News

2013 Baccalaureate Address

May 31, 2013

By Tom Heise

To our Deerfield parents and guests and friends, to my colleagues, to the Class of 2014, and above all to the wonderful Class of 2013, welcome. Teddy and Cleo, thank you for inviting me to speak to your class this evening. I am honored.

With just one week to go before you receive your diplomas, you may at last be worrying less about what’s due tomorrow and reflecting more on your time at Deerfield: your highs and lows, friendships you have made, your favorite classes, productions or seasons, things you will miss, and things you won’t miss at all. Many of you have found that your time here passed quickly, even though some moments seemed very long, so perhaps it’s a good idea to reminisce, to imagine yourself climbing aboard a Green Machine one more time and rolling down memory lane to your favorite moments, your days of glory, or to other Deerfield days, ones that are important to you perhaps because they were difficult.

Just for fun, let’s imagine you become distracted–looking down at your phone and not out the window–and you roar past the stop signs for whatever September brought you to this valley and race toward deeper reaches of time. Worried at first, you then find the prospect of time travel so exciting that you choose to push onward, which is to say backward, into the twentieth century and well before. Where and when to go? Where would we find earlier days of glory, a golden age when all was right with the world?

Let’s agree that the past decade and the 90s are off the table. One of you is plenty, so you don’t get to go to a time where you already exist. And you shouldn’t go to the 80s either. Do you really want to see your parents when they’re your age?

And let’s frankly acknowledge the thrill of possessing superior information. Imagine what it would be like to always know more than everyone else, to have absolute certainty about what was going to happen next. The possibilities are endless.

Mark Twain understood. He sent his time-traveling Connecticut Yankee back to the 500s, to King Arthur and Camelot. And there Hank, the Connecticut Yankee, pushes past his initial confusion and alarm at a land of knights, slaves, and a malicious magician named Merlin, and embraces his good fortune. “I was actually living in the sixth century,” Hank says, “and in Arthur’s court, not a lunatic asylum…Look at the opportunities here for a man of knowledge, brains, pluck, enterprise to sail in and grow up with the country…and all my own; not a competitor; not a man who wasn’t a baby to me in acquirements and capacities.” “Here I was a giant among pygmies, a man among children, a master intelligence among intellectual moles.”

Fired with ambition, Hank promptly sets about the happy project of bringing the triumphs of 19th century American life to Camelot: a lacework of telegraph and telephone lines, railroads and highways, newspapers, munitions factories, dividend-paying stocks, bicycles and baseball and soap–all the elements of a well-ordered republic. A warning: it doesn’t end well. Hank has a nasty falling out with Merlin, and Twain, who sometimes struggled to end novels gracefully, simply has Hank detonate Camelot out of existence.

So perhaps Twain has ruled out the 500s. What about the remaining 1500 years between now and then? 
 
Do everything in your power to avoid the 600s through the 1400s, the so-called Dark Ages that stretched across Europe following the collapse of Rome. While exciting inventions appeared in that era–the stirrup and the padded horse collar, to name just two–political instability, low intensity warfare, and feudal injustices were pervasive. So was bubonic plague, especially in the 1300s, when it wiped out a third of Europe’s population. Well, what about the New World? Great food, bad weather. Pre-Columbian Indian peoples were perhaps the greatest farmers the world has ever known, yet from the 900s through the 1200s significant parts of the Americas confronted rising temperatures and epic, civilization-destroying drought. That same warmth encouraged Vikings to colonize southern Greenland, only to be driven out by the little Ice Age of the 1400s.

Skip the 1500s. And the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. Why? Despite bringing us our first age of globalization, in which market economies arose and innovative, far-ranging ships and telegraph wires linked the far corners of the world, these centuries also witnessed imperial and sectarian wars, the rise of race-based slavery, Inquisitions, a grinding poverty in rural life exceeded only by the misery of pre-modern cities and, above all, woeful medical understanding. There was no answer for smallpox, measles, polio, flu viruses, malaria, cholera, or other bacterial infections and, therefore, no end to the haunting horrors of disease, especially in the Americas. A mere scratch or poorly-aimed cough could carry you away forever.

Nothing has made a bigger difference to us than modern medicine and advances in public health, so if you actually want to live a long time and enjoy your information advantage, you should choose a moment in the last 100 years, an era with clean water, vaccinations, antibiotics, scientifically trained doctors and well-equipped hospitals. Still, I’d pass on the turbulent war-torn teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s. And you should steer clear of the 50s too, that time of supposed contentment and lofty, shared purpose which expected women to aspire only to suburban motherhood, black Americans to accept the cruel indignities of Jim Crow, and all of us to believe that ever larger nuclear stockpiles were part of a carefully calibrated plan to keep us safe.

Well what about the 60s? Surely, there’s much to like here. For people nervous about change, the decade began with the calming reassurance of President Eisenhower. For those who wanted more change, President Kennedy called us to action, to the glories of a new Camelot. Progressive social movements of all kinds transformed our nation, great music filled the airwaves and, just as JFK had promised, men traveled to the moon and returned safely to the earth. Yet it was a hard decade too. Assassins claimed the lives of President Kennedy, and his brother Robert, of Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Urban riots ravaged American cities. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fought in the Vietnam War; millions of people died there. We faced a rising tide of pollution. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. And a poisonous drug culture took hold.

If you showed up in the mid-1960s, you would discover that my twin brother John and I had a drug problem. My sister Anne skipped downstairs one evening and asked my mother if it was okay if the twins were eating all those little white pills. In a panic, my mother ran upstairs and discovered us sitting side by side, with white powder smeared on our faces. John and I were three years old. We had eaten an entire bottle of aspirin. She raced us off to the hospital to have our stomachs pumped. The child-proof cap was invented shortly afterward and appeared widely in the 1970s—too late for us, but well in time for you.

So what about the 70s? You could get in on the ground floor of the modern technology revolution; in the greatest insider trading scheme of all time, you could bet it all on Microsoft and Apple.

But if you have any self-respect, this is a decade I implore you to miss. I was there and it was bad. When I was a high school student in Bloomington, Indiana overalls were in, mostly worn by kids who didn’t work on farms. Weird. Leisure suits were weirder. For guys, shorts were really short. Hair styles were silly and so was the music. In just a few years we had gone from the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.” 
 
At the national level, we experienced runaway inflation and Richard Nixon. For all the glory of a space program that was sending Americans to the moon, it is worth noting what the CEO of Intel said last year: that NASA computers of that era had less computing power than a single smartphone has today. We had gas shortages in the 70s, but maybe that was okay because the tanks we waited to fill were in cars that were ugly, shoddy, and dangerous. Ford Pintos sometimes exploded when they were rear-ended. A few of us used to ride home from school with a friend who had a Pinto. We all tried to sit in the front seat.

By now, our journey through time has made the problem clear. However tempting it is to find a golden age when harmony and happiness reigned, in your life or in the history of the larger world, every time had its ups and downs, its triumphs and hardships. The good old days were only good some of the time. Even the Garden of Eden had a snake.

Let your hearts hold memory bright, but don’t let nostalgia hold you hostage. Embrace what is in front of you. Step into an uncertain, dimly-lit future, into the lives for which you are so well prepared. You have good lives to live and important work to do.

A few final words to keep you company along the way:

Use technology well. Technology amplifies our power in ways that are sometimes magnificent, sometimes terrifying. That technology fundamentally changes us is less clear to me. We have more information within our reach, but are we any wiser, dumber, more loving, more hateful, better or worse than we’ve ever been? Modern technology does distract us, however, so every now and then turn away from your screens, turn off your phones and your music, and go outside. Remind yourselves what the world really is, not just what it appears to be, and how wonderful it is to feel the sun on your skin, to hear a soft spring breeze in the trees, to gasp in the icy Deerfield River, to know friends by the sounds of their voices, by the love you see in their eyes. I hope that’s something you’ve learned here.

Believe in something bigger and better than you. Embrace the deepest, noblest teaching of your faith, whatever that may be, and live out its meaning. Comfort those who suffer, serve those in need, raise up those who have fallen, bring justice to those who are oppressed, build a greener future for us all. Narrow self-interest has little to offer the problems of this world.

Be hopeful, not cynical. Life has a way of living up, or down, to what you expect of it. Life won’t always be fair and it will bring disappointments, but it will bring wonder and joy and new chances too. If you are hopeful, you’ll hold on when times are hard. If you hope, others will too. In your hope, there is hope for us all.

Above all, love with all your heart. “Faith, hope, and love abide,” writes Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “but the greatest of these is love.” “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” So love. Love, as Vanessa has loved her Little Sister on Friday evenings. Love, as Warner loves the hills and hollows of Kentucky. Love, as Adam has loved his teammates. And love as the people of Boston loved when they raced to help people injured in the marathon bombings and opened their homes and hearts to those in need.

As you think back on your Deerfield days, remember when you believed, when you hoped, above all when you loved, when you shared the most precious gifts we have with one another. Those were your best days, and ours too. As you leave us, please carry the memory of those days with you and share all that you’ve learned with the world that awaits you.

Thank you and good luck to you all.