As they sat on Sunday morning in the lovely, leafy dome of the Scott Amphitheater, 374 Swarthmore College students in the graduating class of 2017 were asked by speakers at the college’s 145th commencement to consider the connection among themselves, and with others in the larger world.
Anna Deveare Smith, playwright, actor and writer and recipient of an honorary Doctorate that day, used the words of Denise Dodson to issue a charge to the class. Ms. Dodson, an inmate whom Ms. Smith met while researching at a Maryland prison, recounted a younger life marked by poor decisions among limited possibilities. “I kinda gravitated to my environment versus reaching out past the environment.” As she developed awareness and empathy through college classwork in prison, Dodson felt her world expand. “I didn’t know how connected I really am to the person next door, down the street or whatever … to every living, breathing thing.”
Ms. Smith said: “The portrait of this prisoner could be the portrait of an advantaged college educated person … There are no walls between you and the rest of the world, unless you make those walls. You are free to carry love yourself. I hope you will.”
Swarthmore College President Dr. Valerie Smith considered the transformative, connective power of art as she experienced it recently in a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and at the spring concert of the Chester Children’s Chorus.
“Shakespeare’s plays endure because of their ability to capture the complexity of human emotion and the depth of the human spirit. His evocative language transcends cultural and linguistic differences … Likewise, the Chester Children’s Chorus shows us that through music, we can transcend our differences in ways that uplift us and cause our spirits to soar. In moments such as these, we glimpse the wondrous power of those who create, of those who perform, and of those who listen or watch, to come together in celebration of the human capacity to imagine and to feel the sheer joy and wonder of being alive.
The ability of arts and humanities to get at the essential characteristics, emotions and truths that connect all humans provides a powerful answer to the often-posed question “What is the value of a liberal arts education for its own sake?” Dr. Smith concluded. She bade farewell to the graduates with the confidence that “you leave here more able to harness your own creativity to invent, to discover and to express, in ways that enrich your own lives, your own communities and even the world.”
Doing the Impossible
Selected by her classmates to represent them in her remarks at commencement, Iris Chan ’17 acknowledged, then obliterated, the challenge: “Getting up and speaking to a large gathering of people is one type of impossible. Summing up our collective Swarthmore experiences is another kind of impossible. We’re all different … but when we look back at our time at Swarthmore, like looking from Parrish out to the train station, and, if we squeeze our eyes really tightly, we each come into view, our dusty, blurry, beautiful selves with our own distinctly self-made stories strolling toward the familiar. So even though each of our journeys at Swarthmore meandered through some version of impossible, we are possible. We are possible because we are here.” Her imagistic recollections that followed seemed to resonate throughout the amphitheater, burnishing and perhaps adding one last strand to the collection of memories that will ever connect the members of Class of ’17.
Two Swarthmore alumni also received honorary degrees and spoke. Documentarian and TV producer David Gelber ’63, began with a forecast: “It’s tempting for commencement speakers, robed as we are, to play the role of Old Testament prophet. I’m gonna go with it! Here’s my prophecy: the world is going to be a much tougher place for your generation than it was for mine.” Gelber focused on the imperative of addressing and reversing the carbon pollution that is already causing catastrophic climate change.
John Goldman ’71 imparted wisdom that may embolden the graduates to take on the harder challenges ahead: “So here are my two essential truths: life is uncomfortable, and life is rife with change. Yet, it is the wandering, unexpected journey that propels us forward, allows us to grow, makes us better human beings, and creates that awesome sense of fulfillment.”
And in his Baccalaureate address the preceding day, retiring Scheuer Family Professor of Humanities Michael Cothren considered Giotto and much more, communicating the passion for art and beauty that made him such a beloved and inspiring teacher of art in his 39 years at Swarthmore.