#4 Commencement speeches 2003 -2007

  • Alice Greenwald, Sarah Lawrence, 2007
  • Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
  • David Foster Wallace, Kenyon, 2005
  • Toni Morrison, Wellesley, 2004
  • Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

Aurora Borealis

“Great Expectations”

Bill Gates

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

JUNE 7, 2007

Chairman of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Gates has commited more money than perhaps anyone in history to improve life on this planet.


President Bok, former President Rudenstine, incoming President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, parents, and especially, the graduates, I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.”

I want to thank Harvard for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.

I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities, on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me “Harvard’s most successful dropout.” I guess that makes me valedictorian of my own special class; I did the best of everyone who failed.

But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today.

Harvard was just a phenomenal experience for me. Academic life was fascinating. I used to sit in on lots of classes I hadn’t even signed up for. And dorm life was terrific. I lived up at Radcliffe, in Currier House. There were always lots of people in my dorm room late at night discussing things, because everyone knew I didn’t worry about getting up in the morning. That’s how I came to be the leader of the anti-social group. We clung to each other as a way of validating our rejection of all those social people.

Radcliffe was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.

One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them software.

I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software yet. From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft.

What I remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was an amazing privilege-and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendships I made, and the ideas I worked on.

But taking a serious look back I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world-the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries-but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity-reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

It took me decades to find out.

You graduates came to Harvard at a different time. You know more about the world’s inequities than the classes that came before. In your years here, I hope you’ve had a chance to think about how-in this age of accelerating technology-we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them.

Imagine, just for the sake of discussion, that you had a few hours a week and a few dollars a month to donate to a cause-and you wanted to spend that time and money where it would have the greatest impact in saving and improving lives. Where would you spend it?

For Melinda and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.

During our discussions on this question, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago made harmless in this country. Measles, malaria, pneumonia, hepatitis B, yellow fever. One disease I had never even heard of, rotavirus, was killing half a million kids each year-none of them in the United States.

We were shocked. We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren’t being delivered.

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism-if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We also can press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes.

If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world.

This task is open-ended. It can never be finished. But a conscious effort to answer this challenge will change the world.

I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end-because people just don’t care.”

I completely disagree.

I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.

All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing-not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.

The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.

To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps.

Even with the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news, it is still a complex enterprise to get people to truly see the problems. When an airplane crashes, officials immediately call a press conference. They promise to investigate, determine the cause, and prevent similar crashes in the future.

But if the officials were brutally honest, they would say: “Of all the people in the world who died today from preventable causes, one half of one percent of them were on this plane. We’re determined to do everything possible to solve the problem that took the lives of the one half of one percent.”

The bigger problem is not the plane crash, but the millions of preventable deaths.

We don’t read much about these deaths. The media covers what’s new-and millions of people dying is nothing new. So it stays in the background, where it’s easier to ignore. But even when we do see it or read about it, it’s difficult to keep our eyes on the problem. It’s hard to look at suffering if the situation is so complex that we don’t know how to help. And so we look away.

If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution.

Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks “How can I help?,” then we can get action-and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares-and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.

Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have-whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.

The AIDS epidemic offers an example. The broad goal, of course, is to end the disease. The highest-leverage approach is prevention. The ideal technology would be a vaccine that gives lifetime immunity with a single dose. So governments, drug companies, and foundations fund vaccine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the meantime, we have to work with what we have in hand-and the best prevention approach we have now is getting people to avoid risky behavior.

Pursuing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pattern. The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working-and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century-which is to surrender to complexity and quit.

The final step-after seeing the problem and finding an approach-is to measure the impact of your work and share your successes and failures so that others learn from your efforts.

You have to have the statistics, of course. You have to be able to show that a program is vaccinating millions more children. You have to be able to show a decline in the number of children dying from these diseases. This is essential not just to improve the program, but also to help draw more investment from business and government.

But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work-so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.

I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life-then multiply that by millions. Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on-ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.

What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software-but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?

You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that-is a complex question.

Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new-they can help us make the most of our caring-and that’s why the future can be different from the past.

The defining and ongoing innovations of this age-biotechnology, the computer, the Internet-give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.

Sixty years ago, George Marshall came to this commencement and announced a plan to assist the nations of post-war Europe. He said: “I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation. It is virtually impossible at this distance to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.”

Thirty years after Marshall made his address, as my class graduated without me, technology was emerging that would make the world smaller, more open, more visible, less distant.

The emergence of low-cost personal computers gave rise to a powerful network that has transformed opportunities for learning and communicating.

The magical thing about this network is not just that it collapses distance and makes everyone your neighbor. It also dramatically increases the number of brilliant minds we can have working together on the same problem-and that scales up the rate of innovation to a staggering degree.

At the same time, for every person in the world who has access to this technology, five people don’t. That means many creative minds are left out of this discussion-smart people with practical intelligence and relevant experience who don’t have the technology to hone their talents or contribute their ideas to the world.

We need as many people as possible to have access to this technology, because these advances are triggering a revolution in what human beings can do for one another. They are making it possible not just for national governments, but for universities, corporations, smaller organizations, and even individuals to see problems, see approaches, and measure the impact of their efforts to address the hunger, poverty, and desperation George Marshall spoke of 60 years ago.

Members of the Harvard Family: Here in the Yard is one of the great collections of intellectual talent in the world.

What for?

There is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world. But can we do more? Can Harvard dedicate its intellect to improving the lives of people who will never even hear its name?

Let me make a request of the deans and the professors-the intellectual leaders here at Harvard: As you hire new faculty, award tenure, review curriculum, and determine degree requirements, please ask yourselves:

Should our best minds be dedicated to solving our biggest problems?

Should Harvard encourage its faculty to take on the world’s worst inequities? Should Harvard students learn about the depth of global poverty the prevalence of world hunger the scarcity of clean water the girls kept out of school the children who die from diseases we can cure?

Should the world’s most privileged people learn about the lives of the world’s least privileged?

These are not rhetorical questions-you will answer with your policies.

My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here-never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given-in talent, privilege, and opportunity-there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.

In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue-a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.

Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.

You graduates are coming of age in an amazing time. As you leave Harvard, you have technology that members of my class never had. You have awareness of global inequity, which we did not have. And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort.

You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.

Knowing what you know, how could you not?

And I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

Good luck.

“Why Does Memory Matter?”

Alice Greenwald

Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, USA

MAY 18, 2007

Alice Greenwald is director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York City. 


Good morning!

Thirty-four years ago I was standing under a tent on Westlands Lawn on a rainy day in late May, wearing a great dress that I had bought in Exeter, England, the year before, during my Junior Year Abroad. I remember it vividly: a white, gauzy Indian cotton, with a long flowing skirt; the top a tight bodice with multi-colored, jewel-tone embroidery in vertical stripes down a shirred front. My hair – like almost everyone else’s that day, including the maybe 30 guys who graduated with me in 1973 – was really long and parted in the middle; we all looked like some strange, cloned versions of Cher!

I remember my friends standing nearby, and feeling the pang of nostalgia already, knowing that our time together – as housemates in Brebner; as members of an extraordinary movement and teaching seminar led by the incomparable Katya Delakova; as intellectual explorers, discovering the previously unknown territory of Dante’s Inferno with Wolf Spitzer as our Virgil on that journey, or recognizing ourselves in the exuberant Kwakiutl with our very own shaman, the quietly masterful Irving Goldman – knowing that this time was about to end, that we would never again know each other, or be with one another, in quite the same way.

I remember my parents sitting several rows behind me, and feeling my father’s loving gaze at my back, knowing he was bursting with prideand no small degree of relief, having paid his very last Sarah Lawrence tuition bill!

What I don’t remember is who spoke that morning, or what that person said. It’s a complete blank which, under the circumstances, I find rather humbling.

“I run to find Nat in the crowds. We meet at the appointed spot, just outside the Tisch building on Broadway. As the words bubble out of my mouth about this amazing commencement address, and how incredibly privileged he and his friends must feel to have been given this impassioned charge as they leave their alma mater, he looks at me and blankly says, ‘Mom, I had to get up so early this morning to pick up the cap and gown, I just slept through the whole program. Did anyone say anything that really matters?’”

Okay, so fast-forward now. It’s May 2006, just a year ago. I’m sitting in a huge room, in front of a huge television screen, listening to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy*. It’s commencement at NYU. My son, Nathaniel, is graduating from Tisch, with a degree in Photography and Imaging. His father and grandmother have secured the two authorized family seats near the fountain in Washington Square Park, and my daughter, Nat’s girlfriend, and I have made our way with thousands – make that tens of thousands – of other families of graduates, to watch the processionals and hear the speeches in various remote locations. I listen to Justice Kennedy’s words, and I am moved as much by what he says, as how he says it. This gentle, thoughtful, supremely intelligent man (excuse the pun!) is literally seething with anger as he speaks – something, perhaps, Nat’s Dad and Grandmother cannot even notice without the benefit of the large screen TV.

Justice Kennedy is offering, as is expected, an exhortation to the graduates; but, he is also offering, quite astonishingly, an apology. He reminds the graduates of their imperative to advance freedom in the world; but he goes on to demand that they pursue an understanding of freedom that is not estranged from the equally essential commitment to compassion. He urges these young adults, with pronouncements that sound sibylline in their authority, to embark upon the world’s stage with a recognition of the ineluctable humanity of those we consider “other” – to remember that the abstract enemies, the denizens of nations we have reduced to being part of a hyperbolic “Axis of Evil,” are quite simply as real as we are, children of loving parents, parents of remarkable children, and sisters and brothers and cousins and coworkers and friends and neighbors And, as the Justice speaks these words, he is visibly shaken, his chin quivering, his anger palpable, his deep shame suggested by the stunning admission he voices, that we – our generation – has failed you; we have let you down we have left you a world to inherit that, despite the rhetoric of our youth and the promise of the “Sixties,” we have left you a world that is far worse and much more vulnerable than the one we inherited from our own parents.

I sit mesmerized, listening to him. I can’t wait to talk to Nat about this shattering indictment of my own era, this fervent call to humanism, that might – if only it were possible! – make this world a better place. I run to find Nat in the crowds. We meet at the appointed spot, just outside the Tisch building on Broadway. As the words bubble out of my mouth about this amazing commencement address, and how incredibly privileged he and his friends must feel to have been given this impassioned charge as they leave their alma mater, he looks at me and blankly says, “Mom, I had to get up so early this morning to pick up the cap and gown, I just slept through the whole program. Did anyone say anything that really matters?”

Okay. I am going to assume that no one under the age of about 45 in this crowd is going to remember a darn thing I’m about to say. So, if you feel like it, go ahead, take a nap! You deserve it! You’ve worked hard to get to this day. And, I’m going to spend some time talking to your parents. It’s their rite of passage too. And, I know they’re listening to every word. After all, they paid for it!

When Michele Myers called last spring and offered me the honor of speaking at commencement, she advised me to: “keep it short, and make it funny!” Unfortunately, I don’t do short, and as someone who has devoted her professional life to the darker chapters of history, I’m not often called upon to do “funny.” So, I beg your indulgence this morning. We’re going to talk about serious things; things, I think, that matter.

As a historian, I think about the past. But, as a parent, I think about the future. What struck me most about Justice Kennedy’s admonitions a year ago was the question behind his comments: what kind of world have we left our children? Thirty-four years ago, when I sat here, the world was a very different place. We were of a generation that believed in our own agency to change the world. We stood up to power, and we forced, by sheer will and a sense of common moral imperative that was greater than any one of us alone, the end of a senseless war that had drafted our friends into combat, and too often, took the lives of our peers for a cause none of us could defend.

We entered our twenties filled with a sense of promise and of potential. We believed we could carry this moral fervor into the arena of our professional lives and make a difference. I would like to believe that we tried to honor that promise.

But, something happened along the way. Here we are, sending our beautiful, accomplished, and yes, pampered, children off into a world that is struggling to right itself, a world in which insecurity is the global norm, our environment is at grave risk, and no matter where we live, the specter of terrifying unpredictability hovers. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust and the lessons of Hiroshima some six decades ago, genocide continues unstopped in the deserts of Darfur, and the world community continues to play a very dangerous game of brinksmanship with weapons of mass destruction.

We seem to have forgotten the important lessons – lessons that are very much at the heart of a Sarah Lawrence education: that individual dignity must be acknowledged for community to thrive; and, that our sense of belonging must extend beyond the limits of our immediate self-interests to take in a larger landscape of possibility, one that can best be encountered through rigorous, intellectual inquiry; curiosity about the unfamiliar, and non-judgmental openness to the “other.”
We forget such lessons at our own peril. But, how can we ensure that our children remember them? Why does memory matter?

That question has been the singular focus of my career. Let me share some of what I’ve learned along the way

There is a wonderful teacher of philosophy at Claremont-McKenna College, John K. Roth, who has written a great deal about what he calls the “ethics of memory:”

“Memories are not entirely in our control,” Roth tells us. “For one reason or another – physiological or psychological – we may lose them. Without memories we could scarcely be moral creatures, for history would dissolve and we would be able neither to identify one another as persons nor to make connections on which moral decisions depend. But given the fact that we do have memories, we are creatures who cannot avoid responsibility and moral responsibility in particular.”

Roth goes on to cite Elie Wiesel’s sobering alarm: “If we stop remembering, we stop being.” With Wiesel as his starting point, Roth then makes the Alzheimers’ analogy: “Especially as we age, we can understand Wiesel’s point in our personal lives. We dread memory loss; it means an enfeebled life. And at the end of the day, there is definitely a sense in which we stop existing when we can no longer remember.”

If we extend the personal experience to the communal, it would seem logical that, if loss of memory leads to a diminishment of being a whole person, of “being” in Wiesel’s words, then to forget history means that we, collectively, run the risk of being diminished as a society, or simply put, we become a society of diminished human beings.

My 19-year affiliation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum taught me many other lessons about memory. I came to understand there that the space between cognitive understanding and emotional intelligence is where memory resides.

Let me give you two examples:

In 2005, during the week when the country mourned the loss of civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, and her body lay in repose at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, every bus in Montgomery County, Maryland, carried a sign on a seat at the front of the bus: it read simply, “Reserved for Rosa Parks.” This simple gesture – to leave a seat empty – conveyed more than the words themselves could express: a sense of respect; an affirmation of shared history, and a celebration of the power of collective memory to compel reflection, if not action.

Here’s another example: in Berlin – a city quite literally sprouting with memorials – there is a small, rather subtle, but omnipresent memorial scattered across the city, around the country, and I understand other countries; and, it is surprisingly effective. It is the Stolpersteine project (which means, literally, “stumbling stones”). You’ll be walking down a street, and as you pass a house, there’s a small, brass-topped cobblestone set into the pavement at your feet. Inscribed on the cobblestone is a simple set of facts, something like this: “Here lived Alice Greenwald, born January 2, 1918. Deported May 24, 1943.” These stones are not only there as markers; they are quite literally, stumbling stones; they are meant to “trip you up” – cognitively, psychologically, and spiritually.

So, what’s the connection between the buses in Maryland and the stones in Berlin?

Both point to absence and the encounter with the void. Through the lens of absence, we are brought to another level of understanding. We can see the world differently.

My current work at the World Trade Center Memorial Museum is quite literally centered on the void. It will be located at an historic site that today – five-and-a-half years after the singular cataclysmic event of our lifetimes – is still mostly about absence, about what isn’t there. A 7-story deep, 16-acre hole dominates the urban landscape of lower Manhattan. This scar is as much psychic as it is physical; and, as essential to the process of memorialization – of integrating the still unimaginable facts into our historical consciousness – as is the dedicated, and I’m happy to report, advancing, effort to rebuild at the site.

But, how can we accomplish what is implicit in Professor Roth’s observations about memory: how can we ensure that, through the alchemy of the act of remembering, this place might become a site of conscience?

Memorial museums, those like the Holocaust Museum, that are not where the events took place, and those like Oklahoma City, where they are, are ultimately about the way we remember.

The Holocaust Museum, for example, has a dedicated focus. It is very self-consciously not a “museum of genocides.” Rather, it is a museum dedicated to the memory of a particular genocide, an event of such magnitude, it actually gave birth to the word “genocide” itself.

In this intense particularity, the Holocaust Museum is able to speak to something bigger than the history it represents. It speaks to conscience, and the need to act in the face of genocide. Last Thanksgiving weekend, for example, the Museum projected images of Darfur onto the exterior walls of the Hall of Remembrance, which itself projects out physically toward Raoul Wallenberg Place, transforming the entire enterprise of Holocaust memory, demanding that the building itself become an agent of active witness. Just last month, the Museum partnered with GoogleEarth to stream live satellite images from Darfur, 24/7, so that no one can say they weren’t aware, or deny what is happening there. With the world brought to you on your PC, the whole notion of what it means to be an eyewitness has been fundamentally changed.

At Ground Zero, we, too, have an opportunity – and an OBLIGATION – to remember well so that the intense and immediate particularity of 9/11, can speak to bigger concerns.
Our first priority will be, of course, to honor the commemorative and memorial functions of the site, to recognize that lives were lost here.

Secondly, the specificity of what happened will be our primary story – not just the horrific events of the day – but also the response of the community, the uniformed rescue personnel, New Yorkers, Americans from every state, the world community.

But, ultimately, the story must be about the people affected by this event – and the recognition that this is a story about people; people like us – who got up in the morning and went to work, and got caught in the vortex of global events.

People ask: Will this be a museum about terrorism?

As a memorial museum, this place will focus on the very real impact of terrorism on the lives of very real people, and their families, friends, colleagues and communities.
And, by focusing on the human story, this museum will, we hope, become a moral platform attesting to the indefensibility of terrorism, to the absolute unacceptability of indiscriminate mass murder as a response to grievance.

But, here is where we – as a community, a nation, and a civilization – keep missing the point, forgetting the lessons. It is the grievances we must focus on, and try to make sense of, not the terrorism. Despite the rhetoric, terrorist attacks don’t, in reality, strike abstractions like “the West” or “American values,” they strike people – people like you and me, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and cousins Justice Kennedy affirmed. People make up the world. And, so, we need to change our frame, and stop thinking about us and them, as if these categories were monolithic. We must begin to understand that the world is a big, and deeply interconnected and essentially interdependent, community of individuals.

At Sarah Lawrence, this recognition has always been at the heart of what is meant by “education.” Everyone at SLC is valued for having something unique to offer, and is encouraged to dig deep and meet audacious challenges. Through the lens of deep inquiry and the catnip of curiosity encouraged by small-sized seminars, and the donning, conference, and in my time, the “contract,” programs, we all learned what it means to learn.

There is a terrific story about the great American inventor, architect, and visionary Buckminster Fuller who was once asked by a student: “Professor Fuller, do you think there is life in outer space?” “Young man,” he answered, “just where do you think you are?”

The frame through which we look at ourselves and the world is key. As a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, I read Tonio Kröger with my don, Harold S. L. Wiener, and that one remarkable short story helped frame for me the core (and continuing) challenge of modern Europe in terms of the urgent need to bridge nationalistic divisions as a prerequisite for economic and social vitality, creativity and productivity. Another work by Thomas Mann became the focus of a semester-long project with Hyman Kleinman. As we read The Magic Mountain together, one on one, in the fall of 1972, and as I struggled to make sense of the diseased Europe that Mann chronicled, I had no idea how much that experience would help to frame my own understanding of the very history I would later be charged to tell at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What will frame the views for this generation? [And, now, I want to talk to ALL of you ]

What books have you read during your years at Sarah Lawrence; what conversations with your dons and teachers and roommates and fellow students have polished the lens for the ways in which you will now contribute to the world? Has Orhan Pamuk’s Snow framed for you a clearer understanding of the defining clash between legacies of tradition and rationalism in the 21st century, your century? Was it perhaps another book? Another discipline entirely?
You know, there was a great scene in the TV series, The West Wing, where these brash, energetic, self-absorbed White House power brokers suddenly looked at their world through a different lens. They realized that they would have the “stage” for only a limited time; that there was just this one window of opportunity when they might actually change the world. I often remind my staff at the World Trade Center Memorial Museum about this – what a unique, if temporary, privilege we have.

But, you don’t need to be in the White House or on the ground floor of an important civic project to have that privilege.

This is your moment on the stage. Take what you’ve learned at Sarah Lawrence and allow it to polish the lens on the world you are about to engage. Don’t forget that it is a privilege to be here. Not today on Westlands lawn, not Sarah Lawrence College, but here in the world. “Being” – in Elie Wiesel’s sense of the word – is a both a privilege and an obligation. I realize this is hard to grasp, but you’ve only got a short time here not as short as four or eight years in the White House, but short enough. Dig as deep as you have to, and rise as high as you can. Keep your passion. Make mistakes and learn from them. Honor curiosity and follow it. And, in everything you do, recognize the individuals in the other.

And, every once in a while, take stock of where you have come from and how it leads to where you are and where you want to be. Professor Kristin Hass at the University of Michigan has written about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and observed that, “memorials are the way we make promises to the future about the past.” Think carefully about the promises you are willing to make, and transform the memory of your time at Sarah Lawrence into the work of “being” in the world.

The ancient Jewish sage, Rabbi Tarfon, charged: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of [perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” [Pirke Avot, 2:16]

Go forth, now. Don’t desist. And, maybe, in 30 years, one or more of you will be invited back to this podium to give a commencement speech – and you won’t recall who spoke on the day you graduated – but you will remember the gifts of your time at Sarah Lawrence and how they gave you the courage and the competency to look at your world through a different lens, and maybe, even, to polish the view for others.

Thank you.

“Find What You Love”

Steve Jobs

Stanford University, Palo Alto, California USA

JUNE 12, 2005

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was an entrepreneur and high-tech innovator, in many ways the icon of Silicon Valley. He was most prominently founder and CEO of Apple Computer. 


I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I retuned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.

“Listen to Your Heart”

Thomas L. Friedman won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third Pulitzer for The New York Times. He became the paper’s foreign-affairs columnist in 1995. Previously, he served as chief economic correspondent in the Washington bureau and before that he was the chief White House correspondent. Mr. Friedman was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting (from Lebanon) and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting (from Israel). Mr. Friedman’s books include, “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,” “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” (2000), which won the 2000 Overseas Press Club award for best nonfiction book on foreign policy and has been published in 27 languages. Mr. Friedman received a B.A. degree in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University in 1975. In 1978 he received a Master of Philosophy degree in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford. 


Thomas L. Friedman

Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts USA

JUNE 5, 2005

It is an honor to stand before you this morning – you the class of 2005. I’ve been a journalist all my life. It’s been a great ride. And what I thought I would talk with you about today is not the stories I’ve covered but some of the lessons I accidentally learned along the way about getting through life. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can see a lot by just listening,” or maybe it was “You can hear a lot just by watching.” Either way, the reporter’s life has allowed me to do a lot of both, and for the past few months I’ve been jotting down a few of the things that might be relevant advice to you all on graduation day.

Lesson #1 is very simple. As the writer Dan Pink noted in New York Times just yesterday, it is a piece of advice that graduation speakers all over the land will be giving to graduates today, and it goes like this: Do what you love. But the reason that advice is no longer, what Pink called “warm and gooey career advice’” but actually a very “hard-headed’” survival strategy, is because, as I like to put it, the world is getting flat. Yes, mom and dad, you have paid tens of thousands of dollars to have your child get a Williams education only to have their graduation speaker declare on their last day on campus that the world is flat.

“Gaining speed, she went on: ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder, I make them question, I make them criticize, I make them apologize and mean it, I make them write and I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.’ Susan then stopped and cleared her throat. ‘I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention.’”

What is flattening the world is our ability to automate more work with computers and software and to transmit that work anywhere in the world that it can be done more efficiently or cheaply thanks to the new global fiber optic network. The flatter the world gets, the more essential it is that you do what you love, because, as Pink notes, all the boring, repetitive jobs are going to be automated or outsourced in a flat world. The good jobs that will remain will be those that cannot be automated or outsourced; they will be the jobs that demand or encourage some uniquely human creative flair, passion and imagination. In other words, jobs that can only be done by people who love what they do.

You see, when the world gets flat everyone should want to be an untouchable. Untouchables in my lexicon are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced or automated. They cannot be shipped to India or done by a machine. So who are the untouchables? Well, first they are people who are really special – Michael Jordan or Barbra Streisand. Their talents can never be automated or outsourced. Second are people who are really specialized – brain surgeons, designers, consultants or artists. Third are people who are anchored and whose jobs have to be done in a specific location – from nurses to hairdressers to chefs – and lastly, and this is going to apply to many of us, people who are really adaptable – people can change with changing times and changing industries.

There is a much better chance that you will make yourself special, specialized or adaptable, a much better chance that you will bring that something extra, what Dan Pink called “a sense of curiosity, aesthetics, and joyfulness’” to your work, if do you what you love and love what you do.

I learned that quite by accident by becoming a journalist. It all started when I was in 10th grade. First, I took a journalism class from a legendary teacher at my high school, named Hattie Steinberg, who had more influence on me than any adult other than my parents. Under Hattie’s inspiration, journalism just grabbed my imagination. Hattie was a single woman nearing 60 years old by the time I had her as a teacher. She was the polar opposite of cool. But she sure got us all excited about writing, and we hung around her classroom like it was the malt shop and she was the disc jockey “Wolfman Jack.” To this day, her 10th grade journalism class in Room 313 was the only journalism class I have ever taken. The other thing that happened to me in 10th grade, though, was that my parents took me to Israel over the Christmas break. And from that moment on I fell in love with the Middle East. One of the first articles I ever published in my Minnesota high school paper was in 10th grade, in 1969. It was an interview with an Israeli general who had been a major figure in the ‘67 war. He had come to give a lecture at the University of Minnesota; his name was Ariel Sharon. Little did I know how many times our paths would cross in the years to come.

Anyway, by the time 10th grade was over, I still wasn’t quite sure what career I wanted, but I sure knew what I loved: I loved journalism and I loved the Middle East. Now growing up in Minnesota at that time, in a middle-class household, I never thought about going away to college. Like all my friends, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But unlike my friends, I decided to major in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. There were not a lot of kids at the University of Minnesota studying Arabic back then. Norwegian, yes; Swedish, yes; Arabic, no. But I loved it; my parents didn’t mind; they could see I enjoyed it. But if I had a dime for every time one of my parents’ friends said to me, “Say Tom, your Dad says you’re studying Arabic; what are you going to do with that?” Well, frankly, it beat the heck out of me. But this was what I loved and it just seemed that that was what college was for.

I eventually graduated from Brandeis with a degree in Mediterranean studies and went onto graduate school at Oxford. During my first year in England – this was 1975 – I was walking down the street with my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Ann, and I noticed a front-page headline from the Evening Standard tabloid. It said, “President Carter to Jews: If Elected I Promise to Fire Dr. K.” I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” Jimmy Carter is running against Gerald Ford for president, and in order to get elected, he’s trying to win Jewish votes by promising to fire the first-ever Jewish Secretary of State. I thought about how odd that was and what might be behind it. And for some reason, I went back to my dorm room in London and wrote a short essay about it. No one asked me to, I just did it. Well, my then-girlfriend, now-wife’s family knew the editorial-page editor of the Des Moines Register, and my then-girlfriend, now-wife brought the article over to him when she was home for spring break. He liked it, printed it, and paid me $50 for it. And I thought that was the coolest thing in the whole world. I was walking down the street, I had an idea, I wrote it down, and someone gave me $50. I’ve been hooked ever since. A journalist was born and I never looked back.

So whatever you plan to do, whether you plan to travel the world next year, go to graduate school, join the workforce, or take some time off to think, don’t just listen to your head. Listen to your heart. It’s the best career counselor there is. Do what you really love to do and if you don’t know quite what that is yet, well, keep searching, because if you find it, you’ll bring that something extra to your work that will help ensure you will not be automated or outsourced. It help make you an untouchable radiologist, an untouchable engineer, or an untouchable teacher.

Indeed, let me close this point with a toned down version of a poem that was written by the slam poet Taylor Mali. A friend sent it to my wife, who’s a schoolteacher. It is called: “What Teachers Make.” It contains some wisdom that I think belongs in every graduation speech. It goes like this: “The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued this way. ‘What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher? You know, it’s true what they say about teachers: ‘Those who can do, do; those who can’t do, teach.’ To corroborate his statement he said to another guest, ‘Hey, Susan, you’re a teacher. Be honest, what do you make?’

“Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness, replied, ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could and I can make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence. I can make a C-plus feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor and an A feel like a slap in the face if the student didn’t do his or her very best.’ Susan continued, ‘I can make parents tremble when I call home or feel almost like they won the lottery when I tell them how well their child is progressing.’ Gaining speed, she went on: ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder, I make them question, I make them criticize, I make them apologize and mean it, I make them write and I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English.’ Susan then stopped and cleared her throat. ‘I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention.’ Susan then paused. ‘You want to know what I make?’ she said. ‘I make a difference. What about you?’”

Lesson #2. The second lesson I learned from journalim is that being a good listener is one of the great keys to life. My friend and colleague, Bob Schieffer of CBS News used to say to me, “The biggest stories I missed as a journalist happened because I was talking when I should have been listening.” The ability to be a good listener is one of the most under-appreciated talents a person or a country can have. People often ask me how I, an American Jew, have been able operate in the Arab/Muslim world for 20 years, and my answer to them is always the same. The secret is to be a good listener. It has never failed me. You can get away with really disagreeing with people as long as you show them the respect of really listening to what they have to say and taking it into account when and if it makes sense. Indeed, the most important part of listening is that it is a sign of respect. It’s not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important. It’s amazing how you can diffuse a whole roomful of angry people by just starting your answer to a question with the phrase, “You’re making a legitimate point” or “I hear what you say” and really meaning it. Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard, and once you have given them that chance they will hear you.

I went to Saudi Arabia after 9/11 after having written a series of extremely critical columns about the Saudi regime. And I was always struck by how Saudis received me, Saudis who weren’t prepped to receive me. The encounter would often go something like this:
“Hi, I’m Tom Friedman.”
“The Tom Friedman who writes for The New York Times?”
“Yes, that Tom Friedman.”
“You’re here?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“They gave you a visa?”
“Yes, I didn’t come illegally.”
“You know, I hate everything you write. Would you come to my house for dinner so I could get some friends together to talk to you?”

If you really want to get through to people as a journalist, you first have to open their ears, and the best way to open their ears is to first open your own – show them the respect of listening, it’s amazing what they will let you say after that, and it is amazing what you might learn.

Lesson #3 is that the most enduring skill you can bring to the workplace is also one of the most important skills you always had to bring to reporting – and that is the ability to learn how to learn. I have always thought that the greatest thing about being a reporter was that you just get to keep getting Master’s degrees. Each time I took a new beat, from Beirut to Jerusalem to Diplomacy to the White House to the Treasury I got to get the equivalent of a Master’s degree in each of those subjects – just by reporting on them for an extended period.

So while I hope that you all came out of here with some specialty, I hope even more that you came out of here having learned how to learn. That too is going to be really important if you want to be an untouchable, because jobs are going to change faster and faster in a flat world. Believe me, I know. You see, about 18 months ago I went to Bangalore, India to do a documentary about outsourcing. We shot about 60 hours of film in ten days, and across those ten days I got progressively sicker and sicker. Because somewhere between the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to write my new software from Bangalore and one who wanted to read my X-rays from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage on Delta airlines from Bangalore, I realized that people were doing things I could not explain or understand. I realized that my own intellectual software needed updating. I came home and told my editors I need to go on leave immediately. That is why I wrote “The World is Flat.” I was retooling myself. None of us is immune from that.

Now, while I have been on book tour these few months talking about the flat world, several parents have come up to me and said, “Mr. Friedman, my daughter is studying Chinese, she’s going to be OK, right?” As if this was going to be the new key to lifetime employment.
Well, not exactly. I think it is great to study Chinese, I told them, but the enduring skill you really need in a flat world is an ability to learn how to learn. The ability to learn how to learn is what enables you to adapt and stay special or specialized. Well then, a ninth grader in St. Paul asked me, how do you learn how to learn?

“Wow,” I said to him, “that’s a really good question.” I told him that I think the best way to learn how to learn is to go around and ask all your friends who are the best teachers in your school and then just take their classes, whether it is Greek Mythology or physics. Because I think probably the best way to learn how to learn is to love learning. When I think back on my favorite teachers, I am not sure I remember much anymore of what they taught me, but I sure remember enjoying learning it.

Lesson #4 is: Don’t get carried away with the gadgets. I started as a reporter in Beirut working on an Adler manual typewriter. I can tell you that the stories I wrote for the New York Times on that manual typewriter are still some of my favorites. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not about the skis. In this age of laptops and PDAs, the Internet and Google, mp3s and iPods, remember one thing: all these tools might make you smarter, but they sure won’t make you smart, they might extend your reach, but they will never tell you what to say to your neighbor over the fence, or how to comfort a friend in need, or how to write a lead that sings or how to imagine a breakthrough in science or literature. You cannot download passion, imagination, zest and creativity – all that stuff that will make you untouchable. You have to upload it, the old fashioned way, under the olive tree, with reading, writing and arithmetic, travel, study, reflection, museum visits and human interaction.

Look, no one is more interested in technology than I am, but the rumor is true: I was the last person in my family and on my block to get a mobile phone, and I still only use it for outgoing calls. Otherwise, as my daughters will tell you, I never keep it on. And don’t leave me a message, because I still don’t know how to retrieve them and I have no intention of learning. Because I can’t concentrate if people are constantly pinging me. You may also have noticed, I do not put my email address on my column. Unless readers go through all the trouble to call the paper to get my web address, if they want to communicate with me, they have to sit down and write me a letter. That is mail without an “e.” And yes, I only converted to Microsoft Word when I started my latest book a year ago and that is because Xywrite, the stone-age writing program I have been using since the 1980s, just couldn’t interface anymore with my new laptop. I am not a Luddite, per se, but I am a deliberately late adopter. I prefer to keep my tools simple, so I focus as much of my energy on the listening, writing and problem solving – not on the gadgets. That is also why if I had one fervent wish it would be that every modem sold in America would come with a warning label from the surgeon general, and that warning would simply say: “Judgment Not Included.”

Lesson #5 is this: Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Too many journalists, and too many of our politicians, have lost sight of that boundary line. I learned that lesson very early in my career. In 1982, I was working in the Business section of The Times and was befriended by a young editor there named Nathaniel Nash. Nathaniel was a gentle soul and a born again Christian. He liked to come by and talk to me about Israel and the Holyland. In April 1982, The Times assigned me to cover the Lebanese civil war, and at my office goodbye party Nathaniel whispered to me: “I’m going to pray for your safety.” I never forgot that. I always considered his prayers my good luck charm, and when I walked out of Beirut in one piece three years later, one of the first things I did was thank Nathaniel for keeping watch over me. He liked that a lot.

I only wish I could have returned the favor. You see a few years later Nathaniel gave up editing and became a reporter himself, first in Argentina and then later as the Times business reporter in Europe, based in Germany. Nathaniel was a wonderful reporter, who was one of the most un-cynical people I ever knew. Indeed, the book on Nathaniel as a reporter was that he was too nice. His colleagues always doubted that anyone that nice could ever succeed in journalism, but somehow he triumphed over this handicap and went from one successful assignment to another. It was because Nathaniel intuitively understood that there was a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers – or thinking you do – answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, “I don’t think that’s true; I’m going to check it out.” The cynic says: “I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. I’m going to slam him.” Nathaniel always honored that line.

Unfortunately, Nathaniel Nash, at age 44, was the sole American reporter traveling on U.S.Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s airplane when it crashed into a Croatian hillside in 1996. Always remember, real journalists are not those loud mouth talking heads you see on cable television. Real journalists are reporters, like Nathaniel Nash, who go off to uncomfortable and often dangerous places like Croatia and get on a military plane to chase after a visiting dignitary, without giving it a second thought – all to get a few fresh quotes, maybe a scoop, or even just a paragraph of color that no one else had. My prayers were too late for Nathaniel, but he was such a good soul, I am certain that right now he is sitting at God’s elbow – taking notes, with skepticism not cynicism. So be a skeptic, not a cynic. We have more than enough of those in our country already, and so much more creative juice comes from skepticism, not cynicism.

Lesson #6. Nathaniel’s untimely death only reinforced for me the final lesson I am going to impart to you this afternoon. It’s very brief. It’s “Call Your Mama.” For me, the most searing images and stories of 9/11 were the tales of all those people who managed to use a cell phone to call their loved ones to say a last goodbye from a hijacked airplane or a burning tower. But think of the hundreds of others who never got a chance to say goodbye or a final “I love you.”
When you were just in elementary school there was a legendary football coach at the University of Alabama named Bear Bryant. And late in his career, after his mother had died, Bell South Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together from the news reports, the commercial was supposed to be very simple – just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough coach’s voice, “Have you called your Mama today?” On the day of the filming, though, when it came time for Coach Bryant to recite his simple line, he decided to ad lib something. He looked into the camera and said, “Have you called your Mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences. My father died when I was 19. He never got to see me do what I love. I sure wish I could call him. My mom is 86 years old and lives in a home for people with dementia. She doesn’t remember so well anymore, but she still remembers that my column runs twice a week. She doesn’t quite remember the days, so every day she goes through The New York Times, and if she finds my column, she often photocopies it and passes it out to the other dementia patients in her nursery home. If you think that isn’t important to me than you don’t know what is important.

Your parents love you more than you will ever know. So if you take one lesson away from this talk, take this one: Call your Mama, regularly. And your Papa. You will always be glad you did.

Well, class of 2005, that about does it for me. I’m fresh out of material. I guess what I have been trying to say here this afternoon can be summed up by the old adage that “happiness is a journey, not a destination.” Bringing joy and passion and optimism to your work is not what you get to do when you get to the top. It is HOW you get to the top. If I have had any success as a journalist since I was sitting down there where you are 30 years ago, it’s because I found a way to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. I had almost as much fun as a cub reporter doing the overnight shift at UPI, as I did traveling with Secretary of State Baker, as I do now as a columnist. Oh yes, I have had my dull moments and bad seasons – believe me, I have. But more often than not I found ways to learn from, and enjoy, some part of each job. You can’t bet your whole life on some destination. You’ve got to make the journey work too. And that is why I leave you with some wit and wisdom attributed to Mark Twain: Always work like you don’t need the money. Always fall in love like you’ve never been hurt. Always dance like nobody is watching. And always – always – live like it’s heaven on earth.

Thank you.

“Real Freedom?”

David Foster Wallace

Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, USA

MAY 21, 2005


David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008, was an American author and a professor at Pomona College in California. PLEASE NOTE: As this speech has become an icon of the genre, it has been reproduced on many web sites, but often in a severely cut form, sometimes including only 9 minutes of the original 22 minute speech. Below is the full text. 


If anybody feels like perspiring, I’d invite you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to [pulls up his gown and takes out a handkerchief from his pocket]. Greetings, thanks, and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. 

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

This is a standard requirement of UScommencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff.

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. 

But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.

Plus, there’s the matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education – least in my own case – is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea:learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again.

But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of a work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously, flourescently lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera. Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides.

But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MYhungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply, personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on. You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. 

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and who or what is really important; if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yaweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.


N.B. This speech has been published as a book. Here’s a link to a review in the New York Times by Tom Bissell on April 24, 2009:   http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/books/review/Bissell-t.html?_r=1. And here’s an article from the Kenyon Alumni Bulletin in 2015: http://www.kenyon.edu/middle-path/story/everlasting-speech/

“Be Your Own Story”

Toni Morrison

Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA

MAY 28, 2004


In many ways, Toni Morrison gives the anti-address. Not only does she dispense with the clichés and platitudes we hear in 98% of commencement addresses, but she tells us why they are entirely inappropriate for the occasion. The future is not yours; the past is ever-changing; if you need someone else to tell you what to do about the catastrophe of the present, then this education was in vain; these are not the best years of your life. She inspires us in a way that those standard commencement addresses never could. She is respectful of the individuality of the next generation, refreshingly honest about the mess the world is in, but optimistic about the individuals setting out. Her address reminds us that only when we question what is expected of us, only when we are willing to throw that away and act from our own hearts, only then do we create true beauty; only then can we inspire others and begin to change the world. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in 1931 in Lorain (Ohio), the second of four children in a black working-class family. She displayed an early interest in literature and studied humanities at Howard and Cornell Universities, followed by an academic career at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale, and since 1989, a chair at Princeton University. She has also worked as an editor for Random House, a critic, and given numerous public lectures, specializing in African-American literature. She made her debut as a novelist in 1970, soon gaining the attention of both critics and a wider audience for her epic power, unerring ear for dialogue, and her poetically-charged and richly-expressive depictions of Black America. A member since 1981 of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has been awarded a number of literary distinctions, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.


I have to confess to all of you, Madame President, Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, relatives, friends, students. I have had some conflicted feelings about accepting this invitation to deliver the Commencement Address to Wellesley’s Class of 2004. My initial response, of course, was glee, a very strong sense of pleasure at, you know, participating personally and formally in the rites of an institution with this reputation: 125 years of history in women’s education, an enviable rostrum of graduates, its commitment sustained over the years in making a difference in the world, and its successful resistance to challenges that women’s colleges have faced from the beginning and throughout the years. An extraordinary record-and I was delighted to be asked to participate and return to this campus.

But my second response was not so happy. I was very anxious about having to figure out something to say to this particular class at this particular time, because I was really troubled by what could be honestly said in 2004 to over 500 elegantly educated women, or to relatives and friends who are relieved at this moment, but hopeful as well as apprehensive. And to a college faculty and administration dedicated to leadership and knowledgeable about what that entails. Well, of course, I could be sure of the relatives and the friends, just tell them that youth is always insulting because it manages generation after generation not only to survive and replace us, but to triumph over us completely.

And I would remind the faculty and the administration of what each knows: that the work they do takes second place to nothing, nothing at all, and that theirs is a first order profession. Now, of course to the graduates I could make reference to things appropriate to your situations–the future, the past, the present, but most of all happiness. Regarding the future, I would have to rest my case on some bromide, like the future is yours for the taking. Or, that it’s whatever you make of it. But the fact is it is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.

But I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future. Because I don’t think we can any longer rely on separation of powers, free speech, religious tolerance or unchallengeable civil liberties as a matter of course. That is, not while finite humans in the flux of time make decisions of infinite damage. Not while finite humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond their competence, if not their reach. So, no happy talk about the future.

Maybe the past offers a better venue. You already share an old tradition of an uncompromisingly intellectual women’s college, and that past and that tradition is important to both understand and preserve. It’s worthy of reverence and transmission. You’ve already learned some strategies for appraising the historical and economical and cultural past that you have inherited. But this is not a speech focusing on the splendor of the national past that you are also inheriting.

You will detect a faint note of apology in the descriptions of this bequest, a kind of sorrow that accompanies it, because it’s not good enough for you. Because the past is already in debt to the mismanaged present. And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets.

But again, it seemed inappropriate, very inappropriate, for me to delve into a past for people who are in the process of making one, forging their own, so I consider this focusing on your responsibility as graduates-graduates of this institution and citizens of the world-and to tell you once again, repeat to you the admonition, a sort of a wish, that you go out and save the world. That is to suggest to you that with energy and right thinking you can certainly improve, certainly you might even rescue it. Now that’s a heavy burden to be placed on one generation by a member of another generation because it’s a responsibility we ought to share, not save the world, but simply to love it, meaning don’t hurt it, it’s already beaten and scoured and gasping for breath. Don’t hurt it or enable others who do and will. Know and identify the predators waving flags made of dollar bills. They will say anything, promise anything, do everything to turn the planet into a casino where only the house cards can win-little people with finite lives love to play games with the infinite. But I thought better of that, selecting your responsibilities for you. If I did that, I would assume your education had been in vain and that you were incapable of deciding for yourself what your responsibilities should be.

So, I’m left with the last thing that I sort of ignored as a topic. Happiness. I’m sure you have been told that this is the best time of your life. It may be. But if it’s true that this is the best time of your life, if you have already lived or are now living at this age the best years, or if the next few turn out to be the best, then you have my condolences. Because you’ll want to remain here, stuck in these so-called best years, never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.

One more flawless article of clothing, one more elaborate toy, the truly perfect diet, the harmless but necessary drug, the almost final elective surgery, the ultimate cosmetic-all designed to maintain hunger for stasis. While children are being eroticized into adults, adults are being exoticized into eternal juvenilia. I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, target of your labors here, your choices of companions, of the profession that you will enter. You deserve it and I want you to gain it, everybody should. But if that’s all you have on your mind, then you do have my sympathy, and if these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.

Now, if I can’t talk inspiringly and hopefully about the future or the past or the present and your responsibility to the present or happiness, you might be wondering why I showed up. If things are that dour, that tentative, you might ask yourself, what’s this got to do with me? What about my life? I didn’t ask to be born, as they say. I beg to differ with you. Yes, you did! In fact, you insisted upon it. It’s too easy, you know, too ordinary, too common to not be born. So your presence here on Earth is a very large part your doing.

So it is up to the self, that self that insisted on life that I want to speak to now-candidly-and tell you the truth that I have not really been clearheaded about, the world I have described to you, the one you are inheriting. All my ruminations about the future, the past, responsibility, happiness are really about my generation, not yours. My generation’s profligacy, my generation’s heedlessness and denial, its frail ego that required endless draughts of power juice and repeated images of weakness in others in order to prop up our own illusion of strength, more and more self congratulation while we sell you more and more games and images of death as entertainment. In short, the palm I was reading wasn’t yours, it was the splayed hand of my own generation and I know no generation has a complete grip on the imagination and work of the next one, not mine and not your parents’, not if you refuse to let it be so. You don’t have to accept those media labels. You need not settle for any defining category. You don’t have to be merely a taxpayer or a red state or a blue state or a consumer or a minority or a majority.

Of course, you’re general, but you’re also specific. A citizen and a person, and the person you are is like nobody else on the planet. Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.

Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

Thank you.

“That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.”


University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA

MAY 17, 2004


Bono is an Irish singer and activist.


My name is Bono and I am a rock star. Don’t get me too excited because I use four letter words when I get excited. I’d just like to say to the parents, your children are safe, your country is safe, the FCC has taught me a lesson and the only four letter word I’m going to use today is PENN. Come to think of it, Bono is a four-letter word. The whole business of obscenity – I don’t think there’s anything certainly more unseemly than the site of a rock star in academic robes. It’s a bit like when people put their King Charles spaniels in little tartan sweats and hats. It’s not natural, and it doesn’t make the dog any smarter.

It’s true we were here before with U2 and I would like to thank them for giving me a great life, as well as you. I’ve got a great rock and roll band that normally stand in the back when I’m talking to thousands of people in a football stadium and they were here with me I think it was seven years ago. Actually then I was with some other sartorial problems. I was wearing a mirror ball suit and I emerged from a forty-foot high revolving lemon. It was a cross between a space ship, a disco and a plastic fruit. I guess it was at that point when your Trustees decided to give me their highest honor.

Doctor of Laws, wow! I know it’s an honor, and it really is an honor, but are you sure? Doctor of Law, all I can think about is the laws I’ve broken. Laws of nature, laws of physics, laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and on a memorable night in the late seventies, I think it was Newton’s law of motion sickness. No, it’s true, my resume reads like a rap sheet. I have to come clean. “What are the lies we tell ourselves now? What are the blind spots of our age? What’s worth spending your post-Penn lives trying to do or undo? It might be something simple. It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. Could that be it? Could that be it?”I’ve broken a lot of laws, and the ones I haven’t I’ve certainly thought about. I have sinned in thought, word, and deed and God forgive me; actually God forgave me, but why would you? I’m here getting a doctorate, getting respectable, getting in the good graces of the powers that be, I hope it sends you students a powerful message: Crime does pay.

Because at that moment I became the worst scourge on God’s green earth, a rock star with a cause. Christ! Except it isn’t the cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable disease like AIDS? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency. And when the disease gets out of control because most of the population lives on less than one dollar a day? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.

So I humbly accept the honor, keeping in mind the words of a British playwright, John Mortimer it was, “No brilliance is needed in the law, nothing but common sense and relatively clean fingernails.” Well, at best I’ve got one of the two. But no, I never went to college, I’ve slept in some strange places, but the library wasn’t one of them. I studied rock and roll and I grew up in Dublin in the ’70s; music was an alarm bell for me, it woke me up to the world. I was 17 when I first saw The Clash, and it just sounded like revolution. The Clash were like, “This is a public service announcement  – with guitars.” 

I was the kid in the crowd who took it at face value. Later I learned that a lot of the rebels were in it for the t-shirt. They’d wear the boots but they wouldn’t march. They’d smash bottles on their heads but they wouldn’t go to something more painful, like a town hall meeting. By the way I felt like that myself until recently. I didn’t expect change to come so slow. So agonizingly slow. I didn’t realize that the biggest obstacle to political and social progress wasn’t the Free Masons, or the Establishment, or the boot heal of whatever you consider the man to be, it was something much more subtle.

As the Provost just referred to, a combination of our own indifference and the Kafkaesque labyrinth of those you encounter as people vanish down the corridors of bureaucracy. So for better or worse that was my education. I came away with a clear sense of the difference music could make in my own life, in other peoples lives if I did my job right, which if you’re a singer in a rock band means avoiding the obvious pitfalls, like say a mullet hairdo. If anyone here doesn’t know what a mullet is, by the way, your education’s certainly not complete. I’d ask for your money back. For a lead singer like me, a mullet is, I would suggest, arguably more dangerous than a drug problem. Yes, I had a mullet in the ’80s.

Now this is the point where the faculty start smiling uncomfortably and thinking maybe they should have offered me the honorary bachelors degree instead of the full blown (“He should have been the bachelor’s one; he’s talking about mullets and stuff…”); and if they’re asking what on earth I’m doing here, I think it’s a fair question: what am I doing here? More to the point: what are you doing here? Because if you don’t mind me saying so, this is a strange ending to an Ivy League education. Four years in these historic halls thinking great thoughts and now you’re sitting in a stadium better suited for football listening to an Irish rock star give a speech that is so far mostly about himself. What are you doing here?

Actually I saw something in the paper last week about Kermit the Frog giving a commencement address somewhere. One of the students was complaining, “I worked my ass off for four years to be addressed by a sock?” You have worked your ass off for this. For four years you’ve been buying, trading, and selling, everything you’ve got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents’ are empty, and now you’ve got to figure out what to spend it on. Well, the going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive. The University has had its share of big ideas. Benjamin Franklin had a few, so did Justice Brennen and in my opinion so does Judith Rodin. What a gorgeous girl. They all knew that if you’re gonna be good at your word if you’re gonna live up to your ideals and your education, it’s gonna cost you. So my question, I suppose, is: What’s the big idea? What’s your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?

There’s a truly great Irish poet; his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this epic poem called the Book of Judas, and there’s a line in that poem that never leaves my mind: “If you want to serve the age, betray it.” What does that mean to betray the age? Well to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths. Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age were the ones who called it as it was, which was ungodly and inhuman. Ben Franklin called it when he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil rights movement to betray their age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and put the lie to the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that. 

Fast forward 50 years May 17, 2004, what are the ideas right now worth betraying? What are the lies we tell ourselves now? What are the blind spots of our age? What’s worth spending your post-Penn lives trying to do or undo? It might be something simple. It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. Could that be it? Could that be it?

Each of you will probably have your own answer, but for me that is it. And for me the proving ground has been Africa. Africa makes a mockery of what we say, at least what I say, about equality. It questions our pieties and our commitments because there’s no way to look at what’s happening over there and it’s effect on all of us and conclude that we actually consider Africans as our equal before God. There is no chance.

An amazing event happened here in Philadelphia in 1985, Live Aid, that whole ‘We Are The World’ phenomenon, the concert that happened here.  Well after that concert I went to Ethiopia with my wife, Ali; we were there for a month and an extraordinary thing happened to me. We used to wake up in the morning and the mist would be lifting; we’d see thousands and thousands of people who’d been walking all night to our food station were we were working. One man  –  I was standing outside talking to the translator  –  had this beautiful boy and he was saying to me in Amharic, I think it was, I said I can’t understand what he’s saying; and this nurse who spoke English and Amharic said to me, he’s saying will you take his son. He’s saying please take his son; he would be a great son for you. I was looking puzzled and he said, “You must take my son because if you don’t take my son, my son will surely die. If you take him he will go back to where he is and get an education.” (Probably like the ones we’re talking about today.) I had to say no; that was the rules there and I walked away from that man.
I’ve never really walked away from it. But I think about that boy and that man and that’s when I started this journey that’s brought me here into this stadium. Because at that moment I became the worst scourge on God’s green earth, a rock star with a cause. Christ! Except it isn’t the cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable disease like AIDS? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency. And when the disease gets out of control because most of the population lives on less than one dollar a day? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.

And when resentment builds because of unfair trade rules and the burden of unfair debt (they are debts, by the way, that keep Africans poor)? That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.  So  –  We Are The World, Live Aid, Start Me Off, it was an extraordinary thing and really that event was about charity. But 20 years on I’m not that interested in charity. I’m interested in justice. There’s a difference. Africa needs justice as much as it needs charity. Equality for Africa is a big idea. It’s a big expensive idea. I see the Wharton graduates now getting out the math on the back of their programs; numbers are intimidating aren’t they, but not to you! 

But the scale of the suffering and the scope of the commitment, they often numb us into a kind of indifference. Wishing for the end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa is like wishing that gravity didn’t make things so damn heavy.  We can wish it, but what the hell can we do about it? Well, more than we think. We can’t fix every problem  –  corruption, natural calamities are part of the picture here  –  but the ones we can, we must. The debt burden, as I say, unfair trade, as I say, sharing our knowledge, the intellectual copyright for lifesaving drugs in a crisis; we can do that. And because we can, we must. Because we can, we must. Amen.

This is the straight truth. The righteous truth. It’s not a theory; it’s a fact. The fact is that this generation  –  yours, my generation  –  we’re the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this stupid extreme poverty, where, in a world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in it’s belly. We can be the first generation. It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty. It’s a fact, the economists confirm it. It’s an expensive fact but cheaper than say the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper I would argue than fighting wave after wave of terrorism’s new recruits. That’s the economics department over there, very good. It’s a fact. So why aren’t we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it? Well probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we’ve got to do something about it. For the first time in history we have the know-how, we have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?

Yesterday, here in Philadelphia, at the Liberty Bell, I met a lot of Americans who do have the will. From arch religious conservatives to young secular radicals, I just felt an incredible overpowering sense that this was possible. We’re calling it the ONE campaign, to put an end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa. They believe we can do it; so do I. I really, really do believe it. I just want you to know, I think this is obvious, but I’m not really going in for the warm fuzzy feeling thing; I’m not a hippy; I do not have flowers in my hair; I come from punk rock, all right. The Clash wore army boots not Birkenstocks. I believe America can do this! I believe that this generation can do this. In fact I want to hear an argument about why we shouldn’t.

I know idealism is not playing on the radio right now; you don’t see it on TV; irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke. I’ve tried them all out but I’ll tell you this, outside this campus, and even inside it, idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissism and all the other isms of indifference. Baggism, Shaggism. Raggism. Notism. Graduationism. Chismism; I don’t know. Where’s John Lennon when you need him?

But I don’t want to make you cop to idealism, not in front of your parents, or your younger siblings. But what about Americanism? Will you cop to that at least? It’s not everywhere in fashion these days. Americanism. Not very big in Europe, truth be told. No less on Ivy League college campuses. But it all depends on your definition of Americanism. Me, I’m in love with this country called America. I’m a huge fan of America, I’m one of those annoying fans, you know the ones that read the CD notes and follow you into bathrooms and ask you all kinds of annoying questions about why you didn’t live up to that. I’m that kind of fan.

I read the Declaration of Independence and I’ve read the Constitution of the United States, and they are some liner notes dude. As I said yesterday I made my pilgrimage to Independence Hall, and I love America because America is not just a country, it’s an idea. You see my country, Ireland, is a great country, but it’s not an idea. America is an idea, but it’s an idea that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It’s an idea that brings with it equality, but equality, even though it’s the highest calling, is the hardest to reach. The idea that anything is possible, that’s one of the reasons why I’m a fan of America. It’s like hey, look there’s the moon up there, lets take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of.

In 1771 your founder, Mr. Franklin, spent three months in Ireland and Scotland to look at the relationship they had with England to see if this could be a model for America, whether America should follow their example and remain a part of the British Empire. Franklin was deeply, deeply distressed by what he saw. In Ireland he saw how England had put a stranglehold on Irish trade, how absentee English landlords exploited Irish tenant farmers and how those farmers in Franklin’s words, “lived in retched hovels of mud and straw, were clothed in rags and subsisted chiefly on potatoes.”  Not exactly the American dream.

So instead of Ireland becoming a model for America, America became a model for Ireland in our own struggle for independence. When the potatoes ran out, millions of Irish men, women and children packed their bags got on a boat and showed up right here. And we’re still doing it. We’re not even starving anymore. Loads of potatoes! In fact if there’s any Irish out there, I’ve breaking news from Dublin: the potato famine is over you can come home now. But why are we still showing up? Because we love the idea of America. We love the crackle and the hustle, we love the spirit that gives a finger to fate, the spirit that says there’s no hurdle we can’t clear and no problem we can’t fix… [sound of helicopter above the stadium] Oh, here comes the Brits! Only joking. No problem we can’t fix.

So what’s the problem that we want to apply all this energy and intellect to? Every era has its defining struggle and the fate of Africa is one of ours. It’s not the only one, but in the history books it’s easily going to make the top five, what we did or what we did not do. It’s a proving ground, as I said earlier, for the idea of equality. But whether it’s this or something else, I hope you’ll pick a fight and get in it. Get your boots dirty; get rough; steel your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe’s, one last primal scream and go. Sing the melody line you hear in your own head; remember, you don’t owe anybody any explanations; you don’t owe your parents any explanations; you don’t owe your professors any explanations.

You know, I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. But it’s not. The future is not fixed; it’s fluid. You can build your own building, or hut or condo, whatever; this is the metaphor part of the speech by the way. But my point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape. Now if I were a folksinger I’d immediately launch into “If I Had a Hammer” right now, get you all singing and swaying. But as I say I come from punk rock, so I’d rather have the bloody hammer right here in my fist. That’s what this degree of yours is, a blunt instrument. So go forth and build something with it. Remember what John Adams said about Ben Franklin, “He does not hesitate at our boldest Measures but rather seems to think us too irresolute.” Well this is the time for bold measures and this is the country and you are the generation.

Thank you.

“What do Novelists Know?”

Wally Lamb

Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut USA

MAY 18, 2003

A nationally honored teacher of writing in the United States, Mr Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, received rave reviews when published in 1992. He currently teaches at the University of Connecticut.


President Fainstein, Connecticut College trustees, faculty, and staff: thank you for the invitation to speak today; it’s my privilege to do so.

Fellow parents and elders of today’s graduates: as one of the troubadours of our baby boomer generation, Joni Mitchell, used to sing, “We’re captives on the carousel of time.” My hope is that, as you listen to these reflections, that they’ll resonate with you and allow you to nod in recognition.

Finally, most especially, members of the Class of 2003: As you can see, I’ve lugged no weighty book of wisdom to this podium. I stand before you on your special day not with answers but with questions, and with an abridged history “I have, each day in solitude, shucked my own life and put on different lives so that I might move beyond the limitations of my own experience and better empathize with, better know the un-me, the other. “of my 52-year-old trial-and-error American life as student, teacher, father, and fiction writer. So make of my words what you will, and also, please note that I’ve fired up the retrorockets. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone. We’re about to blast backwards into the virtual past.

We’ll try a short trip first. Look, we’re here already; it’s February of 2003. The Bush administration is hard-selling the case for invasion, Home Depot is selling out of duct tape and plastic sheeting, and on the front lawns of many American homes “No War on Iraq” signs are popping up through the snow like mutant crocuses. We’re innocent, still, of the concept of “embedded” journalism and that new marketing slogan-“shock and awe”-but our initiation is upon us. Diplomacy is defunct, our leaders tell us. War is inevitable.

Sister’s facial muscles relax. She cocks her head. Her gold rim glasses glint a little from the light of the fluorescent lamp above. But I can see that my marriage of falsehood and fact has fallen just short of being enough. It’s a moment of truth. A moment suspended in time. Sister looks at me and waits. I look back at her and wait. And then, finally, I add: “And…the Pope gave him a medal.”

I’m in my office when a challenge arrives via Outlook Express. The novelist Dennis Lehane has drafted a petition to President Bush which acknowledges the tyranny of Saddam Hussein but asks that all diplomatic measures be exhausted before we risk ending the lives of innocent Iraqis and American military. Lehane invites fellow writers to sign.

Now, I want what Lehane wants, but I admit this to you, graduates: I blink. I walk around the office. Weigh the pros and cons of signing. There is, after all, the book buyer to consider; there’s product waiting in the warehouse at Amazon.com. Like it or not, we’re in an era of intolerance for dissenting opinion. The Dixie Chicks have yet to be beheaded, plucked, and rotisserie roasted, but the White House has cancelled a literary event where anti-war poets were to speak. In the wake of social satirist Bill Maher’s remarks about terrorism, the President’s press secretary has warned that we must all watch what we say and Maher has lost his television show. So maybe I shouldn’t sign that petition, I think. Still, my kids are watching me, listening to me, studying my responses to the world, and I do not want to send them the message that they can speak their minds at the dinner table but they had better shut up once they get into the school cafeteria. This, after all, is America, where patriotism speaks in many different voices and need not nod mutely like a smiling bobble head. And so, along with 150 other writers, among them Julia Alvarez, Amy Tan, Richard Russo, and Stephen King, I sign the petition. It’s published in the New York Times and the following day, another email arrives, this one from a reporter for a different national newspaper. He wants to know what makes me think novelists know anything about war – why I assume fiction writers have any of the answers.

Hmm. Good question, Mr. Journalist. Please note that I’ve turned on the seatbelt sign. We’re heading back to the year 1961.

Whether you’ve been here before or not, have a look. Dwight Eisenhower is moving out of the White House and John Kennedy’s moving in. The space race is on, our astronauts chasing Soviet cosmonauts into the heavens, while back on terra firma, Maris and Mantle are chasing the Babe’s single-season homerun record. On the small screen, a hapless man named Wilbur holds secret discourse with a talking horse named Mr. Ed, and at the movies, the Absent-Minded Professor has just invented flubber. We are still light years away from Eminem, and Nelly, and It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes. No, no, our transistor radio is playing Dion & the Belmonts, who are warning against the feminine wiles of a girl named Runaround Sue and the Shirelles ask, demurely, that musical question on the mind of every teenage girl being driven in a Chevy Impala up to Lover’s Lane: “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

Yet as we climb into our cuddly feet pajamas of mid-century nostalgia, let’s not forget that this is also the year that the CIA superimposes a bull’s eye on the face of Fidel Castro, feeds fiction to the public, and sends bankrolled dissidents to the Bay of Pigs to accomplish what will be a dangerously miscalculated attempt at “regime change.” Across the Atlantic, in Berlin, a 25-mile barbed wire fence is being erected to separate East from West. In response, the president pre-empts “Mr. Ed” to warn Americans that the escalating crisis may result in a Soviet nuclear attack on our soil. His speech triggers a national preoccupation with homeland security and the back yard bomb shelter, that quaint concrete cousin of the plastic and duct tape shroud, becomes the trend du jour. On the civil rights front, the Freedom Riders travel by bus from Washington to New Orleans to desegregate the South. En route, they are met with bombs and beatings by men in hoods. Because racism is a legacy, not a genetic predisposition, one of these hooded bullies will, perhaps, sire a son who will sire a son who will scrawl anonymous hate graffiti on a college bulletin board in New London, Connecticut nearly forty years hence. Racists, anti-Semites, gay-bashers, Arab-trashers: no matter what the era, no matter who the target, the hate monger is cut from the same cloth of inferior weave.

But, as for me, if it’s 1961, then I am ten years old, a fifth grader living just up the road in Norwich, Connecticut. At school, I’m learning how to diagram sentences, master long division, and execute the duck-and-cover exercises which somehow will save me when the Soviets drop the bomb on the submarine base in Groton. I won’t write my first fiction for another twenty years, but the seeds of my storyteller’s life are planted this year by a scary nun named Sister Mercy.

You see, my mother, who is alive again and dark-haired, insists that I attend catechism class at St. Patrick’s School each Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 to 4:30. Having already spent the day with three dozen parochial school students, Sister Mercy is not happy to see three dozen more rowdy public school students tramping in. We are equally unhappy to be there. There is acting out, screaming, rulers slapped against desktops, spitballs launched from the barrels of ballpoint pens. And as Sister patrols the aisles, one of us catechists, a wild girl named Pauline Migliaccio, goes so far as to affix a paper sign to the back of her veil. “Shake It, Don’t Break It,” the sign says, and so that you might appreciate the full-fledged audacity of Pauline’s act, may I remind you that we’re still decades away from the invention of the Post-It note.

Unlike Pauline Migliaccio, I am far too timid to make trouble for Sister Mercy. My modus operandi for survival is to sit in back, say nothing, and try as best I can to blend in with the wainscoting. But on the afternoon my fate as a fiction writer is sealed, I get a strange and inexplicable urge. I want Sister to like me. Or, if she cannot like me, then at least to notice I exist. And so, at 4:30, when she intones those liberating words, “Class dismissed,” my peers lurch toward the exit, and I hang back. I stand. With a wildly thumping heart, I approach Sister’s big wooden desk.

She is correcting papers and scowling–doesn’t notice at first that I stand facing her. And when she does look up, she says, “Yes, what is it?”

I don’t really know what it is, but she has spent a good part of the last hour talking about the Vatican. “Sister,” I say. “My grandfather moved to America from Italy in 1890.” True. He did. Pure, unadulterated non-fiction. But I can see from Sister’s clenched face that she is unimpressed.

My knees knock; my mind ricochets. Now, as it happens, earlier this same day, two of my public school classmates brought into class a papier-m?ch? volcano. They poured baking soda into the core, added vinegar, and made lava bubble up, spring forth, and dribble down the sides. And this demonstration suddenly comes to mind.

“And, Sister ? before Grandpa came over? When he was still living in Italy? This volcano erupted in his town. It was early in the morning, and he was the only one awake, and so he pounded on people’s doors and everyone escaped and so he saved a whole bunch of people’s lives.”

Sister’s facial muscles relax. She cocks her head. Her gold rim glasses glint a little from the light of the fluorescent lamp above. But I can see that my marriage of falsehood and fact has fallen just short of being enough. It’s a moment of truth. A moment suspended in time. Sister looks at me and waits. I look back at her and wait. And then, finally, I add: “And…the Pope gave him a medal.”

She nods, she smiles. She reaches into her bottom desk drawer, removes a holy picture, and presents it to me. The following Wednesday afternoon, Sister knows my name, I have preferred seating up front, and for the rest of this school year, whenever there is need for a note to travel from Sister Mercy’s room to the office, you can probably guess who is chosen to deliver it.

And so, at the tender age of ten, I learn of the rich rewards that can be yours if you take the truth and lie like hell about it. Bend it to your liking. Now, I could have become a Connecticut politician, I suppose. But no, I became, first, a teacher, and later, a fiction writer.

But what do fiction writers know, Mr. Journalist has emailed me to ask. Why should anyone listen to them? Because, says Grace Paley, “A writer must be truthful. A story is a big lie. And in the middle of this big lie, you’re telling the truth.” Because, says novelist Jesamyn West, “Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures.” “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction?” Mark Twain observes. “Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

Fast forward. It’s 1984. Ronald Reagan, Boy George, break dancing, big hair. That new NBA rookie, Michael Jordan, seems so effortlessly airborne that it’s as if he’s affixed flubber to his sneaker bottoms. I’m thirty-three now. I’ve been both a father and a fiction writer for three years; one calling has somehow unleashed the other. You see, as I study my small son Jared and try to imagine who he will grow up to become, I begin to get these characters’ voices in my head. I write down what these figments say and start to worry about them and root for their safety as if they were real. The catch is: I can only find out what’s happening to them when their voices spill from the pointy end of my Bic pen onto the loose-leaf pages in front of me. And as I work on these stories, I defy as best I can that other voice of self-inflicted doubt, which keeps whispering, Stop kidding yourself. You’re never going to get anything published. Get real. Get up from that desk and mow the lawn.

But I’ve let the lawn grow and toiled away for three years and now, in 1984, the phone rings. It’s Lary Bloom, the editor of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine. He wants to publish one of my short stories-the one about the fat woman, Dolores. When my conversation with the editor ends, I hang up the phone and dance my wife around the kitchen. I pick up three-year-old Jared and toss him so high into the air that his head hits the ceiling. But, hey, it’s okay because it’s one of those suspended ceilings with the lightweight panels, so Jared’s head isn’t hurt; it just disappears for a second. My short story is published on Easter Sunday. I drive at dawn to the convenience store and buy three Hartford Courants. For ten minutes, I can’t bear to look. Then I do look. I sit there by myself in the strip mall parking lot and cry like an idiot. I am on my way. Zoom zoom. It’s 1999. Kosovo, the Clinton scandal, the slaughter of students at Columbine High. My fiction has been twice-touched by the magic wand of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, and so my character Dolores has relocated from my hard drive to the best seller list. The troubled identical twins I’ve worried into existence for my second novel have followed suit and so I am preparing to take off on a cross-country book tour. Meanwhile, Jared has metamorphosed from that airborne three year old into a 6’2” high school senior, a near-man of seventeen. He helps me heft my luggage out to the driveway where a purring limousine waits. And as I’m driven away, I look through the tinted rear window at my child and, again, I am wet-eyed.

I see a young man coauthored out of love – a son who, having moved recently into his adult body, is receding from me, but who I once knew better than I know myself-better than he knew himself, certainly, because he has been, and in my mind remains, that arm-flailing infant on the changing table and the pot-bellied toddler in training pants. As he stands there in the present moment, he cannot possibly know that he is simultaneously, for me, the boy in the bowl cut clutching He-Man and Skeletor. ? the Webelos scout in the untucked uniform. ? the catcher of polliwogs in his squishy sneakers ? the afternoon paperboy, the strap of his canvas bag crossing his chest like a bandolier ? the zookeeper of a never-ending domestic menagerie: turtles, fish, fiddler crabs, two “female” gerbils-and their five or six hundred offspring. “Gee,” one of his middle school teachers had told him. “You like people and animals so much, you ought to be a biology teacher.”

But at seventeen, Jared doesn’t know what he wants to be, or even where he wants to go to school next year-Bates, Bowdoin, Trinity, how’s he supposed to know? Oh, and Connecticut College is on his list. He likes that cross country coach down there, that Coach Butler. And that Coach Wuyke, too. He wouldn’t mind running for those guys. But, hey, first things first. He can’t even think of what to write for his stinking college admission essay.

On my book tour, in city after city, the crowds come out. Strangers who have read my novels ask me how I knew their lives, their flaws, their family secrets. And, of course, I’ve known none of these. I’ve only gone to work each day and told the lie that I am someone other than myself: a wounded girl trying to survive rape, an Italian immigrant with an ego larger than Sicily, the frightened identical twin of a schizophrenic brother. I have, each day in solitude, shucked my own life and put on different lives so that I might move beyond the limitations of my own experience and better empathize with, better know the un-me, the other.

The novelist John Edgar Wideman has said, “I seek in fiction some hint that imagination can change the world, that the world is unfinished, a hint that we are not always doomed to make copies and copies and copies but possess the power to see differently and the guts and good fortune to render accessible to others some glimmer of what our own souls experience. Stories, after all, are a gift. Unless we’re willing to imagine what it might feel like inside another skin, then we are imprisoned in our own.”

By the time the limo delivers me back home again two weeks later, Jared has written his college essay. “Dad,” he says, “can you check this for spelling?” And God knows, he needs it checked. Seventeen years old and he’s still spelling the word “tomorrow” with two m’s. But as I proofread, my attention shifts from mechanics to content. I’m surprised – I’m moved – to read that my son’s essay, too, focuses on “the other”: a girl on the front page of last year’s newspaper – an innocent eleven-year old Latina named Angelica who lived in our town and who loved to dance and who was stalked, raped, and murdered by a pedophile. Angelica and Jared were strangers to one another, born seven years apart. What they had in common was that each had walked the same steps of that paper route; each had played at that polliwog-filled pond where Angelica’s body was later found. In his essay, Jared describes a solitary visit to the pond, where a granite boulder has become a makeshift memorial to Angelica. He writes: The rock appeared to be alive with color, light, and movement. Pink rosary beads, purple flowers. Expired candles coat the rock with blue, green, and orange wax and, on the ground, a few flames still flicker with life. A plain white sheet of paper is scotch-taped to the rock. In bold red letters its one word sums up all my feelings: WHY?

Mr. Journalist, fiction writers have no answers, only questions, the most succinct and significant of which is: WHY?

Why, God, if You exist and are merciful, must our loved ones be claimed by cancer, addiction, AIDS, mental illness, muscular dystrophy, murder? Why, America, if justice is blind, do we imprison the descendants of slaves in such disproportionate numbers? Why must our poorest children get the poorest education and our hungriest be denied a place at the banquet table? Why, suicide bomber? Why?

Tough questions, graduates. Unanswerable, many of them, no matter what your major – no matter what your grade point average. And yet, we grope, we struggle to understand why. That struggle, I believe, is what makes us not just human but humane. And it can be a noble struggle when accompanied by a rejection of the unacceptable, unimaginative status quo and an honest effort to change things for the better. But how to improve an imperfect world, an imperfect nation, our imperfect selves? That question has occupied the minds of scholars, scientists, artists, and activists throughout time-and has sometimes?sometimes?been the pebble in the shoe that becomes the unbearable pain that motivates good minds and generous hearts to bring their gifts to the table, roll up their sleeves, and fix things. Graduates, be a part of that. Find work that adds to the world instead of depleting it. You owe that to yourselves, and to those descendants whose DNA you store inside you, and to the descendants of the un-you, the other.

Here we are back at the station-back in the uneasy present. What’s that line from The Matrix? “Welcome to the desert of the real.” As for the future, you’ll have to get there yourselves. But before you depart, I offer you a modest travel gift: these few things a father and fiction writer knows.

Aubrey, Vlado, Maylynn, Britt: In life, as in writing, voice is crucial. Your voice has been honed by your family, your ethnic heritage, your neighborhood, and your education. It is the music of your meaning in the world. Imitate no one. Your uniqueness-your authenticity-is your strength.

Sarah, Oslec, Miranda, John: Make yours a life story which is character-driven, not plot-driven, character being defined as the way you behave when there is no one else in the room to judge you. Don’t fear that silent room. Solitude will guide you if you remain strong of character.

Meghan, Justin, Alex, Joe: Learn to love the editing process. Listen to criticism, welcome it with gratitude and humility, but beware the false critic with a covert agenda. Make mistakes, lots of them, reworking draft after draft after draft of your continuing story. Your errors will be educational, and if your pencil outlives its eraser, then you’ll know you’re getting it right.

Clancy, Becca, Mridula, Jose: Regarding plot-the twists and turns and episodes of your life-outline as much or as little as you like, but expect surprise. In fact, invite surprise. Each time you begin some next chapter, your composition of yourself will be at risk. But that’s okay-that’s good-because you will not live fully if you never displace yourself. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” E.L. Doctorow once said. “You may be able to see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And finally, Jared, a personal word to you: You have been a most enjoyable child to raise. Levelheaded, playful, kind to others, you’ve made few missteps, and no unforgivable ones, with the exception of that time you rented that white tux, tails, and top hat for your senior prom. As you prepare now to board the bus-to take the Freedom Ride down to New Orleans to teach biology in one of the most forsaken school districts in the nation-please know that your family loves you and is proud of you and the work you’ve chosen. Keep in mind that the best teachers are the ones who love the student as much as the subject matter-the ones who stop speaking long enough to listen. Teaching will teach you, again and again, that you are the other and the other is you, despite the barriers we erect and the bombs we drop. Draw strength from the knowledge that education will break the backs of poverty, disenfranchisement, and violence; that war is never inevitable but only a terrible failure of the imagination; and that love is stronger than hatred.

As it says so beautifully in Corinthians: 
As a child, I saw it face to face
Now I only know it in part
Fractions in me of faith, hope, and love
And of these three, love’s the greatest beauty

So, Jared, Vaya con Dios. Be well. Be safe. And know that, in the end, I wrote these words not for Mr. Journalist but for you, and your classmates, and Angelica, together.

“Compassionate Citizenship”

Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum

Georgetown University, Washington D.C. USA

MAY 16, 2003

Most graduation speakers receive an honorary degree. Here, as an excellent example of how they often are phrased, is Dr. Nussbaum’s: “Martha Nussbaum has given new life to the ancient vocation of the philosopher, understood as a thinker who both pursues deep questions about justice and the good and defends humanity’s highest ideals in the public forum. She has helped us see that the greatest human goods are fragile; that our emotions of love and loss, and their narrative depiction in literature, rightly record this fact; and that the capabilities for living a good human life of the most fragile and vulnerable among us, the women and children of the developing world, deserve shelter and support from their governments and from us all. Although critical of the Stoics’ assessment of our emotions, she has become a premier defender of the cosmopolitan ideal, which has come down to us from the Stoics via Immanuel Kant. Like her beloved Aristotle, Professor Nussbaum does not shrink from examining all sides of human nature. Chided for spending his time studying the movement and digestion of shellfish, Aristotle responded that ‘in every natural thing there is something wonderful.’ Having told us that story, Professor Nussbaum has gone on to examine all of humanity’s wonderful aspects, from our most sublime to what it is that we consider shameful and disgusting. Her many prize-winning books and hundreds of published essays cover topics from cosmopolitanism to cloning, from Aristotle’s Movement of Animals to Orwell’s 1984. She has contributed greatly to our understanding of the ideal of liberal education with her book, Cultivating Humanity, winner in 2002 of the Grawemeyer Award in Education. In a forthcoming work, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law – depending on how one counts, perhaps her eleventh book – she examines how disgust and shame themselves can reflect and distort our moral judgment. For her contributions to the study of the ancients, which help us understand ourselves; for her inspired engagement with the full range of human artistic and literary achievement and her insistence on showing us how philosophy can learn from poetry; and for her passionate commitment to understanding and bettering the plight of the least fortunate, Georgetown University is proud to confer upon Martha C. Nussbaum the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.”


President DeGioia, faculty, parents and friends, and, especially, graduates: On this day of celebration, I want to ask you to pause for a minute, and to think of the ending of a tragic drama, Euripides’ The Trojan Women. The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, their husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: “Son of Kronus, Council-President of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear?” The Chorus answers grimly, “He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer.” A little later, Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the very name of their land has been wiped out.

In one way, the ending of this drama is as bleak as any in the history of tragic drama. Death, rape, slavery, fire destroying the towers, the city’s very name effaced from the record of history by rapacious and murderous Greeks. And yet, of course, it did not happen that way, not exactly. For the story of Troy’s fall is being enacted, some six hundred years after the event, by a company of Greek actors, in the Greek language of a Greek poet, in the presence of all the adult citizens of Athens, most powerful of Greek cities.

World citizenship is impossible when the powerful define their humanity in terms of possessions, rather than the goods of the soul. As the Greek philosophers long ago remarked, the goods of the soul are such that we can all strive toward them harmoniously: one person’s attainment of them reinforces, and does not undermine another’s. Material goods, by contrast, always cause conflict, especially when the goal is limitless accumulation, not merely sustenance. So world citizenship, and the compassion that supports it, must be built on the goods of the soul.

Hecuba’s cry to the gods even imagines him as a peculiarly Athenian type of civic official, president of the city council. So the name of the land didn’t get wiped out after all. The imaginations of the conquerors were haunted by it, transmitted it, and mourn it. Obsessively their arts repeat the events of long-ago destruction, typically inviting, as here, the audience’s compassion for the women of Troy and blame for their assailants. In its very structure the play makes a claim for the moral value of compassionate imagining, as it asks its audience to partake in the terror of a burning city, of murder and rape and slavery. Insofar as members of the audience are engaged by this drama, feeling fear and grief for the conquered city, they demonstrate the ability of compassion to cross lines of time, place, and nation – and also, in the case of most of the audience, the line of sex, perhaps more difficult yet to cross.

Nor was the play an aesthetic event cut off from political reality. The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred festivals strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, “Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, Aristotle says, a ‘watery’ kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.”and the plays of Euripides were particularly well known for their engagement with contemporary events. In this case, the audience that watched The Trojan Women had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave the women and children. Euripides invites them to contemplate the real human meaning of their actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering.

But did those imaginations really cross those lines? Think again of that invocation of Zeus. Trojans, if they worshipped Zeus as king of gods at all, surely did not refer to him as the president of the city council. The term prytanis is an Athenian legal term, completely unknown elsewhere. So it would appear that Hecuba is not a Trojan but a Greek. Her imagination is a Greek democratic (and mostly male) imagination. Maybe that’s a good thing, in the sense that the audience is surely invited to view her as their fellow and equal. But it still should give us pause. Did compassion really enable those Greeks to reach out and think about the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reaffirm the essential Greekness of everything that’s human? They are just us, and we are the ones who suffer humanly. Not those other ones, over in Melos.

America’s towers, too, have burned. Compassion and terror are in the fabric of our lives. And now, like the Athenians, we must grapple with the fact that we have caused devastation in foreign lands. In the lives of Americans since 9/11, we do see evidence of the good work of compassion, as Americans make real to themselves the sufferings of many different people whom they never would otherwise have thought about: bereaved families of so many national and ethnic origins, even, sometimes, Arab-Americans who have suffered unfairly from airport searches and other types of mistreatment. Sometimes our compassion even crosses the national boundary. Tragedy led many people to a new awareness of the sufferings of the women of Afghanistan, and now many of us have compassion for the people of Iraq. All too often, however, the nation is the stopping place. In the New York Times issue last September [2002], commemorating 9/11, I was asked to comment on how America has changed. I wrote that Americans are becoming more curious and at least a little more knowledgeable about problems of poverty and lack of education in other parts of the world. But when my piece came out, it was on a page with about 20 other pieces, not one of which mentioned any other nation but the U. S., thus casting grave doubt, at least, on my optimistic contention.

Often things are still worse: our sense that the “us” is all that matters can easily flip over into a demonizing of an imagined “them”, a group of outsiders who are imagined as enemies of the invulnerability and the pride of the all-important “us.” Just as parents’ compassion for their own children can all too easily slide into an attitude that promotes the defeat of other people’s children, so too with patriotism: compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slide over into an attitude that wants America to come out on top, defeating or subordinating other peoples or nations. Such attitudes have played an unfortunate role in much of the rhetoric surrounding the war with Iraq. We have been encouraged to be like sports fans cheering for our team, rather than as responsible world citizens trying to achieve a cooperative solution to our problems.

How can we educate American citizens who do take seriously the reality of lives outside America, and who think of their own citizenship and its duties accordingly? Citizens who are not simply Americans, but citizens of the entire world, committed to both compassion and justice for the millions who suffer, not only from war, but from daily preventable tragedies such as malnutrition and disease? A child born in the U. S. today has life expectancy at birth of 78.6 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has life expectancy at birth of 38 years. In some African nations, 40% of the population is HIV positive, a situation perpetuated by the absence of affordable medications and suitable health infrastructure. In approximately one third of the world’s nations, less than 50% of women can read and write, a situation perpetuated by the inaction of multi-national corporations, who typically view young lives as instruments for gain, and who feel no responsibility to create educational opportunities and health care for their workforce. How can we educate American citizens who think responsibly about such problems, and America’s role in forming a world community to work on their solution?

Creating compassionate world citizenship has two aspects, the institutional and the personal. These must be cultivated at the same time, and they must reinforce one another. We will not get decent public attitudes without institutions that nourish the thoughts of inclusive world citizenship. But we also will not sustain those institutions, if we do not work to produce an expanded compassion in people, so that they make real to themselves the suffering of people at a distance.

The institutional aspect of world citizenship has been much discussed, and though my proposals here go very much against the grain of the present administration and its public policies, they are familiar, and therefore can be stated briefly. We should base all our dealings with other nations on the recognition that there are binding moral norms that link us all into an international society. We should work to formalize those norms through international institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, the World Criminal Court, multinational alliances of many kinds, and binding agreements in areas such as environment, sex equality, and the rights of children. I believe we should not aim at a world state, and that global institutions should remain plural and decentralized, in order to protect national sovereignty, an important part of people’s right to freedom and self-determination. Nonetheless, we should work to strengthen the international institutions we already have, and to create others in particular areas. We should support these institutions with a true respect for the opinions of those who differ with us. That none of these goals is currently realized in our nation’s foreign policy, skeptical as it is of moral norms, of alliances, and of any interests outside of U.S. power, should be all too obvious.

It is, however, the personal and psychological side of the issue on which I want to focus for the remainder of these brief remarks. Compassion is an emotion rooted, probably, in our biological heritage. But this history does not mean that compassion is devoid of thought. In fact, as Aristotle argued long ago, human compassion standardly requires three thoughts: that a serious bad thing has happened to someone else; that this bad event was not (or not entirely) the person’s own fault; and that we ourselves are vulnerable in similar ways. Thus compassion forms a psychological link between our own self-interest and the reality of another person’s good or ill. For that reason it is a morally valuable emotion – when it gets things right. Often, however, the thoughts involved in the emotion, and therefore the emotion itself, go astray, failing to link people at a distance to one’s own current possibilities and vulnerabilities. (Rousseau said that kings don’t feel compassion for their subjects because they count on never being human, subject to the vicissitudes of life.) These errors are likely to be built into the nature of compassion as it develops in childhood: we form intense attachments to the local first, and only gradually learn to have compassion for people who are outside our immediate circle. For many Americans, that expansion of concern stops at the national boundary.

Most of us are brought up to believe that all human beings have equal worth. At least the world’s major religions and most secular philosophies tell us so. But our emotions don’t believe it. We mourn for those we know, not for those we don’t know. And most of us feel deep emotions about America, emotions we don’t feel about India, or Russia, or Rwanda. In and of itself, this narrowness of our emotional lives is probably acceptable and maybe even good. We need to built outward from meanings we understand, or else our moral life would be empty of urgency. Aristotle long ago said, plausibly, that the citizens in Plato’s ideal city, asked to care for all citizens equally, would actually care for none, since care is learned in small groups with their more intense attachments. Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, he says, a “watery” kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.

To begin extending compassion as best we can, we need to ask how and why local loyalties and attachments come to take in some instances an especially virulent and aggressive form, militating against a more general sympathy. I would suggest that one problem we particularly need to watch out for is a type of pathological narcissism in which the person demands complete control over all the sources of good, and a complete self-sufficiency in consequence. This pathology occurs repeatedly in human life, but perhaps it occurs with particular regularity in America, where young people are brought up to think that they are part of a nation that is on top of the world, and that they should expect to be completely in control of everything important in their lives, in consequence. Recent studies of troubled teens in America, particularly the impressive work of Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, in their book Raising Cain, has given strong support to this idea. Kindlon and Thompson focus on boys, and they do believe that the problems they bring to light have a gendered aspect, but they are also signs of more general cultural problems.

The boys that Kindlon and Thompson study have learned from their culture that real men should be controlling, self-sufficient, dominant. They should never have, and certainly never admit to, fear and weakness. The consequence of this deformed expectation, Kindlon and Thompson show, is that these boys come to lack an understanding of their own vulnerabilities, needs and fears, weaknesses that all human beings share. They lack the language in which to characterize their own inner world, and they are by the same token clumsy interpreters of the emotions and inner lives of others. This emotional illiteracy is closely connected to aggression, as fear is turned outward, with little real understanding of the meaning of aggressive words and acts for the feelings of others. It is more than a little unfortunate that the foreign policy of our nation is at times expressed, today, in terms that reinforce these pathologies: we won’t let anyone threaten our preeminence, we’ll strike first against them, etc.

So the first recommendation I would make for a culture of extended compassion is one that was also made by Rousseau. It is, that an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all young people. Especially when they are at the crucial time when they are on the verge of adulthood, young people should learn to be tragic spectators, and to understand with increasing subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far.

To be successful, this education must foster the habit of critical thinking, rooting out the inconsistencies of self-serving ethical thought; this suggests a key role for religious and secular philosophy. And it must also nourish the imagination; this suggests a key role for the arts. Third, it must offer much more knowledge of the world: the major world religions, economic conditions in developing countries, the deprivations with which a large proportion of the world’s people live from day to day.

Finally, this education must take place in a culture in which materialism and greed are powerfully and pervasively criticized. World citizenship is impossible when the powerful define their humanity in terms of possessions, rather than the goods of the soul. As the Greek philosophers long ago remarked, the goods of the soul are such that we can all strive toward them harmoniously: one person’s attainment of them reinforces, and does not undermine another’s. Material goods, by contrast, always cause conflict, especially when the goal is limitless accumulation, not merely sustenance. So world citizenship, and the compassion that supports it, must be built on the goods of the soul.

That is one reason why I am so honored to be here on the campus of America’s oldest and most distinguished Catholic university, and why I typically feel so much at home when I lecture in Catholic universities: because there is a shared understanding that the soul comes first, and that possessions are tools. That understanding (which is also formative in my own religion) is a non-negotiable basis for compassionate citizenship in today’s world. Are such ideas understood in our government? Not fully, I believe, even though our leadership portrays itself as Christian. On this day of celebration, let Hecuba’s cry for compassion and justice echo in our hearts, calling us to a life that challenges entrenched complacency and greed, and the violence that so often grows out of that greed, working against the recalcitrance of the world to make compassionate citizenship not just an ideal but a reality.

Congratulations, may you prosper, and may you live, some day, in a world of justice for all.