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May 28, 2016: Baccalaureate Address

May 28, 2016

 

Welcome to your second to last day at Middlebury. In these intensely compressed days of endings and beginnings, you have probably been thinking about both the past and the future. I know I have. I have been thinking a great deal about a conversation I had with several of you a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful Middlebury day, and some seniors, juniors, and I were sitting at a table with the early spring green of the mountains behind us.

We were talking about how hard it is has been, especially this year, for those of you whom I was with, and for probably many, if not most of you, to write in an authentic voice, and express that voice in public settings, and even in classrooms. It's hard to feel safe finding your voice when anything you post online might get picked up and reposted. It might get quoted by a reporter, or posted on Twitter, or mocked on Yik Yak, or critiqued on Facebook. In our conversation, I shared with you that many of your faculty members, including your president, had experienced such unwanted cyber-exposure, and survived, and went on to write more, and you all could too. But then one of you said something to me that I've been thinking about ever since. You said, "Yes, but when we are still finding our voices, when we still don't know who we are and need to experiment with those voices, that's a big ask. That's a big ask, President Patton."

In thinking about that conversation, I have also been reading about those who do not have a voice, and how we study and learn about voiceless-ness. What does it mean to speak, and perhaps more importantly, what does it mean not to speak? In thinking about this question, I have been inspired by the autobiography of the vocal artist Bob Dylan. Here's how writer Edward Smith characterized Dylan's book:

What does it take to turn artistic talent into its full creative expression? Then, once you've found your authentic artistic voice, how can you stop critics and followers over-defining it until you feel penned-in to the point of paralysis? And if you finally lose your voice altogether, how do you find it again?

The story starts as abruptly and arrestingly as one of his own ballads, when the 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman arrives in New York in 1961 wanting to sing folk songs. Where he came from is unimportant to this particular story. All we need to know is that he had talent and boundless self-confidence. He knew he had 'it'. He just wasn't quite sure what 'it' was. To discover that, he needed a context, a bohemian education and some good luck. New York provided all three.

It was the perfect setting: coffee-houses, smoky clubs, night-long parties, personal reinvention, the buzz of the cutting edge. He evokes the scene so well, we could be walking with him into a cold easterly breeze coming off the Hudson river. He fitted right in—sleeping on sofas, searching for Woody Guthrie records, tuning into compelling characters, tuning out of what bored him.

He played and sang wherever he could, happier to practice with an audience than alone. He was given the keys to eccentric apartments with quirky libraries. He opened books in the middle, and if he liked them went back to the beginning. A relentless curiosity coexisted with a determination not to go under to new influences. It was his voice he was looking for, not anyone else's.

He looked around at who he admired, worked out what they had and how he might acquire it without losing his integrity. He liked hardness, edge, what was essential.

As you search for your own voice, your life at Middlebury has not been unlike Bob Dylan's. You have opened books in the middle, and if you liked them, went back to the beginning. You have endured cold easterly breezes. You have had relentless curiosity. You have slept on sofas. You have tuned into compelling characters and tuned out of what bored you. You have been given the keys to apartments with quirky libraries, as well as to well-resourced institutional libraries and digital libraries. You have looked at role models to see who you could follow without losing your integrity. You too have been drawn to hardness, edge, and what is essential.

Let me describe yourselves to you as a way of illustrating these qualities. You are 654—309 men and 345 women. You are from 43 states in the USA and almost as many countries outside the USA.

Like Dylan, you have had a relentless curiosity. Many of you have chosen Economics, Political Science, Natural Sciences, Environmental Studies, and English—our top majors—as your first intellectual loves. But because you are curious, you have been open to many disciplines: 105 of you have had either a joint or a double major. And if we count those of you who majored in a foreign language, attended the language schools, or studied abroad at 42 different places in the world, more than half of you had the courage to study or speak a foreign language at an advanced level.

Like Dylan, you have reminded us of what is essential. You have brought the vision of restorative justice to campus, and I promise we will take it forward for you. You have formed groups of all ethnicities and races to shift campus conversations about race and racism. You have researched and implemented new policies to focus on prevention and change in attitudes re sexual assault on campus.

You have been relentlessly creative. Like Dylan, you have tuned into compelling characters, whether that has been working with the Town Hall Theatre, or receiving a nomination for the 2015 Irene Ryan award for acting at the American College Theatre Festival. You designed and built art exhibitions all around campus; 300 members—almost half of the senior class—were Student Friends of the Art Museum.

You are tough. Like Dylan you have been drawn to hardness—on the athletic field as well as in the world. 170 of you were playing on varsity teams at any time during your four years at Middlebury, with 1 team and 2 individuals winning national athletic championships, 16 teams NESCAC championships, and 104 named to all-academic teams.

And like Dylan, you have slept on sofas all around the community. Overall at least 373 out of the 525 seniors expected to graduate were involved in community engagement during their years at Middlebury (at least 71% of seniors). You led a trip to Mexico focused on supporting single mothers in partnership with the nonprofit Casa de los Ángeles. You led a trip to New York focused on urban food systems. 23 of you were senior mentors who were matched with Addison County children ages 6–12. And the average time this group of 23 students met with their mentees was 2.75 years! You created the place-based mentoring initiative DREAM, and partnered with two affordable housing apartment complexes in Middlebury. And a group of you conducted a spatial analysis study of rural public transportation needs with Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR), and from that research created a proposal for an outlying bus route. One of you participated in Language in Motion, and shared a love for Uzbekistan, Russian culture, and your experience as a Muslim with secondary students at all three of the local high schools and on the other side of the state.

And like Dylan, you have embraced those things on the edge. One of you had an internship focused on turtles, and the following summer you drew blood from prairie dogs to study plague. Another of you, through our programs in social entrepreneurship, developed the concept for an app to reduce distracted driving. And another developed an epi pen bracelet and is currently working on getting it patented.

And what is the meaningful work you are going on to do? You are going on to write programs at Google, to work on diversity at Goldman Sachs, to begin a graduate course in Neuroscience, to start workshops in theater education, to write at The Atlantic magazine, and create youth programs in Senegal.

From all these inspiring facts, you sound like the young Bob Dylan, getting his education in the clubhouses of New York, only your education has been in the mountains of Vermont. From the demographics of this class, you all look like you know you have "it," and are filled with boundless self-confidence.

But from our conversations with you, you are also worried. Deeply worried. If we have listened to you carefully, you worry about two kinds of voicelessness: the first, when you want to speak, but cannot, because you lack the power or the capacity. And the other is equally, or perhaps even more relevant to today: when there are so many others speaking that you cannot be heard. In other words, you worry about becoming voiceless either when you are completely alone or when you are buried in the sound of a crowd.

Bob Dylan felt that he lost his voice when he was at his most famous. He had given his voice over to others, and didn’t know how to get it back. And you ask, as Dylan also did: once you've found your authentic voice, how can you stop critics and followers over-defining it until you feel penned-in to the point of paralysis? How can you prevent yourself from becoming voiceless once again, especially in the world of instantaneous, unwanted audiences, and the barrage of likes, unlikes, and anonymous attacks that we all dwell in?

To understand how we might respond to this deeply 21st century dilemma, it's worth looking a little at what it means to be voiceless. Scientific studies of voicelessness are fascinating. There was the voicelessness of nineteenth century French citizen Louis Victor Leborgne, otherwise known as "patient Tan." At 31, Leborgne lost all of his ability to speak except for one word, which he pronounced over and over again: "Tan, tan, tan." When Leborgne died in 1861, a well-known surgeon, Paul Broca discovered in the autopsy that he had a lesion in his brain in the left upper lobe. Broca then studied 25 brains of other patients with similar disorders. He became the first to identify language processing in a part of the brain now known as Broca’s area, a key area for cognitive psychology in the last century. Broca’s work was hatched in intense debate with his medical colleagues, and laid the groundwork for methods and medicines to restore speech in the wake of traumatic brain injuries and cognitive impairments caused by disease. Broca's conversation with his colleagues of the time about the plasticity of the brain eventually helped millions come to voice when otherwise they would have had to give up hope.

There was the voicelessness of Helen Keller in late nineteenth century Alabama, whose family had given up on her, and who had given up on herself. And yet, when her teacher, the completely determined Annie Sullivan, came from Boston, things changed. As many of you might know, the story goes that after violent episodes where Keller acted out her frustration by throwing objects and throwing tantrums, Sullivan tried the simple spelling out of the word “water” in her hand as water fell over it. It was at this moment that Helen found "voice" in the power of sign language. Helen Keller too, was written off as a deaf mute until the power of communication in a form other than "the spoken word" became a major way for Helen to share her brilliance, and her unique experience, with the world. She went on to become a writer, author, suffragist, and activist on behalf of worker's rights, and left a legacy of powerful writings on all these subjects after her death in the 1960's.

Since the 1960's, the sciences of linguistics, cognition, the brain, and disease, have been revolutionized several times over. And we continue to learn about the dynamics of voice and voicelessness in subtler and subtler ways. In addition to the fields of cognitive science, there are intriguing new contributions of lay people. We might turn to the recent blogs of Paula Durbin Westby, a woman with autism who is "intermittently speechless." Even though she may want to, Paula is not able to speak with others. But, as she puts it, this does not mean she is "locked in a non-verbal world, in some sort of dream state or alternative universe at those times."

Paula recently posted a YouTube video, busting stereotypes about people like herself who may occasionally lose the ability to speak. She tells us,

I have read more than one author who opines that without language there is no thought. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Language includes both written and spoken words, as well as picture-based communication systems like PECS. Not talking (and also not writing) does not equate with "not being able to think," "being lost in an unknown world" or anything other than specifically not being able to talk. For some people it could mean a lack of focus on the present moment (how many people are fully present in each moment anyway?) or not being able to think in words, which is another one of my reasons for not talking. But it is not, generally speaking, accurate to assume that because a person can't talk, they can't think. You wouldn't look at someone who has a tracheostomy tube and go "Oh wow. That person can't think!"….

And Paula responds, "Actually, I just can't talk."

But she surely can think, and powerfully so. Paula has founded an online research community of autistic people like herself to share their own experiences and perceptions about intermittent speech and speechlessness. She encourages more autistics to share information, including videos and articles, about speech loss/intermittent speech/non-speaking times. She tells us, "We learn so much from each other, in ways that are different from 'therapy' or 'intervention.' It is important to have a body of knowledge on this topic that we ourselves have created and that we can consult, and that can also assist non-autistic parents, educators, and professionals."

More humorously, but equally poignantly, is the very recent story of Carly Fleischmann, who just burst onto the world on May 4th, 2016—a few weeks ago. She is 21, your age, and an author who has had a long term dream of hosting her own talk show. But due to her severe autism and an oral motor condition, she cannot speak. With the help of an Ipad that vocalizes what she writes, she's decided to debut a YouTube show, Speechless with Carly Fleischmann. Her first interview was with Channing Tatum, a man upon whom she has had a long term crush, and who she decided, impishly, "was going to leave his wife for her by the end of the show."

These are four stories of voicelessness, and four stories of coming to voice. One happened because of the breakthrough of early brain science and a long-term relationship with a medical community. Broca faithfully argued with his medical colleagues throughout his life. The second happened because of the breakthrough of sign language and the incredible dedication of a fierce teacher. Annie Sullivan was the lifelong companion in service of Hellen Keller's activism on behalf of the deaf. The third happened because of the breakthrough of autistic people sharing their own experiences and research, and in doing so, advancing our understanding. Paula Durbin Westby's autistic friends and companions provide a whole new perspective on the world of all human cognition. The fourth happened because of the breakthrough of vocalizations on an I-pad and an impish sense of humor with a first talk show guest. Cary Fleishman connects with a long term movie star crush as a way of showing the world what a talk show really means.

Even Bob Dylan, overcome by fame and its cacophony of voices telling him who he was supposed to be, had a breakthrough. He tells us in his autobiography that he turned to friendships in his middle age to find his artistic voice.

Every single one of these people overcame a cacophony of voices telling them who they were and what they were supposed to be. They felt like you do when you see, or think you might see, all those voices on the internet after you have written a single, tentative piece posted online. Or when you see someone roll their eyes at something you say in a classroom. But notice something extraordinary: in each of these stories, people overcoming voicelessness through power of human relationships, and their capacity to nurture confidence and creativity.

So let's return to that conversation I had with several of you a few weeks ago. You worry that you will lose your voice, or that the internet world, in its harsh and swift responses, will prevent you from having one. Or that the classroom world, with its inherent judgment of you, will silence your voice. And, in a world like that, it is a big ask for an educational institution to request you to speak, to use your voice.

And here is a response. First, I think you are right. It has been a big ask for us to ask you to develop your own voice.

Second, and far more importantly, it is no longer just Middlebury, but the world that is now asking it of you. Let me put it even more strongly: it's no longer about just you and your voice. The world needs you to share your voice as you go on to become the glorious person you are meant to be in the world.

Third, Middlebury has given you a voice that you can use to help others find their own. From now on, it's about everyone else, and how you share that resource of a great education with the world around you, no matter how difficult that might be.

Most times, those moments will be joyous. You already know this. Most of you have already gone out into the communities around us and shared your voice. And you have helped others come to voice, right here, in these mountains, as well as in distant mountains across many oceans. Remember the power of human relationship in all of these stories about coming to voice. You are the Paul Pierre Bocas, the Annie Sullivans, the Paula Durbin Westby’s and the Carly Fleishmans of your generation.

So congratulations on becoming Middlebury graduates. You have opened books in the middle, and if you liked them, went back to the beginning. You have endured cold easterly breezes. You have had relentless curiosity. You have slept on sofas. You have tuned into compelling characters and tuned out of what bored you. You have been given the keys to apartments with quirky libraries, as well as to well-resourced institutional libraries and digital libraries. You have looked at role models to see who you could follow without losing your integrity. You too have been drawn to hardness, edge, and what is essential.

And whether you feel as if you have or not, you have already used your voice wisely. Use that voice—no matter how tentative—to help others find theirs. And if you do, you will never lose it. You will always find it. It will always be with you.

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