2007 Commencement Address

May 16, 2007

On behalf of the trustees and the faculty of the University, it is my very great pleasure to say, Congratulations to the Class of 2007.

All of us here today know that this is a moment you’ve been thinking about for a long time. Most of you have been eagerly awaiting it. A few of you have been dreading it. For all of you, after years of hard work, late nights – and very late mornings (of course) – after occasionally impenetrable lectures, and often lonely toil, today you leave this campus decorated with the title, graduate of Columbia University in The City of New York.

Your excitement, however, as great as it is, is eclipsed by the anticipation and pride of your parents, your grandparents, and all of your family members who are here today to celebrate with us. Your family and friends started you on this educational journey long ago. They discussed serious subjects with you at the dinner table, waiting for the school bus, or in between video games; sometimes they quizzed you on facts you’re supposed to know; other times they dragged you against your will to see museums and monuments; and, let’s admit it, sometimes even helped you build that science project. But, beyond all that, they’ve supported you, believed in you, and dreamed of this day for you long before you dreamed of it for yourself.

So, before we go any further, let’s offer our thanks to the people who truly made this day possible: Your families and friends.

Let me also add for all of us at Columbia our thanks to the parents in the audience for lending us your children for these past few years. It’s been our pleasure to teach them, to learn from them and with them. Today we share your pride in their accomplishments, and we thank you for your generosity and support.

We’re happy to report, as well, that all of these students graduating today have had perfect attendance records, completed all their work on time, did not sleep late except on weekends, and were invariably respectful and cheerful. We are VERY sorry to see them go.

Some of you may have heard that in welcoming this year’s freshmen at convocation last September, I said I understood how the admissions race to get here must have felt like competing on a whole season of American Idol...but I didn’t think we had any judges on campus exactly like Randy, Paula and Simon.

You, of course, are now in a much better position to say if that’s true. But here we are at the end of your own season on this stage...so I’ll try to keep this short since I know some of you are anxious to get home and find out whether Blake makes it to the finals…

While I assure you that I’m NOT the Ryan Seacrest of this show, I CAN say, all the votes have been counted, and NONE of YOU is coming back next week. And congratulations for that.

Let me also assure you, as I did this year’s freshmen in September, that I have absolutely no idea what I was just talking about and will deny ever having said any of it.

I need to begin by acknowledging that the tradition of the commencement address is a noble idea with a rather dismal record. Since the prospect of facing 40,000 of you does tend to focus the mind, the problem is not the lack of effort. It is, rather, that the expectations are simply too high.

The fact is that your life accomplishments celebrated at graduation are so great, and the particular transition in life represented in this colorful festival so momentous, that no words or ideas in this context can ever possibly match the occasion. It’s just unfair, and inevitably unbalanced. We should pity commencement speakers, as hapless victims who distinguish themselves only by the ways they fail, and the degrees to which they recognize their miserable performances.

So if I could leave you with one piece of solid advice today, I would say never, never accept an invitation to speak at a commencement. (I do it, I should say, because I love it, but it may be my fatal flaw.)

In any case, my purpose here is not only to plead for understanding and forgiveness but also to make a fundamental point, which I shall return to throughout my remarks, which is that life is always a matter of seeking a balance, a balance that’s right for the world and a balance that’s right in our personal lives. Life is almost never perfect, only in balance or out of balance.

Now, I believe that you are graduating at a very special moment in history. It is a special time in two ways: first, the changes throughout the world at this moment are of unprecedented scope and significance for human well-being – and human peril; and, second, these changes are of very recent origin and you are, therefore, at the threshold of a New Age, probably every bit as momentous as the Industrial Age two centuries ago. Capitalism is sweeping the world, linking through work and trade and the lives of billions of people. People at this moment observe how we are in a sweet spot of “synchronous” development, in which virtually every region of the world is, by some measures, doing better and better. The continuous pattern of strong – maybe even dazzling -- economic growth seems to defy all of our inherited experiences and rules. It’s as if economic gravity were suspended. I hear CEOs of major companies say that despite obvious threats to our peace, security and energy supply, they can’t figure this out and wonder whether we’ve entered some new ideal state in the world financial markets.

Meanwhile, the internet and the ease of personal interaction are creating a global marketplace of ideas. In just a few years, the conventional media of mass communication, which had more or less a natural monopoly, are being by-passed by a medium that really looks like a New England town meeting – except it’s a global conversation. It’s surprisingly cheap, it’s instantaneous, and it’s open for now. If you believe, as Justice Holmes said, that “the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas,” then this is the stuff of profound and revolutionary change. Greater and greater openness is inevitable and, let’s hope, so is the exponential unleashing of the human spirit.

Now, everyone is born into and shaped by the great events of their time. For the grandparents and great grandparents here today it was the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism and Communism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the creation of the United Nations.

For your parents’ (and my) generation it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Vietnam War, and the extraordinary remaking of American society according to the great principle of “equal justice under law” – launched fifty-three years ago tomorrow in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

In the past quarter century, it has been the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the rise of fundamentalism in many societies, and still more regional conflict.

Each generation has its distinctive, telltale signs. For those who lived through the Depression, no matter how financially secure they have become, you find them still clipping dollar coupons. (For who knows when the next depression will strike?) For my generation, whenever we see the name or talk about Bono, we STILL instinctively call him Bono, and wonder when Cher’s next farewell tour is.

Lines like this remind me (and perhaps some of your parents) just how far behind the “cool” curve I’ve fallen. So much so that when one undergraduate at a recent fireside chat at my house asked me if I had set up my own “Facebook” page, I did all I could to pretend I understood, but of course was exposed when I replied: “I hate having my picture taken, but I’m happy to sign yours.”

Now for your generation, these telltale signs still only work in reverse. It’s the freshman who looked at the blue water bottles announcing Vaclav Havel’s extraordinary residency here last Fall and asked “What’s a Havel?” We forget that many of you weren’t even in kindergarten at the moment of the Velvet Revolution.

My point here is to draw attention to the extraordinary fact that you appear to be graduating at the very beginning of an Age that promises incredible potential – and extraordinary challenge – for the human race. I do not think that is an exaggeration. Many people are sensing something major. But the fact is we do not yet fully grasp the forces that are at work or what exactly is happening. We certainly hope that your time here has given each of you the tools to understand those forces and to shape them in ways that serve the common good.

So, that’s a glimpse of the world awaiting you. Now I want to say a few things about your time here at Columbia, which this ceremony draws to a (temporary) close.

You’ve been privileged to attend one of the finest educational institutions in the world. Every one of you has had the benefit of learning from and with some of the most renowned and gifted experts, in a student body with the greatest diversity and array of talent. You have deepened your knowledge and enhanced your powers of reason. And there are other services we provide. We have one of the best dating services in the country. More unions have been created on the steps of Low than anywhere in Manhattan. And you’ve done all this in the greatest city in the world, New York, where it is a daily visible mystery how this huge beehive functions. In just a few decades from now, fully two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities – up from only 10% at the beginning of the last century. So living and learning in New York is as good an education as you can get in knowing the future. It might be said: If we can’t make it here, we won’t make it anywhere.

Of all the things you’ve learned or benefited from while here at Columbia – the acquisition of basic and advanced knowledge, experiencing what it’s like to live in a great world city, or the ability to be too clever by half – the most important of all, and the more important for the world we are building, is developing the power of imagination. This is something different from knowing things and being able to reason. It’s the part of the mind that creates stories, that feels what it’s like to be someone else (and so much so that for a moment you become that other person), that grasps the essence of a human dilemma, that eagerly absorbs the complexities of complex matters, that can see how people change in different circumstances, that is always trying to improve on things, that can conceive of a world different from the one we are living in.

To develop this mental power it helps to live where its greatest practitioners are admired and where you have to try repeatedly to do it yourself. This is one of the greatest gifts of a Columbia education.

We hear it from our Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps, who teaches us that mental stimulation, problem-solving, and personal growth are the sine qua non of a thriving economy.

And read it in the novels of Orhan Pamuk – the second Nobel Prize winner we announced in October – who has trained himself to think and write about the sights, smells, and sounds of his native Istanbul, as well as countless other landscapes, all from within the four corners of his Upper West Side apartment. In the global-urban future, everyone here will need to develop the capacity of the artist Orhan describes – who “shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words.”

My favorite illustration of this is from one of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, where she records how she feels when she reads from Shakespeare right after she has finished writing, when her “mind is agape and red hot”: “Then,” she says, “it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.”

This is the key point: Our imaginations have trouble seeing their potential, and can do so only when we try ourselves and then compare our achievement against a greater achievement, and then repeat the process again and again. This is what a great university gives us the opportunity to do, and this is what Columbia does so well, and that’s what those names chiseled across the top of Butler Library signify in stone.

Our New Age is so very much in need of imagination. The potential, as we have said, is so high now at the beginning, yet the problems ahead are already so massive, too. When the Arctic sea loses a chunk of ice the size of Texas, we have a sense things are not in balance.

When a billion people still have none of the benefits of modernity and face premature death and a life of squalor, we know things are not yet in balance.

When millions of people have stagnant incomes or face the dislocations of loss of employment, because of the shifting patterns of trade, we know there is still much too much imbalance.

When we barely understand the history, religious and cultural beliefs, and aspirations of other major societies around the globe, we know we have an imbalance of trade in knowledge.

These and countless other enormous problems and questions about the New Age will demand a collective imagination as robust as a Columbia can nurture. Where will the institutions to address these issues come from, and what will they look like? Who will invent the technologies, the laws, the cures, the care, and the ways to dream together a future at least as bright as Columbians have helped imagine for this nation over the last 253 years? Who indeed will do that?

Now let me close with a small recommendation about balance in your personal lives. As you walk out of these gates this morning, symbolically leaving behind a special period in your lives, observe the traffic sign on Broadway that says the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car or truck drive that slow. Inside the academy, we’re just pedestrians (metaphorically speaking). We’re just trying to understand the world a little better and to carry forward all that people have thought about up to now. That requires time, a lot of sitting, and some walking.

Outside the gates, in the “real world,” as people like to call it, the world is hell-bent on getting other places and getting things done. Out there, we walkers don’t have the right of way, not by a long shot. As you become swept up in that traffic, at some point (not too soon, I realize) you’re going to miss us and your life here. I don’t know what it is about all of us, but the busier we get the less is our inclination to engage with the greatest masterpieces of imagination. Apparently, everything has to slow down for that to happen.

So, one night when you come home from work and flip on the computer or TV, feeling disgusted at yourself for thinking things like, “How the hell did Sanjaya even make it to the final twelve in the first place?” -- wondering if your life has gotten out of balance; and missing what you remember but can’t seem to sustain from your time here, let me suggest a few simple things.

Begin to set aside each day some of your Columbia experience in the humanities to reconnect with something of your own humanity. Even it’s only fifteen minutes: give yourself a curriculum, reread the most challenging books, try to write a short story or poem, and then compare it with Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare, and relive your time here.

And if the world – or our own lives – seem out of balance, it may be because the temptation to see things in a simple binary form -- up or down, good or evil, right or wrong -- is stoked every day by a culture that wants us to do anything but think too hard about the issues that matter so much. Universities, as slow and as improbable as we may be, are our society’s best counter-force to that inclination to oversimplify.

Everything out there tells us to fall in line, but because you chose to study at Columbia, an institution dedicated and built on seeing the rich complexity of things, you know that the best – and only honest – course is to embrace that complexity and to be responsive to it. That’s really what I mean when I talk about having a Scholarly Temperament. Remember that that book on Alma Mater’s lap is always open.

So, graduates of 2007, I ask that you forgive my remarks and recommend that you decline invitations to speak at commencements, that you grasp the momentous changes underway in the world and you see yourselves standing at the threshold, that you appreciate the importance of the imagination and see the world’s desperate need of it, that you see the differences in earlier eras as your grandparents clip coupons and your parents take pictures with cameras instead of cell phones and call Bono Bono, that you watch out for the imbalances in your own fast-paced schedules when you step out on Broadway, and that you always leave a space in your lives for a little bit of Columbia to remain with you in the years ahead.

Congratulations, Class of 2007.