June 21, 2016: Bread Loaf School of English Opening Greetings

June 21, 2016


I'm so happy to see you all here and to have this moment to speak to you. First, I can and should tell you that this has been an extraordinary year for Bread Loaf. I'm thrilled to announce that this year, we have had more donors to the Bread Loaf School of English than ever before. And we're exploring some very exciting new partnerships with schools and foundations.

But there really is only one reason why I rushed back from a midday meeting in New York to make sure I greeted you this evening. And that reason is because I believe that there is no more hopeful antidote to the colossal failure of imagination in public life today than the work of the Bread Loaf School of English.

Just yesterday, a group of elected people in the United States tried to imagine a story where guns did not mow people down in cold blood.  They failed. And in the days before, a man in England could not imagine a world in which Britain remained in the European Union, and so he took to murder as a way out of the political debate.

These are just two of the failures of the last week.

There is the story of 10 years ago, of a young woman whose family I knew in India. She wanted to get an education, so she was pursuing a math degree at a university. But through a relationship with a young man, she found herself in a dangerous place, and caught up with a terrorist group. She could not imagine a way out of the terrorist cell she had found herself in in Mumbai, and she died in a hail of police gunfire as a result.

"We never told her another story," said her brother.

And then there is the story of the psychologist who decided to specialize in suicide prevention after he learned something from a man who was homeless. This homeless man often encountered desperate people on a city bridge who were preparing to jump. He had the talent of being able to talk them out of it. He would get these people to go back in the story of their lives to the point where they could imagine another ending—an ending that did not result in suicide. He would walk them back, one step at a time. "What did you do before you got here? And before that? What did you see? And before that?" He would go on, very methodically and very simply. And the approach would work. Suicide is the result of not being able to imagine another ending, the psychologist told me.

Not all stories can, or should, be hopeful. Not all should be healing. But each should, at the very least, create a spark of new understanding about the nature of suffering. And with that new spark of understanding, the story begins a change in the world.

You are here because you believe that literature can change people. You understand that peace must first be imagined, and for peace to be imagined, the story of suffering must be told. Again and again. This summer, you will write and teach about the morality of the particular, a morality that can best be taught through literature, and about the innate love of people and objects, of persons and things in themselves.

Of course, you will also wander through impossibly yellow buildings and unbelievably green canopies and you will be haunted, some not for the first time, by the curmudgeonly ghost of Mr. Frost.

You and your students may not even become better people through literature. Of course I hope you do. But even if you don't, you will be able to imagine, and teach others to imagine, other endings to the story.

And for that very essential reason, we need you. You matter now more than ever.

Office of the President

Old Chapel
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Middlebury College
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