2010 Commencement Address
May 18, 2010
First, I just want all of you graduates, your parents,
family and friends who are braving this day with you to know that I have
exercised my executive authority to cut short key sections of today's program
so we can focus as much time as possible on that moment you are really here for
- namely, when your school is called and you receive your degrees. It is no less honor to our remarkable
honorary degree recipients and medalists that we will not read all that there
is to say about them from the podium.
But I urge you to keep that page about them in the program dry so you
can read for yourselves what an inspiring example they set for us all.
You had some beautiful class days this week. But hopefully you know there is a long and
well-proven saying in the academy that if it rains on your commencement you're guaranteed
to have a fabulous life (though, of course, your Columbia degree should
be guarantee enough). So for the next
hour or so just think about how today is your lucky day...
I include the editing process my own commencement
address. I was going to do a fuller set
of remarks, of course. But I'm sure you
would prefer the abridged version.
The key points I wanted to make are these: We care about you and we congratulate you for
what you've achieved. All of us here
today are and will forever remain part of the same community, the Columbia
community. There is a tradition here to
chart your life's course by, to aspire to, and to answer to. This little world you have been in idealizes
the virtues of deep and open thought and the power of reason and human
insight. The much bigger world you are
entering values the need to deal effectively with the very real problems it has
and the opportunities to be better than it is now. The two worlds exist in parallel, each
needing the other. And we both need to
Here we need to answer more than we are now the call for
help on solving the most pressing and mystifying issues the world has seen.
The real world needs to embrace more of the intellectual
character we try to practice here. There
are three areas of concern: The denial
of expertise (most vividly and disturbingly represented in those who would
reject the consensus of the scientific community about human-induced climate
change). The hardening of beliefs and
intolerance (as witnessed in the unwillingness of many in public discourse to
at least entertain the possibility that others may have better ideas, which inexorably
leads to intimations of violence). And,
finally, the corrosive attitude now prevalent in public debate that the
less-said-the-better, because expression of your viewpoint can only get you
into trouble (sadly represented in our current inability to discuss and debate
what the Constitution of the nation does and should mean, beyond simplicities
such as we must follow the "original intent" of the founders).
These three afflictions - the denial of expertise, the
intolerance, and the retreat into silence - would be death to our universities
and they will be, if allowed to prevail, the death of our democracy. You have been steeped in the culture of
having to state your views, explain why they make sense, consider alternatives,
and abide by a result of a process that transcends your own wishes about what
you would like to believe. You have
plunged into the complexity of subjects and kept your cool. Now we plead with you to take these
intellectual habits of mind into the political arena, leading a new generation
in the process.
This is your tradition:
In the mists of the beginning of this nation, when Americans had proven
themselves quite capable of taking up arms in bloody revolt against governments
they didn't like, and informing themselves by reading a highly partisan press
filled with scurrilous personal attacks, some were also able to frame the
contentious battles over the very nature of the new federal union into a model
of coherent, reasoned advocacy through the classic Federalist Papers. And two
of the three authors - Hamilton and Jay - were Columbians.
This is our heritage, and this is your mission - to be our
new Hamilton and Jay. The world needs
you, and we send you into it with confidence.
Congratulations and Good Luck to the Class of 2010.