Bard College President Leon Botstein (Photo by Steve Pyke)
Bard College President Leon Botstein (Photo by Steve Pyke)

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President Leon Botstein's Charge

President Botstein addresses the class of 2015 at commencement exercises on May 23, 2015.

The pomp and circumstance of commencement, and the diplomas you have earned and are about to receive, celebrate the significance and power of education and learning. But one overarching and unanswered question haunts us every year just at this moment. If education and the traditions of learning we celebrate today are so crucial to us as individuals and as citizens, why have we failed, quite persistently, to find the means to inspire ourselves and others to treat our fellow human beings—no matter who they are, whether they be neighbors, strangers we find next to us on a subway, a line in a store or at an airport, or anonymous populations at a great distance—with genuine respect and empathy. The paradoxical challenge this ceremony presents all of us here today is whether we actually can learn to choose, freely, to act with the proper regard for the sanctity and dignity of each and every human life.

Put another way, the question is whether there is any hope for human progress, not just in technology and science, but in the way we live and conduct ourselves as private individuals and citizens in society. Or are we condemned forever to remain disturbed and distracted by perceived differences between ourselves and others and by the apparent absence of resemblance to ourselves among so many around us? When we look for ourselves in the faces of others and see only differences then we render the exhortation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” entirely moot. In its place we allow suspicion, mistrust, and fear to guide us. Can that which your Bard diploma signifies—an encounter with science, history, art, literature and philosophy, the grand traditions of learning—prepare any of us to resist resentment and envy, and more importantly, replace violence with reason, particularly when the pervasive violence in our world masquerades as greed and desire? 

Can a psychologically adequate sense of regard for human equality, with a tolerance for differences and therefore a genuine pluralism, be cultivated by education and made to take root in society? Despite their consistent embrace of the language of love tolerance and forgiveness, the world’s religions have, if anything, helped justify intolerance and violence rather than deter it. Is there any realistic prospect that we will ever learn to live with each other in peace and tranquility?  

This daunting web of questions has its painful modern history. The senseless carnage of World War I led Sigmund Freud to the conclusion that there was something in human nature beyond Eros, beyond love—a universal death instinct, Thanatos. By 1930, his pessimism led him to predict more war and violence and lament the impotence of culture and civilization as deterrents to human self-destruction.

For a brief moment, after World War II, it seemed that confronting the horrors of the death camps and the brutality of fascism would inspire us to change. A similar glimmer of optimism occurred right after the fall of Communism. Yet despite all the museums and memorials to the victims of war, tyranny, and genocide, it seems that little progress has been made. And the tragedy and memory of 9/11 only ushered in a new continuing wave of violence and hate. Even if we were to follow the call by Bryan Stevenson (a commencement speaker here a decade ago) to erect long overdue markers and memorials to the African Americans brutally lynched in our own nation’s past, would that recognition inspire us to become less racist and more civilized?

The wonders of technology to which we all have become increasingly addicted have not made the prospect of moral and ethical progress more plausible. As we retreat from direct human communication—speaking and meeting in real time and space---and text one another, communicate through screens that project images of ourselves and celebrate online relationships and even online education as immediate, cheaper, and more efficient, we find ourselves moving about in public spaces and never looking anyone in the eye, caught up in a complex but isolating network of social communication that only generates the illusion of contact while depriving us of all genuine privacy and intimacy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “No language is conceivable which does not represent this world.” In that simple observation rests the realism of all hope—the possibility that things might actually change. If we can talk about a more humane and just world, then perhaps we might learn to act to make it so. The fight for ethical progress in our private lives and our politics is not lost. Your education here equipped you to connect speech with thought. Despite Freud’s pessimism and the depressing landscape of intolerance and violence in which we live today, we must continue to cultivate the unique human quality represented by language—the capacity to speak and to learn and to create meaning, to use our imaginations, and to pursue knowledge and beauty. It is precisely institutions like Bard that are dedicated to the pursuit of inquiry, to teaching and learning through personal relationships and not machines, to the making of art, and to connecting theory with practice on behalf of justice and civility that hope rests. Forget the pundits who are eager to predict that our best colleges and universities are doomed by technology to become obsolete; the traditions of learning you have encountered here have created, absorbed, and survived every technological innovation for the past thousand years. But the hope that education inspires depends in turn on each of us to find ways through language to connect learning to action with the sort of courage that a true education inspires.

As each of you crosses this stage to receive your diploma, remember that every one of you has something to contribute to the cause of humanism. Therefore I charge you to cherish your experience here. Remember it and keep it close to your heart. Never abandon the process of learning, the ambition to use language to imagine, improve, and improvise. By sustaining the conversation about a better world and acting on it you will honor the values, traditions, and commitments of your Alma mater. As you take your place in the larger world, share your talent and join us in protecting education and the traditions of learning dedicated to beauty, justice, and the public good embodied in this college. Help sustain the hope that in the education you experienced here—an education devoted to the intersection of language, thought, and action—rests the only prospect for improving the human condition. The diploma you will receive today is a token of a realistic idealism of all the good we humans are capable of. Cherish it.

Congratulations to you all.