Good afternoon!

I’m not often asked to give inspirational speech like this.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s, well, because I’m a sociologist.

For those of you who have taken my classes, or read my work – you know – I am not the one to give the rosy rendition of the world – that some may sometimes hope for or feel most comfortable with.

I’ll never forget one of the student evaluations from one of first courses I taught on Religion and Society at Indiana University way back when. This course is not all “bunnies and butterflies” this student wrote.

I guess I am still not teaching “bunnies and butterflies.”

These days I’ve been sounding the alarm that our democracy is crumbling and in imminent danger.

And I say that with profound love and respect for a great many federal civil servants, whom I studied for years over the course of the Trump administration. I really do think many of the folks I spoke with are heroes.

But we are facing daunting “wicked problems.”

And as if wicked problems weren’t enough, scholars are now talking about “poly crises,” entanglement of crises in multiple global systems in ways that significantly degrade humanity's prospects

We are looking at rising populism and a turn toward authoritarianism and militarism, with elected leaders falling in line all too quickly.

We are seeing the takedown of academic freedom across a growing number of universities and the targeting of professors and administrators and students, and especially women and people of color.

We are watching the vicious scapegoating of immigrants, including vulnerable kids.

We are seeing effective misinformation campaigns on social media, perpetuated by Russia, and other political interests at home.

And we are seeing the devastating outcomes of climate change.

And despite how some rich nations are starting to pass massive, energy shifting policies.  --

we, as a planet, are just not making progress fast enough to curtail massive climate migration, conflict,

and tremendous suffering among island and developing nations in the years and decades to come.

As Ulrich Beck warned in his book on the Risk Society years ago -- humanity is living in a global “risk society,” in which shared problems, like climate change, threaten everyone.

And yet, in the face of these problems,:  humans seem terrifyingly inept in addressing them.

Our institutions seem to be creaking under the weight of these problems and their own ossification.

We see this across the state, education, healthcare, policing, and the environment.

Not exactly inspirational stuff.

Your generation seems more aware of this than many older folks.

And yes, more than many of those in my generation.

You arrived at Hamilton amid  Covid outbreaks and are leaving college at a time marked by violent policing of university campuses across the country.

Yet, rather than facing these challenges directly, many people seem overwhelmed with the discomfort of these looming complex risks.

And so many fall prey to the temptation to take comfort in small everyday things

 – even sometimes the more mundane stresses of our daily responsibilities –

all the while avoiding the larger evident problems.

In the face of these existential threats, we see a growing, and I think disturbing, ease in reverting back to our own solitary cocoons of Netflix binges and social media absorption,  Amazon shopping, and social fragmentation, which is also giving rise to the mental health pandemic in the wake of COVID everyone is talking about.

Another common initial reaction to many students upon learning sociology and the extant of these larger social issues  is, “What can I do? How can I be part of the solution, rather than the problem?”

And these questions are very familiar to me – as I remember asking them – and see my own impulses to respond the same way.

I want to just go home, and get lost in my phone or TV binges –like the rest of you!

These responses are deeply seated in the Western, increasingly individualistic culture we swim in in the United States in particular, and yes, at an elite liberal arts college.

But the answer lies not in what you can do alone, but in what we can do together with like-minded others, committed to shared values and goals.

This is the time that relationships matter more than your grades.

But you have to know how to use them, as more than a force for networking for your careers.

You need to use them to work together to imagine new futures, and to work on addressing the daunting collective problems we face.

And the real work of democracy, of collective imagining, and of creating new societies – is often slow, and can be boring and tedious.

But it can also be inspiring and energizing – and yes – even fun.

Your education at Hamilton prepares you to think big and take on these challenges.

And I know that, because I am also a liberal arts kid. 

And after a few years away exploring other educational vehicles through Peace Corps in Bangladesh and as a TEFL teacher in China, and grad student -- I returned to be a liberal arts professor to commit the rest of my life to the liberal arts for good reason.

A life of liberal arts is a commitment to perpetual inquiry: a commitment to a life of learning. A commitment to digging deep, and over and over again trying to align our behavior with our values – a Herculean and never-ending task to be sure.

Surrounding ourselves with similarly committed others helps keep us honest and accountable, and committed to the perpetual quest to better understand

-- and as we do, to do better in our actions for the good of more people.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what the liberal arts was when I showed up at Colorado College in 2001, like some of you who arrived at Hamilton 4 years ago.

Although some things were different back then – I didn’t have a cell phone – at all – and – being before 9-11 – I didn’t even have to put liquids in a baggie or take off my shoes at the airport.

Times seemed different –not so heavy.

And I’ll tell you a secret. (cover mouth, whisper) I actually went to Colorado College to party. I went there to ski and climb 14ers. I went there for the adventure of my life, having grown up in suburban, boring Connecticut.

But I also went there because during my visit – before the party – I attended a fascinating, thought-provoking debate by the school’s impressive debate team. And I was intrigued by the prospect of taking one class at a time, and learning about a new topic every month on the block plan.

And what I learned at Colorado College, and I hope you have learned at Hamilton, is that you are smart, resourceful, and informed enough now, to learn about anything you want.

I now study completely new topics every 5-10 years for a reason.

It keeps you fresh, and enables you to keep tackling new problems in an immersive and exhilarating way – because you are learning as you go.

A life of learning — that’s the actual point.

The suffering, the frustration, the feelings of not knowing and inadequacy – yes that’s the best moments of your life.

That’s what it means to be alive.

We are humans be-ing.

We are humans in process, ever trying to attain completeness, the end, the point of rest – but – we actually often aren’t happy when we get there.

It’s the learning — the process itself of growing and stretching, that is actually the most meaningful and purposeful part.

It’s not our own individual happiness that actually matters the most for a good life.

It’s actually the purpose and the meaning that matter most – and the gratitude and joy that come out of such experiences, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways, and sometimes in quite subtle ways that you just might miss if you aren’t paying close enough attention.

That’s what I’ve learned from 16 years of studying spirituality.

And we get purpose and meaning from relationships and from learning and working toward the greater good.

And as Hamilton grads – you are prepared to engage with the problems of the world in search of that goal.

You can read.

You can write.

You can reach out to those who are more knowledgeable.

You can use your networks to connect with the most informed people on the planet.

 You can think independently and critically to make sense of it all, and apply what you’ve learned to new and innovative solutions.

And you’ve seen quite impressive role models in how to do work imagining new futures through community during your time here, including Angela Davis, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Margo Okazawa-Rey, David Pellow, Roxanne Gay, Kiese Laymon, Rhodessa Jones, Michelle Schenandoah, and Roberto Gonzales, among others.

Some of you have worked with local leaders in Utica and upstate NY, such as Pastor Mike Ballman, Hilda Jordan, Black Women’s Blueprint, and our Justice Lab this past year worked with Hope Chapel AME Zion church’s Rev. Sharon Baugh – who are all working to make our local neighborhoods better for those within and outside of their own communities.

You’ve seen how its done –modeled by the best.

And some of you have also had the grace of bearing witness to the spontaneous collective joy that can burst out of such work – as my Justice Lab students reminded with their closure of our semester with their singing of “We’re climbing up the mountain,” which they learned during their time at the Highlander Institute.

You’ve had time to learn and practice, and now you are ready.

So a few last words of advice, before I turn you over to the awards.

Be courageous.

Be brave.

Take risks.

Make friends with the weirdos, the eccentrics, and the innovative thinkers, the ones who get obsessed with a  problem, and won’t let it go until they see it through.

Make friends with people different than you – the ones that challenge you to try on a new perspective.

And have the courage and humility to let go of understandings that may not stand up to closer scrutiny, and that no longer serve you or the world you want to build.

Use these lessons to create more sustainable and more equitable models of living together, and to help others learning and striving to be better – as you are.

I also encourage you to fail.

Yes, fail.

Fail epically.

Anyone willing to take on authoritarianism.




Homophobia and heteronormativity.

And climate change,

 is inevitably going to fail.

They’re going to make some people, and perhaps whole industries, or political parties angry.

And they are going to fail over and over again.

But in the middle of all that failure, they might move the needle.

And they may not even see it.

But they make come up with an idea that someone else carries forward, perhaps even long after they are gone.

So fail miserably.

But fail working the with best of people.

And fail for the right reasons.

Fail to try to save the planet.

Fail to try to aid the vulnerable with less resources and less education.

Fail to make the world better for the good of all.

And know you can handle it.

You can handle the failure, and you can handle the ire, and you can handle the not knowing,

as you are falling down the rabbit hole, grabbing at possible solutions, hopefully with your friends and those you trust as you are falling and building the net to catch your generation, and those that come after you,

you can handle it.

Because you (pause) are a Hamilton grad.

I’ll leave you with words of wisdom that I first heard from my dad, but seem to originate from John A Shedd: "A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for"

Good luck, and congratulations.

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