Commencement is always a special day for a college president, and Whitman’s commencement this past May was especially meaningful for me. I stood in front of 323 graduates, almost all of whom had launched their Whitman careers at the same time I did four years earlier. We were classmates of sorts. We discovered the special Whitman community together. We learned and grew in ways we would have anticipated and in ways unforeseeable. We experienced spectacular joys and unimaginable sorrows. And, at the end of it all, we shared a beautiful Sunday celebration with family and friends, faculty and staff, and the alumni from the Class of 1969 back for their 50th Reunion.
Right after commencement, I read Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.” Tara grew up in an almost completely isolated family of survivalists who avoided all things related to or sponsored by the government, including public education. In her teens, Tara began to teach herself and then earned admission to Brigham Young University, where she had her very first classroom experiences. She learned very quickly just how much she didn’t know and then had to work to reconcile her love for her family with her developing understanding of their deep dysfunctionality.
While Tara Westover’s upbringing was almost certainly quite different than the Whitman graduates from last May, she came to a realization partway through her undergraduate degree that I suspect many of our students share at some point. She wrote, “Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Finding one’s voice is a hallmark of a Whitman education. I’ve heard it from generations of Whitties. You can’t hide in a Whitman classroom. Faculty expect to hear your voice; they demand to hear your voice. And, a big part of our work is to help students learn how to use their voices to best effect. That work takes place both in and beyond our classrooms. Students exercise their voices in discussions in courses, in conversations in the dining hall and residence halls, in clubs and organizations, in campus- and community-based protests, in lobbying legislators, and in many other settings.
I was reminded of the centrality of Whitman’s work to help students develop strong voices across the decades when I read former Washington Gov. Daniel Evans’ commencement address to the Class of 1969 in preparation for their return to campus. Evans said:
I believe we have found a generation which is willing to stand up and be counted, a generation which believes in something, a generation which is not afraid to be our critic, nor afraid of the consequences. And that is something not to fear, but to be coveted. But the question which confronts us now is not whether the past is justified; the question is whether the future can be secured. And I am convinced the key to that future rests with you — and with thousands of others like you. Young people who may come to the tasks of America appalled by what they see, but who come committed to rebuild — and not destroy — what they find.
To affirm his emphasis on rebuilding rather than destroying, he added:
This generation should be the conscience of the nation. It should serve to remind us constantly that man is mortal and that institutions are permanent only so long as they serve the people. It should continue to probe, to question — to cry out against injustice and corruption and decay. And most of all it should dare to say what others only dreamed.
There is a certain vulnerability in learning to use one’s voice — a risk. But it’s a risk that we have to help our students embrace so that their lives, in Tara Westover’s words, are not “narrated for [them] by others.” And, we need to help them learn how best to use their voices so that, to echo Evans’ words, they dare to say what others only dream.