Burr and Burton Academy Commencement Address
by Dan French, Secretary of Education
It is a pleasure to be here today. Congratulations graduates! You have worked hard and demonstrated incredible ability and talent. We are proud of each of you.
And thank you faculty! We appreciate your dedication to our students and our communities. Your work inspires all of us. Your success is apparent in the many accomplishments of these students but also in the success of this school as Burr and Burton Academy celebrates, with the class of 2019, the graduation of its largest class since its founding in 1829.
It is my privilege to serve as Vermont’s Secretary of Education. I was appointed to this position about 10 months ago. When I was thinking about what message I might convey to you today, I thought I would make some observations about Vermont and its education system based on my experiences working across the state.
I realize there are perhaps many of you in the audience who are not from Vermont. Do we have people from out of state here today? Thank you for coming, and welcome to our beautiful state. I am glad you could join us on this wonderful day. Honestly, the weather is like this all year round. You should really think about moving here permanently. You know we will pay you to do that?
I apologize in advance to you out-of-staters. Much of what I am about to say will not make sense to you. For example, I will make reference to something called Act 46 but offer no real explanation of what it is.
You see Vermont is like that. It is a state filled with contradictions. For example we like to complain about the condition of our roads all year round.
I know this because Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn is a friend of mine, and he is one of hardest working members of Governor Scott’s cabinet. He is one of the hardest workers because a big part of his job is dealing with complaints about our roads.
Secretary Flynn is big guy, about 6’ 4” with a shaved head. He is pretty imposing. In February, we were up north in Orange County and went into a convenience store for coffee. When Joe got to the counter he noticed there was a message on the chalkboard that said, “If you don’t like the potholes on Route 302, call Secretary Joe Flynn” and under the message was the number for his cell phone.
Well, when Joe got to the counter, he pointed at the sign and said, “I’m Secretary Joe Flynn”. The owner, without missing a beat, said “Hey, can I get a picture of you with me and my sign?” Joe obliged and the two of them had a great laugh.
Joe then said to the owner, “Let me introduce you to Secretary of Education Dan French. He is responsible for Act 46. Would you like to get a picture of him as well?” The store owner politely said no.
Most of that story is true. An observation I would make is that Vermonters not only complain about the roads during pothole season, but also during the summer construction season when the potholes are being fixed. Vermont is like this.
The contradictory nature of Vermont transcends potholes and road conditions. I believe the contradiction is so embedded in Vermont that it can be traced back to our earliest history. The best representation of this would be our state motto, “Freedom and Unity”. This motto is attributed to one of our founders, Ethan Allen. Before the Revolution, Vermont was sort of a colonial no-man’s land that ultimately led to Vermont becoming an independent republic before it became a state.
You will notice when you drive among our towns in this part of the state that most of our towns were chartered in the 1760s. Many were chartered in the same year, 1761.
This was the result of a land grab between the colonial governors of New Hampshire and New York. New Hampshire chartered towns west of the Connecticut River to extend its boundary west, and New York did the same by chartering towns to the east of the river.
The problem was no one was certain about who owned what. The uncertainty over property ownership created tension in the region to the point where the motto “Freedom and Unity” was conceived. We had to unite together to protect our property rights.
Today, we have forgotten this common heritage to a certain extent. We suffer from what author Jaimie Vollmer terms “Nostesia”. Nostesia is a uniquely American condition that is a debilitating combination of nostalgia and amnesia. We look back fondly at our past while forgetting its important lessons.
For example, we take great pride in our common heritage as Vermonters yet at the same time we believe every Vermont community is somehow distinctly unique. We are nostalgic for freedom but sometimes forget about unity.
Perhaps unity comes more to the surface for us we are in a time of conflict like the American Revolution. I am not saying we have had conflict comparable to the American Revolution in recent times, but the debate around Act 46 in the last few years has certainly been contentious.
But this is not the first time we have had this debate. In the 1880s, the Act 46 of the time was called, “the Vicious Acts, “ and Vermont consolidated its 3000 school districts down to about 280 school districts.
That’s right. We had about 3,000 school districts and the student population was about the same as it is today. We eliminated over 2,500 school districts in the 1880s.
Not much had changed until Act 46 was passed in 2015. Under Act 46, we will have consolidated these 280 school districts down to about 150. The change will be pretty dramatic, but the consolidation is not on the same scale as the 1880s.
But the language of the debate is exactly the same. Our school is unique. Our community is unique. Our neighbors are different from us. We must have local control. The contradiction over Freedom and Unity has remained unresolved. Vermont is like this.
Central to this contradiction is how we define community. Many of us define community by our town boundaries, as if those boundaries were sacred lines handed down from God and not the result of the scheming of colonial governors.
What I have learned from many Act 46 discussions with students, however, is that our students do not define community the same way as we do. They do not see a town line as the boundary of their community. They have many communities, and their communities are more expansive and dynamic. And in many cases, their communities exist online.
Our students are not as nostegic as we are. Nostegia, after all, is a condition that is dependent on memory loss. And our students are still too young to have forgotten their past.
Interestingly, Vollmer’s concept of “nostesia” was specifically identified to describe how Americans think about education. Americans are often nostalgic for the simpler days of “reading, writing, and arithmetic” but we forget about the limited opportunities and the relatively low graduation rates that were previously all too common in our educational system.
I am pretty sure Ethan Allen’s kids would have preferred to have attended a school like BBA. I frequently hear BBA parents say things like, “I wish my high school experience had been like this back in the 80s.” In the 1980s, the US high school graduation rate was about 70%. Today, BBA’s graduation rate is close to 100%.
We also forget that as adults much of what we know today was learned outside of school. This continues to be true today for our students, especially considering new technologies. For example, consider the absolutely essential skill of texting. I guarantee you that none of these students have ever taken a class at school on how to text but most of them are completely fluent.
Members of of the Class of 2019, you might think this is all ancient history, that you have evolved beyond the primitive condition of our colonial founders, the tragedy of your parents' 1980s high school experience, or even the contemporary nativism of local control, and that technology and your superior educational experience will allow you to rise above it all, beyond the nostegic tendencies of your parents, and to once and for all resolve the inherent contradiction of “Freedom and Unity”.
Now that you have completed the requirements for a Vermont high school diploma, however, it is my duty as Secretary to tell you the truth. And the truth is that contradictions like Freedom and Unity are never really resolved. Each generation must struggle on its own to reconcile these kinds of contradictions.
Like preceding generations of Vermonters, you will have to find a way to balance the rights of the individual with those of the community. But you will need to do so in a time when technology offers unprecedented opportunities for both hyper individualism and community building.
The challenge of this task is greater for you than preceding generations because of this complexity. You are citizens of the world like no other generation. Instead of needing to build communities among “unique” school districts and towns, you will be building communities across ethnic, cultural, and global boundaries that we would have viewed as being beyond the realm of possibility.
I have no doubt that If you are successful in this work, you will be deemed our “Greatest Generation”.
The good news is we have prepared you well for this work, and as I said, I am compelled to reveal the truth to you today. The truth is we have hardwired you with the necessary skills to be successful in this complex environment through the design of the Vermont education system. You don’t realize it now, but we have intentionally exposed you to contradictory ideas. Because of this exposure, you have become vaccinated and are now immune.
For example, I know you thought that things like our state motto, potholes, demonic black flies, pastures with both alpacas and highland cattle grazing side by side, or quirky bumper stickers like “Keep Vermont Weird” or “The Vermont Flat Earth Society Has Members All Around the Globe” were anomalies.
But they are not. It was part of our plan all along to raise you and educate you in a manner that would allow you to succeed in an era of complexity and uncertainty. I am pleased to formally announce that as Secretary of Education, you are all well prepared.
Yes, it was all part of the plan. It was part of a grand design to support your development and to strengthen your toleration for when things do not make sense. For more often than not, things in life do not make sense.
In some states, students are taught that the future can be controlled by making the right friends, by getting into the right college, or by getting the right job. In those states, parents and communities go out of their way to fill the potholes of life so students never know adversity.
In those states things suspiciously make too much sense, and nostesia has reached epidemic proportions. In those states, you see bumper stickers like “Got milk?” as opposed to our more familiar “Gut deer?”
Perhaps the education that students receive in other states is the cause of the heightened anxiety we observe in so many of your generation, because they know instinctively, in spite of what they have been taught or what they have experienced, that life is very uncertain.
But that is not the Vermont way. You have been uniquely educated and prepared to live comfortably with uncertainty and contradiction. In this state, we proudly celebrate what does not make sense because we know this will make you stronger and smarter. Vermont is like this.
We expected you to struggle and to make sense of it all. Just like Ethan Allen did. Just like we did. You are well prepared to live life to its fullest. To celebrate the freedom of the individual while building communities of purpose together.
BBA, now your alma mater, in many ways sits at the center of these Vermont contradictory forces of Freedom and Unity. The force here is especially strong.
The force of these contradictions is very strong here on the site of this school because the “unique” Vermont communities of this Northshire region have exercised their commitment to both freedom and unity by joining together to form a single learning community on your behalf.
The cultural, financial and educational resources of this region have been focused through this institution not so that you could avoid an uncertain future, but rather so that you could laugh at adversity, so that you could create new solutions, create new meanings, and above all else, be happy, and strive to make the world a better place for others.
In the coming years when you look back on your days here, do not do so with nostesia, but rather with your eyes wide open, open to the full knowledge that you have been exceptionally well prepared to make a difference in the word. Be nostalgic but don’t forget. And above all else, remember that we are with you, and wish you the very best.
In closing, I would like to address my final comments to those of you have come here today from other states. Firstly, don’t you agree these Vermont kids are great?
I know you are all probably satisfied with your own children. I am sure they probably appear to be perfectly acceptable in most ways.
But if you move to Vermont, we will let you bring your kids with you, and then they, too, could be Vermont kids. Could you imagine a world filled with Vermont kids? I can. That is why I am optimistic about our future. Thank you.