2004 Commencement Speech by President David Oxtoby
Testing by Fire: Charge to the Class of '04
When 400 of you arrived on campus in August of 2000, you were the first Pomona College class of the new millennium. We all remember the time, the often naïve but well-meaning speculations that filled magazines and newspapers about how the mathematical accident of a simple round number (two times a power of ten) somehow signaled a profound change in the world and our relationship to it. Some commentators anticipated an optimistic outcome, with humanity finally realizing that we live in a single world and responding to that imperative; others saw signs of Armageddon and the end of the world.
Four years later, we look back and realize that, although much has changed (September 11, 2001 being a particularly noteworthy date), much remains the same, for both good and ill. Poverty, epidemics, and terrorism remain 21st century problems, as they were 20th century problems; on the other hand, hard work and idealism retain their power to change lives. I hope that the four years that you have spent at Pomona College have profoundly affected each of you, both in changing you from the persons you were when you arrived on campus and in preparing you for the time ahead.
You and I have shared only one year of this journey together, and I would like to spend these minutes reflecting on this time, taking as my theme “Testing by Fire.” Having moved from the Midwest to Southern California a year ago, I must say that I was surprised in late October to note a grayish-white “snow” falling from the skies. Of course this was the ash that resulted from hundreds of thousands of acres of forest burning in Southern California. Dozens of houses were lost in the city of Claremont; lives were lost miles to the south of us. Fortunately, our campus was not harmed beyond the inconvenience of dust to be cleaned up, the masks donned by those with respiratory problems, and the worried calls from parents and friends who saw the Claremont dateline on the front page of their newspapers in New York and Chicago. Still, the beautiful green meadows and hillsides that I had come to love during my bicycle rides along the Thompson Creek Trail had been replaced overnight by a moonscape of bare rock and black trees. The power of fire in its primal destructiveness really hit home.
In January, flames reached our campus in a different way. A work of art created by a Pomona College student, a metal cross covered with material, was taken from this campus to one of the northern campuses in the Claremont Consortium. Only four people saw those flames, which died down quickly, but the effect of this fire soon spread through our entire community. Discussions were held, manifestos circulated, marches organized. Classes were canceled so that students, faculty, and staff could engage in critical discussions of race, class, gender, religion, and sexual preference in our society and how Pomona and the other Claremont Colleges should change. I was deeply proud of this senior class, the class of 2004, and the leadership they showed during this difficult time to turn a divisive action into a force for positive change.
Fire can be destructive. It can blacken the green of nature, destroy fine creations of the human spirit, and embody the hate of a cross-burning. However, it can also bring light and warmth and create positive change. As a chemist, I can attest to the transformations caused by fire in a piece of metal, annealed over flame at a high temperature. A brittle, breakable piece of crude metal is honed by fire into a strong, smooth, and powerful tool. The question for us as individuals and for Pomona College as a community is whether we will be consumed by the fires of the past year, or whether instead they will serve to temper and strengthen us for new purposes. Either outcome is possible; our response is critical.
For me, this year has been bracketed by two ceremonial events here in Bridges Auditorium: my inauguration in mid-October, and the Alumni celebration of “Through the Gates” two weeks ago. All of you were busy with studies and many other activities, so only a few of you were able to take part on each occasion. At the inauguration, I spoke (little knowing what was to come in the year ahead) of fire: the Frary Dining Hall mural by Orozco, in which Prometheus is depicted as stealing fire from the gods to give to humankind. I said then that “it is fitting that this dramatic image of fire coming down from heaven is not locked up in a museum, but is right in the middle of our everyday life. It symbolizes the passions that break through into our daily activities. It reminds us that education is not always easy, but that it can be life-transforming.” These words stand today. On Alumni Weekend we celebrated the Ceremony of the Flame, a tradition at Pomona College that dates back to the early days of the last century. In this ceremony, a lit candle is used to light other candles, spreading light through the darkness of Bridges Auditorium. It is a powerful symbol for the bringing of education and knowledge to this country and the world, passing values and ideas on from faculty to student and from one generation to the next.
As you leave this hall today, you will carry with you the fruits of a four-year Pomona College education: a deepened capacity to analyze and to create, a broadened perspective on knowledge and on the world around us. It is my fervent hope that this will be but the beginning of your lifelong education, and that in many and varied ways you will find opportunities to give back to others what has been given to you.
Congratulations to all of you!