Middlebury

 

February Celebration Address 2006.5

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address on February 3, 2007.

I am delighted to welcome all the guests who have come today to help us celebrate the achievements of the 115 or so soon-to-be alumni of this College. I am honored to have the opportunity to address you, the class of 2006.5, as each of you makes your way from Middlebury to the next phase of your life. Whatever that next phase may be, you should know, as I surely do, that your time here has prepared you well to meet virtually any challenge these dynamic times throw your way. More on that in a few moments, but first I wanted to give you a quick summary of who you are, collectively - aside, of course, from being the brightest, best looking, and most engaged class in the 207 history of Middlebury College!

There are 115 of you in today's celebrating class. 89 of you actually began your Middlebury careers as Febs, meaning there are 26 "regs" who have either accelerated or slowed down their studies to become Febs. Thirty-two of you double-majored, and more of you majored in English than any other discipline, with Economics, Environmental Studies, International Studies, and Political Science rounding out the most popular five fields of study.

Fifty eight of you studied abroad-that is 50 percent of the group- and several more went abroad between your high school graduation and beginning your studies at Middlebury. More of you call Massachusetts home than any other state, with Vermont, New York, and California close behind, and six of you are international students.

But much more than mere numbers, you represent an incredibly talented group-as talented as any Feb group on record-and all of us here today salute you for your accomplishments. Congratulations.

If you took a poll of Vermonters and asked which month they like the least, I think the vast majority would choose February. As Joseph Wood Krutch, one of the great literary naturalists of the early 20th century, said, "The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February." February is the year's dark pre-dawn-it's cold and quiet and too soon to be up and doing. But most of you came to Middlebury in February, which must say something about your character. It suggests that you are, at the least, optimists-maybe a little nonconformist, innovative...eager, as poet Robert Frost says, "to take the road less traveled by."

Those are characteristics that I think you share with your College. Something that's always marked Middlebury is a willingness to do things differently, to innovate, to take a calculated risk in order to accomplish something extraordinary. That has worked well for us. A College that began as an experiment in an out-of-the-way farming settlement has developed into one of the leading liberal arts institutions in the country. You have good reason to be proud to be a Middlebury graduate, and, over time, we will make you even prouder.

When you leave Middlebury, what will you remember most, and what part of your college experience will make the greatest difference in your future life? As a geographer, I suspect you'll find that it is the place itself that exerts the greatest and most durable influence. I agree with Wallace Stevens, who wrote: "His soil is man's intelligence." We learn from our environment, and the places that teach us things that matter are carried in our hearts forever.

By "place," I should add, I mean, as geographers do, the human as well as the physical characteristics of a location. When you think back on your Middlebury years, you'll find that your memories of this place are inextricably linked to its people-your professors, your friends, your teammates ...

Look around you. Here in this chapel are 115 friends who will, in a sense, always be with you. Through the years they will celebrate your achievements, help you when you stumble, share your joys and disappointments, and somehow always remain close, even when you are widely separated by time and space. Those friendships began in the cold and bluster of your first winter at Middlebury. Friendships grow strong in this climate and place; relationships are often more intense in a community that is small and somewhat sequestered, where there are fewer distractions to dissipate your social and intellectual energies.

The scale and relative isolation of this town and campus have enabled you to participate more fully in the life of the college and the wide range of academic and extracurricular activities it offers. Together with faculty and staff, you have created a vibrant community, where people are encouraged to develop their talents, explore their interests, and make a positive difference in the lives of others.

When you live in a small community, you learn quickly that your actions have a great impact on the people around you, for better or worse. You have opportunities to see how your acts of consideration and thoughtfulness benefit others. And if you act without regard for the needs of others, you cannot walk away from the consequences, because you will see your classmates every day-at breakfast, in class, at the field house, at dinner. I hope this kind of built-in accountability, largely on account of the scale and type of campus this is, has helped you to develop a moral compass that will guide you in the years to come.

Another crucial characteristic of this place is perhaps the most obvious one-the natural beauty that surrounds us. I am sure that all of you have experienced many moments of joy and excitement, just walking to class on a crisp autumn day when the mountains stand out sharply against the cobalt sky, or watching through a window as a winter storm blankets the campus, or observing the first spring flowers burst into bloom-even if spring comes later than you ever imagined and just before you are headed away from campus following your spring semester final exams. These things constantly urge us to get out and explore and engage the world around us. They have inspired wonder, creativity, and a sense of adventure in generations of students. I know you will take that appreciation for the natural world with you wherever you go, along with the sense of wonder that it inspires.

This environment has been important in shaping the college's development, too. I believe that it has inspired a culture of openness, enthusiasm, intellectual risk-taking, and innovation. To cite just one example, consider Middlebury's role as an environmental leader. In 1965, five Middlebury faculty members from five different disciplines established the first environmental studies major in the nation-before the environmental movement hit college campuses and before interdisciplinary study was in vogue. They viewed the region's forests, fields, lakes, and geologic outcroppings as an ideal heaven-sent laboratory for student and faculty research. They also recognized the threats to that environment, so they created a new way for Middlebury students to engage in the study of their natural surroundings.

Today Middlebury is modeling what it means to take responsibility for one's local community. The College has undertaken many initiatives to minimize its impact on the environment-buying local foods, following sustainable building practices and purchasing local materials and furniture, lowering the temperature in buildings, investigating new technologies like biodiesel and wood-fired heating systems. These ideas and the energy to see them through came from engaged Middlebury staff, faculty, and students, including many of you here today.

All these are perfect examples of how education should work. We ask you to learn about the world around you and then challenge you to use your learning to make a difference. Ralph Waldo Emerson once complained, "We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing."

Well, that's not how we do it here. We never wanted to shut you up, literally or metaphorically, and I am confident that you are coming out of Middlebury with much more than a bellyful of words. For that, we thank your professors

One of the great gifts of your four years at this College has been the opportunity to get to know faculty members as committed and caring advisers. Great teachers inspire you by their passionate interest in their fields, enabling you to engage material in a more personal way and to go well beyond the standard lecture. Working with faculty members who are truly committed to teaching gave you the opportunity to delve deeply into your academic subject matter and to find mentors in subjects or pursuits that particularly interested you.

Your professors forced you to learn how to reason effectively and to express your ideas clearly in writing and in speech. They pushed you to articulate your own opinions and to understand the roots of your convictions. They taught you to see across disciplinary boundaries and to understand that there are few absolutes. They prepared you to apply your knowledge, your analytical ability, your curiosity, and your passion to the many issues you will confront in our complex and fractured world. In sharing their own knowledge and their expertise in how to address, address again, and address many more times, unanswered questions and unresolved problems, they taught you perhaps the most valuable lesson of all: learning is a journey that takes your entire life.

That, of course, is one of the great values of a liberal arts education. It readies you to live in a rapidly changing world and deal with anything that life throws your way. The great American patriot and president John Adams, who played many roles in his 90 years, said, "There are two types of education. One should teach us how to make a living. And the other how to live."

That is what I wish for all of you. That from your Middlebury education you will take with you skills you can apply in virtually any profession tomorrow or in 15 years...but more important, still, is that, from your Middlebury experience, you will have learned how to live....

Finally, this morning, I'd like to comment on the value of being a Feb at Middlebury. Starting your education at mid-year, you took advantage of the time to undertake something valuable, and perhaps even remarkable, before you arrived on campus. Your experiences were as varied as you are. One Feb traveled for two months in a dugout canoe seeking handicrafts and artifacts along the Sepik River in Papua, New Guinea. Others of you trained as emergency medical technicians, attended university in another country, or tested your survival skills in the American wilderness. Some of you held your first full-time, non-summer jobs. Those experiences, no doubt, affected your time at Middlebury and will serve you well time and again in your lives.

Finding your own place at Middlebury is a little more difficult for Febs than for students starting in September. Febs have to jump with both feet into a relatively closed community that is already well into the rhythm of the academic year. A contingent only 121 strong when you began, you found yourselves in the midst of 586 peers who had already spent five months getting to know each other and the campus. You survived that, of course-in fact, you thrived on it. That challenge prompts Febs to bond quickly with one another and to develop the kind of exceptional friendships one can hardly help but notice while attending events like today.

Many curveballs will be thrown at you over the course of what I hope will be a long and fulfilling life. But your four years at Middlebury have given you a powerful array of skills, knowledge, values, and, I am confident, wisdom. It is impossible not to be confident that, just as you successfully parachuted into Middlebury in the dead of winter and the middle of the academic year, you will be successful in parachuting into life beyond this special campus and community.

All of you will soon be facing large and exciting changes. Who will you be, what will you be doing, what will you know five or ten years from now? It will be a thrill-for you and for us-to find out. The next time we see you-perhaps at a reunion in the not-to-distant future-you will be different. So I would like to leave you with an appropriate reflection on change and fulfillment by Robert Frost:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

As you go forth, know that you are ready to face whatever the passing of time may bring and to find fulfillment in it.

Know, too, that, as poet Mordecai Marcus has observed from this poem, Frost, like William Butler Yeats "thinks that man is in love and loves what vanishes." Your Middlebury days may have now vanished, but may your love for those vanished days remain with you and serve you well throughout your lives.

Thank you and best wishes.