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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar

 

An Unpompous Circumstance

History and comedy share the stage as Pomona adds 362 new names to its ranks of alumni.

It began as a conventional—even sappy—commencement speech, tossed back and forth like a pingpong ball between seniors Jonathan Korn and Daniel Clark, chosen by their classmates to speak at this, Pomona’s 109th commencement ceremony.

“... Graduation is a ceremony that is timeless in character and steeped in the finest traditions of our heritage,” recited Korn.

Clark began, then faltered. “I can’t do this,” he muttered.

Korn: “Our individual honor is just part of a greater whole—”

“Korn, cut the crap. It’s a pack of lies.”

“Dan, they gave us this speech. We have to read it.”

“Korn, I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Don’t you want to graduate?”

Laughter from the audience.

“I can’t.”

Korn removed his glasses, looking helpless. “What are we supposed to do?”

“Korn, we need to eat the speech.”

“Eat the speech?”

“Korn, I have a hunger that can only be satiated by eating this speech.”

Cheers and laughter erupted from the Class of 2002. And with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as their “speech-eating music,” the two seniors, both members of the improvisational comedy group Without A Box, proceeded to eat their speech. “Good speech,” commented Korn afterward.

It was, in many ways, classic Pomona—an intermingling of tradition and irreverence, serious reflection and a sense of fun—as Pomona awarded 362 new graduates their diplomas in that event with the curiously forward-looking name: commencement.

Korn summed up the message of their speech—and in some ways, the message of the day—like this: “Don’t let this day lull you into complacency. We’re not finished making mistakes. We are not grown up. And we are not done learning.”

The other speaker chosen by the seniors seemed to pick up on that theme. “Just about every really important thing you will learn in your life, you will learn after leaving Pomona College,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Keller ’70. “In saying this, I don’t mean to insult you or your fine teachers, and I certainly don’t mean to upset your parents, who could just as easily have bought his-and-hers Mercedes SL500 roadsters for the price of the diploma you will get today. Rest assured, the time and money spent here were not wasted. But what you’ve been given in this lovely oasis of ideas is just a very high-quality set of tools—some language, a lot of data, problem-solving skills, the gift of argument.

“Real life,” he went on, “starts now. That’s probably why they call it commencement.”
Keller went on to offer the group a few insights drawn from his own close-up observation of some of the century’s great reform leaders during a remarkable career as a foreign correspondent, managing editor and now columnist for The New York Times (see Exact Words).



Jennie Keith '64


Arturo Madrid


Joseph Stiglitz

Also addressing the Class of 2002 were three recipients of honorary degrees:
Jennie Keith ’64, the Centennial Professor of Anthropology at Swarthmore College, recalled the stress of working with a piano professor who sat behind her poised to leap forward “to defend whatever composer I was mangling,” an experience that taught her that learning, especially from a great teacher, is seldom comfortable.

“And when you’re in that situation,” she said. “I’d like to be that little voice in your ear saying, ‘Go ahead, try, be uncomfortable. You might learn something.’”

Keith served as provost of Swarthmore College from 1992 through 2001. Her research focuses on the influence of culture and society on the lives of older people around the world.

Arturo Madrid, the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, paid homage to the many Latino and Latina “interlopers” in academe who helped pave the way for minorities in higher education and other American circles of power. “We, my generation, have done much to change American society,” he said, “but there is still much to be done.”

Madrid was the 1997 recipient of the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities from the National Endowment for the Humanities for “his extraordinary contributions toward developing the intellectual resources of the Latino community and pioneering scholarship on Chicano literary and cultural expression.”

With tongue in cheek, Joseph Stiglitz, co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, challenged Korn and Clark’s contention that there was nothing truly special about the day. “Statistics show that at the end of this day, your expected lifetime earnings will be substantially higher than they were at the beginning,” he said, to laughter and applause. Stiglitz currently holds joint professorships at Columbia University’s Economics Department, School of International and Public Affairs Graduate Business School. From 1993 to 1997, he served as a member and then as the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and as a member of the President’s cabinet. He is the father of Pomona graduating senior Edward Stiglitz and Pomona sophomore Julia Stiglitz.