Hello Hamiltonians!

After a year of such profound loss – loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, loss of community – it’s a joy to celebrate together.

President Wippman and Dean Keen, thank you for giving me the honor of addressing this magnificent class. As I’ve told colleagues and anyone within earshot, this college has had better leadership than any organization I’ve ever been in - military or academic.

Our leadership team did a better job of managing this pandemic than any other college in the country

Chairman Sadove and the Board of Trustees. Your commitment to this institution during one of its toughest years is evident. Thank you for your steady hand.

To our engaged alumni. Hamilton College set the foundation for your life. Now, your support allows us to continue that tradition.

To my fellow faculty. You look resplendent! I’ve never worn academic regalia before – I always wore my army uniform – and I’m totally digging the crazy colors and ridiculously cool hats. We’ve got to find a way to wear this get-up more often.

The faculty here at Hamilton are not only dedicated and brilliant scholars, but compassionate and innovative teachers. You managed zoom, masked-up, and hybrid classes. Without a doubt, this was the finest teaching you have ever done. Especially while your own children learned from home.

I’m honored to be part of your ranks.

To the family and friends of the class of 2021, in zoomland, congratulations! I so wish you could be here. No one has been asked to do more than you. You welcomed your students back in March and found ways to support their learning remotely and under pandemic stress.

In the military we give medals for extraordinary performance. Therefore, by the power vested in me by absolutely no one, all class of 2021 families are hereby inducted into The Order of Awesome families, First Class. In recognition of this high honor, graduates please give your families a standing O – they deserve it. Stand up and let your families know what they have done for you, they have been incredible. Well done, families,

So, awesome parents, brilliant students, dedicated faculty, compassionate leaders, first class staff, and engaged alumni.

I feel so lucky have been a part of the Hamilton community this year.

But I must tell you, after nearly four decades as an army officer and two decades at West Point, I wondered. Would I be accepted at an elite liberal arts college?

As I walked around campus, some things looked familiar to me. Steuben Field, named after the great Prussian general. Your cane that you’re going to get has a revolutionary war tri-corner top in his honor.

Our mascot is the Continentals — soldiers. Our colors blue and buff. The colors George Washington picked for the Continental army, the same blue color I wore for nearly four decades as an army officer. And of course, Alexander Hamilton was a brave army officer who once led a bayonet charge.

I felt at home, but how could I show the faculty and students that I wanted to be one of you. Part of this superb community of learning. What could I do to ensure you saw me as a scholar, not as a soldier?

I had an idea.

Was it too obvious though? Maybe I’m trying too hard.

No! It must be done.

What did I do?

I bought a Subaru.

Now, I’m a full-fledged Hamilton College professor, able to climb College Hill at will.

And with my faithful Subaru, I’m ready to talk to you.

Class of 2021,

Some will say that you are the pandemic class. No!

To me, you are the class that kicked COVID’s butt!

I have a license to use mild profanity but that doesn’t mean I have to use it.

When we first started this year, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure we would make it. I doubted you. 18–22-year-olds, I thought, wouldn’t have the self-discipline to social distance, wear masks. Refrain from keggers. The virus was too contagious. I saw all the problems.

Well, you showed me! The reason we are here in person is because of you! You are the most self-disciplined peer group I have ever seen. You made it through the pandemic intact with no spring break. Instead, you had a few visits to the Homewood Suites. With Grub Hub, I might add.

You kept masks on, you socially distanced, you quarantined, you tested three times a week.

It was the Class of 2021’s leadership that set the standard for everyone. Your leadership that ensured we made it through. Truly your graduation is worthy of celebration. What an accomplishment.

Let me put your accomplishments in perspective.

Here’s a little secret. Graduating from college is far harder than a job, or career.

I know, I know, everyone says college is the best years of your life. And it is wonderful, especially at Hamilton with this great community. With your friends.

But hear me out. In the work force, you have only one boss.

Here, every semester, you have four new bosses. That’s right, every faculty member is a boss. Each professor is completely different. With different styles, different expectations, and different disciplines. And you have to figure out what all four of us want and deliver, quickly. At a college with extra high standards.

You must turn in a paper for me. A project for her. These are really difficult things to accomplish, and you have to deliver for four bosses simultaneously with hard deadlines. By the time you figure out each professor, each boss, the semester is over.

And then, you start all over again with four new bosses. Rinse and repeat for eight semesters.

Are you on a sports team? The coach is a boss. Do you have a job? Another boss. And don’t forget the CEOs – your parents.

Not only that, but you also figured out how to thrive in a bureaucracy. Hey, I’m a fan of bureaucracies. That’s what gave us a vaccine in record time. All institutions are bureaucracies, colleges, hospitals, governments, non-profits, and businesses. You successfully negotiated a bureaucracy on your own for four years. That’s what most of us do for the rest of our lives.

Now, you have skills!

That’s why, when you graduate from Hamilton, you are going to do so well. You’ve figured out how to thrive in a bureaucracy while delivering to dozens of bosses - during a pandemic. After this, a job, even grad school with one boss is down-right easy.

Here’s what I’m saying: You are going to absolutely crush it after your superb liberal arts education at Hamilton. Folks can’t wait to work with you because you are so well-prepared.

OK. So that’s what you’ve done. Well done! Congratulations!

Now for what I hope you will do.

Let me combine two elements. Commencement, which means, to me, the beginning of life-long learning and second, our wise motto, “know thyself.”

Those two commands sound simple, keep learning and know thyself. But I found them really hard in my own life. Franky, I failed for far, far too long. It took me decades to “know thyself.”

I’m a historian, and the only way I can explain something is with a story. A story I hope will show you how much lifelong learning it took me to know thyself.

As President Wippman said, I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington Va. As a poor kid, I took a ROTC scholarship to pay my way through this expensive school. After four years I received my diploma at commencement, next I went to my army commissioning ceremony in Lee Chapel. Went onstage, took my oath, and began my army career.

That was the story I told for years. But there was another story I didn’t know. In my forties, I began to look at my life. My surroundings. Myself. And I didn’t like what I found. I told a much different story once I used the skills of a historian to untangle my commissioning story.

Here’s the story I tell now. Now that I better understand “know thyself.”

I went on stage to receive my commission to start my army career. My mom took a picture of me, which I still have. I’m standing ramrod straight in my new green army uniform. I should mention that I had a full head of glorious hair back then - ah, those were the days.

Anyway, I’m standing next to a portrait of Robert E. Lee looking saint-like in his Civil War Confederate uniform. Remember, I’m at Washington and Lee University in Lee Chapel named after the Confederate commander.

Then, I went to receive my commission in the apse of the chapel, the sanctuary. The chapel’s altar however has no religious iconography. No, instead, on top of the altar is a white marble statue of Robert E. Lee in his Confederate uniform lying asleep on the battlefield, grasping a sword ready to rise up, to fight to retain white supremacy, to retain slavery.

Surrounding his statue were a dozen Confederate battle flags, flags of the enemy, flags of a force that killed U.S. Army soldiers to create a slave republic, a force that tried to destroy the United States, the country I was going to defend.

Now, with my commission in my left hand, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

It took me decades before I researched the history of that oath. The oath I took at every promotion, the oath that became the foundation of my professional life, an oath that came to define me, an oath you may take if you ever work for the federal government.

When was that oath written? The oath was written in 1862 during the Civil War to ferret out Confederate traitors. When it says domestic enemies, it’s talking about Confederates. The oath I now cherish, is an anti-Confederate oath. And I took that oath surrounded by Confederate flags, the enemy flags.

When I discovered the meaning of that 1862 oath, it rocked me. I changed. I had to change. I couldn’t unknow that I took a United States oath in a place that celebrated traitorous enslavers. Finally, lifelong learning made me look at myself and realize my culture glorified racism and treason. I truly began to know thyself and it was gut-wrenching. My entire life changed; my field of research changed. And then, with the zeal of a convert, I shared my story publicly.

And now? Now, I’m using my perch as a historian at Hamilton College, as an author in speech after speech, to tell people how I came to know thyself. Know your own history. Know your community’s history. Understanding the past was the first step I took to change myself and my community.

You must keep learning after you graduate. That was my problem. I stopped learning for years. Instead, keep educating yourself, questioning, learning. Keep questioning. Because that is the only way to know thyself.

You received the best education in America at Hamilton College. However, your education is far, far from complete. Something I taught you, something you learned here is wrong, what we taught you is wrong. No education is complete and knowledge changes constantly.

That’s why at this commencement, at this beginning, realize that to know thyself requires a commitment to lifelong learning. And that starts …. now! Learning never, ever, ever stops.

But, hey! Hamiltonians. You’ve got this!

Always remember, you are the class that kicked COVID’s ass!

During this year of loss, we have asked more of the class of 2021 than any class, ever.

You are already well on the way to a life of meaning, a life of learning so that you will….

Know Thyself.


Help us provide an accessible education, offer innovative resources and programs, and foster intellectual exploration.

Site Search