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
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
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
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
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
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.