Good morning: members of the faculty, parents and other distinguished guests, and especially members of the Class of 2003.
We meet on a morning where the sky, you might say, is impending. But that will simply complexify your memories of this day. It was a day like this just over 40 years ago, a couple of hundred miles to the south, when in Fenway Park, Ted Williams played his last baseball game. Some of you here, like myself, are old enough to remember that in his last time up he hit a home run. The day was warm but cloudy, with a slight breeze. But in the memories of those who were present over the years, the day has grown grayer, the clouds darker; it’s been raining, the wind whipping in from center field. The memories of the day have only been enhanced by the passage of time, and a bit of embroidery about the weather has made the day all the more exciting. And one day, I suppose, many of you will be talking about your children and grandchildren about the day you graduated from Bates, the hailstones coming down, the wind knocking over trees, and how you and your parents stuck it out.
Which is indeed what you’ve done for a remarkable four years. It’s a remarkable thing, if you think about it, higher education. As recently as 100 years ago, the notion of spending four years of study and contemplation after anything more than a rudimentary secondary schooling was almost unheard of except for the very rich and the very lucky. The idea that education should be available to all is a remarkable achievement in America of the last century and really the last 60 or 70 years. You have the opportunity to spend four years being trained in what used to be called a liberal education. It was called liberal education not to identify it with liberalism as such, either then or now, but to identify it rather with liberty. The idea of a liberal education was training the young mind to reason in order that as adults they would be able to make right use of liberty.
In Europe with its aristocratic traditions, liberal tradition was available only to the few because liberty as such was available only to the few. In the United States, where our conceit is that liberty is available to the many, it follows that higher education must be available to the many.
Now you have a great advantage of attending a place like Bates College, with its strong tradition of activism for social justice. So perhaps I don’t need to tell you today about the heavy responsibilities that you carry. But I would like to tell you about one of the reasons that perhaps you don’t think about enough that you carry the responsibilities that you do.
You see, when you receive your degrees in a few minutes, it is true that as a formal matter, they mark your mastery of a field of human intellectual endeavor. But you’re all very smart, or you wouldn’t be here. And you could probably master a field of intellectual endeavor on your own in a few months using the Internet or your public library. There is something more that you’ve accomplished and that I want us together to think about.
Even in the United States, not everyone goes to college. Maybe everyone deserves it, but not everyone has a chance. Not everyone has the interest. Not everyone has the talent, or the drive, or the preparation. Not everyone has the parents who have pushed us – even though we hated being pushed – and the teachers who pressed us, even though we hated being pressed. And all of that pushing and that pressing, along with your four years here, has made you into remarkable and people. You know better than I do, and your families know better than you do, how different you are from when began. You’ve learned new things, you’ve met new people, and you’ve developed new ways of thinking about the world. Most of you have probably tried a few things you wished you hadn’t. You’ve probably tried things you’re glad you tried but you pretend you wish you hadn’t, and you’ve tried some other new things that have become part of your lives that made you happy and proud – and often with good reason.
But there is something else that you’ve also accomplished. Because today when you receive your degrees and move your tassels from the right side of your cap to the left, you will also be graduating into what we might describe as the reasoning class – people who are trained to use their minds. I mean this very seriously. We live in a world in which all too few people are trained to use their minds, to really apply the power of human intelligence to try to solve the knotty problems of policy, of politics, of philosophy, of morality. Human reason is one of God’s great gifts to the human race, and it does us no credit when we under use it.
Now when I welcome you to the reasoning class, don’t think of that as a class that is superior to some other class. It’s not discriminatory; it’s not a special club of the rich or the white or the male. There are a lot of rich white males who are not members of the reasoning class. The reasoning class is open without regard to ideology and it’s largely closed to those whose most important task in life is fitting in and hiding in the crowd.
Don’t be ashamed of this achievement. You know that you are different. You’re not better than other people because your reason is trained. You’re not superior to them in any way, except that you have a skill that others do not – the same way others may have the skill of painting or sailing or sinking a 3-point jump shot, community organizing, community policing, welcoming a stranger, or loving the enemy. All of those are important, valuable skills for human existence and so is the power of reasoning.
As graduates into the reasoning class, you will move beyond the world where your ideas can be governed by media sound bites, by slogans and chants that substitute for argument, by knee-jerk reactions, or by demonizing people because their ideals happen to be different from those you cherish. You are going to become part of the vanguard that leads the world instead to a better understanding, a way of applying human reason to problems that divide us and threaten us, a way of drawing into reasonable conversation thoughtful people with whom you disagree. Let me try to sketch why this matters so much.
We cannot sugarcoat the point: You are graduating this year at a difficult moment in the affairs of the world. For those of you who are seniors today, the excitement of junior year had scarcely begun when the twin towers came down in New York. A month later, the government of the United States, as part of the war on terrorism, was overturning the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After a summer’s respite you returned to campus and with it came the war in Iraq, which excited deep divisions, I’m sure, here as elsewhere in the country and around the world. And yet, the question about what America’s new role should be, an important question for reasonable people to think about, in a world where it is the last remaining superpower, is probably not the largest challenge that we face.
Even had the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon never come, you would still be stepping out the door into a world dramatically altered from the one in which you entered when you were freshmen. During your four years of college, the tech bubble burst on Wall Street and the corporate accounting scandals brought down one of the largest companies in the world and shattered the confidence of investors in the markets for probably years to come. During your four years of college, scientists successfully mapped the human genome, but have been unable to slow the inexorable spread of AIDS through sub-Saharan Africa, where in some countries as many as one in three adults may be infected. During your four years in college, music file sharing via the Internet became so popular that the recording industry itself may be in its death throes. During your four years in college, democracy has taken hold in more countries in the world than in any time in history, but something between one-quarter and one-third of the world’s population lives in abject poverty.
Just in the last couple of months, the most influential newspaper on the face of the globe has been humiliated, forced to admit that a young reporter without visible skills managed to lead his editors on a merry dance, forging some stories, plagiarizing others, without any serious effort at the top to figure out what was going on. If even the mighty New York Times, the newspaper of record, has been tarnished, you might think the world would change forever.
But some things stay the same. The Supreme Court continues to make new enemies every day, but making friends is not its job. Politicians of both parties continue to argue that the only certainty is the one that will help their constitutions, and the only things that are wrong are things that will help constituents of the other party.
And because this is late May, as in every late May, the Boston Red Sox are flirting with first place. Although in the end, within the next five-six weeks, they’ll lose out to the Yankees. But you know, some teams, like great art, are put on earth to break our hearts.
Now, this world in which you are entering, which I’ve described as increasingly complex, is a world in which it is tempting to imagine – we all feel the temptation, I know I do – that the line which divides the moral people from the immoral people is the line of whether they agree with me. One of the great formative experiences of my life was the years I spent learning from Thurgood Marshall, both as his law clerk, and then many years later, doing some work with him in the last year of his life. Thurgood Marshall was not only one of the great human beings to serve on the Supreme Court, but also one of the important historical figures of the 20th century. [He was]…one of the great lawyers, a man who often during his years litigating civil rights cases all over the country literally had to run for his life to stay alive to get to court the next day.
I had an occasion to ask Thurgood Marshall his view of lawyer named John W. Davis, who was a Virginia gentleman and a segregationist who argued the other side of Brown v. the Board of Education and lost. When I asked him this question I was in my 20s probably, therefore knew pretty much everything, and I assumed he would respond the way I would have responded, by explaining to me what a monster John W. Davis was. But Thurgood Marshall surprised me. He said, “John W. Davis? A good man, a great man, who just happened to believe in black segregation.” This ability, to reach across the greatest American moral divide of the 20th century and to see on the other side human beings who are misguided rather than demons to be destroyed, is one of the hardest lessons about being an adult. The media won’t teach us that. Most of our political leaders won’t teach us that. We have to learn that example from adults. And all of you, as you graduate into adults within the reasoning class, have a responsibility to model that in what you show younger people about how to behave.
Because when we’re younger, when we’re children, monsters scare us. When we’re grownups, they reassure us. We paint the world beyond our own beliefs in the bright, challenging colors of the Hollywood horror flick. “There are monsters out there,” we tell each other excitedly, “and they’re out to get us.” And people on the right may see monsters in one place, and people on the left may see the monsters somewhere else. But we all seem to agree on the proposition that the monsters indeed exist.
But the promise of the Enlightenment was that you could see the world without having to look for the monsters. So whatever your starting point, whether you begin, as I do, from a religious conviction, whether you begin from a secular philosophical viewpoint, or whether you’re still working out your starting point, that wherever you begin you can apply God’s gift of reason to try to understand right and wrong, instead of understanding it through labeling some people not worthy to be bothered with.
There is an analog to this, in how we deal with arguments more generally. We have a lot of trouble in America, sometimes, with the idea of truth. There’s a scene in Jim Carrey’s movie Liar, Liar. Carrey plays a lawyer who’s been forced by supernatural compulsion to tell the truth. He’s in the courtroom, and the other side introduces some evidence and Jim Carrey leaps to his feet and says, “Objection, your honor!” And the judge turns to him and says, “On what grounds?” And Jim Carrey says, “Because it is devastating to my case.” Which is true of most objections. One of the temptations we have as adults is to treat evidence that way. If we’re having a debate about policy about politics, whatever it may be, if the rumor makes the other side look bad, then it’s gotta be true. But if it makes our side look bad, then it’s obviously scurrilous and false. Not everybody is that way. Many adults are not that way. I would like to be less that way myself. But as you graduate into the reasoning class, it’s vital for us to make up our minds based on what we actually know.
John Maynard Keynes was once before the House of Lords making a speech, and was asked, “But my lord, when we addressed this issue a few years ago, didn’t you argue the other side?” He said, “That’s true, but when I get more evidence I sometimes change my mind. What do you do?”
That is the challenge facing all of us – how to continue and reason as we grow. A few weeks ago, my family and I attended the bar mitzvah of the son of some family friends. At the end of the ceremony, the rabbi called the young man over and he said, “I hope you will continue in you study of Torah and Talmud. I hope your study will be life long, because if it isn’t,” he said to the young man, “you will remain forever a 13-year-old Jewish boy.
You’re all in your early 20s today. One of the challenges before you, as you go off into busy and exciting lives, is how to make sure that you continue to study, and learn, and grow, so that you will not remain forever in your intellectual life 21, 22, 23 years old. You will lead busy lives when you leave this place. Your days will be full of exciting work and wonderful friends, and if the Lord so blesses you, secure and loving families. You should enjoy every minute of that. You will face crises and challenges, when your ability to reason will assist you. But in all that pain and joy and excitement, be sure to set aside the time to think.
It is common to tell graduates they are the best hope of the world. The reason it is so common is that it is always true. Respect your four years in this beautiful campus, learning to use your minds. If you commit to yourselves, not to remain the same intellectual age forever, your wonderful mind will learn and grow throughout your lives on this earth. And that is what education is truly about.
The world in which you graduate is strangling itself for a refusal to look at facts, a refusal to reason its way through problems, a refusal to look at life in all of its complexity. That is not the only possible future. If you build a future in which apply reason to the world – reason tempered by moral understanding, but also moral understanding improved by reason – then you can lead that world to a more wonderful place.
Do not be embarrassed by an excellent education; do not be burdened by it. Be excited by it and be empowered by it. It is about your power of reason, resting always on a bedrock of morality, that the world’s future rests.
My final words of advice, therefore, are that you must get out there, enjoy yourself, and reason hard.