Remarks by President Debora Spar
Good afternoon—it is bordering on good evening. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you today, and to celebrate Barnard College’s Class of 2013
One is tempted—in this spectacular and historic space—to indulge in just the briefest, the smallest, hint of a high kick. But one will resist.
And turn instead to our standard stock in trade. The word. Pondered, written, and then spoken aloud before an assembled group of students.
You may not know this—indeed there is really no reason why you should know this—but the Class of 2013 has been particularly important to me.
Because I knew this class—knew many of you seated here today—before you even really became this class. I knew many of you, on paper at least, from the moment you began contemplating a possible place for Barnard in your future. I knew you as you became the first crop of Early Decision students who were admitted during my time at the College. Knew you as you applied in December, and were admitted in March, and agonized over your choices in April, and finally arrived—nervous, and excited, and clutching duvets and potted plants and rolls of neatly (or not so neatly) rolled socks—on the sidewalk of 116th Street and Broadway.
I knew your class as you sat in convocation on a hot Sunday evening in August—nervous and excited again—and met for the first time as the Class of 2013. I told you then that the next time I would see you all assembled as a full class would be on the day of your graduation, only four short years away. You didn’t quite believe me then, or at least you couldn’t quite ponder a future so fuzzy and so distant. But now we are here. And you are graduating. And I will miss you.
Today as I’m sure you know, is a moment of celebration. But it is also a time for reflection; for a bit of nostalgia; and for contemplating—with joy, or terror, or at least a healthy dose of adrenaline—what lies ahead.
It is this last part—this looking-into-the-future part from the perch of a single and singular day—that tends to dominate and define commencement addresses. Indeed, as nearly all media commentators tend to note around this time of year, commencement is a moment for old people to peer out at a sea of young people and give them advice they probably won’t remember about how to live their lives. Present company excepted. But personally, I generally try to stay away from the advice business at the moment of commencement. There’s too much pressure, and there is too much else on everyone’s minds.
But this year, particularly at a place like Barnard, it feels somewhat different. Because young women have been bombarded with advice this year. Some good, some not so good, most of it deeply contradictory.
Simultaneously, you have all been told to lean in, or lean out. To opt in, or opt out. To give in, give up, or go for everything—at least as long as that includes graduate school, followed by a high-powered and intellectually fulfilling job, a romantic and personally fulfilling relationship, hobbies, philanthropic work, friends, exercise, 2.5 children, and a dog.
It is, as I’m sure you know, a cacophony of choices. An exhaustion of expectations.
So what, then, to borrow Lenin’s phrase, is to be done?
One can approach this question—as one can approach all vital questions—from nearly any of the disciplines that stand represented before you here today. One can choose formulas for life, or at least metaphors or guideposts for life, from philosophy; from literature; from history; from biology; from neuroscience or psychology or religion or any of the disciplines you studied here.
But I’m going to give you instead my own short-hand guidepost, which comes from a rather unusual source. It comes from a children’s book by Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius.
The book tells the tale of Alice Rumphius, a girl who was born roughly, it appears, around the 1880s or 1890s. As a child, she passes time in her grandfather’s workshop, helping him fashion figureheads for the prows of ships, and painting the skies in the background of his landscapes. She becomes a librarian, “dusting books and keeping them from getting mixed up, and helping people find the ones they want.”
Then, when she turns what looks to be around 30 (with her auburn hair pulled into a bun and a muff to keep her hands warm), she sets off to see the world. She climbs tall mountains where the snow never melts, sees lions playing and kangaroos jumping. “And everywhere she met friends she would never forget.” In the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, though, she tumbles from a camel, hurts her back, and has to return home.
So she moves to a cottage by the sea, healing slowly with a cat by her side. And as she recuperates, Miss Rumphius takes a look at her life. “There is still one more thing I have to do,” she says. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.”
The next summer, when she can walk again, Miss Rumphius buys five bushels of wild flower seed; lupines, specifically, which are these very large, cone shaped pink and purple flowers that you see scattered across New England. And she scatters this seed around highways and lanes; “around the schoolhouse and back of the church.” Some people, the narrator recalls, “called her That Crazy Old Lady.”
By the next spring, there are lupines everywhere, and then more and more each year as Miss Rumphius grows to become “an old, old woman.” Now, the narrator reports, “they call her the Lupine Lady.”
It is only a child’s book, I know. Hardly the stuff to wave before the likes of Socrates, or Kierkegaard, or Maimonides. But Alice Rumphius, in a wholly unassuming way, lays out a plausible—and a beautiful—dream for women. To be free wholly free as little girls, building ships and painting imaginary worlds. To have careers and friends that make them happy. To see the world. And then, before they die, to do something to make that world more beautiful.
Each of you, I know, has already begun on this journey. You have built your ships and painted your horizons; learned from your grandparents and dusted off your books.
And now you are setting out to see the world. It is your turn to build careers and find new friends. To journey to the land of the Lotus Eaters and then, somewhere, in the farthest reaches of your mind, figure out how you, too, will come back home and make the world more beautiful.
At the very end of Miss Rumphius, the book’s author reveals her voice. She is “little Alice,” the great-niece, presumably, and namesake of Miss Rumphius. The original Alice is very old now; perhaps, her niece ruminates, “the oldest woman in the world.” But she has left behind a story, and a legacy. Which may, in the end, be the best we all can do.
Congratulations to the Barnard Class of 2013. I wish you luck, and love, and legacies galore.