F&M Stories

President Daniel R. Porterfield's Remarks

F&M Commencement 2016 Remarks: President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.

Learning is Freedom

2016 Commencement Address

Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.

President

Franklin & Marshall College

May 7, 2016

Thank you, Dr. Bonchek, for that gracious welcome, and to all members of the Board of Trustees here today.

Please join me in thanking all of the colleagues and students who have worked so hard and generously to create the series of Commencement events and the wonderful use of space that culminates today with this magnificent ceremony.

We're grateful to our distinguished honorary degree recipients, each one a leader, a creator, and a voice for a better world.

Mayor Rick Gray and Ms. Gail Gray, who blend artistry, community, public lives, and private love in ways that have advanced our great city of Lancaster.

Nilaja Sun Gordon '96, an actress and playwright who is a keen observer of humanity, endowed with devastating talent, an author of award-winning one-woman plays that contain multitudes.

And our speaker, Governor Tom Wolf, a gentleman and a scholar, an elected official who I'm truly proud to present today as a role model for the young. He tells the truth and lives the truth, serves the many and not the few, and--with his wife and our alumna First Lady Frances Wolf '96--is thoughtful and fair. He's a voice of conscience in the halls of power who works to extend opportunity to all.

We are blessed to be stewards of a college founded at the birth of the Republic thanks to financial gifts from Benjamin Franklin and other framers of democratic freedom.

Each subsequent generation of students, educators, and alums has sustained but also changed F&M, for the needs of the students and the world--from the creation of the Geology program to the creation of the College House system, from going co-ed to going green, love makes space for growth, and life is change.

In the years that the Class of 2016 has studied here, the great strategic gesture of change has been the development of a Talent Strategy that has captured the eyes of the country. You, the Class of 2016, are that talent--and like each generation of graduates, you will grow and make impacts in this world and, we hope, come back and see the rising trajectory of your lives reflected in the parallel rise of your alma mater.

There are many ways to give back and many reasons to do so. So many of the resources from which you have benefitted--like a national faculty of scholars--exists because those who came into their maturity here before you believed this college must sustain an ecosystem that cultivates the greatness in every Diplomat.

Today, at your Commencement, I would like to draw your attention to one distinguished alumnus whose community you now join--Ben Winter '67, and his wife Susan Winter.

They believe in the College, they believe in the young, they believe in creativity, and they believe in liberal arts education.

Not long ago, Mr. and Mrs. Winter walked the beautiful grounds behind Shad-Fack, with the green lawns and the stately trees and the rare views of Old Main and Buchanan Park. They thought about the power of student creativity, and of great architecture to lift the mind and call forth visions for the future.

Mr. and Mrs. Winter asked us to envision with them a beautiful new home for the making and study of art--a new space of light and learning, shaped by the landscape and placement of our trees, not closing up our creativity but instead unleashing and proclaiming it.

And so I am proud and pleased to tell you that Mr. and Mrs. Winter joined us today so that I could tell you that--to allow us to create a once-in-a-generation visual arts building that will be itself a work of art--they are making a donation of $10 million.

This gift is about our future, and Commencement is, too.

Families, when I look at your impressive children, I see forward, to a future we cannot know but which they'll create with their minds and ways and words.

Families, you see forward, too—but you also see backward:

You see in each of today's graduates that angelic newborn, little as a loaf of bread…

You see that impish toddler flicking peas to the floor from her high chair, teasing you, knowing exactly what she's doing…

You see the sleeping child, dreaming in the glow of a nightlight, so trusting, with little pre-school clothes laid out on a chair…

And you see the brave adventurer peering over the handles of a bicycle, or for the first time finding magic in a book…

And now each of your children has grown into this moment of black-robed brilliance..

Families, you gave them love and life, taught them right, guided them through change, and empowered them with education.

Graduates, please stand, face this crowd, and give the loudest thanks you've got to all those who are here today, or here in spirit, whose love has been your launching pad.

Some memories are like divining rods, pulling us toward meaning. One that drives me forward comes from my junior year at Georgetown in May of 1982.

I was walking the campus with the eminent Jesuit Timothy Healy, my English professor who also happened to be the University's president.

Students lounged on the lawn in the springtime dusk, reading and trading stories. It was a quintessential college scene, except that we encountered, extending from the majestic Healy Hall, an unsightly temporary platform made of poles and planks and ramps.

The Commencement stage, I realized, was now being built. It was a sign of doom for my friends who were seniors. Hoping to draw out some of Fr. Healy's legendary wisdom, I remarked, "It looks like a gallows…."

"You're right," he replied, with a wrinkled wince, about to correct me. "But we need Commencement. It's proof that something actually happens around here."

For years, I've wondered just what my mentor meant, because Fr. Healy devoted his life's work to creating the conditions on a college campus where the young and old could kindle fires together neither could spark alone.

What did he mean--we need "proof that something actually happens around here?"

Now that I'm older, I think I get it.

First, I think he was saying that the sense of finality is not a loss but rather is one of Commencement's great gifts, forcing us to take stock in our growth. In each ending, we see our beginnings, we sense our journeys, and know ourselves anew.

In other words, if we didn't have the ending act of Commencement--bittersweet, yes--we might take for granted all that has actually transpired and all the ways we made meaning in these years.

And so, Commencement allows us to celebrate the moments that truly matter.

We celebrate your papers and theses and independent studies--those first foundational courses, your dive into depth with the major, the mentoring of professors, the running conversations and debates, your curiosity and catalyzing minds.

We celebrate learning outside of class—in the field or on the field, in Central Market or Central Asia, on stage or at work.

We celebrate the times you crossed borders, crossed disciplines, and crossed boundaries, binaries, and belief systems.

We celebrate the times and ways you lived in truth—stepping up, making up, owning up—those personal moments of integrity—whether getting help or giving back, going first or holding back, reaching out or coming out.

We celebrate extending hands across the scary divides of difference with a gesture that says, "I see you. I hear you. I want to understand."

We celebrate those here who've transformed trauma and pain into new triumphs of the self.

We celebrate those who've made art, played a part, and built skills with practice, undaunted by imperfection.

We celebrate your long years scaling mountains toward this degree—and all the times you took the hard path, the strivers' route—and we celebrate the loved ones who carried you on their backs at least half way up that slope and whose lives and sacrifices you honor with today's walk across the stage.

We celebrate your origins.

62 of you are international students.

71 of you are the first in your families to go to college.

There's more, but the point is that each of you has created for yourselves the love and learning that matter most. The end of your college journey lets us discern the varieties of each person's path.

And that brings me to the second reason, I now grasp, why my mentor Tim Healy didn't like it very much when I compared this platform to the gallows.

You see, when I was your age, I was so fulfilled in my education and felt so alive in the community life of the campus, all the friends just a minute away, the unlimited speakers, faculty with mind-shaping powers of explication, all new causes and issues and urgencies.

I will confess: I actually felt more dread than opportunity about the prospect of finishing college. When could I have ever again have so much richness in my life?

There was always time for one more discussion. There was always room for one more project. There was always another night for one more fantastic gathering of friends.

And then there wasn't time.

That night, I think Fr. Healy was telling me that the end of college is the only way to live the deepest aims of college, which is not to stay here but to leave with honed qualities of mind that will allow us for all our lives to make free choices and live freely.

The real point of education is that learning, continuing to grow, gives us freedom.

By learning, we push through static states of being and allow ourselves to change. By learning, we tap capacities of our mind and spirit, whose exercise is like a mirror, showing us different dimensions of ourselves.

Because when we learn, we assert that we are more than our circumstances. More than a job that we hold, more than a society into which we were born, more--even--than our biology and our mortality.

Learning is freedom. We cannot be our most fully human or make our most true choices in an ever-changing world if we are not perpetually learning. And that is why we have to embrace this moment of closure -- so that, true to the liberal arts education that we each pursued, we can live by learning and experience freedoms for tomorrow this place can't give us but has readied us to create.

If you believe in learning, then you believe in this F&M tradition of the liberal arts. I ask you, the graduates of the Class of 2016, to value your liberal arts education, to advocate for it, to defend it, to help it change, and to secure this way of learning for those who will follow you.

Your F&M education will always be a part of you and it will grow within you as you change. Everything you made and loved here stays with you where you venture next. And when you come back to home base, to F&M, changed in ways neither you nor we can imagine today, our arms will be open, and we will be proud.

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