Senior Class Address by Gretchen Elizabeth Roeck, '05
Stopping the Wagon
For the past four years I have started off my mornings by reading a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.
In one of my favorite cartoons, Calvin and Hobbes are in their wagon, flying down a hill and, of course, having an extremely intellectual conversation. Calvin is discussing the advantages to ignorance. "Once you know things" he explains, "You start seeing problems everywhere, and once you see problems, you feel like you ought to try to fix them, and fixing problems always seems to require personal change, and change means doing things that aren't fun! ... But," he continues, "if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like! The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest."
The cartoon ends with Hobbes crying out that they're headed for a cliff and Calvin covering his eyes screaming that he doesn't want to know about it.
In many ways we are like Calvin and Hobbes -- we too are heading down a hill.
In one sense, we are leaving this place, this "fair college on a hill", and entering into the real world. For the past few months we have been filling out job and grad school applications, looking into new places to live next year, or actively denying the future altogether.
During our four years here I think that most of us can say we've experienced both good and bad times, survived challenging courses and rough weeks of finals. We've developed lasting relationships and found our place on different sports teams, and in clubs and organizations. We've discovered our strengths and our weaknesses. In sum, we now have a better idea of who we are and what we believe in.
We have also, perhaps most importantly, developed the ability to critically think about and analyze the world we live in. While most of us may not be prepared for specific jobs or have definitive career paths, we have something more important. We own the ability to see and interpret situations clearly and effectively, to unmask allusions and witness reality, however dark or unpleasant it may be.
In our witness of reality we find ourselves in another wagon, headed down another hill. Though this time, the hill is much steeper and we're moving much faster. The proverbial hill I am referring to is the future of our world community, and I fear that we are about to fall off of a cliff.
We have learned in our economics, sociology, education, geology, environmental studies, biology, and political science classes among others, that about 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes, and that three-fourths of the deaths are children under the age of five. (United Nations). We know that our delicate ecosystems are collapsing and animal species are disappearing. We know the laws of economics and know that some people will always be left out or left behind. We know that nearly 35 million Americans live in food insecure households. (Tufts University) And that about 40 percent of the households needing food assistance are working families. (Second Harvest) We know that our cities are segregated and that race too often coincides with poverty. In short, we know that there are people in this world that are suffering, and that their suffering is unjust. As recipients of a liberal arts education we have been given the responsibility to respond to their suffering and to stand up for their humanity.
As Joachim Prinz, who had been a Rabbi in Berlin during the Holocaust, told Civil Rights marchers in Washington in 1963:
"The most important thing I learned in my life and under tragic circumstances is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The urgent most disgraceful and most shameful problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers".
Now, I know what you're thinking - "this is supposed to be a commencement speech, this is supposed to be a happy day. We've survived four years and we're graduating. Why is this woman preaching doom and gloom?"
Well, my message is actually hopeful - because I believe that we have not only a responsibility, but we also have the capacity to tackle these difficult and complex issues. Although we are like Calvin and Hobbes, heading down a hill, we are unlike that infamous pair because we can remove our hands from our eyes - we can stop the wagon from going over the cliff. We have been given the gift of knowledge, and whether we go into business, government, education, service work or continue our education, we are obligated to share that gift with others. I believe that this class of graduates will use their knowledge and their gifts to serve and to stand up for justice. I look forward to hearing about your successes. Thank you.