The Weight of These Robes
Remarks for Cap and Gown Convocation, September 18, 2019
President Patricia McGuire
Congratulations, Red Class of 2020! In receiving your caps and gowns this evening you join a grand Trinity tradition that reaches back to the very first class — the Red Class of 1904! As our ceremony closes this evening, I want to share a few thoughts about what these academic robes mean for you and all of us who are privileged to wear them.
400 years ago, America’s forefathers brought to these shores human beings in chains. For nearly 250 years from that day in Jamestown, slavery flourished as a fundamental driver of American society; and for the last 150 years, from emancipation to today the consequences of slavery in racism, poverty, discrimination and oppression have burned like wildfires through the heart and souls of succeeding American generations, sometimes just smoldering embers, sometimes raging conflagrations, but always searing, destructive, debilitating for the epic national quest to achieve the always-distant “more perfect union.”
The labor of slaves built the early American economy and many of our most historic institutions from the White House and Capitol to prestigious colleges and universities like Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown. America’s so-called “Founding Fathers” were slave owners who knew that slavery was morally abhorrent but they could not imagine forsaking their personal wealth for the freedom of others.
Even worse, they enacted a Constitution that included a clause treating slaves as only 3/5 of a person because they knew that treating slaves as whole persons legally would shift the balance of political power against them, irrevocably. This nation fixed that immoral Constitutional clause with the enactment of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments) abolishing slavery and according rights like birthright citizenship, due process and equal protection of the laws. But even to this day, some political leaders seek ways to undermine and retract these rights for the sake of their own political power.
While many of us grew up hailing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as great heroes of freedom, another historic perspective has emerged, as documented recently in the New York Times “1619 Project” and other more scholarly works, that the American Revolution was fueled, in part by the fear of slave owners in this country that England was having second thoughts about its own complicity in the slave trade, and the Founders went to war to protect what they considered to be their property and great wealth.
But the compromises of the founding era doomed the young republic to a long and deeply destructive conflict over slavery and its twin evils of racism and white supremacy, an eventual Civil War that ended slavery but did not end those evils, and subsequent protracted decades of oppression and violence that continue to this day, that repress human potential and make this nation so much less than what it can and should be as a beacon of freedom and hope. The struggle for freedom, for equal opportunity, for justice and true peace is unending.
What does this somber reflection have to do with our happier convocation with our seniors at Trinity tonight?
You sit here tonight in a moment of celebration, vested in the robes of great academic and intellectual achievement. You are the latest exemplars of the triumph of education, enlightenment and hope over the evils of racism and ethnic hatred that repress opportunity for too many citizens of the earth. Your families are here beaming with pride for your moment of glory, and you are thrilled to know that in just a few months I will hand you your diploma to signify the ultimate achievement of this part of your journey.
And yet…. And yet. It’s not all about the celebration. We cannot possibly be educated people at this moment in American history without feeling an acute sense of obligation for the kind of country and society we will shape and leave for future generations. And we cannot do that decoupled from the forces of our past, forces that continue to plague our current historical moment.
Despite many gains of the last century for civil rights and human rights, we push the boulder of oppression forward and it rolls back upon us again and again. Who could have foretold just a few years ago, when the idea of “hope and change” galvanized so many, that we would sit here in America today aghast at the rapid resurgence of openly aggressive white supremacy, neo-Nazism and ethnic hatred, the rising concern about authoritarianism and abrogation of the checks and balances of our constitutional system, and truly abhorrent tactics employed against refugees and immigrants who have long sought refuge in America for its once great hospitality and big heart, now seemingly shriveled.
This regalia you wear tonight, these caps and gowns, are more than festive attire for academic enjoyment. If you don’t feel at least a bit of heaviness wearing them, you are missing the point of your education at Trinity. The weight of these robes is the obligation of a Trinity education to do more than enrich yourselves with the talents you have cultivated here. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur did not establish Trinity 122 years ago for mere personal aggrandizement; no, those courageous and visionary women truly believed that their students must go on to lead and change families, communities, the nation and world for the better.
Unfortunately, and to our detriment, there is a somewhat strange and very dysfunctional movement in some political and media quarters these days to disparage the purpose of higher education, to reduce its value to a few metrics about earnings and jobs, to criticize the higher ideals of liberal learning as somehow politically tainted. Well-educated persons do often cultivate a broad perspective that makes them open to new ideas, tolerant of diverse viewpoints, ready to question the abuse of authority, more likely to champion equal rights and justice for those who cannot be their own champions. Some politicians denounce the fundamental moral value of respect for human dignity as so much “political correctness” when, in fact, insisting that every person deserves the freedom to live up to their fullest potential is the true essence of social justice.
When the New York Times published the “1619 Project” a few weeks ago, some people expressed outrage at the idea of questioning the conventional themes of American history, assailing the newspaper and its writers for being unpatriotic. But it is the necessary and profound purpose of higher learning (shared with our cousins in the free press) is to explore and expose the Truth, to reject any demand that we simply accept what is conventional as established forever.
At its best and most dangerous purpose of all, higher education in a free society is the great counterweight to government, the necessary bastion of free critical thinking that does not shrink from its responsibility to discover, illuminate and proclaim new knowledge even when that proclamation makes people — especially powerful people — uncomfortable.
Our stewardship of knowledge demands that we teach the truth about everything from climate science (whether the government believes in science or not), to the ethical uses of technology, to stewardship of the earth’s natural resources, to fair and just economic policies, to how children learn, to the characteristics and values of myriad cultures and religions on the shape of nations and societies, to global affairs and diplomacy, to the impact of propaganda on the behaviors of electorates, among many other topics.
Facts matter, and our job is to teach the facts — and to teach you to distinguish facts from mere opinion and rampant deceit. “Fake news” is the antithesis of higher learning. It is our job to teach the truth about our history so that we can know why the present moment is so treacherous, so that we can embolden you, our students, to be ready for the long, hard days ahead as we seek ways to inspire our national conscience to reclaim the ideal of hope, to restore the central imperative of justice in this nation in order for freedom to flourish for all.
This is the real purpose of a great college education at Trinity. Sure, we are developing your knowledge and competencies for the career pathways you hope to enter — notice, I didn’t say preparing you for “jobs” per se, though we do hope you will be well-employed at every stage of your post-graduate life. We certainly hope you will be economically secure, and if you happen to become truly wealthy, good for you — and don’t forget to send a little something to help the next generations at Trinity!
And yes, we also hope that you will develop the networks of friends and professional associates that will help leverage your career and leaven life choices along the way. Trinity’s “old girls’ network” is very powerful and our alumnae and alumni are always eager to help the graduates coming up behind them.
But creating a platform for your personal success is just one outcome of your Trinity education. We also have high expectations for your engagement with the most critical issues of your communities, workplaces, cities and nations.
We know that you will do this not as individuals who started out from positions of privilege at all, but rather, as citizen leaders who know exactly what it means to be on the margins, to make the hard journey each day toward improved circumstances and higher achievement, people who have discovered in yourselves the depths of courage and resilience and determination to persist and prevail despite setbacks and many trials along the way.
The world does not need more leaders who have never struggled, who always had someone else greasing their wheels; what the world needs most of all are leaders who know the pain and struggle of the people in the community, who take nothing for granted, who know their power not as a privilege of birth but as a right that has been earned by hard work and perseverance each and every day.
The world does need leaders who will stare down the forces of evil and hatred. Your Trinity education expects you to be such leaders, to be voices for those who have no voice, to confront the violence against human dignity that is the hallmark of oppression whether it be white supremacy or anti-semitism or Islamophopia or hatred of immigrants or sexual violence or diminishment of women or homophobia or mocking of persons with different abilities and talents and needs. Trinity does expect you to be leaders who will bring hope and relief to places of fear and sorrow, who will be agents of truth in an age full of scandalous lies, who will seek power rightfully and righteously to exercise courageously on behalf of your communities.
You will wear these learned robes as symbols of your power, as armor on the days when the world will try to diminish your intelligence or influence or right to be in whatever place you choose to be. You have a right to sit at the table — to sit at every table, not merely to witness history but to write the history that can and must change this society.
And in all of this, by becoming the leaders for justice we are confident you can be, you will pay the greatest tribute to all of the Sisters of Notre Dame, alumnae and alumni who came before you, the faculty and staff who contributed so much to your learning here, the great benefactors whose remarkable generosity have made your Trinity days possible. Your thanks to them will be found in the works of courage, change, hope and justice you achieve for others in the years to come.
And, as always, we pray that the strength, wisdom and love of the Trinity will be with you every step of the way.
Congratulations, seniors, Red Class of 2020!