2005 Commencement Address
May 18, 2005
On behalf of Columbia ’s trustees and faculty, it gives me great pleasure to say congratulations to the Class of 2005. You have sneaked your last bottles of Coke into Butler ’s reading rooms; you have screamed your last pre-finals midnight screams; and, thankfully, you have finished your last exams. We hope you have mastered the art of wasting time well. We know you have mastered the art of wasting time. Certainly, you have mastered the rituals of procrastination – the multi-colored pens, the carefully stacked pile of notes, the ever – sharpened pencils. But, hopefully, you can now distinguish between doing nothing when something could be done and doing nothing while creativity gets its act together inside our mind. And now, here you are. Today is your day.
Today is also a momentous day for the people sitting behind you: your parents and families, who have done so much, in so many ways, to help you reach this milestone. To be a parent is to be your biggest fan, but also a big nail-biter: that’s why you still get so many phone calls from Mom and Dad.
As a parent myself, I want to let the students in on something: we’re not as dumb as you think. We know that you’re screening our calls. But we keep calling regardless—not to drive you crazy, or to embarrass you by leaving messages with your roommates for “pumpkin,” or some other childhood nickname of yours. We keep calling because we want to share in your experiences and accomplishments—because we can’t separate our hopes from yours.
Each of you here today has a personal story, a family story, that gives this moment profound emotion and importance. Maybe you carry on a long tradition within your family of going to Columbia . Maybe you’re the first in your family to go to college. Whatever your background, whatever your story, your parents have done everything possible to give you the chance to come here and succeed here. And so, as your families join in celebrating you, please join me in celebrating them. Class of 2005, turn around and give them their due.
You’ve changed dramatically since you first arrived on campus. The way you think, the way you read, the way you view the world: all of this has changed. That’s an inevitable result of life at the university. But the world itself has changed, too, more than it usually does over the course of a few years. When today’s graduating seniors began classes on September 4, 2001 , it was a time of peace and prosperity. You were probably just getting used to hearing the term “globalization,” and maybe beginning to use it yourself. And then, one week later, on September 11, it became an indispensable part of your vocabulary.
Over the past few years, you’ve also seen a shift in the political climate. Our nation’s discourse has grown sharper and more divisive. At times it can seem like your day-to-day life is an exercise in choosing sides. The magazines you subscribe to, the websites you visit, the books you read—everything is cast as an either-or proposition. Conservative or liberal; red state or blue; Ann Coulter’s Treason or Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?
Given these options, more and more Americans are saying: neither one, thank you. Or they seek refuge in Jon Stewart, who takes on both sides—whose answer to cable TV punditry is to have transcripts of “Hardball” read aloud by children.
We laugh at all of this, and often with good reason. But the larger trend should be cause for concern, no matter what your political views are. In journalism and politics, the emphasis used to be on reaching the largest and most diverse audience possible. That’s one reason it’s called “broadcasting.” Today, though, it’s a different story. The emphasis is on what some call “narrowcasting.”
Some politicians seem more concerned with “solidifying their base” than building a bigger one. Many news organizations have become expert niche marketers: your views are categorized and catered to at every possible juncture. Meanwhile, think-tanks and policy institutes are proliferating, each advancing particular ideologies.
It’s easy in this polarized climate to pick a side and become cloistered in one worldview, to the exclusion of all others. You listen to left-wing or right-wing talk radio—not both. You buy a book on Amazon and it instantly suggests five books just like it: the interest is not in broadening your tastes, but in reinforcing them. You can go through each day reading the newspaper, watching TV news, and surfing the web—feeling highly informed of world events—and never encounter a view that’s different from your own.
That, as you know, is not how it works here.
Columbia abounds in different perspectives, different theories, different cultures. Over the past several years, you have been encouraged not to take refuge in your own opinions. We have urged you to see issues from competing perspectives—to question, to doubt, to resist the allure of certitude.
This is true for each of you, no matter what school you’ve attended here—the college, the law school, the journalism school, or another. Think of your experiences here. In the seminar room, at the dining-hall table, and in late-night conversations with your friends, you have had to confront views profoundly different from your own—on the conflict in the Middle East, or the separation of church and state in this country, or more timeless questions, from the meaning of Plato’s Dialogues to the origins of life on earth.
Whatever the topic, you have been challenged to resist the tendency – so prevalent in the public sphere, and so dangerous, too, at times – to accept one point of view, and then simply forge alliances with those who agree with you. That is not what we do here. And it is the fundamental mistake of those who are now arguing that universities should be mandated to achieve “balance” in their faculty and their curriculum to think that that is what we do. This imposes a partisan framework on a process of academic inquiry, which, at its best, transcends partisanship. Life will be the poorer if we think of understanding our world only through a series of debates. There are other ways to explore and to comprehend the richness, the interconnections, and the layers of reality, and among these is the academic character and its scholarly temperament. You do not come to the university to learn how to “build a case” for some ideology, but clear-sightedly to see as much of the whole as you can. Not to sharpen your beliefs, but to see as others see. To learn to ask: “Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind. I changed my mind.” These are the sentences of the university.
This spirit of mind is manifest in everything we do at the university—whether exploring the human experience through poems and novels, or trying to understand the histories of particular regions or countries. In all of our work, we look for the links and connections between ideas—not for the lines that divide them.
Developing this open-mindedness is not easy. It’s even tougher outside these gates. You are about to enter a world where considering another point of view can be seen as an act of betrayal by the like-minded. Where you are expected to insist, loudly, on your beliefs, to defend them, to act on them. So, you may ask: what’s the point of open-mindedness in a world that doesn’t always value it?
Before I propose an answer, I want to be clear about one thing: I am not suggesting—not for a second—that standing up for your beliefs is a bad thing. On the contrary. We also discover new knowledge—and we can only change the world—when people pursue what they believe to be right and true. This is evident in the lives of so many Columbians who have come before you—from Alexander Hamilton to Franklin Roosevelt to Shirley Chisholm. In fact, when Shirley Chisholm was asked how she’d like to be remembered, she did not say as the nation’s first black congresswoman. Instead, she said, simply, “I’d like [people] to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.” To bring about positive change in the real world often requires a will, a determination, which is itself hard to achieve.
Beginning tomorrow, when you join the ranks of these Columbians, may you have this quality, too, and the same be said about you. But when you do join the fray, remember what you’ve learned here. Remain open to the complexity of things. Be reflective, even when you’re advocating what you believe in.
Indeed, this combination of qualities poses the greatest challenge for every democracy – how can we, as citizens, be committed to our beliefs and yet remain open and inquiring simultaneously, without one quality eclipsing or undermining the other.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great Supreme Court Justice, grappled with this issue nearly 80 years ago. As a Civil War veteran, Holmes was repelled by the behavior of true believers. He once said that he “detested” the person who “knows that he knows” and who catches certainties “like the influenza.” But he also felt deep admiration for those who pursued their own beliefs – even to the point of sacrificing their own lives in war.
Holmes tried to reconcile these two impulses—action and reflection. He wrote about what he hoped he could become: a soldier who takes his place “on one side or the other,” but acknowledges that the other side may be “as good” as he is. I call this the “open-minded soldier.” Someone with the courage to act, but who also, even in the heat of the moment, possesses intellectual humility.
This is an ideal, and like all ideals, it’s impossible to fully achieve. But as you venture into the world, I believe it is something to keep always alive in your mind and strive for—whether in the courtroom, as a lawyer; in the boardroom, as a business leader; in the lab, as a scientist; in the political realm, or as a social worker in the field.
As Columbia graduates, you are uniquely equipped to do so.
There is one final and critically important piece to the intellectual capacity you have acquired here that I want to emphasize. This is a special quality of mind, a receptivity to the world beyond ourselves, that we nurture in the academy. We all speak of “seeing the other sides” of issues, or as I like to put it, of “seeing as much of the complexity as we can,” but the question always remains how deeply into our beings, can we, imagine and incorporate what it’s really like to think another way. This personal quality of sympathetic, or transcending, imagination, is hardest of all to develop and rare. It is to let others become part of you, and to do that you have to be prepared to be changed, to be a somewhat different person in the end – to learn how, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Hans – Georg Gadamer, to “fuse your horizons with others.”
This is, actually, the very capacity we began with. It happens naturally with parents and their children. Our hopes are your hopes. We cannot separate ourselves from you. This mingling of minds happens by degrees, evolving from that core to the broader world. When it is present, it is the foundation of community and national and increasingly global life. It is critical to behaving ethically, to the concept of human rights, and to compromise. It is crucial to forging relationships with others - with family and friends, with colleagues, and with comrades in arms.
This has been your community for several years of your life. Countless alumni say to me, and I am sure you have or will say it, as well, “ Columbia changed my life.” Of all the reasons I can think of as to why I think that is true, the most important is that we have lived together in a community dedicated to nurturing our capacities to imaginatively embrace, as one’s own, even if for only a moment, the minds and beings of others. You have made life-long friends, these are buildings you will never grow tired of, and you will always remember the corners of campus where you met someone for the first time. But the intermingling of minds at Columbia is a singular experience, extending the capacity you can see reflected today in your parents’ feelings for you.
Finally, as you leave today, I would ask the Class of 2005 to take a look at the names inscribed on Butler Library. By now, you’ve probably forgotten what happened in Book 17 of The Iliad, or the year of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece . That’s inevitable. We all forget a lot of what we’ve learned. I’ll bet that wherever you were at 2:00 this morning, you weren’t reading the Classics.
Still, the way to keep in touch with Columbia is to keep in touch with works of genius. Not just so you can savor their brilliance, but because every time you study a great work of art, or music, or literature, or analysis, or discovery, you become—perhaps inescapably—an explorer in the realm of the mind we prize so highly at our universities.
And now you take leave of us. As you do, take one last look around…at the friends who sit by your side… your professors… your classmates. You have, in many ways, fused your horizons with these people. Columbia is not simply an academy, a place of research and study, but a community, a relationship—one that does not end today.
As you leave this campus, keep a little place in your mind, a zone of free inquiry, like the university – call it your “ Columbia ” – where you allow yourself the freedom to think as you have here. For as many contributions as you have made to this university—and there are many—it has also made a significant contribution to who you have become. So remember these faces, these buildings, this community. Remember Columbia . It will be a base from which your future actions and affections will radiate.
Class of 2005: on behalf of the University, I congratulate you. And I wish you all the best in life.