McCullough urges graduates to look to history for insights

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LEWISTON – Commencement exercises for a Bates College graduating class of 387 seniors and four recipients of honorary degrees took place under sunny skies Sunday morning.

Families and friends from around the country joined the graduates. Vehicles, parked in every available spot on streets surrounding the campus, had license plates from many other states.

It was a perfect late spring day for the ceremonies held on the campus “quad.” The event concluded with an elaborate outdoor luncheon of sandwiches and fruit for everyone.

David McCullough, a writer of acclaimed best-selling histories and a distinctive narrator for television and film, encouraged everyone to “read history – history, history, history, for insights into human nature and as an aid to navigation in turbulent times.”

McCullough, who received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Bates, told the graduates, “Be assured that you are needed. Your talents, your vitality, your ideas and idealism, and your proven capacity for hard work are all greatly needed.”

He also advised them to “prize honesty and common sense, choose work you love, don’t let setbacks or skeptics get you down,” and – to laughter and applause – “however little television you watch, watch less.”

In a Sun Journal interview later, when McCullough was asked what contemporary figure he might like to write about, he named Nelson Mandela, who became the first president of South Africa to be elected in fully representative democratic elections. Mandela was a prominent anti-apartheid activist who, while imprisoned for 27 years, was involved in the planning of underground armed resistance activities.

On the subject of religion’s impact on history, he said, “We have had waves of religious fervor in this country many times.”

“There has been a tendency among historians, because we believe in separation of church and state, that we ought to leave church and state separate when we’re writing about history,” yet religious references are found in writing of nearly all historical figures, he said.

“I think there’s a tendency among those who report American life to divide people into factions,” he continued.

McCullough said “we’ve been rocked by some very big events in American life,” such as scandals in the Catholic church and the rise of the religious right as a political force, but he emphasized that “we’ve been through it before, and we’ll survive it.”

McCullough is a two-time winner of both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

His books, including “John Adams, ” “Truman,” and his latest, “1776.” They are praised for their rigorous scholarship, insight into American life and literary merit.

Marjorie Garber, a leading Shakespearean scholar and cultural critic, also received an honorary doctorate in humane letters. She told the graduates that some of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines of advice are often repeated out of context. In the Bard’s plays, the words sometimes come from a buffoon or a hypocrite.

In “Hamlet,” the good advice of Polonius is, in fact, put into the play by Shakespeare in part as a warning to the audience about good advice, she said, “reminding us to remember the context and also the conduct of the speaker.”

Notwithstanding her warnings about advice, Garber cited a minor character in “Henry V” named John Bates – quite appropriate for the occasion of the Bates graduation, Garber said. Bates is a soldier in the army of King Henry V on the battlefield of Agincourt, the defining battle between the English army and the French forces.

Intervening in a quarrel, he says, “Be friends, you English fools, be friends.”

She said the scene emphasizes that dissidence is not inconsistent with political loyalty, and speaking truth to power can have beneficial effects.

Garber told the graduates, “Be friends. We have external challenges aplenty, external challenges we will not resolve completely in our time. But we can try.”

Pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher David D. Ho received the honorary degree of doctor of science.

He said, “In our attempts to combat HIV, I have learned that any success in any endeavor requires bold decision making and willingness to take informed risks.”

Ho is recognized as the developer of the drug cocktail protocol for AIDS patients.

He said, “I have been an American for so long that I often forget that I am also an immigrant. From time to time, I could sense the desire that burns in the belly of a new immigrant.”

He added, “Throughout its history, America has continually benefited from the drive, labor and creativity of immigrants. Thus, today, one prevailing view that they constitute a constant drain on our society is baseless and shameful, especially in the nation of immigrants.”

A doctorate in fine arts was presented to choreographer Mark Morris.

In a talk laced with tongue-in-cheek advice, Morris said, “Have safe sex. Your mother was right. If you need to believe in God, be sure that you find a god that believes in women. Vote. Stay flexible enough to be able to change your mind without embarrassing yourself too much. And take a moment to think of yourself really old, naked, looking in the mirror … and don’t get the tattoo.”

Morris has created more than 130 dance pieces, mostly for his company, the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Of the nearly 400 Bates graduates Sunday morning, 47 were from Maine. Among the communities represented were Turner, Greene, Paris, Poland, Hebron, Farmington, Wilton, Kingfield and Phillips

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