Campus News

Baccalaureate 2010: Keynote Speaker Joan C. Countryman

Story posted May 28, 2010

"If Nothing Else, Remember This"
By Joan C. Countryman
May 28, 2010

I am thrilled to have my life's work affirmed by Bowdoin College, a preeminent liberal arts college; and I am truly honored to share in the graduation festivities of the Class of 2010.

Joan Countryman150.jpg
Joan C. Countryman

My distinguished career in education began in the fall of 1942 when I entered nursery school. I realize now that the school was one of the day care centers established during World War II to help working parents who were needed for the war effort. It was located on the top floor of the vocational high school where my father, one of the first African American public high school teachers in Philadelphia, taught mathematics and electric shop. What I liked best about going to school was riding the streetcar every morning with my daddy: clearly a good start for my brilliant career.

And so, for the next 63 years until I retired in 2005, almost every September I entered one school building or other — as a student, or a teacher or an administrator — and one consequence is that I've heard a fair number of commencement speeches in my time. Some were excellent. Some were long; some were boring; some were long and boring.

The first speech that I remember was delivered by Irvin C Poley, the vice-principal of my school, Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. The year that I graduated from high school Mr. Poley retired and he was the commencement speaker. Irvin Poley had graduated from GFS 50 years earlier. He began his remarks by telling us that the speaker at his commencement, in 1908, had waved his arms and said, "If you remember nothing else of what I say today, remember this."

But Mr. Poley didn't recall what it was he was supposed to remember. Nor do I remember much else of what he said that day. The experience of listening to him must have been instructive, however, for I have taken that speech as a caution and a standard in preparing remarks for occasions like this one.

One of the best commencement talks I've ever heard was delivered a few years ago by a novelist who graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Ann Patchett later published her essay as a small book entitled What Now? If you have not read What Now? I urge you to track it down, especially when you are looking for excellent advice on how to think about life at crossroads like this, or any crossroad for that matter. The book is filled with lively photographs of traffic signs and highway interchanges.

Ann Patchett says that, "If all fairy tales begin 'Once Upon a Time,' all commencement speeches begin, 'When I was sitting where you are now." Even if we don't say the words, that is exactly what we are thinking. Can it be so many years ago, when I was sitting there...?

When I was sitting there, 48 years ago, there was Sarah Lawrence College in Bronville, New York. John F. Kennedy was the nation's president; tuition, room and board and expenses at private colleges came to about $3,000 per year; the minimum wage was in the process of rising from $1.00 to $1.25 per hour; and you could buy a Ford Falcon, a compact car, for less than $2,000 and gasoline cost 28 cents a gallon. My classmates and I talked about lunch counter sit-ins, the Peace Corps, the Freedom Rides, the trade ban with Cuba and about John Glenn orbiting the earth. Late at night in our dormitories we practiced The Twist, a dance. Was it hot or cool? I can't remember.

We wore bouffant dresses and beehive hairdos when we dressed up, although at Sarah Lawrence mostly we wore black turtlenecks to look like the beatniks who came before us. If we watched televison we saw Johnny Carson on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS. Outside of class work we read Catch 22, Franny and Zooey, The Making of the President, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Much of what we think of now as "the 60s" hadn't happened yet. The Beatles' first album came out in 1963; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in '64, and that's when Vietnam came into focus.

In 1962, at Sarah Lawrence College, the commencement speaker was Theodor Reik, a psychoanalyst who had been one of Freud's first students. And no, I don't remember what he said, either.

My life in education was shaped in schools that had been deeply influenced by the work of the philosopher John Dewey. Dewey was himself influenced by the 19th century reformer Horace Mann, who tied the success of our emerging democracy to universal education; public education; quality public education, a belief that I share and that was strengthened by my experience in South Africa.

Dewey argued that the purpose of education was not to fill vessels with knowledge but to free seedlings to grow. The goal of education is to help create wise citizens in a free society, a concept that I think is too often missing in the discourse on education today.

The purpose of a liberal arts education, the education you have received here at Bowdoin and I at Sarah Lawrence, was to provide the skills needed to blend intellectual rigor with passionate concern for the larger community. The idea was that a healthy society consists of free individuals associating freely. That message led many in my generation, I was certainly one of them, to march right from college in the spring of 1962 into poor black communities in the rural South or the urban North, to create and support organizations that promoted voting rights, quality education, public accommodations and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege and the joy of attending the 50th anniversary conference of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an extraordinary gathering of old and young, black and white, Southerners and Northerners who shared, still share, a passionate human concern and the conviction that we could make a difference. As one conference speaker reminded us, "SNCC made us feel we could do anything."

In these times of economic uncertainty, when the mood of our country seems to range from petulance to despair, it may seem cruel to bring up the 60s, a period in history that we now regard with rosy glasses as a high point of the 20th century. At the SNCC conference Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of "the direct line from the lunch counter to the Oval Office."

By rosy glasses I mean that for many years younger people, speaking of my generation have said to me, "But you had it easy. Oppression and injustice were so clear that you knew what to do. You knew what to fight for." My answer, and I heard this from more than one speaker at the SNCC conference, my answer was, "You know, often we hadn't a clue. We were making things up as we went along. There was never any playbook. You just to tried something, and if that didn't work, you tried something else."

I have lived in interesting times and I dare say that you, too, will continue to live in interesting and unpredictable times. It never occurred to me that the leader of the African National Congress would be released from prison and elected President of South Africa in my lifetime. I never thought that I would ever go to South Africa, or if I did, that I would feel safe there as an African American. Instead, to my great surprise, in February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years; in 1994 South Africa had its first multiracial election and Mandela was elected president; and in 2002 I found myself on an airplane headed to Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of a 'Delegation for Diversity,' a group of teachers and administrators scheduled to meet with their counterparts in South African government and independent schools.

An emerging democracy has many challenges, not the least of which are figuring out how to confront the past and figuring out how to construct the future. Under apartheid South Africa had 19 different educational departments separated by race, class, culture, language, geography and ideology. What, how and whether children living there were taught differed according to the roles they were expected to play in the society. By 2002 the Ministry of Education in the new South Africa was working on a Revised National Curriculum that embodied the fundamental values of the country's new Constitution, the Preamble of which says:

We the people of South Africa, united in our diversity, aim to:
Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person...

So, in the curriculum they speak of developing the full potential of each learner as a citizen of a democratic country, creating life-long learners who are confident and independent, literate, numerate and multi-skilled, compassionate, with a respect for the environment and the ability to participate in society as critical and active citizens.

In 2006, again to my surprise, I was back in Johannesburg, helping launch the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the gift to South Africa that Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Mandela had planned in order to "brighten the future of all women," the nation, the face of Africa. The Leadership Academy is a boarding school for girls in grades 7 through 12 — the first class will graduate next year, 2011. The girls have been nominated by their teachers and principals for an extraordinary opportunity — to attend, at no cost to their families, a school designed to develop the skills and talents that will enable them to lead their communities, their provinces, their nation, indeed Africa and the world.

One of my first tasks was to assist with the interviewing of the 11- and 12-year-old candidates. The girls were nervous, of course. "Take deep breaths," we said. When I asked a seventh-grader how she felt about living so far away from home she told me, "Well, I've lived with my family all my life. It's time to move on."

"Why do you want to come to the school?" we asked another student. She didn't hesitate. "It's my tomorrow," she replied.

If you remember nothing else of what I've said today, remember this: Her education is your tomorrow.

Now Bowdoin College invites you to move along in your journey. I am certain that you are leaving ready to participate as active citizens; ready to lose yourselves in generous enthusiasms; confident, multi-skilled, independent, compassionate.

If nothing else, remember that.

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