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Bryn Mawr College Convocation Address
by Drew Gilpin Faust
Saturday, May 19, 2001

Drew Gilpin Faust photo

President Vickers, President Tritton, Members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Class of 2001:

I am deeply honored by this invitation but not a little daunted. On what grounds, I have been wondering, should I presume to speak to you? I have spent almost all of my adult life as a scholar and a teacher. My current scholarly work is on death – a singularly inappropriate topic for today. When in March I confessed my growing alarm to Praggya Rustagi – whom I have gotten to know through our service together on the Student Life Committee of the Board of Trustees – she said the Committee to select the Convocation speaker had chosen me instead of a household word like Oprah or Gloria Steinem because I knew you and I knew Bryn Mawr. This comment was extraordinarily helpful, for it made me begin to think about what it is that I do know – what I have learned about all of you – in considerable part from the Student Life Committee – And it prompted me to think as well about who I was when I sat where you do 33 years ago. In the course of these reflections, it struck me that there are some important things you know that I didn't – and some other things I have learned in the past three decades that perhaps you don't yet quite understand. It seemed it might be worth thinking a little about each of these.

Now I must begin with a confession. The prospect of giving this talk today appeared all the more daunting because I have always avoided ceremonial occasions. Perhaps my aversion grew out of my sixties youth – which made many of my generation regard ritual as somehow inauthentic, conformist, and repressive. I did, of course, attend my Bryn Mawr graduation in 1968 because it was not optional. If you didn't show up, you didn't get your degree – or at least that is what they told us. But – and I now confess something I have never before publicly revealed: In thirty years of association with the University of Pennsylvania I attended one commencement – skipping my own MA and Ph.D. ceremonies and showing up only for my younger brother's college graduation.

Now that I have entered the confessional mode, let me continue with more and related revelations, which may lead to my disbarment as Chair of the Trustees Committee on Student Life. I hated the Bryn Mawr traditions. During my four years as a Bryn Mawr trustee, I have listened to you speak lovingly of Lantern Night and Hell Week and May Day and have quietly squirmed in my chair. When I was a student here between 1964 and 1968, I was focused on establishing justice and equality in the world, bringing racial integration to American society and ending the war in Vietnam – all of which I expected to accomplish before graduation. (We actually did succeed in abolishing parietals even if our broader goals remained unrealized. I was struck by what an accomplishment that perhaps represented when I mentioned this little victory to my college-age daughter last week, and she looked at me blankly and asked what parietals were. They were the restrictions that required us to be back in the dorm by 2 a.m. and that did not permit men in the halls except during certain very limited hours. I take some satisfaction in the fact that not only was women's freedom from these rules achieved but this is now so taken for granted no one even knows what parietals were.) But in face of the struggle for freedom at Bryn Mawr, not to mention the struggle for justice and equality around the world, lanterns and strawberries and maypoles seemed somehow trivial – even frivolous.

Now this was a particularly difficult position for me to maintain because I was sophomore class president. I don't know if this is still the case, but in my day, the sophomore class president was the person responsible for organizing these events – which as many of you well know are a huge amount of work. I'll never forget February 1966 – Hell Week – my responsibility. I was on a hunger strike for some political reason or another – ending the bombing in Vietnam? – releasing political prisoners? – the cause has faded into the mists of time. But I do remember wondering if I was going to faint from starvation as I tried to keep control of the logistical nightmare required to produce Hell Week.

So what is the purpose of these revelations of my youthful disdain for Bryn Mawr traditions and my long-lived resistance to academic pomp and circumstance? It has taken me a very long time to begin to understand something I think you already intuitively know. I want to underline, make explicit, articulate that knowledge because I think it can tell us something important about why we are here today, and why I should have gone to more of those Penn Commencements, and why last year I finally bought an academic robe.

I am a late convert to ceremony. As I have grown older – watched my life spinning by – How can it possibly be 33 years, not 33 days or weeks, since I sat here? – I have slowly come to recognize that we need to find ways to resist the inexorability and the consequent tyranny of time – which would have us dead before we bother to notice. Ritual does just that work of resistance. Ritual represents, as anthropologist Victor Turner has said, "a moment in and out of time." We use it to in some way stop the clock, comment on our lives, and articulate what we see as the meaning in the otherwise uninterpreted chaos of daily routine. What I have learned in the past three decades is that if we do not seize these opportunities to express what we believe our lives mean, we are in peril of letting life slip by without having meant anything at all. The meaning is not inherent or even self-evident. We must state it, even impose it. We must take control of time, step outside it to combat its power. We cannot stop or escape its passage, but we can shape its significance.

In ritual, as poet Thomas Lynch has written, "We act out things we cannot put into words." But my task is in fact to try to put some of this ceremony into words. I am the part of the Commencement ritual charged with doing just that. It is my job to comment on the comment this weekend's ceremonies make on our lives. Like so many of life's important rituals – weddings, funerals, bat and bar mitzvahs, christenings – this ceremony is about change, about the transformation of all of you from one state of being to another. This is a quintessential rite of passage. Even in a world where a BA is so often just a first degree, college graduation in our culture marks the passage to adulthood – the gaining of new status, new responsibilities – "the powers and privileges," as the official conferring of degrees puts it – of your achievement. But this is also a moment when, as with all change, we mark loss – loss of the community and world in which you have spent the last four years. You may well – the Alumnae Association and the Resources Office would certainly have it so – be involved with Bryn Mawr for the rest of your life. But that involvement will always be defined by what is happening right now. You are and always will be Bryn Mawr ‘01 – your relationship to this community defined by what has already happened and by what is culminating in this weekend.

So your life here is over and we are gathered to reinforce the significance of what it has been. And we do this by acknowledging that although the impact of the experience is enduring, its existence is not. In noting its very impermanence, we underscore its value. In marking and naming what these four years have been, we seek today and tomorrow to give you a way of keeping the experience even as you lose it – a meaning to hold with you even when actual life at Bryn Mawr is over. These ceremonies are in part to remind us that it is loss and the potential of loss that can move us to understand and honor what it is we have had. In the face of loss, ritual affirms, in the words of the poet Donald Hall, "that it is fitting and sweet to lose everything."

While we use this ceremony to mark rupture, we also seek to console you with continuity. Like most rituals, this one requires costumes, garments that are themselves a language of meaning and commentary. You are dressed all alike to mark your membership in a community you inhabit for the very last time. In doffing your black academic robes, you will burst into a multitude of colors – like pupae transformed into butterflies – no longer Mawrters but medical students, law students, teachers, artists, social workers, scholars. But before we permit you to assume these new roles, we celebrate your Bryn Mawr identity – in two senses of that term: your affiliation and your unity. We celebrate that you are all together, all for this last moment visually and sartorially the same, and that you are together with us the embodiment of the College – across generations and through time. So paradoxically we underline your identity at the very moment we take it away. We need to feel loss because life's meaning comes in no small part from understanding the importance of what we no longer have. But we ease and transcend this difficult reality by acknowledging Bryn Mawr as a community, by enhancing our sense of human connectedness even as we recognize its limits.

But you are dressed alike today not just to mark your Bryn Mawr identity. We eject you from one community in order to welcome you to another – the ancient and venerable and in some sense immortal company of scholars. So now I know why at last I bought this robe: so as to mark my identity with you as part of this world of learning. These costumes represent the community you gain as the replacement, the consolation for the community you are losing. And for me, there is another meaning in wearing this gown of red and blue: it is an emblem of what I have lost and yet what I still have – my two degrees and 30 years at Penn. It seems somehow both ironic and yet entirely fitting that I should have worn this robe of Penn colors for the very first time at last spring's Harvard commencement. Not until I was losing Penn did I need thus ritually to affirm it.

I am a southern historian. I have spent my professional life studying that socially, culturally and morally complex region. Perhaps the most frequently quoted phrase in that field, a phrase that captures the essence of what so many of us are drawn to in southern history, comes from William Faulkner's novel, Requiem for a Nun . "The past," he wrote, "is never dead. It's never even past." In the case of the American South, that past has most often lived on as a burden – a weight of guilt and convention and prejudice. Our rituals this weekend affirm a different sort of link between present and past, but one no less powerful. Our robes, our procession, our language emphasize a continuity of community – across generations of Bryn Mawr graduates, across centuries of scholarly lives. We offer you this world as replacement, as alternative to the undergraduate world you leave today.

I have been for the past few minutes extolling ritual, and I have been admiring the appreciation of it you Bryn Mawr traditionalists have demonstrated in your enthusiasm for the celebrations of undergraduate life which culminate in this ceremony. Lantern Night is a ritual of welcome; Hell Week a ritual of initiation; May Day a ceremony of gendered solidarity with implications and symbols I shall forbear to explore. The meaning of the maypole? As they say: I don't even want to go there. But I have suggested that ritual's importance rests in its place in and out of time, in the way it enables us to take hold of time and shape it for our own purposes and meanings, to resist time's ultimately irresistible power. Perhaps part of what I am up to here is to demonstrate that my conversion to ritual is in fact not a departure from my sixties past, but instead its fulfillment. Ironically, I seem to have redefined it from a performance of conformity and convention – which led me to deplore it 30 years ago – into a significant gesture of resistance – a resistance that is less political than existential and ontological. Such unwitting intellectual sleight of hand may be precisely why we warned more than a quarter of a century ago that it was dangerous to trust anyone over 30.

Rituals empower you against the meaningless passage of life and time. But they are not the only weapon available in that struggle. Just as you all seem now to understand ritual far better than I did three decades ago, I think I perhaps understand another dimension of time's tyranny better than you yet do. And I'd like to say a few words about that before I close.

Last year, the Student Life Committee made "Social Life at Bryn Mawr" the subject of one of its meetings. A dozen or so trustees listened to a procession of students tell us that there was no time in their lives to do anything but work. The trustees in the group who are alumnae reacted particularly vehemently to these statements because I think we all saw ourselves in you. We had been exactly where these students were – not just overwhelmed with work, but overwhelmed with a sense of the sacredness of that work as our highest calling. Perhaps this is the burden of Bryn Mawr tradition. We have been trying to recover from these assumptions all our adult lives.

I remember Freshman Week, 1964, all of us dressed in the black academic robes we were required to purchase before we even arrived at Bryn Mawr, all of us filing into Goodhart for Freshman Convocation. And I will never forget Miss McBride up on the stage telling us to be humble in face of Our Work. I had not before realized that I had Work. I had thought I did assignments and took tests and wrote papers. But Miss McBride's address instilled in me a newfound reverence for learning and scholarship. My awe at being invited to play even a small part within that sacred and timeless world has never left me. It may, in fact, have been the origins of a career choice I made many years later. That veneration of one's work is in my mind the hallmark of the Bryn Mawr experience. It has shaped my life. But it is not without its costs. These assumptions about the sacredness of one's work fuel another manifestation of the tyranny of time. We are at risk of developing a frantic sense that we never have enough time to do all that our Bryn Mawr-enhanced ambitions and consciences and superegos say we must. And having transformed our work into a sacred calling, we are in danger of letting our work tyrannize us as well. We risk becoming victims and instruments of the expectation this devotion to work creates. If we do not resist the inevitability of these demands, if we do not determine that we will act in ways that bring meaning – friendship, love, family, beauty, art, spirituality –into our existence, we may live lives that dissolve into purposeless frenzy. "Balance" is the language pop psychologists use to describe what we must seek - as if we must forever teeter precariously between competing commitments. As if some external force – gravity, entropy – rather than we – were in charge. I prefer Freud's formulation: Lieben UND Arbeiten – love AND work – not a seesaw or teeter-totter between them but the positive embrace of both. For in this sense of affirmation I see choice, agency, the kind of self-conscious decision to take control of life's unfolding –and thus of time – that has been central to my concerns today.

So my message to you – what I wish I had understood better 33 years ago – is that time – that life – will just slip by if you don't struggle to prevent that. To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, "Time happens." Of course, time will surely pass – but it need not slip – with all the implications of inadvertence inherent in that word. You can create occasions to step briefly outside it in order to comment on it, to, in essence, notice your life. You can do this collectively, as we do this weekend with graduations' rituals. Noticing is what rituals are essentially about. But you can do this in a host of more individualized ways as well. Noticing your life, reflecting upon it, is perhaps the most valuable thing that a liberal arts education has equipped you to do. A liberal education demands that you live self-consciously. It requires you to seek and define the meaning inherent in all you do. It has made you an analyst and critic of yourself, a person in this way supremely equipped to take charge of your life and its passage. It is in this sense that the liberal arts are liberal – as in liberare – to free. They empower you with the possibility for agency, for imposing meaning, for making choice. It will be these moments, the occasions when you choose to take the trouble to articulate and affirm what matters, that will enable you to feel 33 years from now or 55 years from now that you have led – as Socrates advised – an examined life, and thus a purposeful one.

I wish for all of you the best of luck in all you undertake, and I hope that 33 years from now you feel that your Bryn Mawr education has served you as well as I know mine has. Congratulations.

 

   

 

 
     
 
 
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