Convocation Speech by Jack Percival '16, August 28, 2015

Greetings class of 2019! Let me again offer a warm welcome and hearty congratulations on being here today. And let me also comment upon the clear superiority of your college choice. You now have before you an unparalleled four years filled with unprecedented personal and intellectual growth, change, and excitement. But, mixed in with this euphoria at finally being here are elements of profound uncertainty, unease, and angst. Parents, if you thought that high school was bad, wait until your student has to choose a major.

While many of the people who will talk to you during orientation emphasize the impact that this institution will have on you, with its outstanding faculty, dedicated staff, and engaging students, I would like to comment today on the impact that you can have on Whitman. To many, this might sound like President John F. Kennedy's 1961 refrain of "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," but I would argue that it is something more than that.1 With those words, Kennedy appealed to the virtues of patriotism, dedication, and sacrifice in a time of unprecedented global volatility at the height of the Cold War, when many thought the threat of nuclear annihilation to be imminent.

Despite this deep-seated anxiety, the beginning of the 1960s in the United States was a time that some historians have termed the "Age of Camelot," when most Americans unquestioningly accepted the fundamental superiority of American values and institutions, the success of growth economics, and the role of the United States in the world as a benevolent superpower and defender of freedom. There were, however, some critics of this Cold War "culture of conformity." One of these groups, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was a radical student group that organized many demonstrations against state-sanctioned segregation and later the Vietnam War. In their founding manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, the authors rejected the blind adherence to these tenets of American exceptionalism: "We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.... As we grew...our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry...[and] second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War symbolized by the presence of the Bomb."2 Despite this grim picture, however, the Port Huron statement was characterized by an optimism that these problems could be solved.

Rather than completely echo Kennedy's blind idealism during the age of Camelot, I would advocate for a balance of mutual obligation. We have been given significant opportunities that demand our attention, and I believe that we, like the authors of the "Port Huron Statement," have an obligation to work hard, to challenge ourselves, to recognize our very privileged place in American society, and to strive to change our College, and our society, for the better. But I also believe that the College has an obligation to live up to its professed values-in diversity, inclusion, accessibility and sustainability-and I think it is up to us to push the College that we all love so well in a continually more progressive direction. Through this change at the local level, I am convinced that we can prepare ourselves to go out into the world and tackle the most pressing issues of our society: police violence against minority groups, the easy accessibility of guns, global climate change, equal pay for equal work, and so much more.

While academic rigor is certainly the most important part of this equation, all of the experiences that you will have at Whitman contribute to this growth, whether it is getting involved in student government and advocating on behalf of students (always an excellent choice), borrowing duct-taped weapons from the Ren Faire club for a Lord of the Rings-themed birthday party (my housemates did that this summer, and it was probably the best decision that we ever made), or changing your schedule almost every semester (much to my advisor's endless frustration, sorry Professor Sharp). Each one of these experiences not only enhances your own personal growth by taking advantage of the opportunities that Whitman can offer you, but they also allow you to build upon your personal and intellectual enrichment to give back to the community of which you have become a part.

So, I challenge all of you to ask yourselves: What will you do with your time at Whitman? Where will you be in four years? How will you shape and be shaped by the institution? How will you take it upon yourself to become the person that you want to be? In other words, class of 2019, ask what your College can do for you, what you can do for your College, and what you can do to make your time at Whitman the most memorable, rewarding, and exciting experience of your lives. Thank you.


  1. John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1962), 3.
  2. "The Port Huron Statement," in A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America, 7th ed., William H. Chafe, Harvard Sitkoff, and Beth Bailey, eds., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 81-82.