Welcome by President Oden

Welcome, everyone, to the One Hundred Thirty-fourth Commencement in the proud history of Carleton College.  Carleton was founded, as Northfield College, in 1866, and we’re now nearly half way through 2008.  Can this be but our 134th Commencement?  It can be and it is: Carleton did not hold its first Commencement until 1874, eight years after the College was founded, and we skipped another potential Commencement a few years later.

Welcome faculty, staff, students, Carleton Trustees, family members, and – and this most of all – welcome to the uncommonly engaged Class of 2008.  That adjective, “engaged,” is among Carleton’s defining traits.  Indeed, I like to answer, whenever folks ask me about the spelling of the College’s name, about that otherwise puzzling “e,” that the “e” stands for engagement.  Engaged with life, engaged with learning is just what the Class of 2008 have been throughout their time at Carleton. 

We will pause again in the course of our ceremony to congratulate all in the Class of 2008, a class which personifies those Carleton traits of intellectual curiosity and engagement and service to humanity which are this College’s most distinctive and defining values.  Even so, I wish still to begin with a hearty congratulation to all of you and to your families.  If you, members of the Class of 2008, owe more than can readily be said to the Carleton faculty and staff, you owe as well a debt beyond repaying to your families.  Hence, let me ask everyone in the Class of 2008 please to rise, face your families, and give to them the ovation they deserve.

And welcome to this special place.  I join you in giving thanks for this day, a day which allows us to be outside, and also in giving thanks for those who worked so hard over the hours past to make possible our being outside.  Inside, no matter how fully decorated with maize and blue; inside, no matter the number of banners emblazoned with the College’s name; inside we could be anywhere.  Outside, here beneath these oaks and maples, here just to the east of the Bald Spot; outside we could only be at Carleton.

Ardent student of Carleton history that I am, I was delighted to receive not long back the unpublished memoirs of one Louis Sherman Headley, who arrived with his brother Leal at Carleton in the first decade of the 20th century.  Second-hand accounts of student life at the College a century ago abound; first-hand accounts do not, and hence our good fortune in receiving Mr. Headley’s memoirs.  Louis Headley reports at some length on what Commencement meant in those days.  I am going to try your patience, I am going to read for you the entirety of his report on Commencement:  “Commencement exercises were in the Congregational Church [as they were for decades until they were moved to Skinner Chapel] with orations by the valedictorian and the salutatorian, and friendly advice from the President of the College.”

That’s it, that’s Louis Headley’s full report on Commencement.

“Friendly advice from the President of the College,” writes Mr. Headley.  Good advice thought I.  And so, some friendly advice.

Long years ago, when I was your age, I headed off to Pembroke College, Cambridge, there to work on a second undergraduate degree, a second BA because I was shifting my academic discipline from chiefly Greek and Classics, to what we would call Near Eastern Language, to what the British call Oriental Language, since for the British, at least in those days, the Orient began at Calais. 

Toward the close of my initial term at Cambridge, I found myself complaining to one of my tutors that the work to which I devoted so many hours, that of composing an essay each week for each of my four or five tutors, had become something of “a habit” and I wondered, aloud, to my tutor if there might not be a more fruitful use of my time.  “Ah,” said he, “so writing essays has become a habit.  There is such a thing as a good habit.”  That is all he said, and then he dismissed me. 

He was right.  There is such a thing as a good habit.  Many such habits we hope you have acquired and practiced at Carleton – Habits of a lifelong hunger to learn and of the particular Carleton joy of learning in the company of friends;  habits of openness, an openness to different people and different worlds; habits of rejoicing in achievements honestly earned, but not the habit of parading one’s own achievements; and that most Carleton of habits, the habit of exercising among life’s most human and humanizing of talents, the habit of exercising a lively sense of humor, mostly at our own expense.

But there is another habit I wish to stress today: the habit of reading.  The habit of reading every day a newspaper with full global coverage – the LA Times, or the Washington Post, or the New York Times.  The habit of reading periodicals and journals of substance – The Economist, or the New Yorker.  And above all, the habit of reading books -- books that matter, books that merit reading and re-reading.  The habit of reading the works of Jane Austen and George Eliot,  and of Salman Rushdie and of the great Egyptian novelist Naghib Mafouz, the habit of reading the novels of Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy, the poetry of Yeats and Wallace Stephens – and the works of biographers and scientists and historians and more.

How, you might respond, how could we do otherwise than to continue this habit?  Reading is just what we have done, and done again and again, at Carleton.

Alas, many have done otherwise; alas, many have seen the end of their college years correspond with the end of a habit of reading.   Your lives after Carleton will conspire to deprive you of the habit of reading.  Careers, moves, social obligations, the allure of so many of life’s distractions – these and more can and will seem more immediate, more crying, more necessary than attention to former habit. Countering all of these tugging distractions and obligations is not easy. Countering them requires an effort of will and an attention to a habit that is as distinctively human as any, that of reading.

There is such a thing as a good habit.  Many we hope you’ve acquired and practiced at Carleton.  Many we count on you to continue.  Continue your habit of reading.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone in the uncommonly talented and engaged Class of 2008.