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2010 Commencement Address

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 improve. 

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.