WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who has made a career of studying and teaching about American history.
On Sunday morning, he gave the graduating seniors at Williams College the short course, and a lot of it was pretty bleak.
“We’re living in American democracy’s hour of maximum danger,” Meacham told the graduates and friends gathered on the college’s library quad. “That is not hyperbole. It is an age of declining trust and growing extremism, of spreading lies and an erosion of truth and a primacy of brute power and a deadly dearth of compassion and of neighborliness.
“You’re graduating into a country in great peril. We do ourselves no favors in pretending that it is different.”
The good news, Meacham said, is that the United States has proven in the past that it can overcome dark hours. And he said that Williams has prepared the Class of 2022 for the life of “entrepreneurial citizenship” that they will need to live to help democracy survive.
“Entrepreneurial citizenship is about a devotion to justice, to the pursuit of happiness – not only for yourself but for your friends, your families and your neighbors near and far, known and unknown,” Meacham said.
“Without understanding that we have to see each other as neighbors, democracy doesn’t work. And you don’t have to love your neighbor. You should. If everybody loved their neighbor, we wouldn’t have to have a commandment about it. But we do have to respect our neighbors, because that guarantees our own rights. Respecting someone else’s right is the fundamental covenant of democracy.”
But most of the graduates moving into the next phase of their lives on Sunday afternoon do so in a country where the Capitol was stormed, decades of precedent protecting a woman’s privacy and bodily autonomy are on the verge of being overturned, and “many choose to support the indiscriminate weapons of war within a civilian population, enabling the massacre of the innocent in our schools and in our stores.”
Meacham said that, to some extent, the failings of American society are the result of a system that is “the sum of its parts.”
“We are its parts,” he said. “The sinful and the selfish, the self-satisfied. That’s us. And democracy is the fullest manifestation of our own aspirations and appetites.”
He challenged the Williams grads to move beyond those selfish aspirations.
“Democracy only succeeds when we choose – and it is a choice – to give as well as to take,” Meacham said. “And the story of humankind from Eden forward is that we would rather take than give.
“Democracy then, is forever vulnerable. But it’s also, therefore, forever possible, if we heed the lessons of conscience and history. And I think those lessons are these: From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, we have moved the world closer to liberty and away from tyranny. And the future belongs to the people in power and far from it who insist on giving all of us what Lincoln called, ‘an open field and a fair chance.’ “
Meacham Sunday shared the podium with three members of the college’s Class of ‘22.
Like the day’s principal speaker, Valedictorian Filip Marcin Niewinski emphasized the importance of kindness in a civil society.
“I was always shown kindness and patience,” the international student from Ruda Slaska, Poland, said of his time at the college. “I was always given a chance to grow and, importantly, I was given the trust to take risks. That, to me, is truly humbling. I was extended the grace and resources to develop my own strengths and discover my own limitations.
“Remember that our success is born of both hard work and opportunity. Hard work comes from the individual. But opportunity stems from external factors that we can’t always control. Extend to others the kindness that was extended to a nervous Polish student.”
Among the graduates at Sunday’s ceremony were several from around the area: Lanesborough’s Jesse Cohen and Williamstown’s Mae Burris-Wells, Jason Meintjes, Lara Lee Meintjes and Noah Savage.
Sunday’s 233rd commencement exercises at the college marked a return to the library quad after no ceremony in June 2020 and the college’s use of the higher capacity – and greater social distancing – at its football field last spring.
But the COVID-19 pandemic crept into the event in a couple of ways – and not just in the choice by some attendees to wear face coverings.
Those wearing caps and gowns included not just graduates but also members of Williams’ “Class of 22.5,” the students who took started their studies in the fall of 2018, took some time off due the pandemic but still wanted to participate in commencement exercises with their classmates. Several of the graduates watched the proceedings not from seats on the lawn but from the balcony of nearby Sawyer Library because they currently are in COVID protocols. And President Maud Mandel began the day with a moment of silence for those lost due to the novel coronavirus.
Later on, Mandel also got the biggest laugh of the commencement.
After reading a citation for Biddy Martin, who, along with Meacham, received an honorary doctorate, Mandel talked about the close relationship she forged in the last couple of years with Martin, a peer who has faced similar challenges as the president of Amherst College.
Then, Mandel gave a brief synopsis of the story of Amherst’s origin and the feud with Williams over the legend that a “rogue Williams president” stole 650 books from the school’s library and went east to start another school.
“Now, Biddy is an honorary Eph, who has joined our community,” Mandel said. “And, as such, it seems only appropriate that we issue a formal pardon, which we have.”
Mandel then produced a document absolving the Pioneer Valley institution.
“We put some hard-thinking minds to work and calculated just how much money we are owed by Amherst in library fees,” Mandel said. “We simply are asking for $39,058,890.
“Just in case that’s not in the cards, we will give you this official pardon to take back with you instead.”
Photos from this event here.
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