2012 Commencement Address

June 21, 2012

“Show, Don’t Tell”

by Margarita Curtis
May 27, 2012

The year was 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution…

Abigail Adams, exhorts her husband to take action: “You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator… We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

These words are as relevant today as when they were written. Almost two hundred and fifty years later, the world is still too full of high-sounding words, with too little action to back them up. Here, at Deerfield, we strive to teach this same lesson. We frequently urge our students, our entire campus, to align rhetoric with practice… and as a student of literature–and a fan of high-sounding words–what that means is that I expect action from our students, our teachers, and our graduates. Show, don’t tell.

As you prepare to go beyond this valley, three key words of the DA lexicon should serve as guideposts in your journey ahead–character, community, and service. Through our studies and exercises, through our daily focus on competence and learning, we express a relentless commitment to give these “high sounding words” concrete meaning. At Deerfield, the actions we take on a daily basis are training for the real world–quite literally practicing what we preach.

Our ultimate goal at Deerfield is not simply to transmit information, to acquire knowledge, or to develop a skill set. It is to consider the broader human experience, not just our own, to develop the character that leads to achievement, prosperity, and service to the common good. Small habits of civility and empathy pave the way.

The seniors here today might remember my convocation speech back in September–one which emphasized the importance of respect–an element of character which is often reflected in how we comport ourselves daily. Not just the big things, but the little things. The way we listen in class, yes, but also on the corridor and at the dining table. It’s the dress code. It’s arriving on time and staying until the end. It’s holding the door open or offering to share an umbrella. It’s the way we look each other in the eye and say hello.

And yet, you come of age in a time when community values are being mediated in new ways… You’ve learned to greet each other on the paths and fields at Deerfield, but Facebook and text messages now compete for your attention. Here, you’ve learned to share your stories and experiences face-to-face, to be joyful, and lighthearted, and supportive of each other, and to gain a sense of place–of being together. Those values are challenged by Instagram, status updates, and your following on Twitter. But as you know “a connection is not the same thing as a bond. “

Yes, GPS can give you a sense of your location, but not a sense of place. To borrow from Mr. Cary: “there is no app for that.”

Communities are not built through status updates. At Deerfield, you often walked across campus to see a teacher, when you could have simply called. You dropped in on friends without knowing if they were in the dorm. You meandered around campus on a Friday night–you lingered in common rooms, on benches, and on the quad. You set out for the dining hall or the Greer, with no particular purpose in mind. Keep doing that. Don’t let the transmission of status supplant the humanity in your life. Don’t let the efficiency of your smart phone dull your emotional intelligence. And don’t fail to recognize the affective and social nature of learning. Because we know, relationships strengthen in the pursuit of common goals and lead to prosperous, vibrant communities.

I’m not simply instructing you on how to live a happy life. Make no mistake–in our smaller, faster, more uncertain world, knowing how to build meaningful relationships will be a key asset. Your generation will collaborate, form teams, and work with more people of different backgrounds than any generation before.

You graduate during an information revolution, a shrinking of the world through globalization, and in the most competitive and uncaring landscape we’ve ever experienced. As historian Niall Ferguson claims, “we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy.” America remains at war, in a sluggish economy… with high unemployment, unprecedented debt, alarming dropout rates, prolonged underinvestment in research, and stiff competition from emerging economies, but perhaps most importantly, all of this is occurring in an ethical vacuum.

The world is begging for people of character who refuse to be passive spectators. Ultimately, fulfillment–the promise of a life well-lived–will depend on your capacity for empathy–the disposition in your heart to look beyond your own well-being and to apply your talents to shaping a more caring world. You’ve been well prepared. It’s your character–your ability to turn mistakes into venues for learning, to persist in the face of obstacles or disappointments, to think of others, to practice honesty and respect in everything you do. These are the traits that will serve you and the world.

This year I’m particularly proud of you, our seniors. You provided leadership during a time when the school focused on the daily practice of respect–and you took it one step further. The legacy of 2012 will be our new honor statement, which not only emphasizes the value of respect, but demands action. It echoes an imperative with which you are all familiar. Deerfield’s motto is not limited to a noun or adjective–it is unique in its demand for action. “Be worthy.”

As you go from Deerfield’s structured environment to one of greater independence–where you will not need parietals, or get AP’s for class absences…or be put on probation for drinking …. You will be solely responsible for making wise, deliberate, meaningful choices…. You have developed the inner discipline and fortitude to make your own decisions and defy the crowd mentality. You will be a leader, not a follower. You will realize that your ability to change the world extends beyond competence, and derives more from character–the courage to value community, to serve others. To be more than an inactive spectator. To be worthy.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in 1774. The rest, as you know, is history. Such is the power of putting actions behind your high-sounding words. With this premise in mind, Mr. Boyden transformed our school, and always reminded us that “the test of worth of any school is the record of service of her alumni.”

I’m proud of you.