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2013 Commencement Address

2013 Commencement Address

May 22, 2013

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 2013.  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 259 years and for 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.  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 (Although it is a well-known fact that the smarter you are the more you tend to procrastinate); you have earned all this 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 the 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.    

Today we mark, and we celebrate, what in all likelihood you will come to see as one of the defining experiences in your lives—your years of education at Columbia University.  I hear this from alumni all the time—how their Columbia experiences were transformational for them.  In a surprising number of instances, they also add how this is where they met their spouses and partners, typically right here on the steps of Low under the bewitching eye of alma mater.  Maybe this has happened to many of you.  In fact, I hear this so often I sometimes imagine that I’m really president of a dating service masquerading as an educational institution. 

I recognize that at this moment, when you are still flush with the excitement of having achieved your degree, it is hard to appreciate and grasp all the ways you have grown and changed while here.   And it is natural in life to take even very special things for granted.  But that makes it all the more important to take note of the fact that for these years you have been in the company of brilliant faculty and students and in an environment where the freedom of inquiry and debate is as great as it has ever been at any place or in any period in human history.   (You know, of course, the original definition of the term MOOCS was “Massively Open-minded while-still-being Opinionated Columbia Students.)  Within this free and open environment, however, there is at the same time a commitment to submitting all ideas and beliefs to the rigors of reason, to listening carefully to others and then responding, and to living by standards of truth. 

And then there is a unique requirement that you actually have to change your mind when faced with better arguments.  Being in a university means never saying “Well, that’s just what I believe,” as if that were sufficient to end the discussion.  Just imagine how different the world would be if people entered discussions willing to change their minds in the face of superior arguments and evidence.      

It must also be noted that you have been in probably the most diverse and international communities—here at Columbia and in New York City—in the world.  So you can testify better than almost anyone just how exhilarating and enlightening this can be.  My guess is that if most of you were asked what was the most important and influential thing about your experiences here it would be the incredible diversity of the talented people sitting next to you today: your classmates.  So, let me take this opportunity respectfully to express the hope that the United States Supreme Court continues to affirm the constitutionality of the now longstanding educationally and socially productive policies of colleges and universities across the nation committed to ensuring student bodies that are racially and ethnically diverse.  As George Washington wrote to our fellow Columbian Alexander Hamilton, bringing youth together in universities “from different parts of the United States” helps to unify the country. 

Now, as you take leave of us, I have two things I want to say.  The first is about the world you will live and work in, its promise and the need for your leadership.  The second is more about you personally and what helps make a good life. 

First, then, the world.   I know it’s dangerous to make large generalizations, especially in a university (but what are Commencement speeches for?!) but here’s what I believe:  I believe no generation up to now has faced a world with more promise for humanity than yours right now.  In the last century, so much effort was required to stop those who would destroy what’s best about human civilization that there was less opportunity to reach for the potential.  And two profound forces are now at work that are transforming our collective lives.  The first is the emergence of a global economy and its potential benefits to billions of people.  The second is the advancement of new communications technologies—principally, the Internet—that for the first time in history will link people across the world (soon some 5 billion people, by most estimates) in the first ever global public forum. 

If you believe in the beneficent power of human thought in an open marketplace of ideas, as we have staked our future on in the United States, then this is a truly extraordinary moment.  The possibilities for sharing knowledge, for unleashing the power of human creativity, out of the mixing of the variegated cultures and traditions of the world, are suddenly limitless.  It’s like Columbia magnified exponentially.  We are today only at the edge of this new reality, but we are already witness to profound shifts across the international landscape as people imagine what life can be like. 

Now, to be sure, there are big obstacles and problems to overcome, so many in fact that we almost don’t allow ourselves to entertain thoughts about what might be.  We have inadequate international institutions, traditions of national sovereignty that stand in the way of collective action, the absence of the rule of law in too many parts of the world, and more.  Yet, the good and bad news is that the major issues the world now faces, and certainly will in the future, are world-wide in scope and can really only be addressed on a world-wide basis. 

Climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, how to minimize the risk and consequences of another global economic collapse, the rising inequalities in the distribution of wealth in a market system that in the 1980s rightly reduced forty years of excessive state intervention but that now is itself in need of correction—all these and other problems are global in scope and can only be fixed globally.   The world we live in increasingly is this:  a building collapses in Bangladesh and it’s not only a tragedy for those people directly affected and for the nation of Bangladesh but it is also an event that highlights the need for a system of global protections for workers who now make most of the products we consume—comparable to what the 1911 fire in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist building did for worker safety policies in our own city and country a century ago. 

Global issues requiring global action demand in turn the capacity for global discussion and exchange of ideas.   Censorship is always bad.  But it used to be bad when it happened around the world because we believed in freedom of speech and press as a human right, something fundamental for all people in all places.  Now, however, it’s not only a human right but also an imperative.  Now banning a book or a speaker in Malaysia, or China or Turkey is as problematic for public discussion of public issues as similar censorship might be in Montana, or California or Tennessee.  When the world has real problems to solve, it needs real opportunities to find out about those problems and then debate solutions. 

This is, in fact, exactly what occurred in this country in the last century, as we developed a national economy, with national issues requiring national solutions, and with new communications technologies making a national public forum possible.  This is what also made the open and tolerant Columbia you have just experienced.   But here’s what you also need to know!  None of this happens naturally.  Freedom of thought and expression are counter-intuitive.  They are always viewed with fear and trepidation about leading to disorder, to a decline in values, to chaos.  Indeed, in the United States it took almost two centuries before seditious libel laws were seen as antithetical to good public decision-making.  Nobody in power likes criticism.  Hell, even I don’t like it, and it’s my field!  The simple truth is that being part of genuine open debate is hard work for anyone.  We prefer order, opinions that reinforce our own beliefs, not to have to explain and justify our beliefs, and definitely not to have to change our minds.  But changing our minds is exactly why we’re here.

And, so, while you will live in a world with more promise for humanity than ever before, with obstacles and problems and issues of true planetary magnitude, always remember that the incredible freedoms of mind and speech and the rigor of intellect you have experienced here have come somewhat recently and not come easily—and they are now an absolute necessity for the world you will inherit. 

My second and final—and brief—recommendation is for you personally.  I began by saying you are all brilliant students.  (Some more brilliant than others, to be sure.)  The natural course of life from here is to make you ever more specialized.  You will become experts in something.  That’s the nature of how modern life is organized, and there’s a lot to be said for it.  Besides, it’s nice to be an expert.  You will achieve a certain respect, and you can hold forth at dinner parties.  But, as you progress through life, this will make it harder and harder for you to put aside your status as an expert and to set out to learn something new.  We naturally prefer to confer answers than to ask questions.  Displaying our ignorance becomes an increasingly untenable psychological proposition, it undermines our needed illusion for mastery over knowledge, and points up painfully the briefness of our existence.  But to give in to this impulse takes away the great joy of life.  A good life is one in which you feel you are always learning, when you are comfortable with always being a student.  

I like what Renzo Piano—our master architect for the new Manhattanville campus—said upon turning 70, when I asked him how it felt.  He said it came as a surprise, and he felt that life naturally should be 210 years:  70 to learn, 70 to do what you’ve learned, and 70 to teach others what you’ve learned.  What this really reflects is a mind always learning, for even if you lived to be 210 you would still never master all you need to know in that time.  So, as you grow older and ask yourselves the inevitable question, “What have I accomplished in life?” always add the thought, “And what can I still learn?”  I hope you always remain the brilliant students you have been here with us. 

Congratulations and best of luck to the Class of 2013.