America strengthens in crisis, speaker tells Middlebury College class of 2017

MIDDLEBURY — “You know what history feels like,” Middlebury College commencement speaker Jon Meacham told the assembled crowd of Middlebury College seniors at Sunday’s commencement ceremony.

Deftly situating the members of the class of 2017, he said they had experienced the terror of Sept. 11 just before entering grade school, the election of the nation’s first African American president when in middle school, and the election of “the most unconventional major-party candidate in American history” in their final year as undergraduates.

“We are together at a remarkable and in many ways troubling moment for the republic that came into being in Philadelphia nearly 250 summers ago,” said Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, renowned historian of American presidents, former Newsweek editor-in-chief and much-called upon political commentator.

Yet this nation has faced crisis before, Meacham reminded his audience, and has emerged stronger, better, truer to its ideals.

“What is remarkable about America is her durability and adaptability amid the perpetual crises and vicissitudes of history,” said Meacham.

The “genius” of America’s founding, he continued, “lay in no small part in the recognition that the republic was as susceptible to human passions as human beings themselves.

“The founders expected seasons of anger and frustration. They anticipated hours of unhappiness and unrest. The country was thus constructed with an awareness of sin and a determination to protect the larger republican enterprise from the furies of the moment.”

History offers wise counsel, he proffered the soon-to-be graduates just moments from stepping out of school and into life, work, and leadership.

To illustrate the nation’s resilience, he first turned to a moment in 1786-1787 when George Washington declared the nation “fast verging to anarchy and confusion.” Farmers were rebelling in Massachusetts. Public buildings were being burnt. Virginians were challenging taxes. There was even talk of restoring the monarchy.

Yet the young nation didn’t self-destruct. Instead, it drafted and signed the Constitution.

Meacham drew on other historical examples, such as the Civil Rights Movement in which America was “redeemed by the courage and blood of African-Americans ... who braved humiliation and death to force white America to face up to (its) sins and shortcomings.”

To know our nation’s history, Meacham said, “is to be armed against despair. For if the men and women of the past — with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites — could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and leave the world ... a better place.”

One of the most divisive forces in today’s climate, he said, is “passionate partisanship.”

Meacham did not directly address the partisanship that has for months held the Middlebury campus pincered in the national spotlight: the March 2 protest that shut down a speech by controversial right wing pundit Charles Murray and sent a political science professor to the emergency room for a concussion. Yet even on this calm day, with thousands of family and friends blanketing the grassy lawn and a sunny sky despite the white frosting of clouds overhead, a sprinkling of mortarboards proclaimed: “Speech=Resistance,” “Disruption=Resilience,” “Protest is resilient” and other slogans.

To be partisan, to be tribal even, is to be human, Meacham admitted forthrightly. So what is important is to avoid “reflexive” partisanship and instead be “reflective.”

Use reason, he urged his listeners.

“Make up your mind based on facts and evidence.”

Be open to being wrong.

“There is no shame in this. The shame only comes when we take refuge in unjustified certitude rather than fearless openness of mind and soul.”

Meacham also offered a few pointers on how to live a happy and successful life in general:

•  “Be curious, be gracious, be hopeful.”

•  “Love your neighbor.”

•  Enjoy naps in the summer sun.

•  Read good books.

•  Vote.

•  Sing the national anthem from your heart.

•  Write thank you notes “on actual paper.”

Above all, he said, “A life well lived is judged not by the bottom line but by the big picture. You are about to make history, and the rest of us can’t wait to see what you do with your hour upon the stage. Godspeed.”

CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS

A similar theme of how to best step into history at a time of national turbulence was sounded by student commencement speaker Jackson Adams, an economics major from Towson, Md.

Adams gave a stirring description from the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Soviet submarine B-59 was just seconds away from launching humanity into “all-out nuclear war.”

   SENIOR JACKSON ADAMS was the student speaker at Middlebury College’s commencement Sunday.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Nuclear war was averted, said Adams, when the lone dissenter, Soviet Fleet Commander Vasilli Arkhipov, faced “down an irate captain, (and) coolly insist(ed) they surface and surrender.”

Adams observed: “I think about this story all the time. What gets me is that Arkhipov, the person who saved the world, wasn’t some sort of stoic demigod. He wrote later that, at the time, he had been gripped with fear. But he saw an opportunity to prevent needless human suffering, and he did not succumb to the hysteria of the moment. Ultimately, he did what was right.”

Continued Adams: “Greatness requires accepting fear and doubt and isolation, and making the right decision anyway.”

Adams acknowledged that the seeming dearth of goodness in today’s leaders “can be depressing at times.”

But what’s important, he insisted, is for ordinary people to do what’s right in their day-to-day spheres of influence.

Adams gave an example from his spring break volunteer trip to Baltimore of a grade school principal facing budget restriction, yet balancing the budget so as to keep her teaching staff intact.

“That, to me, is greatness,” offered Adams. “Doing what’s right when times are tough.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.


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