By: Jane Moore
Upper School Director
The Class of 2016 graduated Berkeley Carroll on Friday, June 3rd. Below are US Director Jane Moore’s remarks at the commencement to the class.
I’d like to talk a bit today about the world out there — that is, the world that is not Berkeley Carroll. A number of things I’ve read, heard, and experienced in the past few weeks have me thinking about how Berkeley Carroll has prepared you — or not — for what you will find there, particularly in our American world.
As some of you know, last weekend I went to Disney World for the first time. I never wanted to go to Disney as a child (or as an adult), but I decided to take my niece for her 8th birthday, just the two of us. It was a wonderful and special trip, but also jarring in some ways. Every person who worked there called my niece “princess.” Happy Birthday, princess, Have fun, princess. The first time it happened, she whispered to me, “Why did that man call me princess?” The second time, she looked at me and laughed. The third time, she looked down, and wouldn’t smile. The last night when the bus driver said, “Good night, princess,” she stomped off the bus saying, “Superhero, cowboy, anything but this!”
Are you prepared for this world? — not just Disney World, but a world that doesn’t think of gender as a construct, a world that assumes that a girl with a ponytail, shorts, and a Star Wars t-shirt identifies as, or dreams of being, a princess?
In some ways, you are so prepared. Not only wouldn’t you assume that an 8-year-old girl wants to be a princess – even if you haven’t taken Women on the Edge – but you are also prepared, just for example, to talk — in an informed way — about the difference between sex and gender, about gender expression, gender identification, the gender binary, the gender spectrum, and about the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. Your comfort with some ideas and language that are very common in some circles, but are just beginning to make their way into the general public’s consciousness makes me think you are very ready for the world out there. You could put those Disney folks and their gendered assumptions in their place!
Or could you?
I’ve also been thinking about Aaron’s senior speech, in which he gets stuck on a chair lift arguing about environmental protection with a man whose family has been in the coal industry for generations and who dismisses Aaron as an ignorant New York liberal. The argument is short-lived, as Aaron finds himself at a loss for words and concedes, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Aaron argues that while BC students might be prepared to talk about “the issues,” passionately and convincingly, with those with similar ideas and from similar backgrounds, perhaps we are not as prepared to encounter, talk to, listen to, “the other.” Aaron felt he had not been taught enough, and so he had not practiced enough, to talk to his chair lift companion.
Could you? Should you? Would you bother? Could you convincingly — and respectfully — explain the problem with “princess” to someone not versed in the same gender lingo that rolls off your tongue? Would it be worth your time? Or just an eye roll? The world where Aaron is dismissed as a “New York liberal” and where any young girl is assumed to aspire to princess-hood, will most probably not be the world you will find on your college campuses next year.
I’ve also been thinking of Gil’s senior speech in which he ruminates on where his unexpected senior year has taken him and ponders the irony that “Instead of attending a school where [he] would have to shave [his] head and refer to [his] superiors as Sir, [he is] going to a school where the student body accused [it] of cultural appropriation after the serving of bad sushi and fried chicken.” A now “viral” New Yorker article from last week refers to this same incident at Oberlin that Gil mentioned.
In this article on the current college climate, Nathan Heller uses Oberlin as a perhaps-extreme case-in-point and argues that “schools across the country have been roiling with activism that has seemed to shift the meaning of contemporary liberalism.” He also describes students at Emory “complain[ing to the administration] of being traumatized after finding ‘Trump 2016’ chalked on campus.” Heller finds a college world where, presumably, unlike at Disney World and on the ski lift, “both the activists and their opponents were multicultural, educated, and true of heart.”
Discussing Oberlin’s popular Comparative American Studies program, Heller includes a depressing anecdote about a teacher who actually disbanded her class in the middle of the semester because the students were so divided by identity and, particularly, by race, that they could not talk with one another or with anyone outside of their intimate community. As a result, instead of taking a class, each student did an independent study.
Are you prepared for this world, this college world, this ideological college world? Have we prepared you for it more or less than for Disney World? Which seems safer and easier to navigate?
These rhetorical questions do not have clear answers, at least not to me. You can be confident that you have learned a lot during your years at Berkeley Carroll. You’ve learned how to think more critically, and many of you have formed strong opinions. You have encountered new and challenging ideas and experienced uncomfortable situations. You have certainly said something that has offended someone else. You have certainly heard something that has offended you. We have tried to teach you that the dialogue is worthwhile — worthwhile as a community goal, worthwhile for personal and intellectual growth.
The Berkeley Carroll faculty have invested their knowledge and experience in grappling with ways to present you with these questions and to help you answer them. For these reasons and more, I am very pleased to be speaking to you on behalf of them, my colleagues. You have been privileged to be taught by them.
Today, Graduation Day, is a moment of excitement and satisfaction — perhaps tinged with a bit of uncertainty. As we move forward into these uncertain next few months — uncertain for you, the graduates, as you go off to new places, and uncertain for all of us living here in the United States as we lurch to the conclusion of a repeatedly dumbfounding election cycle — it is more tempting than ever to look for safety and assurance by drowning out the other.
In his graduation address at Rutgers a few weeks ago, President Obama coaxed us to do the opposite: “If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.”
Last weekend, when my niece and I arrived at Disney, both she and I could have told you that she wasn’t interested in princesses. But the conversation would have ended there. Her dislike was both a fact and a feeling, but it was not Obama’s well-honed argument. Disney was mostly awesome because of the time we spent together, because she loves roller coasters and Star Wars and new places.
But our joint encounter with the “other,” in this case “princess world,” produced better, deeper, more nuanced conversation about gender and gender expectations than I would have thought possible. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that an 8 year-old’s feminist sensibilities crystallized surprisingly and remarkably because she was forced to think about and articulate what she felt. This would not have happened, at least not in the same way, at the Prospect Park carousel or at Coney Island.
After today, you are headed out to try to figure it out in a moment that President Obama called an “inflection point in history,” a time when “big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” If you heed his call, and Aaron’s, you will build on your education here: you will encounter ideas that will make you alter your opinions or strengthen them.
On behalf of my colleagues — and it is my distinct privilege to represent them — we wish you well in your adventures and endeavors, we look forward to seeing what you do with your Berkeley Carroll and college education, and we thank you for having made our jobs so enjoyable.