The Written Word Remains

Remarks to Graduates at Commencement - May 19, 2019

This is not the end of the journey, but it is a happy interlude. I am obligated to assure you that after the triumph of senior week and commencement, loftier expectations and the hunger for even harder work will stand before you in the imperative decade ahead. Until then, the distances and the sacrifices to get here, to mark this proud day’s milestone for the class of 2019, now quickens the realization that no St. Lawrence student ever makes this trek alone.

I share your deep appreciation for your teachers, mentors, and friends—yes, your friends because they have also been teaching, sometimes with brilliant intellectual substance, sometimes with insights about yourself and what must matter the most. But I also express my highest admiration for your parents, grandparents, and other family friends today.

To our commencement guests, I know St. Lawrence is important to you, perhaps because you are long familiar with our traditions or you just now discovered something notably sublime in our habits of belonging. I know many of you are seeing this campus today for the first time, some traveling many time zones to be present. You have invested wisely and bravely by long distance; you and this place have built together a lengthy bridge connecting two homes in the lives of your children. Thank you for trusting us and believing in what we do.

When the class of 2019 first set foot on the St. Lawrence campus, we welcomed you and your families with the tradition of a matriculation ceremony when you first set eyes on our faculty in academic splendor and regalia. On that occasion, I spoke to you about the importance of letters and that there was an older meaning of the word that gave broad purpose to what a college was meant to do and there is also the familiar meaning that requires an envelope and a stamp. While the ideas of how education work best have evolved; and while the means of familiar correspondence have condensed in the years between our two generations, the concept of letters is not obsolete nor is it likely to become so.

Before St. Lawrence became best known as a residential, independent liberal arts college, it was, officially called a “college of letters and science.” Those exact terms were still in the admissions literature up to my own student days on this campus. Everyone can understand why a university must offer science courses, but what was intended by the name “college of letters?”  In the broadest sense of our subtitle’s original meaning, the study of letters was not about long-hand messages that went back and forth within the postal system. Rather, in a college of letters, anything that was written, drawn, expressed, sung, or printed could be the subject of inquiry. A person “of letters” defined a scholar. My hope today is that you are not only lettered, but also you know how to write a smart letter.

When the Harvard philosopher William James was a young man away at college, he wrote home to describe both his circumstances and his personal goal. “We are only about twelve in the laboratory so that we have a very cosy time. I expect to have a winter of ‘crowded’ life. I can be as independent as I please, and want to live regardless of the good or bad opinion of everyone.” Those words were written in the first days of his first college year in September 1861, when this university in Canton, New York was graduating its first students. Something equivalent may have come from a St. Lawrence student in the fall of 2015, but if it wasn’t written it down, it’s an unrecorded, unlettered, and unattached thought.

About fifteen years later when William James began his career as a faculty member, he published a letter looking back on his education to note the critical difference between students in classes who “are edified rather than awakened.” That phrase in that letter captures the essence of what we intended for you, if you allowed it, so that when you leave college as Professor James once hoped for his students, awakened, not merely edified, you have left with “a wider openness of mind and a more flexible way of thinking than special technical training can generate...”

Each one of you should ask yourself about these four years on the St. Lawrence campus: have I been merely edified and schooled, or have I been awakened? There are two signs, so far, that affirm this class as alive, enlightened, and joyous. First, there is an impressive record of where you will be landing and what you will be doing in the next year.

Your class will be represented in a variety of workplaces and firms. Let me offer a sampler by mentioning AQR Capital Management, Bank of America, Cervello of A. T. Kearney, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Goldman Sachs, Grey Wall Software, IBM, Merrill Lynch, M&T Bank, Raytheon, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Rendever, Rockefeller Capital Management, Tory Burch, and Silicon Valley Bank. Some of you will be working in the outdoors and not inside traditional business offices at 4UR Ranch, Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Cascade Rafting, High Trails Outdoor Education Center, Hosmer Point Camp, Johnsonburg Camp, Lake George Land Conservancy, Pilgrim Lodge, Rockyworld Deephaven Camp, Spring Creek Farm, and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Some in the class of 2019 will be teachers next year in Spain, Japan, and the New Hampton School. In government and the non-profit sector, St. Lawrence will continue to be a presence in Washington and throughout the country—at the Brookings Institute, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Resources, Planned Parenthood, and at least three of you will be in Cambodia, Tanzania, and the Eastern Caribbean in the Peace Corps. Worth noting, St. Lawrence was named by the Peace Corps this spring as the number one college in America for placing volunteers around the world. We currently have over 20 young alumni serving in the Peace Corps. This afternoon, two of your classmates will become commissioned officers in the United States military. We have over 20 young alumni currently serving this nation in uniformed services. Two members of the class have in hand professional sports contracts—one in soccer, one in softball.

For others in the class of 2019, new academic affiliations are forming when you enter graduate studies all over the world. It is an astonishing number who will begin at other universities this fall, including Carnegie Mellon, BU, Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine, Georgetown, Montana State, NYU, Northeastern, NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine, Oregon State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Northwestern, TCU, Ohio State, UC Berkeley, UMass, UConn, University of London, University of Melbourne Law School, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Missouri, Rochester, West Virginia, Wichita State, and WPI. This list is already impressive and extensive, but is still short of naming all the graduate paths opening to the class of 2019.

There is sufficient evidence in terms of what you plan to do, proving that a spark was kindled and your life ambition was awakened. There is a second sign that ought to give you confidence as it does me. Your vocabulary has been significantly enlarged. You have more to say, but you still have much to think about. You may have discovered that when you find the right word, you hold a new thought. When find your own thought, you possess integrity. When you live with integrity, you will glimpse a destiny. It all starts with an appreciation of your college as a place of people and of letters.

When Walt Whitman was an old man living in New Jersey, he talked about letters, poems, and writing with a young neighbor down the street who was in his early 20s. Whitman said “the secret of it all is to write in the…flood of the moment—to put things down without deliberation…You want to catch the first spirit—to tally its birth. By writing at the instant the very heart-beat of life is caught.”

St. Lawrence University is now yours to claim as a place for doing difficult things well, for creating lasting bonds of friendship, and for joining a distinctive set of traditions, including today’s commencement ceremony. All this has awakened you, but not until you name it and write it. You will continue to write a lot—whether its equations or essays, journals or letters—and you will speak often with words carefully measured. But if I impart only one word of practical advice in my final reflections, taking us back to our first day together, then sometime soon, put the pen to paper, buy a “Forever” stamp, post your letter  home or send it to someone from here, and then keep checking your box for return mail.

We continue to be at St. Lawrence, by settled tradition and old habit, a college of letters. When sound and speech yield to silence, when the volume of good memories is turned low, when you say good bye and see you later, when you ride out Romoda Drive or cruise down University Avenue, this magical college village inside you and behind you, the written word remains.