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Commencement Speech: May 27, 1979

May 27, 2011

Text of Jan's original speech, courtesy of Hamilton Archives

Listen to the full speech, by clicking the triangle or read the transcript below.

I was told that my speech today should be a mixture of sentiment and humor, and that I should make people feel good. I sense behind that advice a fear that I will mar this ceremony with stridency and divisiveness. Why might I create bitterness? Because I lost my college. I am a former Kirkland student receiving a degree from Hamilton. Like some other women students at Hamilton I am not entirely happy with Kirkland’s fate, and not entirely convinced that the merger has gone through smoothly as many insist it has. Most of all, I’m afraid that within a few years, even without malevolence, Hamilton will manage to wipe out all traces of Kirkland.

For those of you who don’t know, Kirkland was the school across the street in which all the women in the class were originally enrolled, and which has since folded and been absorbed by Hamilton in a move loosely and inaccurately called a merger. What we lost in losing Kirkland was an alternative, and in that alone, we lost much. Each of us as individuals can seek out his or her own alternate routes to learning, but it is a rare opportunity to be backed up by an institution in that search. Our class was lucky enough to enjoy that opportunity for 3 years.

At Kirkland, there was the sense that students were trusted. Whether manifested in the first-name basis which is between most students and faculty, or in policies, such as independent study programs, which depended on a student’s self-motivation, there was evidence that the administration assumed that students were grown-ups. The fact that one could design her own major indicated that the school had a respect for the student’s individuality. The use of evaluations as opposed to grades also contributed to the student’s sense of her own uniqueness, and was based on the belief that students were interested in learning for its own sake, not for the sake of getting on the Dean’s List. Evaluations also encouraged students to compete with themselves rather than with others. In many ways Kirkland’s policies testified to the administration and faculty’s confidence in students. Kirkland had her problems, but one of her fine points was the dignity which she assigned to students.

In conversations about this speech, various people have urged me not to be divisive. That exhortation for unity, at any cost, has become some kind of watchword for the post-merger era. Unity, peace, congeniality have all become ultimate goals. They may be worthy goals, but they may also be attained at exorbitant cost, in which case we should examine our values.

Is unity possible, or even desirable, in an academic community? After all, what’s so wrong with division? Why are we so afraid of it? Certainly we cannot expect people to agree with each other, can we expect them to sacrifice convictions only for the sake of harmony? Unity is important, but it should not be the final criterion, especially in an educational institution. Supposedly education is all about learning and discovering. How can we learn and discover without challenging, questioning and criticizing? When we ask for unity, at any cost, we come dangerously close to imperialism. What ends up happening is that the minority is required to agree with the majority’s decisions, regardless of how firmly the minority believes in its own judgments. When one party says to another “Please don’t be divisive.”, it can mean, “Your opinion doesn’t count; mine does.” Rebelliousness for its own sake is destructive and we cannot encourage people to be demagogues. But we don’t have to fear dissent. If you can’t make waves in the academy, where can you make them?

Don’t we expect a certain amount of division in a place where opinions are being asserted? If my graduation speech turns out to be divisive, it’s not that I’ve created division among you. The fact is that I am speaking to a divided audience. To think that a speaker could take any position without disagreeing with a part of the audience is naïve at best. Sure, everyone wants to get along, and peace and harmony are noble goals, but what is the quality of the peace if there are people keeping their challenges and criticisms to themselves? Is it harmony when one person is free to state his or her opinion and a companion, for the sake of unity, is urged to nod in agreement whether or not, in fact, he or she does agree? That seems like a cheap peace to me.

People can have different views and still cooperate. I think that’s the ideal educational setting – where peace is highly valued, but not the point of requiring us to sacrifice truth.

One thing that strikes me as sad about our country is that, in an effort to be an American, many of us have lost our individual heritages. We have hidden, to the point of losing, our cultural differences. The great melting pot has indeed melted French, African, German, Latin American, Chinese, etc. into a bunch of Americans whose cultural heritage may only be represented by MacDonald’s golden arches.

In the same way, Hamilton’s quest for unity may lead only to attaining homogeneity, and in the loss of our differences, we’ll lose our individuality – eventually we’ll lose ourselves.

You can come to work out and even cherish differences. When I first came here, I hated the modern architecture at Kirkland and was much more drawn to the older buildings at Hamilton. During the last four years I have come to appreciate the new structures across the street, while maintaining my fondness for Carnegie and the chapel. We can see the value in different kinds of architecture: why can’t we likewise see the value in different kinds of attitudes and ideas? Just as the modern Burke Library has been integrated into the Stryker campus, why can’t different educational approaches be accepted within Hamilton’s structure?

The school could capitalize on what former Kirkland students and faculty have to offer, and could start making distinctions based on what’s good and bad, rather than on what’s “Kirkland” and what’s “Hamilton”. The Kirkland-Hamilton battle is history now. It’s time to judge ideas for what they are, not as party platforms for either faction. The acceptance or rejection of any proposal – whether it affects academic or social life – should depend on the intrinsic value of such a proposal, not on whether it reminds us of Hamilton or Kirkland. For example, if it is a good idea to have faculty residents live in dorms, then let us adopt the idea because it is a good one, not because it smacks of one college or the other. No academic policy should be judged as if it were a symbol for an institution.

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The Kirkland class of ’79 has gotten the education of a lifetime. We have lived through the folding of our college.  How many times does one live through a transformation like that? – the shift from one era to another? We’re a remnant of the old Kirkland cloth. At times we’ve clashed badly with Hamilton’s colors. At other times we’ve matched well. And whether we deny it or not, we are woven into the new Hamilton fabric. We are children of two eras – or perhaps children of neither era.

Both Kirkland and Hamilton have left their mark on this graduating class. I hope that will be the case for every graduating class which follows.

A house divided cannot stand. Hamilton will find its unity somehow. It can achieve unity either by waiting for three years to pass and more or less expunging the memory of Kirkland, or it can make a genuine and creative effort to preserve the best of both colleges. If Hamilton doesn’t choose soon to hold onto Kirkland’s gifts, we will surely lose them.

The most intelligent way to deal with division is not to ignore it nor to foster it, but to confront it and work out whatever problem it creates. That final stage, after differences have been recognized and dealt with, is real unity, real peace.

by Jan Sidebotham, ’79

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Penny Watras Dana permalink
    May 27, 2011 6:50 am

    Thanks for posting this – it rings true, still. I would encourage all to listen to this year’s valedictory speech – it is also powerful and moving, and shows that Hamilton has come a long way since 1978.

  2. Maurice Isserman permalink
    May 27, 2011 7:10 am

    “Both Kirkland and Hamilton have left their mark on this graduating class. I hope that will be the case for every graduating class which follows.” Thirty-two years later, it’s evident to me that Kirkland has left its mark on students and faculty alike at Hamilton in ways great and small. Great speech, in any case, both thoughtful and passionate — sorry I wasn’t there to hear it.

  3. Isabel Weinger-Nielsen permalink
    May 27, 2011 8:21 am

    Jan, right on target! I was so angry at Hamilton at the time that I didn’t attend the 1979 graduation, so I’m very glad that your speech was posted. It took a long time for me to “come back” but I must say that today’s Hamilton has incorporated much of Kirkland, which is proof of the strength of Kirkland’s influence. Though I can’t return to “my college” Kirkland has extended itself in the “real world” through it’s alumnae. Isabel ’76

  4. orchardgirl78 permalink
    May 27, 2011 9:23 am

    Although we’ve been listening to this speech for a few days prior to posting, it still resonates each time. How powerful – and amazing that we can hear Jan’s words, in her voice, some three decades later.

    Her charge to creatively capture the best of both colleges resonates. When we started this site, Jo wrote about how Kirkland had one of the first Creative Writing programs at an American college. It endures at today’s Hamilton. I was also delighted to see the slideshow of last Sunday’s graduation. Women students wore green apple lapel pins, they carried green apples and there were bagpipers: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamiltoncollege/sets/72157626786323400/show/

    The legacy endures. Celebrate Kirkland!

    Judy

  5. Douglas Raybeck permalink
    May 27, 2011 10:05 am

    I was there and remember thinking that Jan’s speech was one of the best testaments to the strength of a Kirkland education I had encountered in my eight brief years at that College. Happily Isabel and Maurice are correct: The influence of Kirkland persists to the benefit of the present institution.

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