Convocation Speech Misses the Mark
By Laura Marshall
For sentimental reasons, I decided to go to my senior year Convocation, an event I hadn't attended since I was a freshman. For not so sentimental reasons, I felt inclined to leave. If I hadn't been ushering the event, and if I hadn't been so transfixed by confusion at President Gerety's address, I might very well have crawled quietly out of the austere brick building and made my way back to my room.

The opening was standard: the regal music, the robed professors, the rewarding of honorary degrees; all the pomp, circumstance, and timeless tradition I'd been expecting. But when the President opened his speech with a story about how he and his wife had once tried pot brownies and the "extravagant effect" these brownies had had on them, and we the audience laughed awkwardly, I knew something was awry. I found myself thinking, hoping, that perhaps he might turn this into a goofy metaphor for the academic experimentation we do here at Amherst. After all, I kept reminding myself, the professors are down there in their robes. The music was played. This is Convocation for God's sake.

Let me pause for a second to emphasize that I've never been much of sucker for tradition and pomp. I went to one of those liberal high schools where we called our teachers by their first names, where no dress code-short of forbidding nudity-was enforced, and where a few of the parents were rumored still to be growing their own supply of cannabis. Pot brownies were not a forbidden subject of discussion.

But at events such as graduation, where we were, traditionally and untraditionally, allowed to dress as we wished and to choose the songs to which we walked in and out, we kept rightfully mum about drugs and alcohol until the graduates sneakily distributed party flyers after the ceremony was finished.

What must be kept in mind in these cases is not the pomp but the circumstance. Okay, so the pomp adds to the stately nature of Convocation, but the event's essence is simply the official opening of the College year. Circumstance makes it an academic ceremony. Tradition lends it grandeur. And I think, and I'll even dare to speak for a few of my fellow seniors at the event, that Convocation is not the right time or place for a lecture on drugs and alcohol.

We are not present to hear a politically-loaded lecture on the "hypocrisy" of "our national policy on drugs and alcohol." While I agree with much of the politics President Gerety expressed in his address, I think such sentiments would have been better off in an orientation workshop or a forum on the subject of illegal substances.

A few minutes into the speech, when I accepted that the President was indeed down there at the podium talking about what my mom's generation still refers to as "dope," I started cringing, exchanging troubled looks with friends, and wondering, "What in the world must the poor freshmen be thinking?" Amherst does, after all, value itself above all as an academic institution. We ostensibly come to this picturesque campus in western Massachusetts to learn, and to learn well, for there are no graduate students sucking away our professors' time and energy, and our name doesn't attract students purely for its resume value.

Why, then, was the Convocation address so loaded? The President informed us that the administration "cannot without resort to a kind of local totalitarianism enforce the prohibition that the government enjoins; thus we leave you for the most part in freedom." After launching into a critique of the racism inherent in the national drug policy, Gerety then returned to the issue of addiction on campus. "In small ways," he said, "nearly every day, we struggle to establish and re-establish a hold over the appetites that pull us toward an abyss." Such a dismal statement is not likely to lift the spirits of the first-years.

The speech was not only misplaced but disjointed. The President skipped quickly from a personal story, to national legislation, to campus drug policies, back to national policies, and back again to Amherst. The one uniting theme appeared to be hypocrisy, though that's an awfully vague theme on which to hinge a short address.

Gerety made one noticeable reference to academics, saying, "The premise under which you enroll here is one of freedom, personal as well as intellectual." But what, really, does intellectual freedom have to do with drug policies? Is the President suggesting that Amherst is a kind of utopia of freedom amid the oppressive nature of national law enforcement? To a degree we are much more free here to use drugs and alcohol without being caught, but we are certainly not immune to the law. And where, I ask again, is the tie-in to Convocation?

If we aren't going to honor academics at Convocation, even in a somewhat ostentatious way, then what message are we sending to the freshmen? Welcome to Amherst; you can use drugs here (legal or illegal), but use them moderately. Should that be the message at the official opening ceremony?

Welcome to Amherst, Class of 2004. Dive in, take some risks, try something you haven't tried before, have fun. And I'm talking academics here. Let's not forget the circumstances.

Laura Marshall '01 is a regular columnist for The Amherst Student.

Issue 02, Submitted 2000-09-13 15:56:01