Baccalaureate Speech: President William G. Durden '71
President William G. Durden '71
President Durden addresses graduates and guests at Baccalaureate.
Good afternoon, members of the Class of 2011. The Baccalaureate Ceremony signifies the official beginning of the activities surrounding your graduation from Dickinson College. At the close of tomorrow morning’s ceremony, you will commence forth from these limestone walls as alumni of Dickinson. This afternoon is the perfect occasion for you to begin thinking about the momentous transition you are about to make and how your Dickinson education has prepared you for the wider world. The Baccalaureate Ceremony asks you to pause and reflect on your years at Dickinson just as tomorrow’s Commencement will urge you to look ahead. You are, in other words, beginning to establish the bridge that will connect your experiences as students with your life as alumni.
Your classmates, in cooperation with the college, designed today’s program and very appropriately chose the theme of “seeking connections.” As our speakers today will describe, there are many facets to this “connectivity,” whether it be forming lifelong bonds with friends and classmates, developing mentoring relationships with faculty and staff, or connecting your academic work to the local or global community. These are all aspects of what I refer to as external connections.
I would also add that over these four years, you have each made internal connections—those connections within yourself that will ultimately determine the type of person you will be in life. I am referring to the many daily decisions—at first glance, exceedingly mundane and incidental—you have made that have determined a path for you. These have ranged from deciding what classes to take, which internship you should pursue, whether you should change your major or how much time you should spend studying for that exam. They have also included questions such as whether or not you should go for that daily workout at the fitness center, join a new club, if you should take a study break and catch up with a friend having a hard time. It is these decisions and internal debates over things large and small that have enabled you to connect with who you are and the person you will become. As a mentor of mine once said, the patterns we establish in our lives before the age of 25 almost always set the patterns that will continue and repeat throughout the rest of our lives. Whether you realize it or not, you are in the midst of setting YOUR patterns for life—those patterns that you will surely modify, but not radically change.
Before I conclude let me share some words that I heard two weeks ago at a memorial service for John Milton Davidson, a dedicated member of the class of 1933, a member of the 1931 Dickinson College football team that defeated Penn State (and they have not challenged us since, by the way) and a trustee emeritus member of the board. The pastor leading the service, who had clearly known Milt for much of his 100-plus years, described his life in these paraphrased words. He said Milt’s wonderful and long life was defined by others—that is, rather than leading an insulated, self-absorbed existence, Milt’s self was set by what he did to improve the lives of people in his family, in his professional life and in his community. He belonged to them and in belonging, gained a distinctive character. His enduring strength as a person was the depth and breadth of reflections emanating from commitment to others—a commitment that to many, might have seemed so incidental—and yet meant so much. May you—indeed, may we all—achieve this type of meaningful and defining connection to those around us in your own lives.
After these words about Milt were composed, I read an article in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books that underscored what I intend to say to you on this reflective occasion before Commencement. Jonathan Raban in a review of the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel, referred to a Commencement address—an arguably controversial, deceptively bleak one—that Wallace delivered in 2005 at our good, collegial liberal-arts college, Kenyon. At least for me, Raban’s commentary connected the disparate pieces that I wish you to continue to contemplate following your departure from these limestone walls. Wallace captured perfectly the ultimately productive connections among a liberal-arts education, the positive benefit of committing ourselves to something larger than ourselves, and the wonder of finding meaning beyond the often mundane and incidental in daily life. Here is what he said: “Wallace warned [the Kenyon graduates] of their forthcoming enlistment as soldiers in ‘the day-to-day trenches of adult life’ … and [the] ‘dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines’ in which they’d soon be immersed. He argued that the ‘default setting’ of the human being [in this situation] is self-centeredness verging on solipsism, and that the value of a liberal-arts education is that it supplies the means to escape ‘our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms’ by exercising disciplined, nonstop attention to the unexamined details of our lives, and so transcend the selfishness of our frustration and boredom. This could lead, he said, to ‘being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.’ ”
As Milt Davidson did so well, and as David Foster Wallace so bluntly recommends, may you—indeed may we all—on the basis of our shared liberal-arts education connect our selves to that which is beyond us and in so doing, infuse the inevitable mundane and petty in daily life with that which is humanly transcendent and thus of sustaining value over time.
Again, congratulations on this wonderful achievement of graduating from Dickinson College. And enjoy immensely with us, your family and friends, this special weekend that marks such a momentous occasion in your lives.