Remarks at the 104th Commencement
A Code To Live By
May 22, 2022
Members of the Board of Trustees and distinguished guests; faculty, staff, and alumni colleagues; family members and friends; all who are gathered on this magnificent green and all who are watching from afar; and most especially, every single one of you who make up the astonishing Class of 2022: I cannot tell you how honored I am to stand before you on this beautiful morning and to declare today’s exercises—the 104th Commencement of Connecticut College—officially open.
It really is moving to see all you soon-to-be graduates sitting alongside the people who made this moment possible: the faculty and staff who awakened your sensibilities and nurtured your talents; the alumni who paved a way for you; the friends who shaped your experience here and who will remain in your lives as you move off this hill and rise to the next challenge; and, above all, the family members who were there before any of us as your first teachers and guides. It’s moving because we have all lived through so much in the last two years. But if there is one thing that this period of separation and loss has taught us, it is to recognize the incredible honor it is to be together like this, to be part of this unique community.
And so I have to begin by expressing my gratitude to all of you for the ways you kept showing up: online or on campus; in masks and in person; with candor and grace during periods of calm or crisis; as listeners and problem solvers who shared your fears and hopes and occasional moments of joy. Commencement is a day of honor, and I suppose what I’m saying is that what is being held up today is not just individual achievement but something you accomplished together. The honor belongs to all of you.
Of course, the main honor being bestowed today is what we call the baccalaureate or bachelor of arts degree. The term baccalaureate comes from the Latin bacca lauri, meaning “fruit of the laurel.” In ancient Greece, as you may know, it was customary to honor victors with a crown of laurel leaves; and so the earliest universities expressed the fruits of academic victories in analogous terms. The actual chain of laurel leaves you just walked through harks back to that classical tradition.
There are laurels beyond the baccalaureate. Some of you have received academic honors from your departments, by writing exceptional theses or being awarded special prizes. Others have received the distinction of what we call “Latin Honors”—the words cum laude or magna cum laude or summa cum laude added to your diploma—noting that your degree carries with it an extra measure of lauda, or praise. Others of you were recognized with membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest honor society. One person today, our keynote speaker, Deborah Bial, will be receiving a special degree, a doctorate of humane letters honoris causa (which means, in Latin, “for the sake of honor”). And yet another person, Caroline Grape from the Class of 2022, will be awarded the baccalaureate posthumously, and this, too, is for the sake of honor—not for requirements fulfilled but as a mark of esteem for contributions made to the community and to society.
It's this larger sense of honor that I want to focus on in my remarks today. Because at Conn, as you all know, we have one more way that we think about honor. And that is through a code of honor that each of you agreed to adopt as you became members of this community. There is a document you all signed, in fact, back in 2018, on the same day we gathered on Tempel Green to mark the College’s 104th Convocation and the official start of your Conn education. It is a pledge that you would take responsibility for yourself and others in upholding the values of this community. And it has been displayed publicly in Cro ever since, as a daily reminder of your collective commitment.
I went over to Cro to look at it the other day, and as I recognized your names through the scrawl of signatures, I thought about how you couldn’t possibly have known on that day what being a member of this community would mean; how you couldn’t have known you would end up publishing a paper with a professor; or giving a talk at an academic conference; or directing a major production; or producing an album of your own music or filling a gallery with your art; or serving with faculty, staff, and senior administration in making decisions during a public health crisis; or helping admit the Class of 2026; or founding a children’s library in Afghanistan; or doing collaborative research with students on three continents; or winning a post-baccalaureate fellowship abroad; or leading your teammates to victory and even capturing the College’s first ever national championship. You couldn’t have known the honors that were to come when signing that code. But I want to suggest that at least part of the reason why these things happened is because you did. Honor is a public agreement, the byproduct of collective obligation.
You may know that this academic year marks the hundredth anniversary of the honor code at Connecticut College. I often like to use this occasion to delve into a bit of our history; so, as you come full circle today—gathering on this green now for the College’s 104th Commencement—I want to linger on that pledge you signed, in order to reflect on its origins, its impact, and on the ways it can continue to shape your lives beyond Connecticut College.
The first thing to say is that Connecticut College is really one of just a few colleges in the country defined by a completely student-adjudicated honor code. The next thing to say is that the code itself emerged as the direct outcome of a tradition of shared governance, one that goes back to the College’s beginnings. In our very first year of operation, the faculty of this College formally charged students with managing their own affairs in nonacademic matters, leading to the institution of student government. It was a big step, one that the first president, Frederick Sykes, recognized as having created the conditions for the “high ideals of conduct” that, as he put it, “give community life its highest sanction and most lasting satisfaction.” Self-government, then, became the impetus for a new kind of community bound by honor.
That was 1916. Five years later, in 1921, the students institutionalized it in a code to live by. They called it the Student Government Oath and in it they pledged four things:
- never to dishonor the College
- to uphold the values of the community both individually and collectively and to help those who might falter
- to grow the sense of collective obligation; and ultimately, quoting the final phrase:
- to “render our Alma Mater greater, worthier, and more beautiful.”
You are quite familiar with these actions because, one hundred years later, it is still the code we live by.
The words of the code were said to be drawn from the Ephebic Oath of ancient Athens, a vow taken by young men following their military training—a kind of pledge of allegiance—that obliged them, as soldiers and citizens, to protect their city. Of course, the College version removes all reference to combat, and the object of loyalty, too, shifts from a city to a school. But what remains across time is the sense of shared obligation born of collective self-governance.
Now, I’ll admit, this is a somewhat elusive thing to talk about. And often when we try to explain our honor code today, we default to its ancillary benefits: your ability to take unsupervised exams on your own schedule; your ability to leave your door unlocked or your things unattended without concern. But these examples actually miss the point. What the code gives us is something far more valuable: a symbiotic relationship between trust and obligation that produces the kind of respect that ultimately makes life in a community, as President Sykes suggested, worth living. In other words, the code can be understood as the key to a good life.
Interestingly, this is one of the points that the philosopher Anthony Appiah makes in The Honor Code, his 2010 book on “how moral revolutions happen” (New York, Norton, 2010). Noting the relative neglect of honor as a topic in modern moral philosophy, Appiah wants to rehabilitate a “place for honor in our thinking about what it is to live a successful human life.” (Appiah, xiii) He takes his cue from Aristotle, who understood the good life through a condition Aristotle called eudaimonía, which is often translated as “happiness” but, as Appiah reminds us, is better understood in terms of all the ways we flourish in community. Appiah sees honor as a crucial aspect of that human flourishing, again, because of the way the elements of trust, obligation, and mutual respect connect our lives together. Honor is “an engine,” he says, “fueled by the dialogue between our self-conceptions and the regard of others, that drives us to take seriously our responsibilities in the world we share.” Honor, in a word, “takes integrity public.” (Appiah, 179)
So, why am I spending so much time talking today about a one-hundred year old honor code just at the point when you are about to be free of it? It’s to make a simple point, really. I want to remind you, on this day of honor, that one of the most precious things you are taking with you from your time at Conn may well be the shared sense of honor that this code has instilled in you. As I said at the outset, that is not just an individual but a public achievement, something you accomplished together—through your own acts and also through your commitment to others who fail in their responsibility. And here’s my final point: just as you now see the honors that flowed from accepting membership into this community, I believe that, if you continue to live by this code, you will see even greater things in your lives beyond Conn. And not only that: you will also stay connected to each other through the knowledge that each of you, wherever you may be, is making your communities greater, worthier, and more beautiful by contributing to their collective flourishing.
Class of 2022, we love you, we are proud of you, we know the lessons you took from this place will remain with you as you go into the world to do good. Thank you for honoring us with your talent, your passion, your commitment, and your trust. We wish you much happiness and success in your lives beyond Connecticut College, and we look forward to seeing you back here often and welcoming you home.