Notes on Dartmouth commencement ’15

Our youngest daughter was graduated from Dartmouth College on Sunday morning. We attended the commencement ceremony on the Green in Hanover, New Hampshire. Please forgive the personal nature and limited interest of this post. Herewith, as William Buckley might have said, a few random thoughts that accentuate the positive.

Dartmouth holds the commencement ceremony outdoors rain or shine. Five years ago we attended commencement on the Green for our middle daughter when it was rainy and cold. This year the skies cleared around 9:30, leaving a few clouds hanging like feathers in the sky. The temperature reached into the 80s. Commencement was spectacularly beautiful.

It was an emotional experience for me. I found myself sitting roughly where my parents and three grandparents had sat 42 years ago, within shouting distance of the same classrooms where my mind was opened (certainly) and freed (at least to some extent) from the superstitions of the age. So much has changed and yet the college abides.

The crowd at commencement swells with many grandparents who expend the not inconsiderable energy it takes to get to and from Hanover. One cannot miss the uplifting love and pride the families take in their graduates.

At the time I graduated I thought Dartmouth’s English Department was the best in the country. The stellar English faculty included Jeffrey Hart, James Cox, Noel Perrin, Chauncey Loomis, Peter Bien, Alan Gaylord, Peter Travis, James Heffernan, John Price, Dain Trafton, and others. Great teachers all, with a profound appreciation of the literature they taught. I understand that in the English Department all is changed, changed utterly, but a terrible beauty is not born.

I wanted my three daughters to have the same kind of college experience I had. Each did in her own way. The students at Dartmouth make the experience their own in unique ways. Our number two daughter’s life as a student centered on the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra; she played violin in the orchestra for four years. Our number three daughter’s life on campus centered on her sorority and the deep friendships she formed with outstanding young women there.

AlexandraOnTheGreen My daughter had the photo of herself on the Green at the left taken last week to leave a message with the college’s incoming freshmen. She posted the photo on Instagram with the caption: “19s, you have so much to look forward to. Cheers to the happiest four years in the most beautiful place on earth.”

Through her sorority she was in the middle of a few of the events that brought notoriety to Dartmouth. Speaking with her about them, however, I developed a healthy disrespect for everything I read about them in the news. The relation of the news to the truth was that of a tenth-generation rumor. No surprise there, but another chapter of a long story.

Without going into detail, let me note that my daughter had a serious academic experience in her four years at college. So did those of her classmates whom I have met. I believe the graduating seniors are outstanding young men and women with great contributions to make.

On Saturday, for example, five were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army and Marine Corps. The five are Joseph Carey, Jonathan Griffin, Zachary Queen, Joshua Rivers, and Monica Wagdalt. Trustee Nate Fick (’99), who saw combat as a commissioned Marine Corps officer, welcomed the five students and their families and friends. “You are joining a long green line, a tradition of military service going back to [Dartmouth’s] founding,” he told the commissioning candidates. (More here.)

Four students with 4.0 averages were recognized as class valedictorians at commencement. These four — Catherine Baker, Abhishek Parajuli, David Bessel, and Talia Shoshany — had majored in Neuroscience, Biology, Economics and (I think) Government. Not exactly what I would have anticipated in the context of concerns about grade inflation.

The college awarded seven honorary degrees to recipients including former Obama administration Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and commencement speaker David Brooks. Brooks’s commencement speech — “The ultimate spoiler alert” — was about what one might have expected. The college has posted a video here. The current NR carries Florence King’s devastating review of Brooks’s new book, on which he drew in substantial part for his speech.

Brooks’s speech was mostly standard fare. It could have used the corrective that Justice Scalia provided, most recently, in his remarks at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart earlier this month.

Nevertheless, Brooks ended on a high note. In his conclusion he anticipated the graduates returning to campus 20 or 25 years later, perfectly capturing my own experience over the weekend:

You’ll think at some random moment in that day, after a few glasses of wine, about the totality [o]f your life: Where you came from, where you were when you graduated, and where you are a quarter-century later, and you’ll know that you were so lucky to have been at Dartmouth and that after a few years of stumbling, you found a place for yourself in the world, a place deeply connected to commitments of affection that will never fade.

At reflective moments like this, it feels like time is suspended and reality will slip outside its bounds, and you’ll experience a sense of gratitude that your life is filled with joy, a joy beyond anything you could possibly have earned.

There’s nothing to be done at such moments except be thankful, to be thankful for people, places, ideas, and causes that you have embraced and that embraced you back. And that is the moment [you] come to the realization that is the full definition of maturity: It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.

Let me end these reflections on a literary note. Three years ago I wrote about my experience studying Ovid as a freshman with Professor Edward Bradley in the post “Speaking of metamorphoses.” President Phil Hanlon got in the last word at commencement in his valedictory to the class. He recalled Dartmouth freshman John Ledyard in May 1773 as he ditched school to travel and see the world. Brooks had struck a chord with me and President Hanlon did as well. He observed of Ledyard: “[H]is trip almost began with misadventure when he fell asleep reading Ovid just as he approached Bellows Falls.” As an old-school student of English literature, I believe that image of Ledyard can stand as a cautionary metaphor.

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