Welcome to this year's Diploma Ceremony of the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures. As Chair of the Department, it is my privilege to preside over this occasion and to convey to you, on behalf of my colleagues and our staff, the great pleasure it gives us to greet you today.
It has been a long day and, indeed, a lengthy weekend for most of you. I promise to keep my remarks brief so that we might move on quickly to the main event, the distribution of your long-awaited diplomas.
We are the oldest Department of Modern Languages in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, in 1779, deemed it essential to include our discipline in his curriculum reform of the College, and the modern languages have been a part of the institution's indispensable fields ever since. But those of you who have read the Royal Charter of 1693 know that the sovereign founders of our College, King William III and Queen Mary II, had already specified, nearly a century earlier, that the young gentlemen of the Colony of Virginia be schooled by us in the modern languages as well as in a handful of other good arts and sciences. Indeed, my own job was performed by one of the five original professors or masters who made up the instructional staff of the College in its first years. A simple glance around this room today, however, is enough to demonstrate that we have come a long way since those five professors and one hundred young boys, all subjects of the Crown, gathered in the Wren Building.
In the 2010 version of our Department, nearly fifty professors and instructors greet almost two thousand students each semester in classes that span eight different languages and many more cultures. Not only have we increased dramatically in size, but, most importantly, we have progressed qualitatively in the nature of our diverse programs and the pedagogical methods that we use to implement them. Nowadays, students come to class equipped with their laptops, prepared to access pertinent information on the Internet while discussing a topic in pairs and groups; ready to make power point presentations and actually collaborate with their professors in the learning process. Times have indeed changed, and they have done so even more rapidly in the relatively recent past.
If you will permit me to use my own personal experience as a professor here at the College, I will tell you just how different your collegiate career would have been had you been a first-year student here in 1970 when I was a first-year assistant professor. First of all, your academic year would not have begun in August but in late September and your second semester would have started sometime in February. And, by the way, we would have had to wait until the month of June for Commencement which, in those days, took place outside under the trees of the Wren Yard in all its splendid humidity. You would have lived in same-sex dorms, of course, and the women would have had curfews strictly enforced by an institutional fixture that has long since vanished, the dormitory house mother.
Presuming you had, back then, been inclined towards the study of a modern language, you would have selected from one of three of our department's majors: French, German or Spanish, although you might have ventured into several classes of Italian or Russian. But the modern languages would not have been enough to satisfy your concentration requirements since all our majors were obliged to take at least six credits of an Ancient Language as well. And what about double-majors, you might inquire, since 75% of you graduates today have completed concentrations in another field? They didn't come into existence until 1975. Study abroad? Unless you wanted to go to the English Department's summer program in Cambridge, there were no other options unless you disenrolled from the College for a year and enrolled in another institution's Junior Year Abroad program. I could go on and on, enumerating the substantial differences between your studies of today and those undertaken by your predecessors just four decades ago. But I think you get the message.
Yet, in spite of the obvious evolution that has taken place in the classrooms and, indeed, in the minds of faculty and students alike, there are certain constants that remain. The fundamental motivation that underlies your choice of a modern language as a field of specialization is most likely not unlike the reasons that your predecessors gave themselves for doing the same thing throughout the years. You are interested in knowing more about those who are unlike you, who don't speak English as their everyday language, and who look at the world just a bit differently from you.
The concepts of time and space, the values placed on leisure versus labor, the role that political and economic systems play in one's daily life, all these dimensions of human existence and many more have come to capture your attention through your study of the modern language courses that you have mastered. Many of you have been fortunate enough to experience first-hand the culture of other lands and peoples through living and studying in various geographic locations all over the world. And, if this has not yet been the case, then surely it will be one day soon.
You, more than most of your fellow graduates in all of the other departments and programs of this university, are especially well-prepared to deal with diversity when you naturally encounter it in populations unlike mainstream America, but interestingly enough, you are now even better-prepared than most Americans to understand and to foster understanding when faced with diversity here in our own United States. We are a nation made up of immigrant stock. With the exception of our Native Americans, we or our families all came from somewhere else. This is a simple, verifiable fact, but one which is sometimes quickly forgotten or relegated to an abstract category labeled ‘history'. Unfortunately, the result of this somewhat selective amnesia is an attitude of intolerance towards those who are different from us in some way. As the philosophers remind us, we are all in this life together, facing many of the same odds, and we all share what is often referred to as "the human condition"; so, let's do our best to help each other out and not tear others down in order to build ourselves up. You, our graduates, whether your academic major has been in Chinese, French, German, Hispanic Studies, or any of the other global languages and cultures, are now prepared to do what it takes to apply to your everyday lives all that you have learned about others.
And, speaking personally once again, I feel a special bond with this class of 2010 graduates, since I too am graduating today and will soon be looking at the College of William and Mary from the retired professor's perspective. I feel privileged to have seen so many generations of modern language students come and go and eventually head off towards excitingly new endeavors. I know that I speak for all of my colleagues, your professors, when I say, sincerely, that we wish you luck, ambition and, most especially, compassion in taking on your next tasks.