2021 Commencement Address

Congratulations seniors and post graduates, faculty, staff, and families. We have achieved a year of-in person education in the middle of an historic world-wide pandemic. Here in rural Vermont, at Vermont Academy, we held onto our Core Beliefs, followed the state’s rules for health and safety, and delivered the very best education possible to a group of students we admire and care for, guide, and witness every day.
Please give a round of applause to faculty and students alike for this outstanding, selfless act of living by the rules, for others. Living by the rules, for others.

As the year began, I remarked in convocation that it was going to be a year to share our thoughts and use our voices even though we were, ironically, masked. I told the students not to let the mask be a force to silence them.  

So many things happened this year that have transformed our world, and in many cases, the transformations are still happening, and they are long overdue. Even now, as we stand here at graduation, there are many more conversations that we all wish that we had. Whether because we were tired or fearful, vulnerable or divided as a country and globally on so many issues, I would say that we stayed silent more than we wish we did. I will not further elaborate on this topic, but if we are to go forward as a society, we need to care more about people than politics. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia did just that for their whole tenure on the Supreme Court, and they were the best of friends though sharply divided politically.  

Dear Graduates, show how you care about people even if politics divides you and others.

In saying a few words for our graduates, I want to focus on an image and a discipline, and that image is the Praise House of Southern and African American culture, and that discipline is the humanities and the arts.  

What is a praise house and why is it important? Unlike a church, a temple, or a mosque, a praise house is both figurative and literal. Figuratively, it is a place where the heartbeat of culture and belonging resides, and literally it is a place to sing and praise, to show gratitude, and to release -- through the act of singing -- what has been pent up, sorrowful, raw, or wounded in the human soul. And to do it collectively. With other people. That is key. The relationship between the self and others in a praise house is a dynamic one, and theoretically, you lose and find yourself in the act of singing as you voice those lyrics, and you join in a common voice -- to be One.  

Here is my question to you: Where is your praise house? Where do you rejuvenate yourself? Is it in friendships? Family? Reunion? Walks through nature? Experiences and transcendent moments when so many people you care about are surrounding you? If so, we have a praise house right here, right now! 

Dear Graduates, find your praise house and cultivate it. It might include real singing or it might include moments when you feel your soul sing because of the people you are with. Do not go through life without visiting your own personal praise house as often as you can. Make one in college, make one in your work life, make one in your future families and homes, and pass it on to those you love. Hold it close and don’t forget.

It is no accident that the praise house involves an art. The art of singing or soul singing. The emergence of the arts and the humanities came out of crisis. Out of pain and suffering, people made art, on cave walls like the Caves of Altamira where Paleolithic art preserved a basic human trait – the desire to contemplate and communicate, and perhaps also to engage in a divine ability to create something outside of oneself. The origins of the humanities, in general, occurred in crisis, when our need to tell stories through images, to convey impressions and the “shape” of an emotion or a vision led us to become makers and creators – in order to deal with pain, loss, and woundedness and to create joy through transformative experiences, and to celebrate the human. We cannot move forward into the future by displacing our humanity. We need art and the humanities to keep us human, and now more than ever, as we spiral toward all of the exciting technologies, which I personally love, we also need to make sure that we preserve the human.  

There is an old Renaissance debate about the humanities. The Greeks thought that the arts existed to reveal beauty and truth, but in the Renaissance, the idea of the humanities  developed alongside the idea of what it meant to cultivate good citizenship. As Sophie Gee remarked, Renaissance humanism argued that “the function of intellectual, aesthetic curiosity was to fashion a virtuous, effective citizen.” Whether the humanities and the arts help us to become better citizens, and I believe they do, or whether they exist or they “are” for their own sake or simply to provide us with pleasure, we must not lose them because we will lose our way and diminish our humanity.  

So when you can, paint, draw, write, play an instrument, sit at the potter’s wheel, and sing. These are simple acts, along and with or addressed to others. The very noble human practice of dialogue and conversation also emerges from the arts and humanities. By its very nature, art is a shared and witnessed commodity. Without the humanities, we are a race of mechanical beings, more attuned to the rhythms of the cell phone and computer than we are to what makes us different from a sophisticated computer program that can substitute for human presence quite easily and efficiently.  In all of our flawed, vulnerable ways, being a human is far better. But it is getting to the point where we need to consciously preserve that humanity.  

Dear Graduates, in addition to finding and cultivating your own personal praise house, please do make art, and live a contemplative life that makes you human, in relation to others, and fundamentally alive.

I hope that you all enjoy this wonderful celebration. Thank you to our Vermont Academy community for the trust you placed in each other to achieve what many would have though impossible. I saw you, graduates, joyful with each other and discovering the benefits of being outdoors this year – and we loved being with you. Faculty, you have my deepest gratitude for all that you did to make this happen and for the extra time and care you gave to our students; and families, you partnered with us. Our community agreements kept us, together, able to sit in this praise house today.

In closing, I want to share an old ring shout from the ring circle of the Praise House. One individual from over a hundred years ago, shared:

“My mother would start out on a task and not know how it would end. She would say get the goal in sight and pick up your feet and make the first step. Don’t wait to assemble everything that you can ever imagine or that you would need just to get going.”

Here is the ring shout the community would sing in response:

“I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children have shoes, and we will walk all over God’s heaven.”

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