students, and faculty who are distinguished scholars, scientists, and artists with national and international reputations. Their original thought finds expression in the classroom, in the fundamental work of this institution which we celebrate today. Make no mistake, the distinguished faculty and devoted staff who join us today in Ira Allen Chapel take joy and pride in this day to rival your own.

It is my honor to speak for them this morning, to say to all of you: Congratulations. Job well done. You are no longer University of Vermont students. You are now University of Vermont alumni. We hope that you will emulate the devotion to intellect and education of John Dewey, the commitment to service and humane values of Jody Williams and Dr. John McGill, and the love of learning and resolve to make a difference in the world exemplified by the faculty and staff who have guided your years at the University.

What you will inscribe on the blank slate of possibility with your lives, by word and deed, will become the next chapter in the history of your alma mater. Go forth with courage and commitment. It is your turn to build upon the records of achievement and service that are the proud legacy of generations of sons and daughters of the University of Vermont.

Last modified December 22 2004 07:32 AM

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