The 2021 Baccalaureate Speech

A wise person once told me that “visions are led with questions and agendas with statements.”  As we have gathered here to honor achievements of all kinds at Vermont Academy, I want to explore with you for a moment the power of questions. 

Questions open us out to possibilities, and they elevate us often to a higher plane of consciousness, knowing, and exploration as we get outside of ourselves to think with others and then to return to ourselves to consider the implications of our thoughtful discussions. What will this mean for me? How will this affect my life, my choices, my personal conduct? Questions and discussion on philosophical, ethical, and moral levels truly elevate us individually and as a community. 

Questions in high school bridge the personal, from identity to a sense of purpose and collective and individual action and agency.

For example, you might ask in high school:
  • How much should I worry about what others think?
  • What am I doing to invest in my relationships?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What nice thing can I do for someone else today?
  • How can I be kind? 
But there are also questions like the following that move you, in high school, or even earlier, to deeper levels of truth, reality, and the human need for change:
  • Is this fundamentally right?
  • Why does this rule or process or law exist?
  • How can I create change and educational growth when I see something that is unjust or unethical?
  • Why do people have the capacity to be cruel?  To isolate others?  To bully?  To be racist, to hurt someone?
  • If there is a creator or if there is a law of the universe that is the prime mover, how could a thinking, compassionate entity make human beings so flawed?
  • Why is there torture and war? 
In high school especially, the beginnings of social consciousness and responsibility emerge, and also the all too difficult realm of cliques and groups, and now social media. As one wise head of school told me, the bullies are hurting too and someone hurt them along the way. How can we hold the line and make clear that we will not accept, tolerate, bypass or sweep under the rug what is wrong while still getting into a place of education and the possibility of growth and learning? In the future, I would like our acceptance for new students to Vermont Academy to include the line that was in my college acceptance: “You are invited to study with the faculty.” Or maybe it should say to study and learn, side-by-side with the adults. We all need to move forward and pick each other up and lift each other up so that we can learn through forgiveness and enlightenment. Sometimes there is no place for forgiveness, and that is your choice or part of why there are separations from school. As a school, we need to abide by rules that are designed to teach and that are designed to maintain a safe and supportive place for learning. 
 
You are potential transformers. All of you, and the faculty. Everyone is a potential teacher if you choose to lift someone else up and help them to see what you see, know what you know, and invest in what is right.
 
How will your life be different in a few months, seniors and post-graduates? What questions might you ask next?  Here are some that often end up in college classes:
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Is our universe real?
  • Does God exist?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Can you really experience anything objectively?
  • What is the best moral system?
  • What are numbers?
  • What harsh truths do you prefer to ignore?
  • Is free will real or just an illusion?
  • Is there a meaning to life?
  • Where is the line between art and not art?
  • What should be the goal of humanity?
  • Does fate exist?
  • What does it mean to live a good life?
  • Why do systems support some groups and not others?
  • Does everyone have equal access to opportunity and success?
Then there are these interesting ideas like the philosopher Pascal’s “wager” that people bet their lives on the existence or non-existence of God and act accordingly. You might say to yourself, I am stepping out of that argument about the existence of God or not. You might say that the true course is not to engage in Pascal’s wager at all. Why be bothered?  More important is the work of defining a career path and beginning to build your wealth for you and your future family and generations to come. Why can’t personal hopes and desires be fulfilled without moral guilt?
 
Pascal would reply to your attempt to avert the wager or bet that God exists or does not as a way of navigating your life essentially rudderless. He would reply: “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see.” Ethics and being a good person does not rely on either choice as being the right one. You can be a good person and not believe in a higher power, and you can be a bad one and believe in that power. What matters is that you find your inner compass and moral core because if you do not live with that and with the command of your character and citizenship, then you will find an emptiness welling inside.

In closing, I want to share that I hope that you will get into the complexity of life’s questions, that you will wager your life’s purpose on something worthy and something that will endure beyond you. Take the long view on stewarding this earth, your life, and sharing stewardship with those you love deeply.

One of our greatest Americans and writers, James Baldwin, once tried to console and invigorate us: “Not everything is lost.  Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”  Refuse to be benign. Refuse to be silent.  Refuse to avoid questions. Refuse to abdicate responsibility.  In that realm of questioning, it is my great hope that your Vermont Academy education will continue and endure.

Congratulations to all, on this occasion of our baccalaureate assembly.
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Education for Life - One Student at a Time

Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.