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Ron Liebowitz, recipient of an honorary doctorate, has served Middlebury for 31 years.

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Middlebury Language Schools Confer Master's, Doctoral Degrees

August 17, 2015

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – At the Middlebury Language Schools Commencement, President Emeritus Ronald D. Liebowitz called on the graduates to lead “a more strategic, concerted, and vocal campaign” to strengthen foreign-language education in America’s K-12 public schools.

Liebowitz returned to Middlebury on August 14 to deliver the Commencement Address to the 109 candidates who earned Master of Arts degrees and three who earned Doctor of Modern Languages degrees.

The president emeritus was also a degree recipient himself – of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters – along with honorary degree recipients Edward C. Knox, College Professor of French emeritus; Jessica K. Liebowitz, advisor to the chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees; and Helene Zimmer-Loew, a leader in national organizations for the teaching of foreign languages.

But it was Liebowitz’s call to action in his 15-minute Commencement Address that galvanized the graduation ceremony marking the Language Schools’ 100th year.

“Americans are at the bottom of the list of so-called advanced societies in terms of their knowledge of languages and cultures,” he said. “The glaring absence [of knowledge about languages and cultures] has contributed to an increased level of ignorance among current school-age students related to ethnic, racial, and cultural difference.

“Such ignorance can easily engender prejudice, and prejudice in youth often leads to knee-jerk and sometimes violent reactions to even minor skirmishes – often rooted in misunderstandings of a culture different from one’s own.  Such incidences are only likely to increase as the demographics of the country continue to change – becoming more diverse – and the movement of peoples across national borders becomes more commonplace and fraught with controversy.”

Liebowitz urged the graduates “to fight for more” foreign-language education in public schools. “Whether you become a K through 12 teacher, are a parent advocating for your children in their schools, or simply are an enlightened citizen exercising your rights and responsibilities to influence public policy, you need to become an activist. The world today demands more than monolingual, mono-culturally aware youth.”

Commencement Slide Show

Middlebury’s new president, Laurie L. Patton, saluted the graduates – and indeed all Language Schools students – saying they have shown great discipline, resourcefulness, and strength of character by adhering to the Language Pledge throughout the duration of the session.

“You have become masters – literally from the Latin, ‘ones who are called to teach.’ You have become doctors – literally from the Latin, ‘ones who lead others, who show the way.’ So long may you go on thinking, dreaming, stumbling, joking, arguing, persuading, dancing, running, sighing, playing, and hoping, in another language. 

“I hope, in the work of achieving your degree, you have also been replenished,” President Patton said. “I hope that the letters now written after the letters that make up your name might not only signal pedigree, but also possibility. [And] that your dispositions and habits of mind have been newly sharpened, invigorated, ready to engage again in the work of placing language at the center of all our human relationships.”

The Language Schools Commencement opened with President Patton passing the original 200-year-old cane carried by Gamaliel Painter, one of the college’s founders, among the graduates assembled in Mead Chapel. After her opening remarks, she asked Trustee Emeritus William Kieffer ’64 to join her in presenting a Lilian Stroebe Centennial Medal to Michael E. Geisler, the vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad, and Graduate Programs since 2005.

Calling his work on behalf of Middlebury “the exemplar for the exemplars,” Patton said Professor Geisler has steadfastly and ambitiously carried forward Stroebe’s vision by supporting and advancing the study of languages and cultures at Middlebury and beyond.

Watch a video of the entire ceremony

Wearing his pewter medal, Geisler then ascended the podium and welcomed the graduates and their family members, along with all the distinguished guests and friends of the Language Schools. And then as he often does at Language Schools Commencements, he praised all Language Schools students for risking their identity and their very sense of self to learn how “to talk like people from another culture, joke like people from another culture and even argue as people argue in another culture…For having the courage to do that, we salute you."

After the conferring of the Master or Arts degrees (63 in Spanish, 27 in French, 10 in Chinese, five in Russian, three in German, and one in Mediterranean Studies) and the three Doctor of Modern Languages degrees (earned by attaining graduate-level proficiency in two foreign languages), Middlebury awarded the four honorary doctorates.

Two students in the Language Schools enthralled the gathering with vocal performances, first Sarah Zielinski in German and later Desirée Morales Ruiz in French, both accompanied by Professor Emeritus Emory Fanning on piano. The ceremony closed with a rousing rendition of “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane” led by tenor François Clemmons, the Twilight artist in residence emeritus, and punctuated by the loud tap-tap-taps of the graduates clutching replica canes, which could be heard across campus on the summer evening.

– With reporting by Robert Keren and photography by Todd Balfour