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Commencement Archive

Commencement Address 1999

Jane Alexander, May 16, 1999

President Simmons, trustees, faculty, family, friends, and members of the graduating class of Smith College for the year 1999, I am very pleased to be with you today and to receive, with my distinguished colleagues, an honorary degree from this great institution. I cannot imagine four more outstanding women to be sharing the honor with.

Well, graduates, you did it! Here you are at last, at the culmination of four hard years of work and exploration, surrounded by friends and family, and about to leave this campus and the town of Northampton which has been your second home. Congratulations! You have been successful, even though the goal at times must have seemed distant and the path difficult and pitted with errors. Winston Churchill said, "Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." We can all taste your enthusiasm today as you are rewarded with a degree from one of the finest colleges in the world. Your success is real.

I am delighted to be the last Smith commencement speaker in this century and in this millennium. These annual speeches are the one place where older people like myself get to tell all you younger people how to live your lives from now on, what works and what doesn't and how when I was your age we did it better. Well, I'm not going to do that. I think you are well on your way to living your lives as you see fit; I believe you have been given a great education, and when I was your age we didn't do it better.

However, I am going to tell you how I believe you can save the world — just a short prescription for planetary health in the 21st century that involves you graduates. But I'll get to that shortly. First, since I am the last commencement speaker for this millennium, I feel it is incumbent upon me to briefly sum up the last 1,000 years.

The planet earth in the year 1000 A.D. was going through a lot of jockeying for territory: The Turks were taking over the Byzantine and Islamic empires, the Vikings were raiding the north from Ireland to Russia, the Christians were soon to embark on their holy wars, and the Far East had not yet been invaded by the Mongols. People were on the move and the move was pretty bloody. Skipping 500 years to 1500 A.D., there was still a lot of jockeying for territory. Spain and France and England and Portugal and the Netherlands were laying claim to lands all over the globe as fast as their explorers set foot on them. Native people were murdered or enslaved and it was all pretty bloody. Skipping another few hundred years to 1800 ... well, you know what I'm going to say. You 're the scholars, not me. You know your history.

This "goodly frame, the earth" has been pieced out and parceled up until there is not a lot left of her to discover and subdue. Yes, we still have wars, we still have violence, but the overriding issues now and for the future are going to be how we live with one another as we are now. Our world is finite; we are not.

"Oh brave new world that has such people in't!" exclaims Miranda in "The Tempest." It is a brave new world. The old rules don't apply; all the oceans have been crossed, the lands have been mapped, the mountains have been climbed. What was done in the name of possession is now done in the name of tourism—- for fun. The last frontier today, other than the distant reaches of the stars, is the human brain. It is our brains, not our brawn, that will move us forward.

I believe in the transcendent powers of science. Science has been good to us in the 20th century, giving us wings to take to the air, pills to quell the body's ills, images and sounds to delight the eye and ear, life in a petri dish, and Velcro —- so many things that they can't be counted coming at us so rapidly that we can hardly keep up. But watch how young children grasp the nature of new things, as if the circuits of their brains are channels longing to be filled; they have none of the informational overload I experience from decades of cramming. I remember watching amazed when my nephew, Daniel, at the age of three, mastered, unaided, the remote control and VCR, the subtleties of which still elude me. Our brains are patterned to receive intricacies and so I believe in the redemptive powers of science.

I also believe in art. The educator Ernest Boyer said that "the arts are one of humankind's most vital forms of language.... In most respects the human species is far less equipped than other creatures on the planet: we are no match for the lion in strength; we're outstripped by the ostrich in speed; we can't outswim the dolphin; we see less acutely than the hawk. And yet, as humans, we excel in the exquisite use of symbols which empowers us to outdistance all other forms of life in what we see and feel and know." These symbols have made all forms of communication possible, from simple hand gestures, which convey information and feelings, to the most intricate combinations, which gave us the computer and take us to the stars.

Art is a language we cannot quantify, and it has its own reasons for being. Some art is still unknowable in a world where we know so much and the frontiers of art keep moving. As Daniel Boorstin says, art "awakens us to our own possibilities." If religion teaches us that love is all-encompassing, art teaches us that anything is possible, and science shows us how to get there.

I spent four years trying to get a bunch of troglodytes in Congress to understand that cutting the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was like cutting out the best part of our brains. Rather than invest in a future of possibilities for young people, such as arts programs after school nationwide, they decided to build more prisons. Rather than celebrate the millennium through the arts, sciences and humanities, they are devoting billions to a new version of star wars. Over and over again I felt their priorities were all wrong. One man said to me, "My god, we don't want any more artists in the world, we have too many already!" That's like saying we have too much imagination and beauty running amok in the world — let's get rid of it!

I have felt for some time now that women should be running the world. I have observed group behavior for the better part of 45 years and watched women grow in leadership positions and management. I was there at the beginning of the feminist movement in the late '60s and '70s and have seen how far we've come in juggling our complex lives. I don't know if "women are from Venus and men are from Mars," though I do know that Carol Gilligan [an honorary degree recipient at the commencement exercises] has written brilliantly on the differences between men and women. I just believe that women are better suited at this time in our planetary history to run the world. This takes nothing away from men—many of my closest friends are men and I adore my husband unabashedly—it's just that they are using old operating systems in this brave new world, and their testosterone is showing. Women at least are not dragging the baggage of territorial obsession behind them, nor the cultural history of weaponry. When was the last time you heard of a marauding band of girls sweeping a village or a school with semi-automatic guns?

All well and good you say, but how to go about it? By increments, not by coup or fiat, even if that were possible. And not by dropping out of the system. Back in the '60s many of us hoped to make changes; we were dedicated to new ways of living with each other, from civil rights to an end of violence to mind expansion. Well, we may have changed ourselves to some small degree but we didn't change the system.

Right now women represent only about 10 percent of our federally elected officials but more than 50 percent of the population. We need equal representation in places where vital decisions are made, and that is at the very top, in government and in the corporate boardrooms. We're lucky, we live in a democracy. We can vote, we can get ourselves elected, we can get on school boards and PTAs, we can start businesses, we can find a way.

But you can't seize the day if you sit on the sidelines. You have to believe that it all matters: that it matters that the population of the world will reach 6 billion shortly, 20 years ahead of schedule, and that the repercussions of that are mind-boggling. That it matters that our kids are dying from bullets or abandonment or lack of opportunity. That it matters that huge corporations are dictating what we do, what we wear, what we eat, where we go, sometimes to our detriment and the detriment of our planet. That everything matters, from the frown on your friend's face to the fence put up by your neighbor. That the happiness of the world is based on one-to-one relationships and not on statistics or polls.

First and foremost you have to believe that you matter, that your voice will make a difference. You do and it does. Not all of you will want to be out front and active, and for those of you who will be mothers, I cannot think of anything more important than being there for your children when they are little. The wonderful thing about being a woman today is that there are no stigmas attached to what you choose to be. It is all possible.

In 1840 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott began working to change the inequality they felt; 80 years later, in 1920, women finally won the right to vote in this country. Now, another 80 years later, in the year 2000, it is time for women to move into decision-making positions of the world, or at least actively work towards that goal, because it will probably take another 80 years to achieve. I ask you to make equal representation in the halls of Congress, in local and state legislatures and on the boards of our corporations a reality.

Smith women have a long history of giving to the communities they are in and working for causes in which they believe. My prescription for saving the world is for you, the finest young women in America today, to be running it. This brave new world is in good hands. God bless and godspeed.