Undergraduate Program Faculty member Sara Norton was invited by graduating students to deliver the March 2014 Undergraduate Program Commencement Address, transcribed below.
I want to thank the graduating students, for inviting me to speak today. It is a privilege to celebrate with you your achievement.
Here at Goddard, each graduating class is unique and each graduate is unique. So to honor you today, I burrowed into the files and read about each of your projects. Your accomplishment is impressive. I especially loved reading your study plans for your senior projects.
Now a study plan is a remarkable document. For it is about vision and imagination. And reading them I could taste the hard work that went into what now has been accomplished. I could imagine the plunging in, the thrashing about, the questioning, the push to pull the pieces into that first full draft at the third packet. And then I could imagine the perhaps agonizing wait while the advisor and second reader have their mysterious behind-the-scenes conversation. And then the dismantling, the re-organization, the polishing….But what most impressed me reading your plans was your vision. Each of you truly care deeply about what you are doing. And for good reason. What you each have done, and will continue to do, matters. It matters to you and to the world.
Creating experiential outdoor programs to help families live together well, matters. Developing a revolutionary vision to bring fitness and health consciousness back to the people, designing a curriculum that facilitates healthy sexual relationships for teens, challenging the structure of racism in the media, all this matters. And so too, educating the community about ways to naturally improve health, formulating herbal remedies, and, healing trauma. You have worked in the arts, painted, written poetry, and brought people into art places and spaces. You have examined the causes of racial injustice and environmental illness. You have wondered what creates social change, what heals deep wounds, and how art can revitalize our culture. You’re healers — through your art, through your teaching, through your questioning, through your community work, and through programs you have designed for a better world. All this matters. All this came from core values and passions that you discovered when you were given permission to find them at the root of your being.
When I came to Goddard as a new faculty member in January 1984 – thirty years ago – I was struck with the energy and enthusiasm that crackled in the air. Some students were for the first time really getting it that they could study what they truly wanted to and were being encouraged to ask the deep questions that were already stirring inside – questions that had perhaps been there for a very long time.
And I thought then, how I wished I had been a student here. I think my life would have been different if I had been at a college where faculty encouraged my ideas and questions rather than posed their questions, and told me the answers. Had it been a college where faculty generously extended trust in me as a learner, that would have changed everything.
Trust. I want to explore the nature of trust with you for a few moments. I think trust is key to what happens here at Goddard – or should happen. And key to what you the graduates will take with you.
The core of our progressive education here is that we trust the students. Yes, learning is complex, and it is motivated by intricate contexts. But what I have seen play out over and over is that at the heart of it, is the belief that when the student is placed in the center, that engaged learning will take place. The faculty advisor trusts this process and this allows the student to trust him or herself.
This is an extraordinary form of education: individualized, interdisciplinary, and intimate. In the close space of one-on-one dialogue, of witnessing and trusting, what happens here? What motivates? This is a system that is not competitive, does not pit students against each other. They are not asked to push up a defined stairway of tests and grades, not to conform to an imposed block of knowledge. How does this work? Rather than a push to the top, it is a descent into core values, heartfelt curiosities and unanswerable questions.
Tim Pitkin, the founding president of Goddard College said, “Here we attempted to get down to the roots of education.”
When we go down to this root, to what stirs within us, to our passion and vision, is it audacious to believe that this motivating force is significant? Significant enough to define a college curriculum? To sustain relationships? To focus a career, or motivate a life journey? Can we trust it enough? Can we step out of the confines of the conventional world and believe in this?
New neuroscience research confirms that growth takes place within attuned, empathic and trusting relationships. We have known this at Goddard for a long time. Our one-on-one mentoring pedagogy is labor intensive. I commend Goddard’s commitment to it even though it is not efficient economically. But because it is not conventional, nor economically efficient, it is precarious. We must take care to preserve it. We often come to the brink. And yet our commitment is robust. Everyone pitches in. And here trust is essential: trust in the collegial spaces of administration and faculty; trust in the collaborative vision of strategic plans and marketing strategies, but, most importantly, trust in the close-in core place of pedagogy where student and faculty, and student and student meet; trust that this is the unique contribution of this college to learning and to the academic community.
But what about beyond Goddard? Here we trusted you to find core values that would motivate you. But it is more than that: the deepest trust is that your core values would be significant not only to yourself but also to the world.
So can we, can I, trust that if the folks out there beyond Goddard were given the encouragement to dig in and discover a motivating passion that that would also be something that matters beyond themselves in a way that addresses urgent social and ecological problems?
In other words, my question is: can I, can we, believe that if any one of us anywhere could be extended the generous gesture of trust in one’s root, that this would tap down into what Joanna Macy calls “the thrumming relationality of all things?”
I don’t know the answer to this. And in these times with the planet in peril, I truly want to know the answer. I want to trust….. But I’m not sure that I do.
At this point I would love to explore with you this question, for us to talk together and I would ask you for your thoughts and experiences, rather than me standing here talking and you listening. It would be a rich discussion. However this is not the format for such a conversation.
So this is my invitation to you the graduates: The world is your laboratory. You are out there where this question lives in the world.
Can you extend this generous and gracious gesture of trust to others? And could that trust actually help shape a better world? And, will you carry the trust in yourself onward? Trust your deepest self – that is not arrogant, nor self righteous, but knows how to listen in and care for others and for the planet?
You the graduates are receiving your diplomas today – this wonderful piece of paper enclosed in a black binder. But most importantly, you take the curriculum with you. It is yours to keep. You know so well the hard work, the perseverance and the stamina it takes to earn a Goddard degree. There is probably no question in your mind that you can face just about anything.
To stand up here today and receive your diploma, you have not stayed with the easy questions but have searched in the nooks and crannies; gone to the edges of our collective knowledge. We celebrate today your experiences, your courage, your imagination and your steadfast spirit. Congratulations.