Karen R. Lawrence: President of the College

President Karen R. LawrenceOn behalf of the Trustees, faculty and staff of Sarah Lawrence College, I am delighted to welcome you to the commencement of the Class of 2008. As a first-year president, my own initiation into the Sarah Lawrence community has coincided with your class leaving this extraordinary College. Still, I have had the opportunity to witness in you at least a part of the “transformative” effect that Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i identify as the legacy of their educations.

I am delighted to share this special day with you, the College community, and your family and friends. First, I’d like to thank your parents for lending you to us these past few years. Seniors, let’s honor those who made it possible for you to be here today—your families, whose love and commitment supported you, including those who are no longer here to mark your milestones with you. Members of the Class of 2008, please stand and recognize the family members and friends who have contributed so much to this moment.

Ben Jonson, the seventeenth-century poet and playwright, called his child his “best piece of poetry.” To the parents in the audience, I want to tell you that over your son’s or daughter’s college career, we at Sarah Lawrence College have done everything in our power to ensure the safe-keeping and development of these precious products of your imagination and your love.

It is clear from the class’s rousing salute to their teachers and their dons that they deeply recognize these special guardians of creativity and intellectual development on our campus. The faculty is the heart and soul of the Sarah Lawrence experience. Of course, at any institution, the quality of the faculty in large part determines the quality of the education. But the artisanal nature of both teaching and learning at Sarah Lawrence makes the student-faculty relationship particularly significant. Handmade and crafted with care and respect by teacher and student together, the singular education this College offers depends on an exceptional commitment from our faculty. It depends on teaching that discourages passive consumption and invites the testing of theory in practice.

In an essay on education, Montaigne vividly contrasts the effects of active and passive learning:

Let him be asked for an account not merely of the words of [the]. . . lesson, but of its sense and substance, and let him judge the profit he has made by the testimony not of his memory, but of his Life. Let him be made to show what he has just learned in a hundred aspects, and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has yet properly grasped it and made it his own . . . . It is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge food just as we swallowed it. The stomach has not done its work if it has not changed the condition and form of what has been given it to cook” (“The Education of Children,” Montaigne’s Essays).

Montaigne was writing about the education of children in the sixteenth century, not you, the sophisticated, technological generation of the 21st century. Yet, the education at Sarah Lawrence continues to fulfill his injunction. Sarah Lawrence College has taught you how to think, not what to think, and, although the “testimony” of your “Life” is really just beginning, your education here has likely instilled in you the temperament to pursue learning with passion and pleasure for the rest of your lives. The intellectual curiosity you have nurtured here is borne of this rigorous, individualized approach to teaching and learning.

I encourage you to mobilize your passion for learning in the service of a number of purposes:

  • To create a rich inner life for yourself, so that adventure can come from within as well as from without.
  • To open yourselves to other people, to be unafraid to take emotional as well as intellectual risks.
  • To “make new things in empty places,” a description I heard from a Sarah Lawrence alumna.
  • To stand up for your values even when going with prevailing wisdom would be much easier.
  • To make a difference in the lives of others—through your words, your actions, your creations, your teaching. Put your education to use in the world.

No one can forecast the new questions or answers, diseases or cures, problems or solutions that will arise in your lifetime. Between the commencements of many of your parents and your commencement today, the world has changed exponentially; leading the way is the stunning revolution in information technology that both accelerates and connects our lives. With this rate of change, an education today cannot “program” you for the future. But it can help you adapt, anticipate, and in some cases create change. And, in the intimate forums at Sarah Lawrence, both within and outside of the classroom, your education here has encouraged you to test your ideas and values in discussion and in writing, so that they may anchor you as well as help you soar.

Since I come to my position as president by way of literary studies, I’d like to read a poem that I think eloquently captures the roles we collectively play as parents, teachers, and graduates. The poem is Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer,” an apt title for our Sarah Lawrence graduation. [View the full poem as read during President Lawrence's commencement address]

Class of 2008, like the poet addressing his daughter at the end of Wilbur’s poem, your parents and mentors take pride in the roles they have played in your lives. Yet, as much as they have done to help you, these caring adults have also spent a few “helpless” hours watching as you have risked, struggled and sometimes even failed. Today, our spirits rise at the prospect of each of you “clearing the sill of the world.” As you continue your serious creative work in the world, we wish you all the best. We wish what we have wished you before, but harder.