Commencement 2009

President’s Welcome

Remarks of Colin S. Diver

Reed College, May 18, 2009


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diver imageGood morning, and welcome to the Reed College 95th annual commencement. This day belongs to you, the 2009 graduates of Reed College. But before we recognize your achievements, we should recognize those who made your achievements possible. First, the incomparably talented and devoted Reed College faculty! Second, the equally dedicated staff who labor so hard to support all of you, and all of us! And last, but certainly not least, those whose love and support—and tuition payments—have supported you through the good times and the bad: your parents . . . your brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, friends and guests.

Now before we begin, I have an apology to make to the graduates—a sort of “Washington DC” apology. And that is: I swear, I had absolutely no idea that the faculty were using waterboarding on you. When I asked the Dean of the Faculty, Peter Steinberger, he assured me that the faculty were using only the usual forms of torture—harsh interrogation, humiliation, and sleep deprivation.

But the good news— to mix a metaphor—is that, like the American banking industry, you have all passed the stress test. Unfortunately, also like the American banking industry, you are desperately in need of recapitalization. Or, perhaps I should say, your parents are in need of recapitalization.

Speaking of such things, this past year has certainly reminded us just how entangled we all are on this planet. We have heard stories about how sub-prime mortgages on houses in Las Vegas contributed to the collapse of banks in Iceland and Kazakhstan. We have heard how a nasty little flu virus first observed in Mexico City caused the closing of schools in Seattle and Manhattan. We have read how the entire Internet is in danger of crashing because of another nasty little virus, created by some hacker writing computer code in a lonely cell somewhere, perhaps China, or Bulgaria, or the Old Dorm Block.

Globalization, the buzzword that tries to capture all this interdependency, is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. In a recent book entitled Vermeer’s Hat, Chinese historian Timothy Brook uses mundane objects in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer—silver balances, beaver-felt hats, porcelain fruit bowls—to illuminate the explosion of global commerce and conquest in the early seventeenth century.

But even this episode in globalization pales in comparison to the greatest example of globalization in human history—namely, the migration of human beings, from their humble beginnings on the plains of Africa, to populate the entire world. Now, modern methods of genetic research enable us to map that migration meticulously, by tracing patterns in the DNA of people, both living and long deceased. Genomics enables us to see in precise and measurable ways that there is indeed only one family of man. Everywhere we go, everyone we meet turn out to be distant cousins.

Timothy Brook uses the metaphor of Indra’s net to capture this interdependency. According to Buddhist legend, the Vedic god Indra had woven all of creation into an infinite web. Each human being is like a pearl at the intersection of the strands, shimmering in our individual perfection, yet reflecting on our shining surfaces every other pearl, and connected by the strands of the web to every other human being.

There are many other metaphors for this notion of human entanglement. John Donne famously said:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

Frankly, I would rather think of myself as a pearl on Indra’s web than as one of John Donne’s continental clods. But you get the idea.

Modern physicists have yet another metaphor, one derived from the quantum mechanical theory of “non-locality” or “quantum entanglement.” According to the theory, under certain circumstances, two paired particles seem to coordinate their actions simultaneously, even at huge distances. Albert Einstein famously called this: “spooky action at a distance.” Well, spooky or not, experimental physics now seems to have confirmed the hypothesis. And it opens up the intriguing possibility that modern biophysics will some day show that every one of us is indeed deeply connected at the microscopic level, just as Vedic philosophers asserted two millennia ago.

So, you may be asking, what does all this have to do with you? Well, I know from second-hand sources, that many of you have spent your years at Reed in various degrees of entanglement.

Anyway, commencement signals the reality that you will start becoming disentangled—at least in a physical sense. You will scatter from Reed College and from each other. According to the senior survey, you will take up residence in exotic and faraway places like Norway . . . Korea . . . New Jersey. But, wherever you go, and whatever you do, you will always be emotionally entangled with this college, and with each other. You will forever carry the imprint of Reed on your DNA. The wave particles that comprise your physical bodies will vibrate together across great distances. One of you will sneeze in Colorado and her former roommate in Munich will say Gezundheit. It is, as Einstein said, spooky. But it’s real. And it’s Reed. So my parting wish to you, the class of 2009, is simply this: Stay entangled. And, please, stay spooky.

Thank you and Godspeed.

Now, I have the distinct pleasure to introduce our commencement speaker, Eric Westervelt, Reed College class of 1991. Speaking of gobalization, few people have done more to help us see the ways in which our lives are entangled on this planet than Eric Westervelt. As a Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio, Eric has brought into our daily lives the struggles and tribulations of the people of Baghdad, Gaza, Jerusalem, Beirut, and Kabul. Now covering Europe from his base in Berlin, Eric has won repeated honors for his coverage of stories as varied as the September 11th attacks, the Columbine shootings, the Florida presidential recount, racial profiling, the war against drugs, and the war against crime. Through his work, we are reminded in poignant and powerful ways—as John Donne said—that each one of us is involved in mankind. Please join me in welcoming our 2009 commencement speaker, Eric Westervelt.