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2012 Commencement Address

2012 Commencement Address

May 16, 2012

On behalf of the Trustees and the faculty of Columbia University, it is my very, very great pleasure and honor to welcome all of you to this ceremony to celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2012.  Every year we gather in this magnificent academic forum to affirm the achievements of our extraordinary students and to reaffirm the intellectual bonds that connect us to those who have passed through these gates for 258 years and to those who will do so for centuries to come.  Sixteen different schools are represented here today, along with our affiliate institutions of Teachers College and Barnard College (who, you may have heard, two days ago borrowed an alumnus of ours for their beautiful ceremony).  In a time when life can seem increasingly fragmented and solitary, this glorious ritual, in this utterly unique spot on the planet, seems all the more remarkable and even thrilling. 

This day is all about the graduates and about what you’ve earned – earned through endless and mostly foggy-minded hours of study; earned by overcoming again and again your natural inclination for procrastination just in time to write papers and take  exams (It’s a well-known fact that the smarter you are the more you tend to procrastinate); congratulations on that achievement you’ve earned through sacrifice of something called sleep, not to mention nutrition and personal hygiene; and earned by carrying on in those inevitable low moments of self-doubt. 

While this occasion is about you, there are also a few people here today who’ve contributed mightily to your getting to this delightful point in life and whom you’ll never be able to thank enough.  I can assure you that nothing focuses the mind like the successes and disappointments of one’s own children. And, as much as we, your faculty, adore you – and we really do adore you – nothing can compare to the adoration of your parents.  Please take this opportunity to thank them. 

You’ve been at Columbia and now graduate at a time when the world is under very great stresses.  For many of you, the term “job market” may sound like an oxymoron, at best, and a cruel joke, at worst.  Along with an economy that’s now only crawling back from its near free fall, this nation has struggled with two wars.  Sitting among us this morning are many veterans, whom we honor and thank for their service, and for enriching our own community as Columbia students. 

The choices – and failures – of one generation are often visited on the youth of the next.  From the larger perspective, our generation’s sins hardly seem venial.  As a nation, as a world, it sure seems like we should be doing more than we are to correct our mistakes and their legacies. 

From a larger perspective, it’s important to recognize that you’ve also been at Columbia when the world is undergoing the most significant transformation in a century and, perhaps, even in history.  Your world is and promises to be one of Globalization.  Two critically important, and inter-related, forces are now at work driving this transformation.  One is the near worldwide embrace of markets as a system of organizing economic activity, with a stunning growth in trade and investment along with rising standards of living for hundreds of millions of people. 

And the second is the emergence of a completely new communications technology – the Internet – that is bringing a heretofore unimaginable capacity for humanity to receive and impart information and ideas.  It’s a stunning fact that more than two billion people are now connected to the internet around the globe, with hundreds of millions more coming into the conversation each year.  These two recent developments are profoundly important in making the world population closer and more inter-dependent than ever before.  This appears to be the trajectory of the new century, and, as you grow older, I predict you will find yourself saying, “I was there at the beginning, when I was a student at Columbia.” 

It’s well worth understanding, therefore, where we are and what challenges you have ahead of you, as you take leave of us at Columbia. 

A seemingly defining feature of the new global age is the dispersion of power.  We emphasize the fact that change is being driven not by the decisions of a few all-powerful leaders, but rather by the sum of millions of individual choices in the anonymous realms of the Market and the Marketplace of Ideas.  We celebrate the reality of individual empowerment.  We enjoy the convenience of better and cheaper products, we relish the accessibility of information with just a few clicks, and we marvel at the abilities of social movements to form and challenge entrenched authorities.  The crowd is in, Napoleans are out. 

There’s much to celebrate and be amazed by, but there’s also much to worry and wonder about.  Political leaders wake up in the morning and find their economic and social policies are no longer favored by the “market,” and they now must decide whether to change or suffer the penalties of higher costs and deeper deficits.  In future decades, will we look back and wonder at how we could possibly have let public policies be determined in this way?  Or leaders wake up in the morning and find their citizens angry and frustrated and far better able to express their feelings.  As sovereignty slips away, some governments resort to desperate and short-sighted tactics of trying to inflame nationalist sentiments, of diverting unhappiness by stoking hatred of vulnerable minority groups, and of censoring criticism – often employing the very same technologies that people depend on to make their voices heard. 

In future decades, will we look back and wonder how the world could have gone so wrong? 

It may be that the very sense of self is changing.  As traditional social systems change and in some ways gradually dissolve in the face of seemingly uncontrollable forces, we see people experience a higher sense of anxiety and vulnerability in an uncertain world.  These are the kinds of subtle changes that will be discerned and recorded best by our most sensitive truth-seekers and truth-tellers – the artists who write the novels and poems or create the images that in the decades to come will take their places in the Core Curriculum along with To the Lighthouse, The Wasteland, and Guernica. 

What we can say for sure right now is that these two dominant forces at work – the Market and the Marketplace of Ideas – are plunging ahead of our collective capacity to create a world that can take full advantage of what they have to offer.  We urgently need institutions, legal systems, public policies, and most importantly, human beings prepared for and suited to what we should call the emerging world.  We commonly talk about Markets and the Marketplace of Ideas – making them freer, of eliminating protectionism and censorship, which of course I favor.  But we need to focus more affirmatively on the conditions needed for those systems to work well and for us to thrive in them.  There’s nothing inherently good about markets, whether for goods or for ideas.  Everything depends on the people and the choices they make within these systems.  Everything depends on the quality of mind underlying the decisions taken.  Because even in a market-driven world, not everything is for sale.

In 1925, in one of the earliest Supreme Court opinions supporting freedom of speech, one of the great justices of the century, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., gave a provocative articulation of free speech.  As fears of communism were rampant in the society, he said this:  “If, in the long run, the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”  Holmes was saying, in effect, that the premise of a free and open marketplace of ideas, is that you have to win the future every day.  You have to participate, you have to speak, you have to make your case against others, especially dangerous ideas.  If you don’t, you’re just assisting the views you fear and deplore.  But there is a larger point, too.  When everyone can speak, we all have an interest in the quality of mind everyone brings to the discussion.  If people are vulnerable to being fooled by falsehoods and deluded by deceits, we all lose.  And that brings us inevitably to the importance of education. 

In politics it may be that to get elected you need to focus on the economy, but in regular life for a society to win you need to focus on education.    Just think of what you’ve gained here at Columbia. 

Here, whatever the field of inquiry, you’ve seen the best that humanity has to offer, which means you have internalized a standard of excellence against which you can always measure your and other’s efforts, which will heighten your admiration and respect for genuine expertise and creativity. 

But you’ve also seen how the best fall short, and fail, where knowledge ends and the abyss of ignorance begins, which means you’ll never be intimidated by expertise nor, I hope, lord yours over others. 

Here you’ve had to use language, reason and engage in discussion -- and in doing so you’ve felt just how frustrating and hard it is to do, which means you will never allow yourself to give up on debate and the possibility of changing your mind for the easier path of dogmatism or silence. 

You have done all this in an incredibly diverse academic community, which means you will find the rich array of humanity a stimulant, not a threat.  (And it would be a tragedy, especially at this moment when globalization demands a heightened capacity for dealing with diversity, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to use the Fisher case that it will hear this coming fall to limit the ability of our colleges and universities to ensure that kind of diversity on our campuses here at home.)

Here you’ve observed people stand up for truth, when it is hard and controversial to do so, which means that forever there will be a voice in your mind that says now it’s your time to do so.  If you need an example, look no further than this year’s extraordinarily accomplished and courageous honorary degree recipients – women and men from many different fields of human endeavor, whose vision extended beyond the common understandings of the time, and who then committed themselves to charting a new path.

And here, above all, you’ve seen the value of living a life, however small, in relation to a higher purpose, a greater good.  For us, it is the end of truth and understanding.  But there are many noble ends to which to tether a good life.  We cannot tell you which to choose.  But we can say that, if at any point your life does not have this quality, if you ever feel disconnected from a higher purpose, then you must change your life.  May you have the courage to answer that call. 

All these qualities of mind (and many others) are the gifts of a great education, such as you have received here at Columbia.  They make it possible for you to live fulfilling lives, in every pursuit, career, or profession.  But, most importantly, they prepare you for membership in a community, whether small, national or – as we’re now heading into – global.  The economic and communicative integration of the world is underway, and rapidly altering our lives.  The social structures necessary for this Brave New World are lagging behind and still must be invented.  But the foundation of it all is education – education like you’ve been privileged to experience here at Columbia.  The whole world wants – and it deserves – what you have here.  That is a mission for both you, and Columbia, to carry forward into this new century. 

I have a final word about you and your University.  YOU are Columbia, in the sense that the University is proud of your achievements.   But it is also true that You are COLUMBIA, in the sense that Columbia is tremendously admired and that fact reflects on you, as well.  If you ask me what makes Columbia great, I have a very, very long list.  I’ll wait for another day to make the case that Columbia is, now, the greatest university in the world.  But I do insist, at this moment, that there certainly is no university greater.  And the esteem Columbia enjoys all over the world, our incredible intellectual heritage, the breadth and depth of our intellectual reach, our residence in New York City where we absorb naturally the currents of ideas from all parts of the globe, our Columbia’s new global presence on every continent, and our natural inclination to take on the big issues of the time – all these characteristics make Columbia the most ideally situated university on the planet to be a truly global university in a century of globalization that you and we must make.  It’s not only Columbia’s destiny, but yours as well. 

I close by saying, in complete candor and with the utmost confidence, that you – the Class of 2012 – are the most intelligent and attractive graduating class we have ever seen (definitely the most attractive in any event).  We are deeply proud of what you have done with us and what you will now do for the world.  YOU are Columbia, indeed, but you are also COLUMBIA. 

Congratulations and Good Luck.