MIDDLEBURY — Unseasonably bad wind and rain on Sunday drove the Middlebury College commencement ceremony indoors for the first time in 21 years. The 557 graduates of the class of 2013 gathered in a packed Nelson Recreation Center to receive their diplomas, in a ceremony that was in turns funny, thought-provoking and emotionally moving.
Overflow spaces around campus live-streamed the ceremony for friends and relatives whom the Nelson space — which could seat only 1,800 of the anticipated 5,000 commencement visitors — could not accommodate.
Author Jonathan Safran Foer, whose bestselling novel “Everything Is Illuminated” was the Class of 2013’s assigned summer reading their freshman year, delivered the commencement address. In his speech, Safran Foer made a compelling case that the emotional depth of most people’s lived experience is lessened by their reliance on technology to facilitate conversations, connections and memory.
Safran Foer — after directing some of his famed wit at Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, to the delight of many students in the audience — began his speech by recalling his failed attempt to remember his own college commencement speech.
“Among the many things I am unable to remember about the speaker that spring morning: name, gender, age, race, physical build and voice,” he joked.
But Safran Foer, 36, assured members of the class of 2013 that they would remember his speech. That was not, he quickly added, because he was being particularly brilliant, but because his words and the event itself would be immortalized online, able to be accessed at any moment, well into the future.
“You won’t remember these words because you won’t need to,” he said. “Because everything will be remembered for you. In that way, all that ever happened will be at your fingertips.”
But having that wealth of information at your fingertips, he argued, runs the risk that many of the things that could happen in one’s life do not happen at all. People are simply too distracted, too disinclined to start a conversation or hear a story or make themselves vulnerable, to engage in the kinds of experiences that make life worth remembering.
“Technology celebrates connectedness, but it encourages retreat,” Safran Foer said.
He encouraged the young men and women in front of him to respond to others in need and to tackle the difficult emotional and moral work of connecting to others, even as it becomes increasingly easier to avoid.
“I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts,” he explained. “It’s not an either-or, but a question of balance that our lives, alone or together, depend on. One day, nanomachines will detect weaknesses in our hearts long before any symptoms would bring us to a doctor and other nanomachines will repair our hearts without us feeling any pain, losing any time or spending any money. But it will only feel like a miracle if we are still capable of feeling miracles. Which is to say, if our hearts are worth saving.”
Earlier in the ceremony, student speaker Bronwyn Oatley had invoked a George Bernard Shaw quote that said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Oatley praised her Middlebury classmates for being unreasonable people, pushing boundaries in their studies, their careers, and not the least, by challenging American social conventions.
“Though as a reporter (for the student newspaper) I’ve been inspired by the visible achievements of this class, as a student I have been perhaps more profoundly humbled, motivated and challenged by the less visible achievements and struggles of those students that sit to your left and right,” Oatley said.
Oatley shared her story of coming out as queer on campus and, later, to her family. She pointed to her many peers who struggled with identity issues, personal loss and mental illness while on campus and noted that Middlebury College was, for the most part, an environment free from the judgment and social pressure that may have been cast on those individuals in other communities.
“Though each on a different path, after we cross this stage, we will all move out of this community and into a world, heavy with ego, fear and social pressure. But graduates — we have been trained well,” Oakley said.
The first two diplomas of the ceremony were presented to valedictorian Dana Goodwin Callahan, a neuroscience major from Essex, Conn., and salutatorian Jordan Lynn Ricigliano (in absentia), a sociology/anthropology major and environmental studies minor from Outlook, Wash.
Safran Foer received an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree. Four other distinguished men and women also received honorary degrees including: internationally celebrated artist and photographer Edward Burtynsky received an honorary Doctor of Arts Degree; Megan Camp, vice president and program director at Shelburne Farms, received a Doctor of Letters Degree; Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the nonprofit global venture fund Acumen, received a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree; and Middlebury alumnus Stuart Schwartz ’62, the George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale, received a Doctor of Letters Degree.