Bard College at Simon's Rock: the Early College
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  9. Leon Botstein Commencement Speech

Leon Botstein Commencement Speech

First, on behalf of the entire Bard family and the trustees and the faculty of the college as a whole, I want to extend my congratulations to the class of 2017. And I also want to congratulate all members of the families of the graduates or any other random adults that have come here, who have nothing better to do than to watch this wonderful ceremony. I want to have the students pay tribute to the families that endured their birth and their long, long journey into adulthood. So, a word for the parents and the families.

Institutions like this don’t live on bread alone or from the air we breathe, and they require nurturing and real support, and so I want to acknowledge the board of overseers and members of the board of overseers who are here today. And from campus safety down to the provostship, running an institution is an ungrateful line of work, and we don’t recommend it to any of you. But to those who, for some unfortunate reason, cause they couldn't get another job, actually do this, I want to thank all the members of the staff of Simon’s Rock.

And last but not least, you’ve heard from the extremely eloquent speakers in the awards and the two speakers on behalf of the graduating class. If you haven’t gotten the message, I want to underscore it, that this institution lives and breathes and thrives by the quality of its faculty, so I’d like the members of the faculty of Simon’s Rock to stand.

Since many private colleges were founded under the aegis of American churches, the people that ran them were people of faith by and large, and there was an idea that was created that at the ceremony which you get degrees, which became a secular analog to a church service, that the person who ran the place would deliver a final sermon. That’s what the charge to you is supposed to be, and this has been continued for generations. It is an entirely forgettable event. And like all commencement speakers and all speeches at this day, we remember the general outlines and none of the details. We recall we were there, but very little else that happened.

So knowing that I have very little chance of leaving any residue, I’m free to say exactly what I think. It's a great advantage to speak when no one is paying attention or no one is inclined to remember. But you have to be here because otherwise you won’t get your diplomas.

So these rituals have a kind of a comforting predictability. But for this class of 2017, I can think of no graduating class in my memory that graduates at a more auspicious and difficult time. 2017 marks, as our commencement speaker has noted, a moment in history that is nearly unprecedented. We have the greatest challenge to the idea of freedom and liberty and democracy we have ever encountered in the modern history of this republic.

The problem is not only an American problem. A person was elected president who is beyond partisan criticism. The incompetence, the mendacity, the dishonesty, and absolute disregard for the rule of law and for the conduct of the affairs of the nation is without precedent. And the sympathy he evokes is sympathy that is based in anger, frustration, and intolerance. One needs to be empathetic to that emotion of anger and intolerance and a sense of disappointment in the character of one’s life. Therefore, nothing he does will stick to him, and the base of his support will never erode because it's beyond the normally political.

This is not a phenomenon limited to the United States. We have around the world a growing sympathy, popular sympathy, for autocracy, for authoritarianism—in Turkey, in Russia, in Hungary, in Poland, all over the world that once saw itself as headed to governments of freedom and democracy. The truth is that the other candidate, Secretary Clinton, lost not because we were so convinced that that was a good alternative. There’s no doubt that since the ’90s, the Democratic Party in many ways failed the population. Why is it that we have the highest inequality of wealth in our history? Why is it that race continues and grows as a divisive and oppressive line in our society? Why is it that we are tolerant of the intolerance to people unlike ourselves and are willing to sit by when the immigration laws become stricter and there's a threat to deporting people who've lived among us who are so-called undocumented?

Fact is that our politics as we understand it and our aspirations are at risk. The idea freedom that is inscribed in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that liberty is a reciprocal right. It’s not an Ayn Rand ideal of individual self-betterment. It argues that each of you has a right to freedom, but that right to freedom is a political right that's contingent on the freedom of your neighbor. You can’t actually be free without being concerned about the well-being of all of your neighbors—not the neighbors that you choose to be like, not the neighbors that resemble you, not the neighbors that are familiar to you—but every neighbor in the community that you define.

We are faced with the failure of our own rhetoric, its hypocrisy and its still-lingering potential. You are graduating at a time when the education you received here is more important than ever before; more important than it was for your predecessors, who graduated in a kind of system of continuity. You’re facing the absurd discontinuity of what’s happened in our country in the political system—eroded by money and politics, by passivity, half the population not even voting. So the question is not, “Are you going to fix it?” No, we have to fix this together. But the point being that the education you received is in fact all about the real world. It’s all about what needs to be done in that world to actually restore the possibility of a just and free society.

And that education, by the way, just in case your parents are a little nervous, is immensely practical. This idea that the liberal arts degrees you’re getting can’t get you employed is actually an alternative fact. Liberal arts graduates have the best history of lifelong employment and the lowest record of unemployment, and there’s a very good reason because actually you can fake knowing how to do something. We have taught you the gift of improvisation and the gift of family resemblances. “If I can do this, I can probably do that as well. You’re not tied down to a narrow sense of your own expertise. You can gamble. You can take risk. You can adapt. And that’s what life will demand of you.

So the fact is, your education is needed and you are needed. There is no reason any of you, each and every one of you, has to regard yourself as absolutely essential, irreplaceable, and sacred. And that is what biology teaches us. Each of you is distinct and that distinction, we hope, we have cultivated in you in your years here, whether you like Simon's Rock or not. In fact, those of you who don't like it might have gotten the most out of it.

So in an effort to be uncharacteristically brief, I’ll leave you with seven pieces of pithy advice, none of which you will remember, but at least I have the reassurance that I said it.

First of all, I would advise you to live locally. Don’t live in the clichés of 24/7 newspeak. Yes, this stuff going around all over the world and there's a thunderstorm and a disaster someplace, but live in real time with people who you can touch, feel, and share public space with. Try to wear clothes that are made by somebody within a reasonable distance of your own domicile, and try to eat food that’s grown within a reasonable distance of your own domicile. Make the communities you live in more than the regular conformist malls that you find all over the world. Try actually to cultivate a sense of local pride, very much local pride.

Whoever you are, that’s my first piece of advice; second piece of advice is you’re not one thing. Your gender, your race, your religion, your sexual preference is only one part of you. You are multiplicities, and always remember that because in remembering your multiplicity, you’ll find a bridge to someone who is slightly different than yourself. And unless we merge a sense of identity with a sense of commonality, we will never restore the political fabric of a country.

My third piece of advice is reclaim time. Shut off your smartphones, detach from the internet, and get off social networks for a long period of time every day. I don’t understand; first of all, nobody ever looks up anymore. Even when walking down the street, I don’t know what people are texting each other. The banality of what they text is a horrifying thing to contemplate. And you might actually find the time in the silence of no electronic access actually to talk to yourself, to pursue the Augustinian dialogue of a dialogue with yourself, and you might discover that you have actually aspects of profundity, not mere banality. And staying attached to those gadgets, which are terrific in their own way, keeps you in the real bubble, which is the bubble of an echo chamber of your own prejudices and beliefs.

Once you get out of here, my fourth piece of advice is, continue to pay attention to language. Try to fashion your own language. Resist borrowing clichés and think about using the language so actually you can hear what other people are saying. Our commencement speaker confessed to having a father who voted for Trump. Now, it’s interesting, the people that voted for Trump are not all bad people by any means. They have a right to be angry. Most people voted for the other candidate to avoid Trump, not because of a positive good necessarily. So the question is, one has to get to the underpinnings of even the worst prejudice.

The most interesting conversations I have are with hardcore anti-Semites. It’s fascinating to think why they think anti-Semitism is reasonable. I wouldn’t understand how to respond to it, how to avoid it, how to circumvent it, how to dampen it, expose it, if I didn’t actually listen. And not listen with hate, but listen with empathy. Actually, I feel sorry for anti-Semites because they believe in a conspiracy theory, which prevents them from seeing what really is happening in the world.

My fifth piece of advice is related to the fourth one, and it’s keep reading books. Now, the book is a tried and tested form of information. It’s a bad dictionary, I agree. It’s a bad travel guide. And you don’t need maps. I concede to GPS. However, it is a wonderful and very intimate form of holding on to the connection between yourself and the past. Books have a history. They survive us. To buy an old book, that someone else who read it, someone who owned it, it has a history. And the one thing that reading books reminds us is our connection to the past. To remember the past is to become modest about one’s own humanity, less arrogant about being able to do something better, dampen a silly technological utopianism, and to make contact with the people who shared this space before us.

My sixth piece of advice is to resist envy. Don’t envy anyone else. You’re going to go out and graduate, and some of you will have great success recently out of college, and some of you will think you're floundering. Don’t worry about it. Someone else’s success doesn’t prevent you from finding your own way. Finding your own way quickly doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage. People come alive in realizing their own dreams at varying stages in their lives. Envy leads to anger, and anger leads to intolerance. Be gracious to your fellow human beings, whether they be highly successful or not. Don't envy those that are rich. I assure you, being a very veteran fundraiser, they’re no happier than any of the rest of us. And therefore, don’t measure your own happiness by your bank account.

And finally, do not be afraid to act. Now, acting is a very hard thing to do. For example, take immigration and the potential deportation of those residents of our country who are so-called undocumented. This won’t be stopped by petitions. This won’t be stopped if it ever happens by protest or by normal means. It might have to be stopped by civil disobedience, lawful protest, which we have to then put ourselves at risk, not by sanctuaries, but taking human beings into our own homes and facing down law authority that seeks to do something that, in my judgment, is not legal under the Bill of Rights. Every resident, every person, as the Bill of Rights says, is entitled to due process of law under the same rights as a citizen. The Bill of Rights does not speak of citizenship as being the prior condition for a human right. And therefore, if we believe in those rights, we have to stand up for them, even if we put ourselves at risk. Don’t allow the current political situation to remain normal. And your education, your critical abilities, your curiosity, your ambition, will be an absolutely indispensable part of turning the course of this nation back to the great traditions of democracy, of freedom, and justice. And those terms in our policy and our culture require the education you’ve received, and we are very proud to have been part of it, and therefore very proud to hand you your diplomas. Congratulations.