I want now to speak to you, members of the Class of 1998. This is the last time I can address you as Oberlin students. In a few minutes you will receive your degrees and leave this campus to face all of the many joys and challenges that your adult life will bring.
The Class of 1998 will always be special to me. We came to Oberlin together, so it is with special poignance that I will hand you your diplomas today. We chose Oberlin together. We arrived at Oberlin together. We settled in together. And now you are graduating, and I am not!
As I was thinking about what I would say to you today, I found myself remembering a meeting with one of you here in the audience today, who came to see me not long after our arrival here in the fall of 1994. She told me that she was very disappointed in Oberlin, and sorry that she had chosen to come to this little town with the flat landscape where it rains all the time. And then she said this: "I came to Oberlin because I thought this college was supposed to be some kind of utopia. But it's not." Now the Board of Trustees and the faculty had already clued me in to the fact that Oberlin was most certainly not a utopia, so nothing in this student's pronouncement came as a shock to me. But the idea that Oberlin is or should be "some kind of utopia" is powerful and persistent. It is an idea that affects all of us who find our way here, so for this reason alone, it deserves some attention.
All of us who come to Oberlin learn sooner or later, in one way or another, that this College is not a utopia. Nor has it ever been. Although this knowledge causes each of us some disappointment and disillusionment, I think that on balance we should all be pleased by the knowledge that this place is not perfect. All the utopias known to human beings are works of the imagination, and as far as I can tell the best of these places are boring, the worst of them are totalitarian, and there are no fictional or theoretical utopias that fall in between. So when we can recognize and appreciate the fact that Oberlin is not a utopia, we begin to learn something important. If there is anything that a liberal education teaches us, it is that there are no actual utopias, no perfect human beings, no infallible human institutions, no ideal, conflict-free communities.
And besides, if Oberlin were a utopia, there would not really be much point to it. Utopias, by definition, are places where everything complicated and difficult has somehow been worked out. (This, I fear, is what makes them either totalitarian or boring.) Oberlin is not a haven from everything complicated and difficult, but rather, at its best, is a place of ferment and experimentation. The point about Oberlin is not that it is a place where everything has been resolved and decided, but rather that it has always been a center for confronting and trying to work through any and all of the social and political dilemmas animating American society.
Oberlin has never found the definitive prescription for every social and political ill. Or even for any social or political ill. Oberlin has no special claim to wisdom or virtue. Neither does any of us. This is something else that a good liberal education teaches us. But Oberlin has always been committed to finding ways that just might move this society--and itself--in directions that are more generous and humane. Now a liberal education in and of itself does not automatically make a person more humane and generous. But it does give us the intellectual foundation for thinking and acting in ways far more humane and generous than we might otherwise have done, left to our own untutored devices. And it gives us the foundation for appreciating the ironies and perplexities of our own lives, and the lives of people other than ourselves.
And Oberlin, this College and this little town here in the middle of America, has always believed in the possibility of constructive social change. One of the best things about this College is that generation after generation of students for more than 167 years have come here because they are passionately committed to changing this society for the better. Oberlin's genius has always been bound up in the belief that people can change themselves and the world they live in. In fact, the whole concept of human agency--the idea that individual men and women can make their own history, change their own circumstances, and change the society they live in for the better--is a concept that is directly linked with Oberlin's history. Oberlin has been important in making the belief in individual human agency central to American religious, political, and popular culture.
Now there has always been something of a downside to Oberlin's faith in human agency. Sometimes it leads to drastic remedies and eccentric, unworkable enthusiasms. The history of the College is full of them. Take, for example, the Graham diet. For a brief few months sometime in the 1840s, Oberlin was the only College on the planet goofy enough to make its students subsist entirely on a diet of Graham crackers and water. (And if you think you don't like Graham crackers now, let me tell you that the original, unimproved 1840s Graham crackers were really terrible!). The faculty came to this policy decision because they were utterly convinced by one Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham cracker, that eating only Graham crackers and drinking only water made you a better person.
Those of you who have spent four years at Oberlin complaining about the food should be immensely cheered by the fact that we no longer serve the Graham diet. You can guess how well students took to eating all those Graham crackers. And you will believe me when I tell you that because Oberlin has always been immediately responsive to student opinion, the College quickly heeded the piteous petitions of students who complained that they were not getting enough to eat.
The moral of this story about Graham crackers is that there will always be people like Sylvester Graham who are absolutely sure that they have just the right diet or nostrum or panacea or social theory or political philosophy to put people on the path to a perfect social order. A good liberal education should inoculate us against the tendency to be absolutely sure that we, or others, are right. It should give us the courage to question, to be critical, and to be tentative. It should also serve to remind us that the unhappiest times in human history have been when people were absolutely sure of themselves.
There is another downside to Oberlin's faith in the power of human agency. The idea that one person can change the world sounds great. It also sounds easy. But in fact, as many of you have learned at Oberlin, real change is always slow and hard. It always takes longer than you think it should. It always takes more work than you think it will. It is easy to get frustrated and discouraged, as I have seen some of you do. Sometimes the slowness of making change will get you down. But don't let it make you cynical. Cynicism is a terrible--in fact, perhaps the worst--enemy of positive change. Throughout your lives, you will use your learning and your music and your art to make change. And you will take part in changing knowledge and art and music, too.
Here is a related point. Contrary, I fear, to our slogan about one person changing the world, you always need more than one person to do anything. The idea that one person can change the world for the better sounds appealing, but when you think about it, the prospect also sounds lonely and isolated. If there is anything I have learned in my first four years at Oberlin, it is that everything good and productive happens in relationship. We learn together, and we can change the world, or our little piece of the world, together.
We send you off today already knowing a lot about your future. We know that you, like the many generations of Oberlin alumni before you, will use your learning and your artistry to advance science, to create new knowledge, to make great music, and to create new art. We know that you will be leaders in your chosen professions and communities. And we know that whatever you do, Oberlin has prepared you to learn whatever you need to learn for the rest of your lives. If Oberlin has touched you in the ways I hope it has, you will also use your learning and artistry to help far-from-perfect human beings to do a little bit better in the work of getting along, understanding one another, living together, being kind to one another--in other words, you will use your knowledge and your art to help us along in the business of learning to be more generous and humane.