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Commencement Speech 2011

2011 Commencement Address

May 18, 2011

At last year’s Commencement, in the rain, I reminded the Class of 2010 of the famous old saying that if it rains on your Commencement you are guaranteed a fabulous life.  I can only imagine what even more incredible success and happiness await all of you after you dry out from an unprecedented week of rain. 

Everyone here today, and throughout this dark and stormy week, has shown amazing fortitude, and that gives us just one more reason to congratulate the brave families and the graduating classes of 2011. 

This morning, then, now that we’re all together for the last time, we’re going to make the very best of it.  And by the end, the backdrop of the miserable weather, like Prince Hal’s youthful transgressions, will only make us feel all the more that this has been the best Commencement in Columbia’s history. 

And, so, we will, and I will, set out on a “condensed”—but more brilliant—version of today’s ceremony. 

Let’s start with the recognition of why we’re all here today, which is to celebrate you, the Class of 2011—our heartiest congratulations to everyone of you. 

Next, let’s take the opportunity to express your love and gratitude to your most adoring fans, the ones who have always applauded disproportionately at your performances, told you repeatedly how handsome and beautiful you are—even when you weren’t—and—this is the most important to us—offered you unwavering support for developing your very remarkable talents:  Let’s thank your parents and families. 

You have been at Columbia in times of enormous changes.  Some would say that while you were studying here you’ve been detached and removed.  They would be wrong.  Therein lies the theme of my ever-so-brief remarks to you today:  Your life here has not been some frivolous exercise but instead the essence of what the world needs more than anything else—the qualities of minds to live fearlessly in a complex universe.   Here is the Cliff Notes—a term you may be familiar with—summary of my argument, in four soggy steps. 

  • Whether you paid attention or not, you have been living in one of the most extraordinary open intellectual environments on the planet, now or ever before.  The freedom to pursue knowledge and ideas is without parallel.  No party lines had to be followed, no dogmas limited your curiosity.  As exhilarating as this can be, it is also not easy.  To take on true freedom of the mind is to feel dumb, to risk being offended, and to live with the queasy feeling that nothing will ever be simple again, not even your most cherished beliefs.  This is different from expertise.  It is Intellectual Character, which you acquire only by doing over and over again.  But, once you have it, you’re changed forever. 
  • Much of the world cannot abide by this degree of freedom.  Authoritarian regimes certainly can’t.  But what’s most interesting today is the rise of societies with mixed systems, open economies and limited freedom of thought.  Their astonishing success in improving the standard of living of citizens is impressive.  And now they’re challenging the very concept of freedom we have embraced and you have lived.  To them we have made a fetish out of freedom, at the expense of other values such as personal dignity and reputation, social cohesion and stability.  To them our culture is crude and dysfunctional, where extreme views crowd out more reasoned discussion.  So they prefer limited freedom and demand trust in the state.  This challenge is serious, and the whole world is watching. 
  • This is the Great Debate about the character of global society in this century, which is your century.  It matters.  Because increasingly what happens elsewhere, on a day-to-day basis, deeply affects us.  Problems are more and more global in dimension—the roots of the Great Recession, wealth inequality, climate change, infectious diseases, food safety and so on.  How we all—people everywhere—develop the qualities of minds to grapple with these problems is a matter of the utmost importance.  We have, now, a global marketplace for goods, but not a global marketplace for ideas to match it. 

That’s a pity because we also have for the first time in human history a truly global communications system emerging in the Internet.  But the new medium does not by itself solve the most perplexing problem, which is how do we get the important information along with the intellectual character necessary to think well about how we will live.  Censorship around the world is severely limiting this new medium.  Censorship anywhere is becoming censorship everywhere.  And the scarcest commodity in the world is the quality of thinking well and creatively.   

  • So, this is your last assignment, as you leave these gates.  Become engaged in the public forum, because the price of extraordinary freedom of thought is the responsibility to exercise your own freedom of expression, and thereby prove wrong the perception that a commitment to openness favors those who prefer simplicities and would indulge themselves in intolerance.  And then be prepared to articulate and defend the fundamental principle of freedom of thought and expression to an increasingly skeptical world.  Listen, too, of course, and change your mind if better arguments prevail.  That’s the necessary condition.  You can do this as I’ve said because this is your experience, but it is also your heritage. 

I have always had a special fondness for Alexander Hamilton.  Despite being a precocious advocate for American independence as a student, at what was then known as King’s College in lower Manhattan, he famously stood between a fleeing college president, Dr. Myles Cooper, and an angry student mob upset over Cooper’s notorious loyalty to the crown.  This gave Cooper a chance to escape from campus in the nighttime darkness and make his way down to the Hudson shore where he caught a boat to England and never returned.  Hamilton thus earned a special place in the heart of every Columbia president—including me—for bravely standing up for the principle that one’s sworn political opponents shouldn’t be tarred and feathered for their views.

But Hamilton and his fellow student John Jay became known for something else, too, namely for being the authors of now classic public essays meant to reason and persuade the public to embrace the federal constitution.  They did this in an era when violence and conflict were the order of the day, when the press was highly partisan and public debate was filled with scurrilous personal attacks.  Yet no one ever made a more nuanced argument, respectful of the complexities of life, on behalf of a good society than Hamilton and Jay did in the Federalist Papers.

Now, your immediate plans may not have included founding a new nation.  But wherever life’s journey takes you, my hope is that you will always carry with you the essence of this institution that has been your home for these few very formative years, the thrill and the dangers of open enquiry, and the inspiration provided by its proud heritage to bring this quality of mind to the public forum.  Go, therefore, and write the Federalist Papers for this century.  I promise we will be even more thankful and admiring than we are right now on this very special—and momentarily dry—day. 

Congratulations to all of you, Class of 2011.