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2008 Commencement Address

2008 Commencement Address

May 21, 2008

On behalf of Columbia's trustees and faculty, it gives me great pleasure to say congratulations to all of the Classes of 2008.

On this day alone, with this majestic ceremony, in this magnificent space, the incredible array of Columbia's extraordinary schools and campuses is made visible. We come together and are truly one. All of you - the graduates, your families and friends - are an amazing sight. Welcome to everyone.

It is, of course, you, our graduates, who bring us all here together. We recognize your hard work. Your commitment. Your achievements. You deserve to enjoy the moment, to savor it, and to remember it always.

And though we would like to take credit for all your impressive qualities and accomplishments - and reserve the right to do so once you become renowned in your fields - we readily admit today that the people who had the most to do with you getting to this point in life are your parents and families. They supported you, they believed in you - and they dreamed of this day for you long before you dreamed it for yourself.

So before we go any further, let's hear it for the people who truly made this day possible: Your parents and families.

On behalf of everyone at Columbia, I, too, would like to thank all the parents and grandparents in the audience. It has been our pleasure to teach your children, to learn from them and with them. We share your pride in them . . . and we share in their gratitude for your love and support.

And now, to our graduates.

For most of you here today, your current journey at Columbia ends when you march out those gates at 116th Street. In that brief walk, it will be natural to think only about the life ahead. I know your minds are focused - to the extent they are focused at all after your activities of last night - on simply getting out (as if you had been imprisoned within these gates). It may surprise you, but in the flash of a moment I (and I'm sure others) can relate to that feeling. Thirty seven years ago, about this time, I left my wife's and my apartment on West 96th Street and took the bus up Amsterdam Avenue to the Law School with only one thought in my mind - that this would be the last stupid exam I would ever take for the rest of my life. And it was. So, I know the feeling - the relief at being done, the excitement of experiencing life without thinking what part of it is going to be on the final.

Let me quickly add, however, that your final final exam will never be your final test, because, fortunately or unfortunately, all life is one big test, just like all life is one big curriculum. It all just comes in different versions, different forms, and usually with a lot more hanging in the balance. But, if that's true, then what is it about the experience you've had over the last two, four, or seven years here at Columbia that is distinctive from life beyond these gates - other than in the formal sense of curricula and tests?

To answer that we must go back in time to when you entered these academic walls. Look back and ask how is the person you are today different from the one who arrived here?

There are some obvious answers: There are many things you know now that you didn't know then. You've read new books, considered new theoretical approaches, and acquired new critical thinking skills. What we like to call "learning how to think." There are friendships and memories that you will carry with you for life, and will carry you through life. "When I was at Columbia . . . " is a phrase you'll repeat so often in the years ahead that you'll be forced to keep your friends from here if only because they're the only ones who will tolerate your stories, which will be retold with greater and greater frequency - and embellishment - the older you grow.

But, my suggestion to you today is that the most important thing you have experienced at Columbia, and will remember in the years ahead, isn't captured in your transcript or your photo album. It is rather a completely unique experience in life, a sustained and concentrated immersion into a life of the mind that calls on you, first, to suspend your beliefs, even your very identity, and then to deploy your imagination to absorb, as much as you can, the full complexity of any subject - the multiple perspectives, the manifold interpretations and explanations, the new possibilities, and the paradoxes the mind cannot yet unravel. This is immensely hard to do, and it only becomes possible with repeated practice. Something in us resists going there. To hold multiple, even opposing, perspectives in your mind simultaneously, to hold another viewpoint as if it were your own (because that's the only way it can be truly understood), is to stand face to face with the utter complexity of life and the limits of our powers of thought. Yet, the words "But have you considered...?" ring out across this campus every hour of every day, and they will hopefully ring in your minds for the rest of your life.

This is what universities uniquely do, great ones anyway. As our illustrious predecessor at Columbia, historian Richard Hofstadter, said on this platform 40 years ago, the university "marks our commitment to the idea that somewhere in society there must be an organization in which anything can be studied or questioned - not merely safe and established things but difficult and inflammatory things, the most troublesome questions of politics and war, of sex and morals, of property and national loyalty."

Often I have referred to this special intellectual character of universities as the Scholarly Temperament.

Now, to be sure, this is not all a university is. Coupled with this extraordinary commitment to inquiry and reflection is also the university as a forum, where everything under the sun can be debated and discussed. In this dimension of the university, we don't enter by suspending our beliefs, we instead stand on them, we take ideas seriously, and we engage with those who look at the world from a different angle. In the Forum, beliefs are put to the test. More like the world outside, here is the clash of views in the marketplace of the mind, where ideas fight for supremacy, because in the real world ideas really matter.

Now, these are two states of intellectual being - the suspension of belief and openness on one side and the engagement with beliefs in the public forum on the other. Two states, about which there are several things to be noted. Three, in particular I want to address.

First, these two states are always in tension. Each calls upon distinct capacities, one sets the imagination free and we lose ourselves in the complexity of things, while the other involves the courage to step forward into life and to meet - as philosopher Mortimer Adler put it - the responsibility of making up your mind. Each side is doubtful about the other. Reflection, reveling as it does in complexity, is embarrassed by belief's tendency to oversimplify things, especially as belief does in the heat of battle. The politician's clever rule to only give answers to the questions you prefer to be asked is incomprehensible in the book of the Scholarly Temperament - an intellectual sin. For its part, the mind in engagement can sometimes disdain the life of luxury that permits intellectual roaming when the needs of the moment seem to call for decision and action. And reflection's clichéd critique at the "shallowness" of public debate is too often just an excuse to take the easy way out and remain on the sidelines.

Second, the two states, though in tension, are absolutely necessary for each other. The extraordinary openness that is the core of the university experience prepares us to better understand and meet the arguments of others, to experience empathy, to compromise, and to moderate the natural tendency of belief to mutate into authoritarianism. Standing up for our beliefs, on the other hand, provides us with the raw material for a life in reflection. And it makes us feel and be part of our time.

In constant tension and yet mutually dependent and beneficial, these two different places in the universe of the mind make us feel unstable at times, confused, disconcerted. But, once we understand what is happening and then do it well, it can be thrilling. This is the stuff of life, and I wish I could say more about it but, even after all these years, I can't.

My third point brings me to a major caution. When you leave these gates, the positions in the mental universe are reversed in how they're weighted. The battle over beliefs is increasingly dominating and threatens the possibilities for a reflective mind. Busyness is the first problem. Multi-tasking is the arch-enemy of reflection. Technology gives us too much information too much of the time. Even the much-maligned sound bite is suffering, dropping (we're told) from 42 seconds on average in 1968 to four seconds today.

You don't depend, as we did, on a handful of nightly network news shows. As every political candidate and public figure has painfully learned, the democratizing power of the web is matched by the danger that minutes, hours and years of human experience can be reduced to just a few select seconds that get posted and endlessly replayed the world over. The kind of open exploration of a university cannot be downloaded in a few megabytes of digital video or reduced to fit on the head of a flag lapel pin, which only indicates again how important and vital universities are and how privileged you are to have been here.

But by far the biggest threat to both reflection and engagement is the innate, almost primal, impulse to censorship. The Censorship Impulse is alive and well in every one of us, some more than others, of course. We think of it mostly as manifesting itself in law, but its reach into our own minds and into human affairs is far more pervasive. At its core, the Impulse will always prefer a world in which speakers and ideas are excluded rather than confronted and answered. Naturally, our impulse is to make the world safe for our own beliefs. And the impulse is ingenious in its ability to mount reasons to that end.

There are so many reasons, for so many contexts. It is said: A speaker will persuade people to think bad thoughts and do bad things; will offend some and make others angry and resentful; will ruin the minds of our youth; will lead others to think we approve the message or don't care enough to oppose it; will bring instability, divert us from other more important tasks, and make it more difficult and perhaps even impossible for experts to handle the situation. We limit speakers in other ways, too, when claiming that others will be "chilled" and thereby diminish speech overall or that it will reflect badly on the rest of us.

Now, here's the interesting point: All these arguments about the costs of openness are very often true - in the sense that they point to consequences that are real. Indeed, that's why freedom of speech and academic freedom are continually under siege, even in a nation that says it places this value at its core, because "reasonable people" can always make freedom seem foolish and foolhardy.

Yet, time after time in our history the better side of America - indeed, part of its genius - has declined to be "reasonable" in this sense and instead has chosen the path of extraordinary tolerance, willing and even eager to live with seeming disorder and very real risks for a higher - albeit highly elusive - life in which we entrust our fates to matching idea against idea instead of to a policy of silence and exclusion.

Take the famous case of the Pentagon Papers. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times had illegally received these classified documents about the history of the Vietnam War and were about to publish them while the war continued to rage. For the government, and those who sided with the government, it was unthinkable that the press could freely publish official documents that would, it was credibly said, make conducting foreign policy substantially more problematic. The Court conceded the point but said it was not the goal of the First Amendment to make diplomacy easier but rather to make informed public debate possible. The press is an institution with a special role to play in that higher process, and that's true of our universities, too.

Or take another example of how we bear the risks of speech: What about falsehoods? Should we have to tolerate speakers who say things that are not true? Yes, we should, said the Court in The New York Times v. Sullivan. We must gird ourselves for national conversation that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide open." Because, as Brandeis said some decades earlier, "The fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones..." Or, as I've put it less eloquently, because it's incumbent upon us to meet and defeat bad words with better words.

Whether you're a society or a university or an individual person, being committed both to a life of reflection and engagement (each informing and moderating the other) that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide open," will seem disorderly, messy, and even at times chaotic. But it is certainly invigorating and makes the future possible. From the wilderness that is the human mind, with all its untamed dangers and magnificent potential, we daily build our lives, idea upon idea. The Censorship Impulse would rather deny us that future. In its extreme form, it would even sacrifice the lives of thousands as is now tragically happening in Myanmar. But, as I've said, the impulse to suppress rather than to confront comes in many versions.

I want to close with a word about you. This is probably not a good time to be assigning grades, but on all matters I've talked about this morning I give you an A+. (I'm sure the faculty agrees.) You have exhibited the capacity to suspend your beliefs and to feel the world's complexity, and you have seized the corollary responsibility to stand up and be counted on your beliefs. We've seen it in our courses, and we've seen it most vividly in your thoughtful reactions to controversies, some of global dimensions.

In this anniversary year of 1968, there are some who have said that students today are not as active and engaged as we were at your age. Not for a moment should anyone dare to question your capacity to integrate all these different ways of being and to find your own ways to advance the public good.

Yours is a generation of hands-on engagement, of service and giving. In every college and school, on every campus, the habits of generous and open-hearted citizenship have been evident to those prepared to look and admirable for its lack of concern with being visible. Your extraordinary curiosity about the bigger world and about how to have an impact on it is heartening to all of us who realize we are handing over a planet desperately in need of fresh thinking.

My only concern for you as you exit these gates today is that you keep alive in your hearts and minds the special kind of mind that is uniquely nurtured here. I've already warned you that life's busyness, technology's intrusion, the Censorship Impulse and a world that insists increasingly on quick answers and strong opinions untempered by periods of reflection will make you too one-sided.

The only remedy now is to make your own university, your own Columbia, inside yourself. Since life doesn't come in semesters with five courses and an exam, you will have to create your own curriculum. Reading books is just one way, but there are others. Montaigne, for example, preferred conversation as a mode of learning to books (the study of which he thought a "languid and feeble process that gives no heat"). For Montaigne conversation was "the most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind" because, he said, "If I converse with a strong mind and a rough disputant, he presses upon my flanks...his imaginations stir up mine; jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself."

So, make it a point to have good conversations. Promise yourself to ask two questions for every statement you make. And if you have enough of these conversations and manage to sustain the precarious balance between periods of reflection and active engagement, which you've had the chance to develop here at Columbia, if you can avoid on the one hand, the Censorship Impulse and, on the other, the irresponsibility of indecision, then you will continue to help the world have good conversations - and a better future - too.

For, in the end, we all seek, as Montaigne said, to rise up to something above ourselves. As you pass through these gates for the last time, good luck and do well on that final test.

Congratulations, Class of 2008.